This month’s Atlantic includes an interesting piece by Christopher Hitchens on Edward Said’s Orientalism, which is being re-released with an updated introduction.
As Hitchens points out Said’s upbringing was ideal in allowing him to traduce the conceptions of several cultures. Spending time in Cairo, Jerusalem, the then cosmopolitan Beirut (how that has sadly changed) and on to studying at Columbia University, provided a multitude of worlds to experience. Hitchens, however seems a little disappointed that someone who seemed so ideally positioned as a ‘negotiator’ between cultures, someone so capable of exploring the ‘Occident’ and its perception of the ‘Orient,’ both created discourses, can at times fail to appreciate the full complexity of the vast array of forces at work.
Hitchens though is still very much fascinated by Orientalism , which in the 70s allowed for a wealth of new perspectives, opening up a wide range of ground for post-colonial enquiry. However, as Said would be ever so willing to admit the ‘Orient’ can at times be just as guilty for falling into crude stereotypes of ‘the West’; Hitchens providing several such examples.
But there is also a lot to admire in Said’s persistent willingness to criticise the poor governance of Arab nations (lamenting the failed opportunities for modernisation in many Arab nations). The major difference of opinion between the two (Hitchens and Said) is in regards to the interpretation of recent events, in particular the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Said sees these as the forces of a new cultural dominance, Hitchens begs to differ.
While in the 70s there seemed to be hope that the forces of opposition would eventually lead to more modern, open, democratic Arab states. This has in most instances not come to fruition, and while there has been some progress in Iran, Qatar, Jordan; this has been continually frustrated. What is in my opinion even sadder, is that the oppositional movements in some nation-states could now be considered more atavistic in their crude tribalism and their religious dogmatism, to almost prefer the maintenance of the incumbent decrepit plutocratic administrations. This state of affairs may well be to some point attributable to the sheer brutality and the banality of ‘whatever it takes to maintain power’ doctrines, where bigotry is propagated as a means of maintaining power, El-Saddats cynical use of the Islamists to counter the leftist attacks on his corrupt leadership could be one example. The million-dollar question is how we can amputate the vital need for forces of opposition, which are necessary to make such governments accountable, from the forces of extreme Islam, which employ a fervent nihilism that can be seen by some regime opponents as a more effective means of opposition.