Fjordman: The Flaws of Edward Said's Orientalism
Jihad Watch 29 June 2011
Note: This essay overlaps to some extent with my previous one, Edward Said and the Myth of Eurocentrism.
Orientalism by Edward W. Said (1935-2003), a Palestinian-American academic and political activist, was first published in 1978. It quickly became a very popular work among the left-wing intelligentsia in the Western world. It has been translated into many languages and republished in several editions. Over 30 years later it is still referred to with respect in many Multicultural and anti-European circles, which largely amounts to the same thing. In it, Said claims to examine Western scholarship of the “Orient,” specifically Arab and Islamic culture. There is very little about European attitudes towards China, Japan, Thailand or Vietnam there.
The British left-wing newspaper The Guardian in 2011 declared Orientalism to be one of the 100 greatest non-fiction books of all time, alongside such texts as The Histories by Herodotus, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, On Liberty by John Stuart Mill, Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, The Art of War by Sun Tzu, The Prince by Machiavelli and On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.
I have read Said’s book before, but that was years ago. My knowledge of these matters and of Middle Eastern and European history is far greater now than it was back then so I decided to reread the work with fresh eyes. I owe a debt to Ibn Warraq for making insightful comments in his own book Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism from 2007, which I have published a long review of previously at the website Atlas Shrugs.
Said was influenced by some of the most destructive strands of the modern French intellectual tradition, such as Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), a leading Marxist thinker and apologist for Communist brutality, or the French Jewish philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), known for his postmodern ideas about “deconstructing” everything, especially Western civilization:
“In cultures already immune to self-criticism, Said helped Muslims, and particularly Arabs, perfect their already well-developed sense of self-pity. There is a kind of comfort and absolution in being told that none of your problems are of your making, that you do not have to accept any responsibility for the ills besetting your society. It is all the fault of the West, of infidels….Post-World War II Western intellectuals and leftists were consumed by guilt for the West’s colonial past and continuing colonialist present, and they wholeheartedly embraced any theory or ideology that voiced or at least seemed to voice the putatively thwarted aspirations of the peoples of the third world. Orientalism came at the precise time when anti-Western rhetoric was at its most shrill and was already being taught at Western universities, and when third-worldism was at its most popular. Jean-Paul Sartre preached that all white men were complicit in the exploitation of the third world, and that violence against Westerners was a legitimate means for colonized men to re-acquire their manhood.”
This criticism stings all the more when coming from Ibn Warraq, the pseudonym used by a man who was originally born to a Muslim family in Pakistan. The reason why he does not write under his real name is because Islamic law stipulates the death penalty for any person leaving Islam, and there are plenty of believers who are willing to execute this punishment.
Ibn Warraq notes that Western civilization has in fact been more willing to criticize itself than any other major culture in the world, sometimes almost to a fault. In his view, the aggressive tone of Orientalism is an example of what he calls “intellectual terrorism,” since it does not seek to convince by serious arguments or historical analysis but merely to intimidate by spraying charges of “racism, imperialism and Eurocentrism” on anybody who might disagree.
Said repeatedly and approvingly refers to the work of the Italian Communist writer Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), especially his concept of cultural hegemony. Gramsci is one of the most influential thinkers most people have never heard of. Ideas similar to his have gained a virtual hegemony in Western academia and mass media by the early twenty-first century, as his fellow Marxist activists had finally completed their “Long March through the institutions.”
Among his other influences is Michel Foucault (1926-1984), the controversial French philosopher who had a major impact on Western thought in the late twentieth century. He is still one of the most cited authors in the social sciences in many Western universities nearly thirty years after his death from AIDS, which he probably got from his activities in homosexual bathhouses. Foucault has been criticized for being an apologist for militant Islamic revivalist figures such as the Ayatollah Khomeini during the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
Said essentially claims that most, if not all, European and Western writers about the Middle East have mainly tried to create myths in order to subdue and dominate the region. To argue his case, he very conveniently leaves out important contributions made by German scholars, although it makes as little sense to leave out German contributions in the field of Middle Eastern studies as it does to leave them out of the history of music, science or engineering.
Would it have made sense for Germans to produce work that could help only their British or French rivals in their empire building? And besides, if you assume that Orientalists produced a false picture of the Orient in general and of Islam and Arabs in particular, exactly how could such false anti-knowledge have helped European imperialists in dominating those areas?
