Students, Teachers, and Edward Said: Taking Stock of Orientalism

Since the publication of Orientalism in 1978, Edward Said’s critique has become the hegemonic discourse of Middle Eastern studies in the academy. While Middle Eastern studies can improve, and some part of Said’s criticism is valid, it is apparent that the Orientalism critique has done more harm than good. Although Said accuses the West and Western researchers of “essentializing” Islam, he himself commits a similar sin when he writes that Western researchers and the West are monolithic and unchanging. Such a view delegitimizes any search for knowledge–the very foundation of the academy. One of Said’s greatest Arab critics, Syrian philosopher Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, attacked Said for the anti-intellectualism of this view. Since German and Hungarian researchers are not connected to imperialism, Said conveniently leaves them out of his critique. Said also ignores the positive contribution that researchers associated with power made to the understanding of the Middle East. Said makes an egregious error by negating any Islamic influence on the history of the region. His discursive blinders–for he has created his own discourse–led him before September 11, 2001 to denigrate the idea that Islamist terrorists could blow up buildings and sabotage airplanes. Finally, Said’s influence has been destructive: it has contributed greatly to the excessively politicized atmosphere in Middle Eastern studies that rejects a critical self-examination of the field, as well as of Middle Eastern society and politics.

Full Text: First Author, with Meir Litvak, “Students, Teachers, and Edward Said: Taking Stock of Orientalism,” Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 10 (March 2006), pp. 1-21.