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Ibn Warraq's

reviewed by


Born in England and educated there and in Canada, John Butler is currently Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba. He has taught university in Nigeria, Japan and Canada, and has published extensively in the fields of Renaissance and Seventeenth-Century Studies, particularly travel-writing. His latest book, a scholarly edition of the Travels of Sir Thomas Herbert, will be published this spring by the Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies Series at the University of Arizona. Dr. Butler is also Co-Editor of The Quint, a humanities journal published by UCN.

Edward Said, like Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and others, has become, after his death, a sort of holy and untouchable figure for many scholars of imperialism, literature, post-colonialism and colonialism, a man whose attack on what he called “orientalism” must be taken as gospel by anyone who wishes to write about these subjects. Well, the problem with gospels, in any case, is that they are largely based on unprovable assumptions or blanket assertions and are often written simply for propagandistic purposes. In the case of Edward Said, his beliefs and ideas have been used simply to bash anything western and to inculcate the proposition that any literature, art or travel-writing by westerners, especially those from countries with an imperialist bent, is there to service, support and reinforce the transferring of non-Western cultures into “the other” (or, to use trendy jargon, “alterity”) in order to assert control over them or refashion them into something they never were. The problem is that not only have Said’s disciples taken this seriously, but Said himself believed it, and therefore there is little point in attacking the monkeys for what the organ-grinder is already playing quite loudly and clearly. Hence Ibn Warraq (not his real name), an ex-Muslim scholar trained in Arabic Literature at the University of Edinburgh who has addressed the United Nations and has written for The Manchester Guardian and The Wall Street Journal, launched, in Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism, an all-out attack directly on Said’s book, and although some of the monkeys become collateral damage, he never loses sight of the main target.

To get the negative out of the way first, it should be noted that Ibn Warraq can be over-polemical and sometimes over-emotional in his disgust with the way he sees the West has betrayed itself and its values. He sets up Said as an anti-Western bigot and decries what he calls in a chapter of that name “The Pathological Niceness of Liberals, Antinomies, Paradoxes and Western Values,” which for Ibn Warraq all feeds into Said’s theories. Occasionally Ibn Warraq verges on the ad hominem, although this is rare; the language is strong, direct, clear and unequivocal, which of course would not suit the obfuscatory and jargon-ridden hordes who follow Said. Ibn Warraq is appalled at how these people have influenced museums, art galleries and university courses so much that they are consigning significant works of art to oblivion in storerooms or decrying great works of literature as “imperialist” or “orientalist,” thus depriving students of a chance to make their own decisions about them. That’s why his tone may seem shrill at times to some, even offensive to others. It is also easy to see why Ibn Warraq might have become the darling of rightist American intellectuals such as Daniel Pipes, who has spent his career attacking “radical” Islamism, the British philosopher Roger Scruton, author of The Meaning of Conservatism (1980), Paul Berman, the author of Terror and Liberalism and a man who supported the Iraq war yet opposed George W. Bush, and Fouad Ajami, the Lebanese-American scholar from Johns Hopkins University who believed the Iraq war to be “noble” yet strongly supports Palestinian liberation. All these people are amongst the names on the back cover endorsing Ibn Warraq’s book. They are all, to some extent, right-wing polemicists, if the phrase “right-wing” means anything much now, but that in itself doesn’t necessarily make them suspect or unworthy of notice, and the book is not, luckily for Ibn Warraq, endorsed by Sarah Palin. “I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid,” John Stuart Mill once told Parliament; “I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative.” And it might be noted that Ibn Warraq does, from time to time, lose sight of Edward Said amongst the trees in the political forest, moving away from the central thesis of his argument into interesting but questionably relevant pathways.

This reviewer had some problems with Ibn Warraq’s belief in the inherent superiority of the West, although it needs to be said that his admiration for Western culture and achievements is sincere and in many cases justified. The West is more tolerant of diversity than the East (think Iran, for example, or North Korea), the West is more open to differing ideas and religious beliefs than the East, and the West is largely politically free. In the past that has not always been the case, and even now is not one hundred per cent the case, but in comparison to the Arab world and some Asian regions the West may be seen in a positive light. None of these assets, however, make the West superior, just not the same. It is nevertheless true that if one digs deeper enough into the past and takes history contextually, one will find, as Bruce Thornton notes on the back cover of Ibn Warraq’s book, “an expansive and tolerant curiosity evident in the true history of Western contacts with the [Muslim] world.” For every Crusader there is a liberal-minded traveller, for every conquistador there is a Las Casas, and now we have the so-called “Arab Spring,” which may (or may not) bring a more Western-style politics to the Middle East, although some of the signs, particularly for women and religious minorities, do not look good. Again, this does not mean that Western values are superior, but that they are not the old values of repression and intolerance. Ibn Warraq should, in some instances, have paid more attention to the negative aspects of Western civilization, although he does decry the homogenous world of American pop-culture and bad Hollywood movies, and he is no fan of George W. Bush. In the end, though, Western civilization has shown itself big enough to want to right past injustices (Ibn Warraq would argue that perhaps some of this has gone too far) and to at least begin attempting to make sure they do not happen again. Eastern civilization has done no such thing, and it remains to be seen whether it ever will.