If studying cultural history was done for the purpose of dominating subject peoples then why didn’t Muslim conquerors themselves do this? Why didn’t Turks invent archaeology in order to dominate their Ottoman subjects more efficiently? Bruce G. Trigger states in A History of Archaeological Thought that “Serious archaeological work did not begin in Greece, however, until after that country’s independence from Turkey in the early nineteenth century.”
When the city of Troy was found after 1868 in northwestern Anatolia in what is now called Turkey, this was done by a German businessman – Heinrich Schliemann – who had been captivated by reading Homer’s legendary account of the Trojan War. This brings us to the question of why no Muslim man had ever attempted to do the same. Were they not curious at all about what had happened in this region before they arrived? I am not aware of any Turkish translations of Homer’s the Iliad or the Odyssey having been done at this point. Why not?
Likewise, if we postulate that comparative linguistics was invented for the sole purpose of dominating other nations and exploit them more efficiently, how come no other ruling nations or empires had done so before? Why were Europeans the first ones to do so? Muslims for many centuries ruled over peoples using different Indo-European languages, among them Greek, Serbian, Armenian and Sanskrit, and also engaged in trade from Africa to China and Southeast Asia. In a parallel reality, one could easily have imagined Arabs or Turks use their excellent locations to develop modern linguistic studies, but they didn’t. Historian Nicholas Ostler notes dryly that “The new Muslim masters, despite their independent knowledge of Arabic, Persian and Turkish, did not distinguish themselves for their linguistic scholarship.”
Edward Said does not spend much time discussing India’s history, which is convenient for him as this would have forced him to talk about Islam’s very bloody history there. India has experienced both Muslim and European (British) rule. Muslims destroyed countless Hindu and Buddhist temples. This stands in sharp contrast to European scholars, not all of them British, who worked to reveal and preserve India’s past. Few of them derived any material gains from their work, and many met the expenses of their research out of their own pockets.
An emblem associated with Ashoka the Great (ca. 268-239 BC) is now the modern national emblem of the Republic India, even shown in its flag, yet he was virtually forgotten until the British got there. The rise of Buddhism as a major, pan-Asian force is often linked to his rule.
Indians, unaware of the importance of ancient historical remains, had left them to crumble and decay. Similarly, many manuscripts would have been lost forever had it not been for the efforts of such men as Charles Wilkins and the German scholar Johann Georg Bühler, who salvaged severely damaged manuscripts of the rare Sanskrit historical work Rajatarangini.
Above all, there was the great Sir William Jones. Ibn Warraq reminds us that “With his work on Indian chronology, and having created a solid framework for the understanding of India’s past, Jones, in effect, can be considered the father of Indian history. Jones’s translation of Sacontala (Shakuntala) had an enormous influence in Europe, inspiring Schiller, Novalis, Schlegel, and Goethe, who used its introductory scene as a model for the ‘Vorspiel auf dem Theater’ of Faust (1797). But even more remarkably, the collection, printing, and translations of Sanskrit texts by Jones and other Orientalists made available for the first time to Indians themselves aspects of their own civilization, changing forever their own self-image. Until now, these texts had only been accessible to a narrow coterie of Brahmins.”
The ancient Indus Valley Civilization had totally disappeared from India’s memory. “Not until nearly four thousand years later, in fact in the early 1920s, was its existence even suspected.” It was rediscovered by British or British-trained archaeologists such as John Hubert Marshall, Mortimer Wheeler and Rakhaldas Bandyopadhyay. The Archaeological Survey of India was started by Alexander Cunningham about fifty years earlier. Professor A. L. Basham praises this small band of Western scholars who labored to reveal India’s past:
“The main motive in most of their minds seems to have been the study of India for its own sake. When Jones translated Sakuntala and thus introduced the Sanskrit drama to the western world, are we to believe that he consciously thought: ‘I am doing this in order that my country may dominate a subject people’? Could any such motive have been in the mind of James Prinsep, when he deciphered the inscriptions of Asoka? Was Colebrooke inspired in his pioneering work on the Veda chiefly by motives of patriotism? If these scholars had worked to serve their country or the [East India] Company in their spare time they could surely have found more effective ways of doing so.”
