The Orientalism Wars, Episode CXXVII

In the Boston Review, Lawrence Rosen revisits Orientalism and review Robert Irwins defense of Orientalists.

Irwin has a larger story to tell. Those who may fairly be called Orientalists certainly were, in his view, men (and, very rarely, women) of their times, but they were devoted to studying the languages of the region and establishing the relation of Islam and its history to Jewish and Christian sources. They were not overtly political, he says, nor, except in rare and more recent times, even involved in conversation with policymakers. Irwin’s characteristic way of dealing with the inveterate racists is simply to read them out of the category of Orientalists. Thus, Ernest Renan’s (1823–92) hostility to Semites suggests he was not a real scholar; and like-minded writers “did not need to have Orientalists invent racism for them.” He concludes that “racist attitudes in any period or region are the product of the natural tendency to think in generalities.” But this etiology of opinions avoids an essential point—not well expressed by Said—about consequences: whatever their origins and purposes, students of the region often set the terms of subsequent discussions. If Orientalists claimed that the East was a linguistically exceptional and theologically undeveloped culture with highly elaborate legal strictures, their framing had repercussions for political no less than common discourse. One does not have to be a policymaker to affect policy.

It is not enough, then, to complain—as Irwin does—about the banality of observing that scholars are not always objective. Irwin treats texts as if they had no political effects, as if (in earlier periods) salvation were the concern and attachments to royalists or mercantilism were incidental, and as if the explication of a text did not in itself imply unstated criteria. In thus evading Said’s larger and more difficult question about the political and intellectual effects of scholarly analysis——such as the constant references to the Prophet Muhammed as lascivious—Irwin retreats to the assumptions that continue to inform so much of Orientalist study.

While Said and his critics disagree about the existence of a hidden, malignant political agenda written into the entire course of Orientalist scholarship, both fail to analyze fully the foundations of Orientalist scholarship, assumptions that may or may not entail prejudice toward the peoples and cultures of the region. When Said says that “the core of Orientalist dogma persists”—that it “flourishes today in the forms I have tried to describe”—he fails to consider whether assumptions about language, textual analysis, and social dynamics may be capable of a substantial degree of autonomy or whether, as he uncritically assumes, they necessarily lead to adverse judgments of those studied.