19 May 2007

The Testimony of Travellers versus Edward Said

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Algis Valiunas, in the Claremont Review of Books, proposes taking another close look at the descriptions of Islam in those old-time travel books condemned by Edward Said for falsely creating a myth of an alien Islamic world.

In 1978, Edward Said, the late Palestinian-American professor of English at Columbia University, published Orientalism, a study that condemns virtually all Western literature and scholarship on Islamic matters as an instrument of imperialism. The Orient, he maintains, is the Orientalists’ invention. There is in fact no Islamic civilization that circumscribes the thoughts and feelings of individual Muslims. Rather there are numberless individuals who happen to be Muslims, and who are every bit as singular in their experiences as their counterparts in Christendom, so that to spout sonorous generalities about Islamic types is an unforgivable imaginative and moral failure. In describing this Islamic Orient that doesn’t exist in the first place, Western writers always get it wrong. Although Said discreetly avoids describing in any detail what a true representation would be, one gathers from scattered remarks that his Muslims are universally tolerant, peace-loving, moderate in their religious devotion, and passionate in their pursuit of political freedom-essentially indistinguishable from their Western brethren in everything but the experience of Western oppression. …

Someone who reads only Edward Said—and he is a sainted authority among leftist academics today—may come away convinced that his argument is true. But to read in the travel literature he disparages is to see how wrong he is. The travelers’ tales do not originate in malevolent prejudice or issue in gross distortion; rather they are drawn from carefully observed reality. A great variety of writers see many different things; but more importantly, they see some of the same things over and over again, not because of the Orientalists’ engrained turn of mind, but because those things are striking and significant and true. The travel literature overwhelmingly shows Islam recoiling from the Western touch, perhaps in part out of legitimate fear that it might be transformed into an alien shape with all the West’s deformities, and to a great degree out of blind hatred inculcated over centuries of prejudice and ignorance. In any case, the Orientalists’ writings testify to the deep roots of the modern Islamist fighting creed, in which Islamic purity must be preserved from Western, liberal, modernizing pollution.

Said writes with what he supposes is withering irony of the Orientalists’ configuring Islam as the Other; but one cannot read these works without concluding that Islam, especially in its militant form, is the Other, not as the West’s fantasy nemesis but in its own deeply graven traditions and chosen historical course. That does not mean accommodations cannot be reached by men of good will and moderate heart. Of the travelers, Chateaubriand is really alone in the depth of his loathing for Islam. Among the others, even those who are justly horrified by the barbarities they witness, a moderate and sensible spirit prevails, while some of the 20th-century travelers feel as much at home in Arabia or Afghanistan as in England. Such decent and thoughtful souls as Tocqueville, Twain, Lawrence, and even the querulous Naipaul, show how the breach between cultures might begin to be healed. But they and their fellow writers also show that the clash of civilizations is real, that certain aspects of it may be irreducible, and that the conflict will not be over any time soon.

Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

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