He was viciously attacked by some for this stance. Said was accused of basing his attitudes to matters in the Arab world and the Palestinian question on the viewpoints of western intellectuals.
However, it is often forgotten in this context that Said was one of the most vocal opponents of the Oslo Accords, which he described as a "capitulation" and a "defeat of the Palestinians".
Indeed, in 1994, he devoted an entire book in Arabic to his criticism of the accords: ġazza-arīḥā: salām amrīkī (Gaza-Jericho, an American peace). Whether consciously or not, his critics overlook the fact that Said had picked up on the way Western readers think in order to address them in their own words and with their own ideas with a view to coaxing them away from their prejudiced standpoints. Such a strategy requires rational, objective language, far from empty slogans.
"The very core of traditional Orientalist dogma"
In his capacity as a U.S. citizen, he took a very clear stance against the policies of successive U.S. administrations towards the Arab world and, in particular, against the administration of George W. Bush and the Iraq War. "What American leaders and their intellectual lackeys seem incapable of understanding," wrote Said, "is that history cannot be swept clean like a blackboard, so that 'we' might inscribe our own future there and impose our own forms of life for these lesser people to follow. [...] Without a well-organised sense that the people over there were not like 'us' and didn't appreciate 'our' values – the very core of traditional Orientalist dogma – there would have been no war."
The centrepiece of Said's intellectual oeuvre is undoubtedly his criticism of Orientalism. The book Orientalism was the start of the academic examination and criticism of the eponymous phenomenon. One key tenet of the book is that the majority of Orientalist research does not reflect the Orient in all its complexity, but rather what researchers want the Orient to be.
According to Said, instead of giving an objective, realistic portrayal of the Orient, Orientalist research serves up a distorted image that is characterised by ready-made pictures and colonialist interests. In this way, it can be understood as an imperialist cultural project that was supported by the researchers who themselves hail from the colonising countries.
In his book, Said wrote "My idea in Orientalism is to use humanistic critique to open up the fields of struggle, to introduce a longer sequence of thought and analysis to replace the short bursts of polemical, thought-stopping fury that so imprison us."
He explained that two dogmas prevailed among those Orientalists who actually travelled to the Orient: firstly, the dogma that was opposed to the native culture of these countries and, secondly, the dogma that was opposed to the liberation of these countries from Western colonialism. This, he said, was aggravated by the fact that they were utterly blind to the larger contexts and events in the countries they visited.
Humanism as the last bastion against inhuman policies
In 1996, Said published the book taʿaqībāt ʿala 'l-istišrāq (Notes on Orientalism) in Arabic. In it, he addressed the critical responses to Orientalism, explained his positions and also looked at the false conclusions he had reached in that book.
His last article, 'L’humanisme, dernier rempart contre la barbarie' (Humanism, the last bulwark against barbarism) is also worthy of a mention in this context. In this article, which was published in the French monthly newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique shortly before his death on 25 September 2003 after a long battle with cancer, he wrote:
"I called what I was trying to do 'Humanism' – a word I still insist upon despite its scornful rejection by sophisticated post-modern critics. Humanism thrives on initiative and personal intuition, not on the mere reception of ideas and blind reverence for authorities. Humanism is our only – perhaps even our last – bastion against inhuman policies and practices that threaten to taint the history of humankind."
© Qantara.de 2019
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan