by Edward Said
August 30, 2003
During the last days of July, Representative Tom Delay (Republican) of Texas, the House majority leader described routinely as one of the three or four most powerful men in Washington, delivered himself of his opinions regarding the roadmap and the future of peace in the Middle East. What he had to say was meant as an announcement for a trip he subsequently took to Israel and several Arab countries where, it is reported, he articulated the same message. In no uncertain terms Delay declared himself opposed to the Bush administration's support for the roadmap, especially the provision in it for a Palestinian state. "It would be a terrorist state," he said emphatically, using the word "terrorist" -- as has become habitual in official American discourse -- without regard for circumstance, definition or concrete characteristics. He went on to add that he came by his ideas concerning Israel by virtue of what he described as his convictions as a "Christian Zionist", a phrase synonymous not only with support for everything Israel does, but also for the Jewish state's theological right to go on doing what it does regardless whether or not a few million "terrorist" Palestinians get hurt in the process.
The sheer number of people in the southwestern United States who think like Delay is an imposing 60-70 million and, it should be noted, included among them is none other than George W Bush who is also an inspired born-again Christian for whom everything in the Bible is meant to be taken literally. Bush is their leader and surely depends on their votes for the 2004 election which, in my opinion, he will not win. And because his presidency is threatened by his ruinous policies at home and abroad he and his campaign strategists are trying to attract more Christian right- wingers from other parts of the country, the mid-West especially. Altogether then, the views of the Christian Right (allied with the ideas and lobbying power of the rabidly pro-Israeli neo-conservative movement) constitute a formidable force in domestic American politics, which is the domain where, alas, the debate about the Middle East takes place in America. One must always remember that in America Palestine and Israel are regarded as local, not foreign policy, matters.
Thus, were Delay's pronouncements simply to have been either the personal opinions of a religious enthusiast or the dreamlike ramblings of an inconsequential visionary, one could dismiss them quickly as nonsense. But they represent a language of power that is not easily opposed in America, where so many citizens believe themselves to be guided directly by God in what they see and believe and sometimes do. John Ashcroft, the attorney- general, is reported to begin each working day in his office with a collective prayer meeting. Fine, people want to pray, they are constitutionally allowed total religious liberty. But in Delay's case, by saying what he has said against an entire race of people, the Palestinians, that they would constitute a whole country of "terrorists", that is, enemies of humankind in the current Washington definition of the word, he has seriously hampered their progress towards self-determination and gone some way in imposing further punishment and suffering on them, all on religious grounds. By what right?
Consider the sheer inhumanity and imperialist arrogance of Delay's position: from a powerful eminence 10 thousand miles away people like him, who are as ignorant about the actual life of Arab Palestinians as the man in the moon, can actually rule against and delay Palestinian freedom and assure years more of oppression and suffering just because he thinks they are all terrorists and because his own Christian Zionism -- where neither proof nor reason counts for very much -- tells him so. So, in addition to the Israeli lobby here, to say nothing of the Israeli government there, Palestinian men, women and children have to endure more obstacles and more roadblocks placed in their way in the US Congress. Just like that.
What struck me about the Delay comments wasn't only their irresponsibility and their easy, uncivilised (a word very much in use concerning the war against terrorism) dismissal of thousands of people who have done him no wrong whatever, but also the unreality, the delusional unreality his statements share with so much of official Washington so far as discussions of (and policy towards) the Middle East, the Arabs and Islam are concerned. This has reached new levels of intense, even inane, abstraction in the period since the events of 11 September. Hyperbole, the technique of finding more and more excessive statements to describe and over-describe a situation, has ruled the public realm, beginning of course with Bush himself whose metaphysical statements about good and evil, the axis of evil, the light of the almighty and his endless, dare I call them sickening effusions about the evils of terrorism, have taken language about human history and society to new, dysfunctional levels of pure, ungrounded polemic. All of this laced with solemn sermons and declarations to the rest of the world to be pragmatic, to avoid extremism, to be civilised and rational, even as US policy makers with untrammeled executive power can legislate the change of regime here, an invasion there, a "reconstruction" of a country there, all from within the confines of their plush air-conditioned Washington offices. Is this a way of setting standards for civilised discussion and advancing democratic values, including the very idea of democracy itself?
