Edward Said was a towering intellectual whose staunch criticism of western hegemony stands vindicated in the face of its repeated efforts to stifle self-determination in West Asia
In 1990, Iraq’s army entered Kuwait. U.S. troops began to sail and fly to the region. War was on the horizon. It was to be a new kind of war, premised on the example of the U.S. invasion of Panama and buoyed by the near collapse of the USSR. Meanwhile, Edward Said was to speak at the University of Chicago where I was a graduate student. The police were in full force. The chapel was packed. Said laid out his argument: Saddam was a dictator. He was a brutal ruler. He had betrayed Arab nationalism. Of that there was no doubt. But the U.S. was not to be seen as a moral force. It had drawn its sword across the neck of Arab freedom, and its attack would do nothing good for the Arabs. Said’s defence of the rights of the people in the region as a prelude to his assault on imperialism impressed me. Later, Said would write that this position — against Saddam, against war (la li-al-harb, la li-al-dictatoriyat, as they say in the Arab world) — “was the only honourable and serious position to take.”
Edward Said died 10 years ago today, after the U.S. sent its legions back to Iraq. In 1991, the U.S. bombed Iraq but did not conquer it. From 1991 to 2003, Iraq was under a sanctions regime, of which Said wrote, “Iraq’s defenceless people were offered nothing but punishment, punishment so sadistic that Dennis Halliday, the U.N. administrator of the oil for food programme, could not tolerate it, and therefore resigned. To read the UNICEF report on the effects of the sanctions, a detailed chronicle of malnutrition, rising illiteracy, poverty, socioeconomic breakdown and collapse of medical facilities, is to come face to face with U.S. criminality.” UNICEF noted that half-a-million Iraqi children had died due to the sanctions regime. When U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked what she thought of those dead — “more children than [sic] died in Hiroshima,” said 60 Minutes journalist Leslie Stahl — she replied, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.” Said must have had this in mind when he spoke of “U.S. criminality.” In 2003, the U.S. came to finish the job.
The weight of Edward Said’s consistent position meant that he opposed Bush’s 2003 thrust. Iraq was going to be destroyed, Said warned, so that Bush’s America could capture the “desert place ‘out there’ destined for the exercise of U.S. power unleashed illegally as a way of cowing the entire world in its Captain Ahab-like quest for reshaping reality and imparting democracy to everyone.” Matters went downhill after Said died. When Hülegü’s armies destroyed Baghdad in the 13th century, they had to move their camp away from the wind to escape the smell of death. The U.S. set up its encampment in Baghdad’s centre, the Green Zone, as the country crumbled under the machinery of U.S. warfare (aerial bombardment, torture, the use of sectarian militias, the encouragement of divisive politicians). Over the past few months, thousands of Iraqis have died, sacrificed to this Ahab-like quest. Said acutely forecast all this.
Iraq was not Said’s main area of inquiry. He was a cultural critic, who wrote about Joseph Conrad and music. He was a literary critic, who wrote about beginnings and contexts. But above all, Said was a Palestinian writer who wrote with feeling and precision about the great injustice done to his people. Orientalism (1978) was written not simply to deliver a judgment about the colonialism, but to “rub culture’s nose in the mud of politics.”
It was the first part of a trilogy — to settle accounts with a long tradition of crafting a view of the “Orient” as inferior and lesser than Europe, preparing and elaborating a way of thinking as the spear for colonial domination. After that book made clear the relationship between discourse and power, two others could be written — The Question of Palestine (1979) and Covering Islam (1981).
Palestine’s politics were saturated by an orientalist view of the region, making a claim for self-determination impossible. Beyond the suffering, Said had to show how the way in which the region was thought had put the Palestinians under a shroud. The third book was on how the western media configured Islam as the answer to all questions about the “East.” The idea of “Islam” covered over all other meaningful dynamics in the region — such as economic and political subjugation. The media wrote of Iran’s revolution as the eruption of Islamic rage, not as a people’s quest for freedom. Orientalism opened the conceptual space to undo this. The book inaugurated a field of study – postcolonial studies – but what it did not set in motion was the kind of work that Said was now able to do as an essayist for Palestinian freedom.
Said was a patriot for a nation that had been suppressed. But he was not a blind patriot. Not long after the ill-starred Oslo Accords (1993), Said wrote of the “fashion-show vulgarities” of Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin. The Gulf War had shattered the certainties of the region, and forced an exhausted Arafat to sign what Said called “an instrument of surrender, a Palestinian Versailles.” At the time, Said was attacked for his warning, including by Israeli scholar Avi Shlaim. Two decades later, he stands vindicated. “From today’s perspective, 20 years on,” Shlaim admitted, “it is clear that Said was right in his analysis and I was wrong.”
Said has finished his lecture. He has attacked Saddam and argued against the U.S. war. Even before he began to speak, people seemed eager to attack him. The police fanned out to prevent any disturbance. Furious were the assaults against Said. He stood there, elegantly dressed, unflappable, the smile never leaving his face. One after the other, patiently and acidly, Said demolished the questions. When we went up for the reception, I asked him how he managed to keep his cool — “This is nothing,” he said. “You should see the fireworks in the Palestinian National Council.”
(Vijay Prashad is a historian, journalist and commentator.)