Battle of biases

Published : Apr 11, 2008 00:00 IST

Ibn Warraq joins scholars who disagree with Edward Saids views on Western thought.

In his book Defending the West, Ibn Warraq critiques Edward Saids Orientalism by castigating its narrow Muslim perspective, which ignores the significant scholarship of 19th century Orientalists. Academic interest in Orientalism around the globe was a fact of cultural materialism with a deep coherence to an anti-Western discourse. It was an era of self-rule with the recent upsurge of nationalism. The West was taken to be an oppressor that had perpetuated violence and bloodshed beyond its boundaries and in its own backyard. Discrediting its role became inherent to any political discourse originating from the East and, consequently, the prevalence of words such as imperialism, Western hegemony and racist politics became commonplace.

Warraq joins the company of scholars such as Ernest Geller, Bernard Lewis, Albert Hourani, Robert G. Irwin, Roger Scruton and Nikki Keddie who disagree with Saids harangue against Western thought and his Orientalist bias. As Warraq argues in his book, Said refused to understand the Western mind and its deep-seated inclination for an unbiased consideration of non-Western cultures.

Warraq is backed by Scruton, who maintains that Western nations believed in Matthew Arnolds definition of culture (the best that has been thought and said) and did not hesitate to introduce their students to Dantes Divine Comedy, or the Greek New Testament, the Thousand and One Nights, Kim and The Last of the Mohicans. At school I was taught to love Virgils Aeneid and Homers Iliad; I was encouraged by my teachers to read Confucius in Pounds translation and the Vedas in the edition by Max Mueller, and I encountered through LP records and the concert hall amazing vistas of other worlds, from Puccinis Madama Butterfly and Brittens The Prince of the Pagodas, to Ravi Shankar playing evening ragas to packed halls of the young.

William Jones, the great Orientalist, is also complimented for his work on Sanskrit literature and study of philology at the time when Wahhabism was sweeping South Asia, turning the Muslim community into a radical antagonist of the West. Warraq and his camp need to look into Lewis Mumfords The Pentagon of Power to understand the ills of free enterprise globalisation that has unleashed economic war on the world. Nor has the history of imperialism and the genocide of the natives in Africa or in the Americas been taken into consideration. Warraq is a known Muslim apostate who considers Saids Orientalism a dangerous manifesto.

Said will go down in history for having practically invented the contemporary intellectual argument for Muslim rage. Orientalism, Saids bestselling multiculturalist manifesto, introduced the Arab world to the art and science of victimology. Unquestionably the most influential book of recent times for Arabs and Muslims, Orientalism stridently blamed the entirety of Western history and scholarship for the ills of the Muslim world. It justified Muslim hatred of the West, taught them the Western art of wallowing in self-pity over ones victimhood, and gave vicious anti-Americanism a sophisticated, high literary gloss. The rock star status given to Orientalism is castigated and blamed for the carnage unleashed on the Western world. Warraq conveniently takes Salman Rushdie as a fellow Muslim who, like him, has had to suffer the wrath of Muslim bigotry.

According to Warraq, Orientalism masqueraded as a work of scholarship and used rhetoric, lies and generalisations to debunk all that the Orientalist scholars had argued. Unsupported assertions and errors jostle with polemics of a rather unscholarly kind, according to Warraq, and lead the reader to an anti-Western bias that would perpetuate a school of thought injurious to the proper understanding of Western discourse. Verbal allusions, flowery language and analogies are used by which only the ignorant are deluded. Lists of books are mentioned without keeping in view coherence or their value to substantiate his thesis. Saids rejection of E.W. Lanes Arabic-English Lexicon and An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians is projected as an outright dishonest rejection of their established scholarly substance, which is to this day acknowledged by Arabic scholars.

Now that Said is no more, it becomes convenient to critique him; no polemics with him are now possible. To counter Warraqs thesis, one could argue that in Saids writings it becomes obvious how Western cultures totalising perspective came to be shaken. History as the product of the single undifferentiated subject or the limited masters viewpoint stood challenged. It is apparent that all institutional backing of cultural chauvinism was employed as a political strategy for the enhancement of power. We are, therefore, alerted to the constructed character of meaning and the paradigm of Western Civilisation, which stands from the 19th century onwards as the transhistorical region with exclusionary connotations whereby the East is always an opposition to the European elitist standing.

Said drew attention to the hegemonic position of the centre as well as the question of mimesis and the sophisticated rhetorical strategies used by imperial nations. Over all, there is an indication that the racialisation of the term Western began with the colonisation of Egypt, China and India; it was admitted by the imperial powers that other civilisations did exist especially when they came across developed forms of art and philosophy. To a great extent Hegel, in his lectures on the Philosophy of History, was responsible for giving authenticity to the false belief that there existed a hierarchy of civilisations, the West being the culmination of development. History, according to him, moved from the East to West, for Europe is the absolute end of history. Africa stood excluded from any contribution to history for him; as far as India and China went, he took them as rather static cultures left behind in historys progressive westward move, which he modelled on the Westward migrations of the Aryan tribes, with the Germanic people playing a special role, as the carriers of the highest manifestations of the divine spirit.

Silvia Federici emphasised in her essay The Origins and Crises of Western Civilisation that this school of thought is further corroborated by theories on philology which stated that European languages had originated in the East. Herder, Schlegel and then Hegel held this common and abiding view. Civilisation became synonymous with Western, marked by goodness, superiority and moral resolve as opposed to the other or the savage.

The contribution made by science to the havoc of the First World War along with the rise of nationalism and anti-colonial agitation around the world led to the consolidation of the idea of Western civilisation. On the other hand, the undermining of the universalist claims once made by liberal humanists resulted in the recognition and validity of other cultures. Nevertheless, the timeless and universal significance of Western philosophy or European literature meant the demotion or disregard of non-Western cultures as well as social, regional and national differences in experience and outlook. It would be rather narrow to judge anything by a single, supposedly universal, standard.

This universalism stands rejected, especially with the questioning of Western values, as is clear with many nations, especially Germany, moving towards the desire to know and learn from Eastern religions and philosophy. Science, technology and reason had let them down. The conflict between these followers of the Eastern mode of thinking that saw the demise of the West and the adherents of a right-wing Nazism that defended the idea of Western superiority became intense during the period after the war.

T.S. Eliot, Herman Hesse and Romain Rolland were among those who saw the rise of the Asiatic culture and mysticism that opposed the gross pursuit of materialism as the only saviour of a fatigued Europe. Many would turn to Bolshevism and its idea of collectivism, which opposed the Western defence of individualism. Scientific rationalism stood in a defensive mood against Oriental mysticism. A further blow to Europe came with the rise of American capitalism; international capitalism was no longer controlled from Europe. This undermined the bourgeoisie identification of the goals of civilisation with those of European culture. International politics and economic dominance would be from now on in the hands of the U.S. more than Europe. And recently, with the rise of Asian economies, the supremacy of Western civilisation again stands challenged.

The anti-Said discourse, which rises in its tempo in the West, is, therefore, only a single-dimensional critique motivated with a desire to play down the significance of a truth that was for long kept under cover. It goes to Saids credit that he incited a debate in the academic world of history and fiction that questioned any objectivity masqueraded by Western Orientalists. Warraqs thesis must therefore be taken with a pinch of salt.

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