During a lecture at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 1997, Edward W. Said made the following statement about Islam as it is defined by Europe and the United States: “What is described as Islam belongs to the discourse of Orientalism, a construction fabricated to whip up feelings of hostility and antipathy against a part of the world that happens to be of strategic importance for its oil, it’s threatening adjacency to Christianity, its formidable history of competition with the West.”
This is part of what Said has called “the clash of ignorance”. It counters a principle put forward by scholars such as Samuel P. Huntingdon and Bernard Lewis which holds that the “clash of civilisations”, or the difference between Eastern and Western culture, will lead to conflict between the two world regions. Said’s theory, on the other hand, is that the West discursively portrays the East as “corrupt”, “lazy” and “monolithic” whilst describing themselves as “superior” or “progressive” so they can maintain Western cultural superiority and imperialism over the developing world.
This notion of us-and-them, based on the intellectual division of the world, is Said’s signature work. It is an issue he raises in much of his writing, though perhaps the most famous of these is his 1978 book Orientalism, which would later pave the way for the academic discipline of Postcolonial Studies.
Edward W. Said was born in Jerusalem under the British Mandate but moved to Cairo with his family during the 1948 Nakba when they became refugees. He described his early education as taking place in “élite colonial schools”. Said described Victoria College in Cairo as “a school in effect created to educate those ruling-class Arabs and Levantines who were going to take over after the British left.” Among his classmates were a number of familiar names, such as the Egyptian actor Omar Sharif and the future King Hussein of Jordan.
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Later, Said moved to America to pursue his studies. With a BA from Princeton and a PhD from Harvard he went on to become Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. Throughout his career he lectured in more than 150 universities and colleges and wrote dozens of books, many of which were translated into several languages. He contributed articles to the Guardian, the New York Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Counterpunch, the New Left Review, the London Review of Books, Al-Ahram, Al-Hayat and The Nation, for which he also wrote critiques of classical music. The Nation described him as “one of the most prominent academics in the United States.”
As well as a prolific academic and writer, Said was well-known as a committed political activist. In a 2013 interview with MEMO, his sister, Jean Said Makdisi, described 1967 as a “watershed year for Edward”. “That’s what turned him, that’s what turned him towards activism and getting involved because it was such an awful time for an Arab in America,” she said, describing the American media at that time as “vicious and ignorant”.
Said often wrote of the injustices faced by the Palestinian people, and was particularly critical of the Oslo Accords signed between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). “As for the Oslo ‘peace process’ that began in 1993, it has simply re-packaged the occupation,” he wrote in a 2001 article for the New Left Review, “offering a token 18 per cent of the land seized in 1967 to the corrupt Vichy-like Authority of Arafat, whose mandate has essentially been to police and tax his people on Israel’s behalf.”
In 2002, a collection of his essays on the subject were brought together in the book The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After, in which he writes of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat: “The whole idea is that Palestine envisioned by Arafat is one that leaves him entirely alone to rule at his pleasure, which is in turn dependent on what Israel allows him to get away with.” He described the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority as “the double occupation”.
His disapproval extended to other leaders of the Arab world. “Which leader is looked up to, admired, held up as a role model?” he asks in Oslo and After. “The number is extremely small. With half the Arab population now made up of extremely young (below age sixteen) people, the vacuum in moral leadership is very grave.” He also criticised Arab States for their arms sales, military societies, decline of democratic freedoms and the drops in education and agricultural production.
Said proposed peace by coexistence, self-determination and equality between Palestinians and Israelis and believed “real peace” would come with a binational Israeli-Palestinian state. Said was adamant that Palestine shouldn’t be handled as a nationalist cause – a “this is mine and I want it back” mentality, as his sister put it– but believed that instead everywhere and everyone suffering injustice should be embraced. Said died of leukaemia in 2003 at the age of 67. Twelve years after his death, his work, and his views, remain timeless.