debating orientalism


So many academics want the arguments presented in Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) to be true. It encourages the reading of novels at an oblique angle in order to discover hidden colonialist subtexts. It promotes a hypercritical version of British and, more generally, of Western achievements. It discourages any kind of critical approach to Islam in Middle Eastern studies. Above all, Orientalism licenses those academics who are so minded to think of their research and teaching as political activities. The drudgery of teaching is thus transformed into something much more exciting, namely “speaking truth to power”.

It is unlikely that the two books under review, both of which present damning criticisms of Said’s book at length and in detail, will change anything. Daniel Martin Varisco is a professor of anthropology who has specialized in Yemeni agriculture. It is perhaps because of this that he takes exception to Said’s “textualism” and his consequent neglect of anthropology, sociology and psychology. Varisco has a multitude of other charges to bring against Orientalism and he is able to draw on an astonishingly long list of witnesses for the prosecution, including Sadiq Jalal al-’Azm, Bryan Turner, Malcolm Kerr, Ziauddin Sardar, Bernard Lewis, Nadim al-Bitar, Victor Brombert, Ernest Gellner, Jane Miller, John Sweetman, John Mackenzie and many others.

more from the TLS here.