European scholars also deciphered the cuneiform writing system which had been employed in Mesopotamia for more than three thousand years. The inscriptions carved into the side of a mountain at Behistun (Bisitun) in Persia had been noticed by several travellers. The German explorer Carsten Niebuhr (1733-1815) made some copies of them, which were used by Georg Friedrich Grotefend (1775-1853) to decipher several symbols of Old Persian cuneiforms. The final breakthrough came in the 1830s and 40s when the British soldier Henry Rawlinson (1810-1895), aided by the work of the clergyman Edward Hincks (1792-1866), managed to translate the Old Persian and Babylonian cuneiforms of the Behistun inscriptions.
Yet for Said, “For any European during the nineteenth century – and I think one can say this almost without qualification – Orientalism was such a system of truths, truths in Nietzsche’s sense of the word. It is therefore correct that every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.”
Scholars from Western Europe who got very little money for their efforts spent years of their lives trying to decipher the writings of long-dead cultures, in the process opening up a window of incalculable importance into some of the oldest literate cultures in the world. To Edward Said, this is clear proof of how evil they were. That attitude largely sums up his book.
Asko Parpola is a Finnish Indologist, professor emeritus of Indology and South Asian Studies at the University of Helsinki in Finland. He specializes in the script used in the Indus Valley Civilization four millennia ago. His brother is a leading expert on Akkadian, a now extinct Semitic language spoken in Mesopotamia alongside Sumerian over four thousand years ago.
Finland is a tiny nation situated on the far northern fringes of Europe. What conceivable “racist, imperialist” motives can the Parpola brothers have for spending decades studying the languages of cultures in distant regions of the world that died out nearly four thousand years ago? None whatsoever. These European men must primarily be driven by an innate curiosity, a desire to explore, to know, to get at the truth. Edward Said and his followers simply cannot comprehend the motivation of somebody who wants to explore the world and its cultures for its own sake, without personal material gain, so they demonize what they do not understand:
“Hence, the desperate attempts by Said to smear every single Orientalist with the lowest of motives are not only reprehensible but also fail to give due weight to this golden thread running through Western civilization. One should also have reminded Said that it was this desire for knowledge on the part of Europeans that led the people of the Near East to recover and discover their own past and their own identity. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, archaeological excavations in Mesopotamia, ancient Syria, ancient Palestine, and Iran were carried out entirely by Europeans and, later, Americans. The disciplines of Egyptology, Assyriology, and Iranology, all of which restored to mankind a large part of its heritage, were the exclusive creations of inquisitive Europeans and Americans – whereas, for doctrinal reasons, Islam deliberately refused to look at its pre-Islamic past, which was considered a period of ignorance.”
Ibn Warraq nevertheless warns that some of the “golden threads” running through Western civilization can potentially turn into liabilities: Rationalism can lead to sterile scientism, universalism to the loss of one’s sense of belonging and limitless self-criticism to self-hatred:
“US foreign policy has nothing to do with the deaths of 150,000 Algerians at the hands of Islamic fanatics. The root cause of Islamic fundamentalism is Islam. American foreign policy has nothing to do with the stoning to death of a woman for adultery in Nigeria. It has everything to do with Islam, and Islamic law. The theory and practice of jihad – bin Laden’s foreign policy – was not concocted in the Pentagon; it is directly derived from the Koran and the hadith, Islamic tradition. But Western liberals and humanists find it hard to admit or accept or believe this.”
Said talks about how Napoleon during the military expedition to Egypt from 1798 to 1801 “tried everywhere to prove that he was fighting for Islam; everything he said was translated into Koranic Arabic, just as the French army was urged by its command always to remember the Islamic sensibility.” The French troops tried to make the local imams, qadis, muftis and wider ulama (Muslim legal scholars) interpret the Koran in their favor. Sixty scholars who taught at the prestigious al-Azhar school for Islamic sharia law were invited to Bonaparte’s quarters and “allowed to be flattered by Napoleon’s admiration for Islam and Mohammed and by his obvious veneration for the Koran, with which he seemed perfectly familiar. This worked, and soon the population of Cairo seemed to have lost its distrust of the occupiers.”
