First Signs of Self-criticism in the Arab-Muslim World / DR.Rivka Shpak Lissak

Edward Said, an American-Christian Palestinian and lecturer in the University of Columbia published his book “Orientalism” in 1973. The book was translated into Arabic and many other languages and created a stir in the Arab-Muslim world as well as among the academics in the faculties of Middle East Studies in universities in the US.

In his book “Collision within Islam” (2005), Prof. Immanuel Sivan of the Hebrew University Middle East Studies Faculty in Jerusalem dedicated a chapter to the debate within the Arabic world over the main theme of Said’s book.

The thesis, or the main theme, of Said’s book was that all the problems plaguing the Arabic world stem from the European, then American, colonialism and imperialism. In other words, the West, throughout the ages, is to blame for the Arab world’s underdevelopment. Later on, Saeed accused Zionism as well.

Said claimed in his book that Western Middle-East research, the study of the East by Western scholars, is a pseudo-scientific study whose aim is to denigrate Islam and the Arabic culture; that scholars in this field collaborated with the colonial powers and Christian missionaries who worked in the region; and that the study of the Middle East promoted, knowingly or un-knowingly, the Western attempt to rule the region and gain power and control by means superiority in scholarship. Middle-East studies promoted Western aims by enforcing Islam’s inferiority compared to the modern West, by justifying colonial dependency in the not-so-distant past and neo-colonialist dependence in the present.

Said denounced the research methodology of the Middle-East researchers, who studied the texts of the classical Middle-East culture, particularly the Koran, to explain the Arabic-Muslim reality in the present, as though it has frozen unchanged for 1400 years, or at least since the 12th century when Islam was consolidated. Said accused the Western scholars of ignoring the present reality, going as far as to claim that the past of the Arabic civilization is irrelevant for the present.

Said’s book was received with enthusiasm by the Muslim clerical establishment, extremist Islam, the Pan-Arabists, and the general public, who are united in their hostility towards the Western bloc and its economic-political-cultural hegemony, past and present.

The Arabic intelligentsia was divided in its reaction to the book. Most of the intellectuals sided with Said and published studies based on his thesis, but a small group rejected it, claiming that most of the weaknesses in the Arabic world have internal causes, with the West responsible for only a few.

We, as Israelis, are interested in the latter’s approach, because the way the Arabic world views Said’s thesis directly impacts the relations between Israel and the Arabic world in general, and the Palestinians in particular.

Critics addressed the book’s scope, its methodology and its thesis.

Scope: Critics claimed that Said grossly generalized when accusing all Middle-East scholars of harming the reputation of Arabic-Muslim world. Between 1800 and 1950, some 60,000 publications about the Arabic Orient were printed, and it is not possible for Said to have read them all. The critics found that Said relied on only 20 publications. Moreover, in his search for the roots of the Western condescending attitude towards the East, Said went as far back as the philosophers of ancient Greece.

Methodology: Critics claimed that Said’s method is out of date, as it emphasizes the history of ideas, only.

Thesis: Critics claimed that accusing all Middle-East scholars of overt hostility towards Islam and conviction in its inferiority, are gross, unscientific generalizations. They rejected his assertion that Western studies of the Middle-East aimed to emphasize Western superiority and Middle-Eastern inferiority. In addition to the baseless, gross generalizations, they commented on his tendency to view everything in absolutist terms, with no relativity or historical perspective as expected in modern thought. They also accused him of ignoring the modern developments in Middle-East Studies which reject the idea of superior vs. inferior races.

Above all, critics found many commonalities between Said’s opinions and the fundamental Muslim approach, and pointed out that he gave an allegedly scientific support to the world view of radical Islamists.

In addition to their criticism of the book, critics pointed in their studies to the internal causes for weaknesses in the Arabic world:

I. The powerful influence of religion in daily life not only among the lower, uneducated classes, but among the middle and upper urban classes.
II. The extended Arabic family, where male superiority and discrimination against women are still rife, although some progress has been made. Critics view the family as the micro-cosmos of the entire society which is saturated with ancient Muslim values, such as age and gender seniority, excessive dependence on the social structure, subordination for authority and absence of personal initiative, individual’s obedience based on guilt and shame, social conformism in speech, behaviour, and social discourse (where insisting on one’s own views is met with ostracism), and acceptance of the status quo.
All these contribute to a dominant social characteristic of sycophancy, where issues cannot be debated publicly and where society cannot function efficiently.
III. Critics believe that the Arabic passivity is a consequence of the ancient belief that the future can only be known by the omniscient Allah. This passivity has political consequence, for it obstructs the development of a political culture based on participation – a necessity in democracy.
IV. Looking to the past instead of the future: The Arabic world is excessively engaged in its Muslim past, the Golden Age of Islam, and is unable to let go of the past and move forward.
V. There is a gap between reality and the political discourse. Arabic people live in one reality but speak of another. There is no norm of self-criticism. The culture seeks scapegoats and is unable to openly expose its faults. The West and Zionism are always to blame for everything; no criticism was heard of Saddam Hussein; nothing is said about the genocide in Soudan, and so on and so on.
VI. One critic, Loutafi Al Khouli, addressed Said’s transferring all blame to the West. He said that even if the West had partial responsibility in the past for the problems Arabs were facing, it is more than 50 years since the Arab countries gained their independence, and the responsibility for their underdevelopment since then is their own. Other Asian countries, as well as Israel, Khouli points out, gained independence at roughly the same time, and have made impressive progress in their economy, entrepreneurship, and resourcefulness, while the Arabic countries have not even dealt with illiteracy.
VII. Critics have pointed out that in our post-colonial time the West has changed, and a better understanding of other cultures now prevails.
VIII. Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, critics point out that the Arabic world does not accept the principle of relativity, compromise, or gradualness. Their refusal to compromise, while ignoring the distress of the Palestinians in the name of an ideal model that precludes compromising over territory and sovereignty, as well as their refusal to recognize the rights of Israelis and the need for an historical compromise, make reaching a solution impossible and prolong the suffering of both Israelis and Palestinians.
Abbed El Mun’am Said, from the “Institute of Strategic Studies” of Al Aharam wrote: “Had the Palestinians accepted the principle of relativity, compromise, and gradualness during the talks at Camp David, their situation today would have been better, and among other things, there would have been fewer settlements”.

In conclusion, Said’s critics point out also that his thesis serves the Arabs, Palestinians included, in holding on to outdated norms that hinder their progress toward the 21st century, to solve problems and resolve conflicts through compromise.

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