20 Mar 2006

Decline of Orientalism

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Robert Irwin discusses the reasons for the decline of Arabic and Islamic studies at British universities. At a time featuring a conspicuous need for this specific cultural and linguistic expertise, a suitable candidate to occupy the Sir Thomas Adams Professorship in Arabic, established at Cambridge in 1632, is not in evidence. Irwin attributes the decline in Arabic studies partly to the politically correct disrepute of the field brought about by the influence of Columbia University’s late professor Edward Said:

As far as large sections of the British intelligentsia are concerned, orientalism is thought of as an historical evil, something to be ashamed of and linked, however vaguely, to such wickednesses as crusading, racism, the slave trade, colonialism and Zionism. Orientalism, by the Palestinian literary critic Edward Said, published in 1978, pioneered this paranoid approach to an essentially benign academic discipline. In his immensely influential book, Said presented a somewhat confusing survey of the way Europeans and Americans have written and thought about the orient and, more precisely, about the Arab world. Said argued that orientalism was a sinister discourse that constrained the ways westerners could think and write about the orient. He suggested that there was a malign tradition of disparaging and stereotyping orientals in various ways that went back to Homer, a tradition that was continued by such grand writers as Aeschylus, Dante, Flaubert and Camus. However, Said argued, in recent centuries academics in Islamic and middle eastern studies had been instrumental in framing a mindset that facilitated and justified imperial dominance over the Arab lands. According to Said (who died in 2003), the west possesses a monopoly over how the orient may be represented.

But the contemporary School of Resentment was only partially responsible, Irwin maintains.

Broader intellectual trends have had a role—a flight from difficulty, a suspicion of old-fashioned, fact-bound scholarship and a taste for deconstructive readings of classic works.

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