In From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present, the French-born American author Jacques Barzun also mentions the French expedition to Egypt:
“The native population was not at all impressed by the machines and techniques. What they marveled at was that so many foreigners studied Arabic and dashed about the desert for silly reasons. The people of Cairo, the capital numbering 200,000 inhabitants, submitted to having the main streets swept twice a day and the garbage removed. They were shocked by the women’s unveiled faces, a little less by having their own appearance sketched in pencil, but horrified when color was applied to the portrait, which made it an aid to witchcraft. On their side, the westerners were delighted by the sights, the mode of life, and the people, whom after a few months they came to think of as French. This has been a (very un-English) characteristic of the French colonists everywhere. In Egypt they tolerated all but the unsanitary practices, they took native mistresses (one general married a Muslim wife and was converted), and they studied native mores without condescension.”
As these examples demonstrate, if the French should be criticized for anything it might be for being too little critical of certain elements of Islamic culture. One could be tempted to look for the seeds of Eurabia in this event, the notion in the minds of certain French intellectuals and ruling elites that they “understood” Arabs and that Islam was basically no different from, and perhaps more rational than, Christianity. On the positive side, it led to the birth of Egyptology.
Auguste Mariette (1821-1881), a Frenchman, was responsible for the foundation of the first true Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The earliest public museums within Europe itself had been created following the Enlightenment era, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In their 1200 years of Muslim control over this region, Arabs or Turks never did anything similar.
Authors Douglas J. Brewer and Emily Teeter explain in Egypt and the Egyptians that the Arabs had treasure hunters, but a more scientific exploration began at the turn of the nineteenth century. The publication of the Description de l'Égypte lured other Europeans to visit the country in the 1800s. Gradually, a more scholarly approach was established, with the work of Auguste Mariette from France, the German (Prussian) Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius and above all the English scholar Flinders Petrie, who insisted that pieces of broken pottery, beads and other seemingly unimpressive objects ignored by treasure hunters were significant. “As an archaeologist, Petrie set the standard for scientific research. His meticulous excavation, thorough analysis, and careful and immediate publication were unequaled.”
According to Islamic doctrines, everything – from history to material remains – predating Islam is considered of no intrinsic worth; sculptures were often destroyed as signs of idolatry. Because of this, many ancient sites were pillaged for their bricks. The British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard (1817-1894) was faced with strong opposition to his archaeological excavations in Iraq by Islamic religious fanaticism, as had many of his predecessors. There was incomprehension as to what the Europeans were up to with their digging activities.
Many were convinced the French or the English were looking for treasure, silver or gold. The locals were indifferent to the significance of any remains. According to Egyptian Treasures from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, “Egyptians came to realize that the foreigners were interested in the stones themselves rather than anything they were rumored to contain. While they did not themselves see the attraction of a lump of carved rock, they became masters in the search for and discovery of antiquities. When they were short of authentic relics they had no hesitation in producing fakes, so well made as to fool even the Egyptologists of the era.”
Most Muslim writers showed little interest in ancient Egypt or other pre-Islamic cultures. A claim has been made that one or two medieval scholars there made an attempt to decipher the hieroglyphs, but this remains unconfirmed. If such an attempt was made it wasn’t followed up by other scholars, which by itself reveals a general lack of serious interest in these matters.
While Muslims, be that Arabs or Turks, never created anything resembling the systematic Egyptology that Europeans later developed, a few of their historians did admittedly show some limited interest in this subject. One of them was Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi (1162-1231). He described the pyramids as covered with indecipherable writing – probably the graffiti of visitors, some perhaps dating from pharaonic times. His observation implies that much of the original casing at Giza was still intact when he visited. By this time, though, the pyramids were being “systematically quarried” for stones used for mosques and other buildings.
Salah al-Din or Saladin (ca. 1138-1193), the general loved by Muslims for his victories against the Crusaders, is renowned in Western history for his supposedly tolerant nature. Very few seem to recall that his son and heir Al-Aziz Uthman tried to demolish the world-famous pyramids at Giza outside of Cairo, Egypt, just three years after his father’s death. The only reason why we can still visit them is because the task at hand was so big that he eventually gave up the attempt. They were hard to build, and hard to destroy. The Pyramid of Menkaure, the smallest of the three major ones at Giza, was nevertheless visibly damaged on one side.
This detail is almost always left out when apologists write about how tolerant and enlightened Muslims supposedly were compared to the primitive Europeans. This attempted destruction was not carried out by Saladin himself, but it would not be unreasonable to mention when writing about him that his devout Muslim son did this shortly after he died. There are also indications that a process of pillaging ancient monuments had begun during Saladin’s reign.