One of the basic themes of all Orientalist discourse since the mid-19th century is that the Arabic language and the Arabs are afflicted with both a mentality and a language that has no use for reality. Many Arabs have come to believe this racist drivel, as if whole national languages like Arabic, Chinese, or English directly represent the minds of their users. This notion is part of the same ideological arsenal used in the 19th century to justify colonial oppression: "Negroes" can't speak properly therefore, according to Thomas Carlyle, they must remain enslaved; "the Chinese" language is complicated and therefore, according to Ernest Renan, the Chinese man or woman is devious and should be kept down; and so on and so forth. No one takes such ideas seriously today except when Arabs, Arabic and Arabists are concerned.
In a paper he wrote a few years ago Francis Fukuyama, the right-wing pontificator and philosopher who was briefly celebrated for his preposterous "end of history" idea, said that the State Department was well rid of its Arabists and Arabic speakers because by learning that language they also learned the "delusions" of the Arabs. Today every village philosopher in the media, including pundits like Thomas Friedman, chatters on in the same vein, adding in their scientific descriptions of the Arabs that one of the many delusions of Arabic is the commonly held "myth" that the Arabs have of themselves as a people. According to such authorities as Friedman and Fouad Ajami, the Arabs are simply a loose collection of vagrants, tribes with flags, masquerading as a culture and a people. One might point out that this is a hallucinatory Orientalist delusion, which has the same status as the Zionist belief that Palestine was empty, and that the Palestinians were not there and certainly don't count as a people. One scarcely needs to argue against the validity of such assumptions so obviously do they derive from fear and ignorance.
But that is not all. Arabs are always being berated for their inability to deal with reality, to prefer rhetoric to facts, to wallow in self-pity and self-aggrandising rather than in sober recitals of the truth. The new fashion is to refer to the UNDP Report of last year as an "objective" account of Arab self-indictment. Never mind that the report, as I have pointed out, is a shallow and insufficiently reflective social science graduate student paper designed to prove that Arabs can tell the truth about themselves, and it is pretty far below the level of centuries of Arab critical writing from the time of Ibn Khaldun to the present. All that is pushed aside, as is the imperial context which the UNDP authors blithely ignore, the better perhaps to prove that their thinking is in line with American pragmatism.
Other experts often say that, as a language, Arabic is imprecise and incapable of expressing anything with real accuracy. In my opinion such observations are so ideologically mischievous as not to require argument. But I think we can get an idea of what drives such opinions forward by looking for an instructive contrast at one of the great successes of American pragmatism and how it shows how our present leaders and authorities deal with reality in sober and realistic terms. I hope the irony of what I am discussing will quickly be evident. The example I have in mind is American planning for post-war Iraq. There is a chilling account of this in 4 August issue of the Financial Times in which we are informed that Douglas Leith and Paul Wolfowitz, unelected officials who are among the most powerful of the hawkish neo-conservatives in the Bush administration with exceptionally close ties to Israel's Likud Party, ran a group of experts in the Pentagon "who all along felt that this [the war and its aftermath] was not just going to be a cakewalk [a slang term for something so easy to do that little effort would be needed], it [the whole thing] was going to be 60-90 days, a flip-over and hand-off... to Chalabi and the Iraqi National Council. The Department of Defence could then wash its hands of the whole affair and depart quickly, smoothly, and swiftly. And there would be a democratic Iraq that was amenable to our wishes and desires left in its wake. And that's all there was to it."
We now know, of course, that the war was indeed fought on these premises and Iraq militarily occupied on just those totally far-fetched imperialist assumptions. Chalabi's record as informant and banker is, after all, not of the best. And now no one needs to be reminded of what has happened in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The terrible shambles, from the looting and pillaging of libraries and museums (which is absolutely the responsibility of the US military as occupying power), the total breakdown of the infrastructure, the hostility of Iraqis -- who are not after all a homogenous single group -- to Anglo-American forces, the insecurity and shortages and, above all, the extraordinary human -- I emphasise the word "human" -- incompetence of Garner, Bremer and all their minions and soldiers in adequately addressing the problems of post-war Iraq, all this testifies to the kind of ruinous sham pragmatism and realism of American thinking which is supposed to be in sharp contrast to that of lesser pseudo-peoples like the Arabs who are full of delusions and have a faulty language to boot. The truth of the matter is that reality is neither at the individual's command (no matter how powerful) nor does it necessarily adhere more closely to some peoples and mentalities than to others. The human condition is made up of experience and interpretation, and these can never be completely dominated by power: they are also the common domain of human beings in history. The terrible mistakes made by Wolfowitz and Leith came down to their arrogant substitution of abstract and finally ignorant language for a far more complex and recalcitrant reality. The appalling results are still before us.
