Penman for the terrorists

Culture | Edward Said was the Harriet Beecher Stowe of radical Islam's war on the West

Issue: "Terror on trial," Oct. 18, 2003

WHY IS IT THAT THE WORLD'S UNIVERSITIES ARE hotbeds of support for the cause of radical Islam? This, despite the fact that they are also hotbeds of support for feminism, gay rights, and free sex, causes the radical Muslims would put to the sword? Why do even Jewish professors and students at major universities feel constrained to denounce "Zionism" and support the Palestinian cause?

Outside of the ivory towers, why did Islamic radicalism break out just now in attacks against the West, and not earlier, even though their grievances against Israel and the West have festered through much of the 20th century? And why are most of the terrorists and their leaders not poor, uneducated zealots from backward villages, but affluent and sophisticated graduates of Western universities?

The answers to these questions can be found in the achievements of Edward Said, an English professor at New York's Columbia University, who died last month of leukemia at 67. Born in Jerusalem, his Palestinian parents emigrated to the United States, where Mr. Said would earn a Ph.D. from Harvard and embark upon an academic career.

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English professors are generally thought of as mild sorts and the study of literature as largely impractical. But the postmodern ideologies and habits of mind that have turned Western thought upside down have, for the most part, come out of English departments.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, left-wing theory has turned to a postmodern mutation known as "post-Marxism." Whereas Marxism was "modernist," being based on "scientific" categories such as dialectical materialism and economics, post-Marxism is based on culture. Marxism interpreted history as an expression of economic class struggle, with the social class that controls the means of production oppressing the workers. Post-Marxism interprets history as an expression of the social group in power oppressing other social groups. Men oppress women, whites oppress racial minorities, heterosexuals oppress homosexuals. (The latest application of post-Marxism is to analyze how humans oppress animals.)

What Mr. Said did was to apply this way of thinking to the problems in the Middle East. In his book Orientalism, published in 1978, he studied how Arabs and the Islamic world have been portrayed in Western literature. In doing so, he uncovered the stereotypes and attitudes of superiority held, especially, by the British imperialists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Behind it all was a "discourse of power" by which the West has humiliated, robbed, and oppressed the East, which once had a glorious culture that has been "marginalized" and destroyed by Western colonialism. (The term orientalism was a word Mr. Said coined to be parallel to racism to express this particular prejudice and enslavement.)

The Bible, that authoritative source of Western civilization, according to Mr. Said's deconstruction, hails the Jews for invading the homeland of the Canaanites, taking their land and slaughtering the original inhabitants. This not only is the model for Western imperialism-taking over other people's countries-but it is exactly what the Jews have done again in the state of Israel, a construction of European colonialists at the expense of the Palestinians. Zionism and the state of Israel are thus the highest expression of orientalism, and the critical struggle in the world today is the cause of the Palestinians.

Mr. Said's book took the academic world by storm. In his hands, post-Marxism became not just a precious species of whining but an actual political ideology and call to action, more like the revolutionary Marxism of old. Mr. Said became an academic superstar. "Post-Colonial" studies, using his methods to analyze other manifestations of Western imperialism on the Third World, became a new academic discipline. Anti-Zionism became the politically correct stance, and to be accused of orientalism could damage a scholar's career.

Mr. Said's work was particularly seized upon in the Arab world, mostly by way of the hosts of Arab college students studying in the West. It put a name to their grievances, fueled their sense of victimhood, and identified an enemy: not just Jews, but Western civilization.

Mr. Said went to Israel to throw rocks at the Jews and became a member of the Palestinian Parliament. But he remained an American and a privileged citizen of the Western civilization he assaulted, writing music reviews for The Nation, being feted at academic conferences, enjoying freedoms the Islamic radicals would never allow. Though he was the champion of their civilization, he was not even a Muslim, but rather a liberal Episcopalian.

What the novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe did for the Civil War, Edward Said did for the terrorist war. One reason that the pen is mightier than the sword is that the pen can stir people up to draw their swords. Or, in this case, their scimitars.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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