The Great Pyramid of Khufu, who was known as Cheops to the Greeks, took about twenty years to construct and was completed around 2560 BC in the Old Kingdom period. With its original 146.5 meters it was the tallest man-made structure in the entire world for nearly four thousand years, until it was finally supplanted by some of great Christian cathedrals in Europe such as Lincoln Cathedral in England. It was originally covered by casing stones that formed a smooth outer surface. These are gone today, but a few remains can still be seen by modern visitors on top of the slightly smaller neighboring pyramid built by Khufu’s son Khafre.
Mark Lehner is an American archaeologist with decades of experience excavating in Egypt. He is widely considered to be one of the foremost living experts on the Giza Pyramids, having devoted his life to studying them, and has appeared on numerous television documentaries. Here is what Lehner says in his book The Complete Pyramids [1997, hardback], page 41:
“Abd al-Latif reports the destruction of a number of small pyramids by the Emir Karakoush during Saladin’s reign (AD 1138-93). It must have been Karakoush who removed the satellite pyramid south of Khafre’s pyramid, and who began dismantling Khufu’s subsidiary pyramids. Other stones, probably from the two larger pyramids, were used for walls in the growing city of Cairo. The plunder of casing stone from the Great Pyramid continued during succeeding generations until the outer mantle was finally stripped bare. Abd al-Latif also enthused about the Sphinx, already known by its modern Arabic name, Abu Hol, ‘Father of Terror’. He described its handsome face, ‘covered with a reddish tint, and a red varnish as bright as if freshly painted’. He specifically mentions the nose, which leads us to think that it was still intact, contrary to indications that it may have been missing as early as the 10th century. It is certain that someone removed it before the early 15th century when another Arab historian, al-Maqrizi, wrote about it. The nose was long gone, at any rate, by the time Napoleon visited Giza in 1798, although he is often blamed for its removal.”
A photo on page 41 of Lehner’s book shows damage done to the Pyramid of Menkaure, the smallest of the three large pyramids on the Giza Plateau. While it still stands, scars from the attempted destruction are still clearly visible to visitors today. Mark Lehner states that “In AD 1196, Malek Abd al-Aziz Othman ben Yusuf, son of Saladin, mounted a concerted attack on the pyramid of Menkaure to dismantle it and remove its stone. Eight months’ work merely damaged the pyramid’s northern face. Such enormous – and unsuccessful – efforts increase our admiration for the skill of the ancient builders in creating such durable monuments.”
The great Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan were demolished by the Taliban regime in 2001, who decreed that they would destroy images deemed “offensive to Islam.” The Taliban Information Minister complained that “The destruction work is not as easy as people would think. You can’t knock down the statues by dynamite or shelling as both of them have been carved in a cliff. They are firmly attached to the mountain.” The statues, 53 meters and 36 meters tall, the tallest standing Buddha statues in the world, turned out to be so hard to destroy that the Taliban needed help from Pakistani and Saudi Arabian engineers to finish the job. After almost a month of non-stop bombardment with dynamite and artillery, they succeeded.
Judging from the experiences with the Bamiyan Buddhas, it is tempting to conclude that the main reason why the pyramids of Egypt have survived to this day is because they were so big that it proved too complicated, costly and time-consuming for Muslims to destroy them. Had Saladin’s son Al-Aziz had modern technology and engineers at his disposal, they might well have ended up just like countless Hindu temples in India or Buddhist statues in Central Asia.
Lehner says that although we do not know who broke away the nose of the Great Sphinx of Giza, “careful examination of the face shows clear evidence of how it was done. Someone hammered long rods or chisels into the nose, one down from the bridge and the other under the nostril. Once in place, the implements were used to pry the nose off to the right (south.)”
According to the fifteenth century historian al-Maqrizi, in the fourteenth century upon discovering that local peasants made offerings to the Sphinx, Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr, a Sufi Muslim, became furious at their idolatry and decided to destroy the statue, managing only to break off its nose. It is hard to confirm whether this story is accurate, but if it is, it demonstrates that Sufis are not always the soft and tolerant Muslims they are made out to be.
What we can say with a high degree of certainty is that the Sphinx at Giza lost its nose by an act of deliberate cultural vandalism that took place in Islamic times. The Great Sphinx was by then already well over 3500 years old, and its nose had survived millennia of erosion as well as foreign invasions and occupations, including by the Persians and such European peoples as the ancient Greeks and Romans. It did not survive the coming of Islam, though.
Far from damaging the Sphinx, the French brought large numbers of scientists to Egypt to catalogue its ancient monuments, thus founding modern Egyptology. The trilingual Rosetta Stone, discovered in 1799, was employed by the gifted philologist Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832) to decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphs in 1822. He made extensive use of the Coptic language, which is a direct descendant of the language spoken in pharaonic Egypt.
Arabic-speaking Muslims had controlled Egypt for more than a thousand years, yet apparently never managed to decipher the hieroglyphs nor for the most part displayed much interest in doing so. Europeans did so in a single generation after they reappeared in force in Egypt. And they did so with the help of the language of the Copts, the Egyptian Christians, one of the remnants of ancient Egypt that the Muslims invaders had not managed to totally eradicate.
A fatwa (religious ruling) from 2006 issued by Egypt’s top religious authority forbids the display of statues. Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa declared as un-Islamic the exhibition of statues in homes, basing the decision on texts in the hadith (sayings and deeds of Muhammad and his companions). He quoted a hadith that sculptors will be among those receiving the harshest punishment on Judgment Day. The powerful cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi joined him in declaring that statues used for decoration are “haram,” or un-Islamic and concluded that “the statues of ancient Egyptians are prohibited.” These statements triggered fear in some circles that this could prod attacks on ancient works of art, or on the magnificent Karnak Temple near Luxor. An attempted attack on statues at a museum in Cairo did indeed take place later in 2006 by a veiled Muslim woman screaming, “Infidels, infidels!” It was stopped, at least for now.
I wrote an essay a few years ago at The Brussels Journal entitled Why Western Art is Unique, and Why Muslim Immigration Threatens It. Muslims tend to be at best indifferent towards non-Muslim cultures, past or present, at worst actively hostile to them. The desecration and destruction of non-Muslim monuments or places of worship is not something that ended in India a thousand years ago; it continues until the present day with Greek churches at Cyprus, Serbian churches and monasteries in Kosovo and Bosnia, thousands of churches in Indonesia, Buddhist symbols in southern Thailand and many old Jewish synagogues in the Middle East.
This is not something that modern Westerners like to talk about, but it needs to be done: What kind of guarantees do we have that this behavior, which Muslims have displayed on different continents for nearly fourteen hundred years, will not be repeated in our countries? My answer would be: None whatsoever. Western countries are full of art museums, from Madrid and Paris to London and Berlin, or for that matter the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, packed with works of art that are specifically forbidden according to Islamic law.
I have been to the Musée du Louvre, the Uffizi Gallery and other European art museums and seen Oriental tourists admire paintings by Leonardo. That doesn’t bother me at all. I myself have visited Beijing and seen fine landscape paintings in the traditional Chinese manner. I enjoyed many of them. I also hope to visit Kyoto in Japan one day. Although these cultures are very different from mine, we can find some overlapping interests when it comes to art.
In fact, some of the most serious students of European art and Classical music these days are Asian. Non-Muslim Asians, that is. I keep hearing that our traditionally Christian culture allegedly shares a common monotheistic and Greek heritage with Islam. I disagree with this.
Islam is and has always been aggressively hostile to the Greek artistic heritage whereas Westerners share a few aspects of that heritage with many Asian nations that have historically been influenced by Buddhism, since Greek impulses affected early Buddhist art. Islam was equally hostile to the Greco-Roman love of wine, and never fully accepted or integrated Greek natural and political philosophy. The truth is that the only part of the ancient Greek heritage that proved to be more compatible with Muslim than with Christian European culture was slavery, and possibly anal sex with young boys in certain parts of the Islamic world.
Pederasty or “love of boys,” that is, a homosexual relationship between an older man and an adolescent boy, was practiced and to some extent socially accepted in ancient Greece. This practice has sometimes been carried out in parts of the Islamic world, for instance in Persia or Central Asia. British forces in 2011 complained that pedophilia is widespread and culturally accepted in southern Afghanistan. Older, powerful men boosting their social status by keeping boys as sexual playthings is widespread among the Pashtun ethnic group. The practice of “boy play” is known throughout Afghanistan but is particularly renowned in the city of Kandahar.
