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Edward Said and the political present

Nadia Abu El-Haj

This essay offers a reading of Edward Said’s legacy. It engages Said’s scholarly and political insights, on the one hand, and his vision of, and life as, an intellectual, on the other hand. The essay focuses on his broader conceptual and methodological interventions, his analysis of the politics of empire (in the Middle East), and his passionate attachment to the question of Palestine. It also contextualizes Said’s work in light of the contemporary political moment, arguing that he and that for which he is seen to stand have emerged as key flash-points in the latest U.S. culture wars.

“I had absolutely no way of knowing that, a year after the book was published, Iran would be the site of an extraordinarily far-reaching Islamic revolution,” Edward Said1 wrote in a 1994 afterword to a new edition of Orientalism. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 marked the visible rise of “Islamic fundamentalism” on the global stage, a form of oppositional politics seen increasingly as challenging the West, in general, and the United States, in particular.2 And that now-global challenge—the challenge of radical Islam—is generally analyzed in terms substantially different from those that framed analyses of the Cold War: Islamist movements are understood in culturalist—in Orientalist—terms. As Bernard Lewis has argued, an ongoing struggle has taken place between the “rival systems” of the Judeo-Christian and Muslim “blocks” for nearly fourteen centuries. “It has consisted of a long series of attacks and counterattacks, jihads and crusades, conquests and reconquests”.3 Borrowing Lewis’s framework for this long-standing conflict, Samuel P. Huntington4 argued that this is a “clash of civilizations”—a conflict no longer between different ideologies (as was the Cold War) but between distinct cultures, often inflected with religious overtones. And, according to Huntington, this newer global conflict is potentially far more intransigent than the Cold War had been: People tend to have deep, non-negotiable attachments to their own “civilizations”.

In the post-September 11, 2001 period, Huntington is often argued to have had remarkable foresight, but it was, in fact, Orientalism that was the prescient work. Said’s book engaged the relationship between empire and its forms of knowledge, enabling scholars to recognize in arguments such as those of Huntington an imperial vision that would work to make real the very clash of civilizations that Huntington “foresaw”. After all, Orientalism lays out “the pattern of imperial culture”5 that made imaginable, even natural, imperial vision(s) of the

Arab-Muslim East as a space demanding intervention, a space radically, even incommensurably, different from the West and one that had to be remade by and in the image of (European) civilization. As Said wrote in the spring of 2003, twenty-five years after its initial publication, “Orientalism once again raises the question of whether modern imperialism ever ended, or whether it has continued in the Orient since Napoleon’s entry into Egypt two centuries ago.”6

In this essay, I offer a reading of Said’s legacy—more accurately, perhaps, I offer an account of what I think his legacy might best be, particularly in the context of the current political moment. I discuss central historical and methodological insights in his scholarly work alongside his vision of and life as an intellectual, to think about how Said sought to understand and, in turn, to intervene in a newly configured and ever more violent and interventionist US empire. In so doing, I attempt to read his work in a way that is sensitive both to Said’s broader intellectual contributions and commitments—to questions about culture, power, empire, authorship, and the role and responsibility of the intellectual—and to his passionate attachment to the question of Palestine, in particular, and to the politics of empire in the Middle East, more generally. In contrast to readings of Orientalism that effectively both elevated and neutered Said’s contribution by stripping it of its specific history and politics, interpreting the argument, instead, as being about the more universal problem of Otherness, I want to bring back into stark relief how the specific problems of representation that Said sought to address were intimately entangled with distinct colonial histories and imperial institutions of power.

Said grappled with the question of empire not just as an academic but, just as crucially, as a public intellectual, his tireless engagement with the world guided by his unfaltering humanist commitments. In short, with Orientalism at the core of his intellectual project, Said sought to analyze not just the history of empire but also, more urgently, the nature of power in the postcolonial world, and he sought to intervene, publicly, in debates about and struggles over that contemporary reality in which he lived. The legacy of that intellectual life, and not just his particular writings and arguments, has, if anything, become even more powerful since his death. This is not simply because Said’s corpus—both academic and public—is of particular relevance for analyzing and engaging the current political moment. In addition, as Said’s writings and influence come under increasing attack by neoconservatives in their battles against the academy, in general, and its purportedly biased teaching of the Middle East, in particular, so, too, has Said, and that for which he is seen to stand, emerged as a signifier in a wider cultural and political battle in which many of us— scholars and others—find ourselves enmeshed.

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