by James M. Wall
“As I write these lines, the illegal imperial occupation of Iraq by Britain and the United States proceeds. Its aftermath is truly awful to contemplate.” Edward Said wrote these words in CounterPunch, August,4, 2003, a month before he died.
The awful aftermath of occupation, which Said anticipated with such clarity, began after Britain and the United States, accompanied by a posse of other nations which called themselves a coalition”, returned to reconquer and reoccupy the cradle of civilization. With this posse came western values and a total insensitivity to a people they saw as inferior.
With them also came a notion of western justice soon to be installed at a place called Abu Ghraib:
. . . the huge prison complex, by then deserted, was stripped of everything that could be removed, including doors, windows, and bricks. The coalition authorities had the floors tiled, cells cleaned and repaired, and toilets, showers, and a new medical center added. Abu Ghraib was now a U.S. military prison. Most of the prisoners, however—by the fall there were several thousand, including women and teen-agers—were civilians, many of whom had been picked up in random military sweeps and at highway checkpoints. (Seymour Hersh, The New Yorker)
The awful aftermath had begun. Five years later, the destruction and death continue. Edward Said warned us. He warned us by writing his massive study, Orientalism, thirty years ago, a book that exposes a sickness in western society. After 30 years of admiration and study by scholars who understand the power of his argument, and by critics who dismiss him as a Palestinian zealot, Said’s book remains relevant.
It also demands careful study because as one young student once said to me, “It ain’t easy”. No it is not, but since it is so vital as a way to understand what we are doing to ourselves, we must pay attention to Edward Said, a Palestinian-born scholar who at the time of his death at age 67, in September, 2003, was University Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Said died after a long struggle with cancer, a month after he warned us that the “aftermath is truly awful to contemplate”.
Emory University defines The Orient on its web site “as a system of representations framed by political forces that brought the Orient into Western learning, Western consciousness, and Western empire. The Orient exists for the West, and is constructed by and in relation to the West. It is a mirror image of what is inferior and alien (“Other”) to the West.” Orientalism is defined as “a manner of regularized (or Orientalized) writing, vision, and study, dominated by imperatives, perspectives, and ideological biases ostensibly suited to the Orient.” It is the image of the ‘Orient’ expressed as an entire system of thought and scholarship”
Orientalism as a mindset emerged in the 19th century when the British government used the intellectual excuse of white superiority, bolstered by academics and religious leaders, to bolster their empire and justify their treatment of “persons of color”. God and guns were employed to do “good” to the “natives”, and do “well” for the British economy. The “others” needed what the West alone could provide.
The Iraq invasion had its changing list of motives, one of which was the desire to bring “democracy” to the region. Edward Said did not accept the democracy motive. Instead, he saw the driving force coming from Orientalists who sought to dominate Iraq for the “purpose of control”. In his 2003 CounterPoint essay, Said explains:
It is surely one of the intellectual catastrophes of history that an imperialist war confected by a small group of unelected US officials was waged against a devastated Third World dictatorship on thoroughly ideological grounds having to do with world dominance, security control, and scarce resources, but disguised for its true intent, hastened, and reasoned for by Orientalists who betrayed their calling as scholars.
Said identifies contemporary academic “experts” who, in the tradition of 19th century British colonialists, supported the military attack on Iraq, providing the Bush administration with an “orientalist” rationale for the invasion.
The major influences on George W. Bush’s Pentagon and National Security Council were men such as Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, experts on the Arab and Islamic world who helped the American hawks to think about such preposterous phenomena as the Arab mind and centuries-old Islamic decline which only American power could reverse. . . .
Accompanying such war-mongering expertise have been CNN and Fox, plus myriad evangelical and right-wing radio hosts, innumerable tabloids and even middle-brow journals, all of them re-cycling the same unverifiable fictions and vast generalizations so as to stir up “America” against the foreign devil.
Thirty years after the publication of Orientalism, and five years after his death, Edward Said’s book stands there, like a welcoming door asking to be pushed open so we may enter a realm of understanding which has thus far evaded us.
As my young student once complained, it is not an easy book to read, precisely because it challenges our long established mind set by asking us reach a new understanding of why American public opinion, media, culture, and political attitudes are so easily shaped by a world view which complements our sense of thinking we are superior to “others”.
Why do we go looking for additional “others” to disparage? I cannot say for certain, but it could relate to the aggressive behavior of the Israel Lobby which wants very much for our culture to remain populated by Orientalists. They want us to be Orientalist Methodists or Orientalist Presbyterians, or just plain secular Orientalists.
Whatever drives us, here we are, embracing Zionism over against those “others” who live in the “orient”, hugging Zionism, Christian or otherwise, with an embrace that emerges with a special irony among a people who, in all candor, can rarely tell the difference between Ramallah and Hebron, or a Sunni and a Shia, and who couldn’t find Basra on a map unless our government made us go there to shoot “others”.
The movies, always a strong influence on American thinking, have long contributed to this popular and ignorant negative view of Arabs and Arab culture. The books by Jack Shaheen provide definitive examples of how Hollywood continues this bias, from the silent era through today. There is also a Shaheen directed DVD if you prefer the visual along with the written word.
Said’s book continues to fight this negative ignorance of readers who feel that something must be wrong with what they are hearing and seeing. In one recent example, Israeli journalist Yonatan Mendel, who works for an Israeli web site, confesses that Said’s thinking gives him a supportive model with which to understand his own people. Mendel explains Israeli behavior in an essay he wrote for the London Guardian:
As a journalist in Israel, my home country, I frequently found Orientalism to be an effective tool for understanding Israeli discourse, knowledge-construction and the media’s work. In a society which gathers around the army as its focal point and which sees Judaism as a national identity, the Jewish-military discourse emerges almost naturally.
Within this discourse, which becomes the society’s common sense, certain (positive) behaviours are linked to the Jews, and certain (negative) behaviours are linked to the Arabs. Giving the media as an example, one needs to remember that within Israeli common sense, the themes of violence, aggressiveness, propaganda and incitement are Arab-oriented, while self-defence, response, restraint and morality are Jewish-Israeli-oriented, and rarely represent Arab behaviour or ways of thinking.
Why are we in Iraq? Why are we living in this “awful aftermath” of an occupation that appears endless? Why do we blindly support Zionist attitudes toward Palestinians? For some answers, read Edward Said.