02 October 2003

Edward Said and the Palestinian cause

Last week Edward Said died after a long struggle with leukemia. He will probably be best remembered for his 1978 book, Orientalism, in which he argued that western studies of the "orient," or what we now call the Middle East, were motivated by imperial designs on the region. Said was himself a Palestinian of christian parentage, although he himself had long ago abandoned the religion of his upbringing. He made much of his Palestinian origins and repeatedly wrote in favour of the Palestinian cause, often in inflamatory terms. Remarkably, he rejected the notion of a two state solution for the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, favouring instead a plural state inclusive of both Jews and Arabs.

Yet critics charged that he had fabricated his early years to make them appear more Palestinian than they were, when his childhood was actually spent largely in Cairo. This was brought out in a Commentary article by Justus Reid Weiner, "'My beautiful old house' and other fabrications by Edward Said" (September 1999).

The following is from an article by Aaron Goode, "Edward Said's rejected dream of a binational state in the Middle East":

The West first disrupted the taut fabric of Jewish-Arab relations with the Crusades nearly a millennium ago, and from then on the disruption never stopped: looking back through history Said saw an unending record of imperialism and meddling from Napoleon's Orientalist campaigns in Egypt and Syria to Jerry Falwell's Christian Zionism.

If the above paragraph truthfully represents Said's views, then they are based on an anachronistic reading of history. To be sure, the Crusades were a tragic episode that saw many injustices committed by Christians, often against fellow Christians. The sack of Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade is an example of this. Yet, if Philip Jenkins is correct, the lands ruled by Muslim overlords probably still housed christian majorities at that time. The notion of a monolithically imperial west intervening in a peacefully islamic (and apparently Jewish) "orient" is a bit of rewriting of history to conform to a simplistic quasi-marxist division of the world into oppressors and oppressed. Yet if this "orient" actually contained huge numbers of Coptic- and Aramaic-speaking Christians being ruled by a foreign Arab minority, then perhaps the Crusades, however misguided they may have been, were a more complex phenomenon than they are generally made out to be.

Said's life and work lead me to wonder whether scholar-activists might not be especially prone to reshape history to conform to their political aspirations. At the very least they do tend to apply contemporary categories, such as imperialsm, to complex phenomena that may not entirely fit within their confines.

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