When Ibn Warraq goes after Edward Said, however, he is right on the mark. A careful examination of Said’s book shows that in many places the scholarship is less than rigorous (“shoddiness” is the word used by both Pipes and Bruce Thornton, a distinguished classicist and author of Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow-Motion Suicide) and that his arguments, based on often-groundless assumptions, do not hold up to scrutiny. Ibn Warraq shows clearly that Said has simply lumped all Western writers and artists who deal with the East into his category of “orientalists,” that is people who are serving imperialism or refashioning the East for their own ends. Said, he argues, has never understood that the West, for all its shortcomings, has developed more intellectual and cultural curiosity about the East than ever went the other way, and that the vast majority of those who were studying the East or writing about it were not the least bit interested in taking it over or asserting their own cultural superiority. Ibn Warraq believes that Western writers and travellers were inspired mostly by the curiosity to know, not to conquer, and that this curiosity was not reciprocated by the closed societies of the East. Of course, there are exceptions on both sides, and Ibn Warraq mentions them; there’s even a chapter on “oriental” orientalists!

Ibn Warraq’s argument against Said and the “Saidists,” as he terms them, is mostly contained in the opening chapters of the book. However, just as Darwin’s Descent of Man provided massive evidence for his earlier work, The Origin of Species, the rest of Ibn Warraq’s book is evidence, too; he shows, from many examples drawn from painting, sculpture, literature and even music (I didn’t know that even this had come under attack by furious Saidists) that the arguments of Said and his disciples move “from pretentiousness to meaninglessness,” as Ibn Warraq puts it. Said employs “endless postmodern jargon” (he uses “textual attitude” for “bookish”) and “pretentious language that often conceals some banal observation,” for which Ibn Warraq provides numerous examples and page numbers from the Master’s works. Said often makes elementary scholarly mistakes, too; as an example of “shoddiness” this editor noticed some years ago (and he was not alone) that in Orientalism Said confused the Renaissance historian Jakob Burkhardt with the Swiss explorer Jean-Louis Burkhardt, and has the historian rushing around the Orient writing books on it which may be found in no library or bookstore on this planet. After several scholars wrote in about this one, it has still not been corrected in later editions of Said’s work.

Ibn Warraq’s overall thesis is quite simple, and is stated in his conclusion. “It should be evident,” he writes, “that one cannot reduce the colourful and gifted individuals known as Orientalists and their works to yet another expression of colonialism and imperialism.” In Orientalism Said had proclaimed that “every European in what he could say about the Orient was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric” (204), which is not only ridiculous and inaccurate, but is itself a racist insult. Ibn Warraq exposes not simply Said’s racism and rabid anti-Westernism, but his intellectual bankruptcy and dishonesty as well. He deals with the actual methodology of Said’s works in Chapter 7, which opens with a polemical sentence: “Edward Said’s Orientalism gave those unable to think for themselves a formula,” and proceeds from there to systematically dismantle the credibility of Said’s methodology. Ibn Warraq shows how Said cherry-picked his evidence, conveniently saying little or nothing about such topics as white slavery, Islamic racism and anti-Semitism and Asian racism. He rarely mentions the strong anti-imperial strain present from the beginning of the modern period in writers, artists and even many politicians. Humanists were at the forefront of opposition against conquest and expansion; a famous example of this would be Bartolomé de Las Casas’s Historia de las Indias (1552), in which he attacks his fellow-countrymen for atrocities committed in Central America. Other eminent critics of exploitation and imperialism included James I’s old tutor George Buchanan, Michel de Montaigne and John Milton, to name but a few. Said makes no mention of any of them, because their very existence would contradict his thesis.

This book is a must-read for anyone who feels uncomfortable after reading Said’s Orientalism. For people who are not academics, Ibn Warraq provides a readable demolition of a dangerous, questionably-researched and inaccurate book; Defending the West should be on the shelves of every thinking person. If he sometimes degenerates into polemics, so be it; the West is always being subjected to polemics by mullahs, ayatollahs and other like-minded people. Ibn Warraq might not like it, but his book actually makes the case for what I’d like to call “radical liberalism;” not a wishy-washy apologetic kind of liberalism, but one that is robust, tolerant and broadly-based.



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Jacob Thomas - researcher in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies.
Thank you Dr. Butler for your excellent analysis of Iban Warraq's book. I appreciated your comments on Edward Said's Orientalism. It's unbelieveable that many people in the West, bought Said's accusations against Western Orientalists; their work has been invaluable to students of the Middle East and Of Islam. Your words reminded me of the late Malclom Kerr's review of Orientalism. It's no exaggeration to consider E. Said as a 'fraud' when it comes to his views of the West, a world that gave him the opportunity to express himself from his professioral chair at Columbia U.
Much as I appreciated the review of Ibn Warrap's Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said's Oreintalism, The statement: "Well, the problem with gospels, in any case, is that they are largely based on unprovable assumptions or blanket assertions and are often written simply for propagandistic purposes."

It is inappropriate for the reviewer to interject his prejudides against the Christiabn faith. When referring to the "gospel," one can only think of the Christian sacred text. Other critics of Orentalism like the late Malcolm Kerr of the American University of Beirut, wrote about Said's Orientalism with fairness and objectivity, as he was an Orientalist with great credentials from UCLA,Princeton, American University in Cairo, as well as the AUB, the city of his birth.

In all, thanks Professor John Butler for your review. My criticism is not meant to diminish the value or relevance of your work!

Bassam Michael Madany -- A writer on Middle East & Islamic subjets.
Thanks to both of you for the kind comments -- I was not exhibiting any particular biases, but merely commenting on the "authenticity" of any kind of gospel, Christian or otherwise. Edward Said's books have become "gospels" for some, and are therefore subject to the same scholarly scrutiny as anything else purporting or taken to be the "word" about anything. The claim that Jesus was the son of God and rose from the dead is, I'm afraid, based on an unprovable assumption, namely that there is a God. The whole "risen god" idea, as I'm sure you know, is an old one (see J. G. Frazer and others), and the risen Adonis has no more validity than the risen Christ. What people choose to believe, however, is different, and of course their own business.



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