It is true that Muslims are far from alone in destroying the temples of other cultures, nor in “recycling” the building materials of older monuments. One can mention the sad spectacle of how young Communists, encouraged by Chairman Mao, destroyed priceless works of art in China in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There is also the unfortunate case of Byzantine iconoclasm in the eighth century of our era, which may have been inspired by Islam, plus the destruction of Catholic icons which took place in some parts of sixteenth century Western Europe. The latter was one of the most distasteful episodes of the Protestant Reformation.
But such destruction, while regrettable, is usually episodic in most societies. Islamic culture is very unusual in that this kind of behavior has been going on relentlessly and systematically in so many different countries and regions for centuries. This issue has now become taboo to discuss in the Multicultural West, but based on historical experience there is every reason to fear that Islamic destruction of art works will spread to Western countries if the percentage of Muslims there continues to rise. There are already a few signs that this process has started.
Elena Chudinova, described as a “Russian Oriana Fallaci” by one observer who feared that she might make hundreds of thousands of people “Islamophobic,” has published the book The Mosque of Notre Dame de Paris. It describes a European continent under Islamic rule where the famous Gothic cathedral situated at the Seine in the heart of Paris has been turned into a mosque by the middle of this century. That prospect will be dismissed as ridiculous. But no doubt, so did many initially about the idea of a mosque at the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople or at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Both of them have been mosques for centuries now.
Edward Said came from a Christian family in the Middle East, but made a career for himself as an apologist for all things Islamic. Did that benefit his fellow Christians, who are being systematically wiped out from areas where they have lived for nearly two thousand years?
As Robert Spencer writes in his book Religion of Peace?, “Christian communities throughout the Middle East that date back to the dawn of Christianity are decreasing so much that they are on the verge of disappearing from the area altogether. In Iraq, half of the nation’s prewar 700,000 Christians have fled the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Overall the Middle Eastern Christian population has dropped from 20 percent in 1900 to less than 2 percent today.”
Muslims respond with deadly outrage to mere rumors of any alleged Koran desecration, whereas Bibles found in the possession of visitors to Saudi Arabia are routinely confiscated by officials and sometimes even put through a paper shredder. Danny Nalliah, a Sri Lankan-born pastor, in the 1990s spent two years there, involved with the underground church. To openly practice, let alone preach, any religion other than Islam is strictly forbidden in Saudi Arabia. “It’s a very well-known fact that if you have a Bible at customs when you enter the airport, and if they find the Bible, that the Bible is taken and put in the shredder,” he said in an interview. “If you have more than one Bible you will be taken into custody, and if you have a quantity of Bibles you will be given 70 lashes for sure – you could even be executed.”
There was little outcry when Palestinian gunmen in 2002 holed up in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, assumed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, used the Bible as toilet paper. About 30 priests, monks and nuns were held hostage there by the armed Muslim militants for over five weeks. Some of these Jihadists, who belonged to the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, part of then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah organization, were received as heroes when they later returned to Gaza. A few of the others were….exiled to Europe as a punishment.
Said says in Orientalism that “The web of racism, cultural stereotypes, political imperialism, dehumanizing ideology holding in the Arab or the Muslim is very strong indeed.”
Is that so? If we look at the situation as it is today, not in 1978 when his book was first published, people who are openly critical of Islam in Western countries will very frequently find their careers cut short. What race is Islam, anyway? Don’t Muslims like to brag about the fact that Muslims come in all shapes and colors? As for “dehumanizing,” Said again very conveniently leaves out what Islam says about non-Muslims, and how they are treated.
The Koran says that Muslims are “the best of peoples” (3:110) while the unbelievers are “the worst of creatures” (98:6). In such a worldview it is easy to see evil in others but difficult to locate failings in oneself. It also says that the followers of Muhammad are “ruthless to the unbelievers but merciful to one another” (48:29). One may exercise the Golden Rule in relation to a fellow Muslim, but the same courtesy is not to be extended to unbelievers.
In daily life, non-Muslims are referred to with the derogatory term “kafir” and often compared to animals, for instance “You dirty infidel dog.” How is that for dehumanizing ideology? Viewing non-Muslims as animals is more than just a figure of speech. In the 1890s, a generation before the better-known Armenian Genocide, Turkish troops along with Kurdish Muslim tribesmen slaughtered Armenians just like Muslims use to halal-slaughter sheep and other animals because of their refusal to pay blackmail taxation and be properly submissive.
The following case is quoted from Andrew G. Bostom’s book The Legacy of Jihad: “The soldiers pursued them throughout the length and breadth of the region, hunting them ‘like wild beasts’ up the valleys and into the mountains, respecting no surrender, bayoneting the men to death, raping the women, dashing their children against the rocks, burning to ashes the villages from which they had fled.” Cruelest of all were the massacres at Urfa, where Armenian Christians numbered a third of the population. Here in 1895, after a siege a sheikh recited verses of the Koran and “cut their throats after the Mecca rite of sacrificing sheep.”
The attitude of violent Islamic supremacism is now rearing its ugly head in Western countries, too. In Denmark in 2007, Muslims were attacking Inuit peoples, or Eskimos. Greenland has had ties to Scandinavia since the Norse colony established there during the Viking Age, so a few Greenlanders live in mainland Denmark. Apparently, some Arab immigrants feel that Greenlanders don’t belong in Denmark and should go back home where they came from. They have repeatedly been attacked by Arab and Somali immigrants in the city of Århus.
From the most hardcore, pro-Islamic Leftists in the West we are told that Islamic violence is merely a reaction to Western imperialist aggression. So how do we explain this case? Was this in retaliation for all the centuries of brutal Eskimo aggression in the Middle East? Whose “web of racism, cultural stereotypes, political imperialism” do we encounter here, really?
Greenlanders have been subject to rock throwing, verbal harassment and physical assaults by Arabs. According to the chairman of the Multicultural Association in Gellerup, Rabhi Azad-Ahmad, the attacks are caused by prejudice, and because young Arabs and Somalis are looking for easy targets to assault in order to send a message of strength to other groups.
These marginal groups are target practice. Soon Muslims will move on to others, and they do. In 2011 throughout Denmark, native residents are being harassed out of some housing developments. Most of these cases involve Muslim aggressors. The problem has reached critical levels in Vollsmose in Odense, the city of author Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), whose famous fairy tales include The Ugly Duckling and The Emperor’s New Clothes.
Christian residents there need to go into hiding because they are being threatened with beatings. Some have had their cars burned. In Gellerup in Århus, the local church has been forced to hire security patrols to prevent vandalism. In Copenhagen, Jewish kids applying to secondary schools near housing areas densely populated with Muslims have been advised by authorities to look elsewhere if they want to avoid trouble. Similar problems are reported from cities all over Western Europe, from Stockholm via Rotterdam and Marseilles to Florence.
One of the reasons why so many people are currently left unprepared for this development, which was 100% predictable if you know a little bit about Islamic mentality, is that “intellectual terrorists” like Said made it very difficult to properly discuss Islam in the West.
Professor Said held a good position at a leading university in the largest country in the Western world, which is more than you can say about most people. Yet he kept complaining about “marginalization” and “prejudice” for years and years. As a matter of fact, Edward Said personally benefitted a great deal from “anti-white privilege,” the boost your career can get if you denounce people of European origins and their culture in the harshest manners possible.
Summed up, it is obvious that Mr. Said was a grossly dishonest writer with a poor grasp of history. His book is so deeply flawed both in its fundamental premise and in its execution as to be practically worthless as a serious historical work. What surprised me when reading it for a second time is not that it is distilled ideological propaganda; that I already knew. What struck me the most was that it’s not very good even if judged purely as a piece of propaganda.
I can think of a number of writers, for instance the Communist author Bertolt Brecht, who supported ideas that I disagree with or even actively dislike, but who I will grudgingly admit had some linguistic talent. I cannot honestly say that about Edward Said, though. Not only was he a poor thinker; he was also a pretty poor writer. He does not know how to hide his ideological shortcomings or seduce his audience with clever anecdotes, witty remarks, linguistic elegance, personal charm or a sense of humor. He possessed few of these qualities.
What I see when reading Orientalism is the unattractive self-pity of a privileged man claiming to be underprivileged, a man with many harsh words for the alleged evils of Western imperialism but hardly a single critical comment for the Arab and Muslim one, possibly the most brutal of all imperialisms if you believe V. S. Naipaul, which has already wiped out numerous nations and is currently very close to eradicating Said’s people, too. If somebody paid me a lot of money and I ignored any moral scruples, I am fairly confident that I could have written as better work of anti-Western propaganda myself, based on real events such as the Opium Wars or the transatlantic slave trade. The Middle East must really be thirsting for anti-Western propaganda if Edward Said’s Orientalism was the best they could come up with.