So let us not accept any longer the ideological demagoguery that leaves language and reality as the sole property of American power, or of so-called Western perspectives. The core of the matter is of course imperialism, that (in the end banal) self-assumed mission to rid the world of evil figures like Saddam in the name of justice and progress. Revisionist justifications of the invasion of Iraq and the American war on terrorism that have become one of the least welcome imports from an earlier failed empire, Britain, and have coarsened discourse and distorted fact and history with alarming fluency, are proclaimed by expatriate British journalists in America who don't have the honesty to say straight out, yes, we are superior and reserve the right to teach the natives a lesson anywhere in the world where we perceive them to be nasty and backward. And why do we have that right? Because those woolly-haired natives whom we know from having ruled our empire for 500 years and now want America to follow, have failed: they fail to understand our superior civilisation, they are addicted to superstition and fanaticism, they are unregenerate tyrants who deserve punishment and we, by God, are the ones to do the job, in the name of progress and civilisation. If some of these fickle journalistic acrobats (who have served so many masters that they don't have any moral bearings at all) can also manage to quote Marx and German scholars -- despite their avowed anti-Marxism and their rank ignorance of any languages or scholarship not English -- in their favour then how much cleverer they seem. It's just racism at bottom though, no matter how dressed up it is.
The problem is actually a deeper and more interesting one than the polemicists and publicists for American power have imagined. All over the world people are all experiencing the quandary of a revolution in thought and vocabulary in which American neo-liberalism and "pragmatism" are made on the one hand by American policy-makers to stand for a universal norm whereas in fact -- as we have seen in the Iraq example I cited above -- there are all sorts of slippages and double standards in the use of words like "realism", "pragmatism", and other words like "secular" and "democracy" that need complete rethinking and reevaluation. Reality is too complex and multifarious to lend itself to jejune formulae like "a democratic Iraq amenable to us would result". Such reasoning cannot stand the test of reality. Meanings are not imposed from one culture on to another any more than one language and one culture alone possesses the secret of how to get things done efficiently.
As Arabs, I would submit, and as Americans we have too long allowed a few much-trumpeted slogans about "us" and "our" way to do the work of discussion, argument and exchange. One of the major failures of most Arab and Western intellectuals today is that they have accepted without debate or rigorous scrutiny terms like secularism and democracy, as if everyone knew what these words mean. America today has the largest prison population of any country on earth; it also has the largest number of executions than any country in the world. To be elected president, you need not win the popular vote but you must spend over $200 million. How do these things pass the test of "liberal democracy?"
So rather than have the terms of debate organised without scepticism around a few sloppy terms like "democracy" and "liberalism" or around unexamined conceptions of "terrorism", "backwardness" and "extremism", we should be pressing for a more exacting, a more demanding kind of discussion in which terms are defined from numerous viewpoints and are always placed in concrete historical circumstances. The great danger is that American "magical" thinking à la Wolfowitz, Cheney, and Bush is being passed off as the supreme standard for all peoples and languages to follow. In my opinion, and if Iraq is a salient example, then we must not allow that simply to occur without strenuous debate and probing analysis, and we mustn't be cowed into believing that Washington's power is so irresistibly awesome. And so far as the Middle East is concerned the discussion must include Arabs and Muslims and Israelis and Jews as equal participants. I urge everyone to join in and not leave the field of values, definitions, and cultures uncontested. They are certainly not the property of a few Washington officials, any more than they are the responsibility of a few Middle Eastern rulers. There is a common field of human undertaking being created and recreated, and no amount of imperial bluster can ever conceal or negate that fact.
Edward Said is University Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, and is a leading Palestinian intellectual and activist. Among his books are The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After (Pantheon, 2000), Peace and Its Discontents: Essays on Palestine in the Middle East Peace Process (Vintage, 1996), and Out of Place: A Memoir (Knopf, 1999). This article first appeared in Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt)