6.09.2004

Alternatives to Said (Buruma on Bernard Lewis; the War in Iraq)

Bernard Lewis is generally disliked by progressives, especially those in postcolonial studies. And while there are indeed many places where I disagree with his arguments, I've personally found it worthwhile to read his books (I've only started to do so in the last two years; I've thus far read What Went Wrong? and Cultures in Conflict). Edward Said, author of Orientalism and the late doyen of postcolonial theory, was in many ways an intellectual arch-rival to Lewis on the question of Europe's scholarly analysis of the cultures outside of Europe. To put it simply: Lewis is comfortable characterizing the world outside Europe from a position of knowledge (Orientalism); Said always questions the motives western scholars have for making the characterizations they make (anti-Orientalism).

These days I find some of Said's 'big arguments' less than fully convincing. I've been seeking alternatives that are more directly grounded in empiricism and evidence, and I'm less concerned about 'who is speaking' than what is being said and on what factual basis. I've reached my limit with arguments motivated by questioning the 'conditions of knowledge production', and I've come to crave liberal quantities of actual knowledge of the human experience -- political, cultural, religious, historical, and of course literary. It's a less sophisticated approach to knowledge (call it intentional naiveté), but it has completely changed my attitude to what I am doing. It has at once made me much more humble, and increased my respect for people who can claim direct expertise in specific fields through knowledge of multiple languages, experience with primary source materials, and deep history.

Lewis is one among many scholars out there who has made some actual knowledge available for general readers, even if he has sometimes done so with bias; one should read him with an antidote such as Rashid Khalidi (who has a healthy respect for the conventional concept of 'expertise,' even if he comes out on Edward Said's side more often than not in his actual political analysis).

Ian Buruma has a balanced critique of Lewis in this week's New Yorker. Rather than focus on his sympathies for Israel, Buruma looks closely at the evolution of Lewis' ideas about western intervention in the Arab/Muslim world. For Buruma, Lewis' failing is not that his basic perceptions of the Arab and Muslim worlds are wrong because of some deep-seated (if unconscious) hostility, but rather that he loves the culture he studies too much: "It is a common phenomenon among Western students of the Orient to fall in love with a civilization. Such love often ends in bitter impatience when reality fails to conform to the ideal. The rage, in this instance, is that of the Western scholar. His beloved civilization is sick." Here I worry that Buruma is being a little simplistic -- my Saidian response is still instinctive -- isn't it possible that Lewis' love for the civilization he studies was a paternalistic love, affectionate to be sure, but only workable from a position of dominance?

In earlier essays, Lewis (starting in the 1950s) suggested the west exercise caution in attempting to remake the Arab and Muslim worlds. He also sometimes wrote with great affection and respect for the role of Islam especially in the lives of believers, as in this passage that Buruma quotes:

“Islam is one of the world’s great religions. Let me be explicit about what I, as a historian of Islam who is not a Muslim, mean by that. Islam has brought comfort and peace of mind to countless millions of men and women. It has given dignity and meaning to drab and impoverished lives. It has taught people of different races to live in brotherhood and people of different creeds to live side by side in reasonable tolerance. It inspired a great civilization in which others besides Muslims lived creative and useful lives and which, by its achievement, enriched the whole world.”

After 1990, the recognition of Islamic 'greatness' disappeared, and Lewis' emphasis shifted to an analysis of "Muslim rage" (perhaps, as Buruma claims, more from disappointment than from racism). But the bitter tone has sharpened, so much so that in the reprint of the essay quoted above in Lewis' newest collection of essays (From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East), the passage cited above has been removed, suggesting that Lewis' new constituency of readers would find the respect expressed in the passage above disturbing rather than reassuring. Since 9/11, Lewis has been a hero in the Anti-Terror Wars, and has been influential with the hawks in the Bush administration. He was one of the early advocates of the war in Iraq, claiming with Rumsfeld that American soldiers would be greeted as liberators rather than conquerors. Sadly, no. For Buruma, it is this abandonment of political and cultural caution that ultimately discredits Lewis.

What bothers me most, however, is the sense that Lewis has abandoned his original scholarly constituency (Islamic studies scholars) in favor of two new ones. The new omission of respect (as in the passage quoted above) suggests that Lewis now wants to be read primarily by: 1) the policy-makers who create spurious justifications for war, and for whom respect is less important than Kissinger-ian 'realism', and 2) the thousands upon thousands of everyday political cynics and anti-Islamic chauvinists who make books on 'Muslim rage' shoot to the top of the bestseller lists.