The Bertrand Russell of Islam
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
As of last April, the late Edward Said's "Orientalism," originally published in
1978, was no. 2 on the best-seller list in Cairo. No. 1 was a book arguing that
Saddam Hussein hadn't really been executed all cell phone video evidence to
the contrary, the writer argued, was a fabrication of the CIA. Ibn Warraq, a
scholar of Islam and the author of the recently released "Defending the West: A
Critique of Edward Said's Orientalism," pointed out this macabre fact to me over
the phone as a sign of what went wrong with postcolonial studies the academic
field more or less founded by Said, which, in an effort to examine the
relationship of conqueror to conquered, placed a dime-store psychology of empire
at the center of every discussion of "East meets West." Not only did the British
and French colonize and expropriate the East, according to Said, their imperial
prejudice clouded their understanding of those they conquered. More than that,
they "invented" an entire sham epistemology, Said and his followers contend,
with which every Western observer has since approached the East and used to his
advantage in further colonizing and expropriating it. Said's legacy, however,
accomplished exactly what anyone professing sympathy with the Islamic world
should have wished to avoid, Mr. Warraq believes. That is, in defending the
virtue of traditional cultures, it gave that world a high-minded rationalization
for a persisting status quo of medievalism and intellectual poverty throughout
the Middle East.
"'Orientalism,'" Mr. Warraq writes, "taught an entire generation of Arabs the
art of self-pity
encouraged the Islamic fundamentalist generation of the
1980s, and bludgeoned into silence any criticism of Islam." Though it's Mr.
Warraq's plaint that the book "stopped dead the research of eminent
Islamologists who felt their findings might offend Muslims' sensibilities," it
is not merely an abstract charge, but personally felt. "Ibn Warraq" is an Arabic
pseudonym, meaning "son of a stationer, book-seller, paper-seller," which this
Indian-born writer assumed after witnessing the critical reception Islamists
gave Salman Rushdie, all the while claiming themselves as victims.
Said, Mr. Warraq argues, contributed to the Islamic ideology of victimization,
practically inviting offense by writing, "every European, in what he could say
about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally
ethnocentric." This sentence is repeated multiple times throughout "Defending
the West," which otherwise might have been titled "Not In My Name." Applying the
cool, thin steel of Occam to these and other follies of logic and critical
analysis, Mr. Warraq asks, "If Orientalists have produced a false picture of the
Orient, Orientals, Islam, Arabs, and Arabic society
then how could this false
or pseudo-knowledge have helped European imperialists to dominate three-quarters
of the globe?"
As with all theories that attempt to explain everything and end up explaining
little, Said's suffers from the added vice of being dangerous. "I delivered a
paper at the American Enterprise Institute two weeks ago on Robert Conquest,"
Mr. Warraq said. "I talked about Foucault. He made a complete ass of himself and
he refused to retract anything he said when he endorsed the revolution in Iran.
He was very much pro-Khomeini. When secularists wrote to him, he dismissed them
as inauthentic because they were too Westernized!"
Mr. Warraq's esteem for Conquest, the premier truth teller of Stalinism,
comports neatly with his defense of what he terms the three pillars of Western
thought: rationalism, self-criticism, and universalism. By Orientalism's lights,
these are mere masquerades for prejudice, hubris, and condescension
ironically, the very faults Mr. Warraq ascribes to Said and his epigones,
particularly when it comes to such an urgent question as Kurdish autonomy in
Iraq. "Anybody who wants to modernize must be a stooge of the imperialists," Mr.
Warraq said, paraphrasing their worldview. "Anyone who thinks rationally is
suspect. Foucault once said, '[Iranians] have a different regime of truth than
ours.' This is cultural relativism gone berserk. If anything is 'Orientalist' in
the pejorative sense, it is that."
In "Defending the West," Mr. Warraq catalogs Said's many solecisms and howlers
mistaking "scatological" for "eschatological," assuming the great Hungarian
Orientalist Ignaz Goldhizer to be German, ignorantly assigning territories to
the British and French imperiums that really belonged to the Ottoman one. But
his real aim is more ambitious still: to create a "parallel work
made up of
extracts from Western writers, scholars and travelers who were attracted by
various aspects of non-European cultures, which they praised and contrasted
favorably with their own decadence, bigotry, intolerance and bellicosity." In
this, Mr. Warraq excels like a latter-day Voltaire, compiling an exhaustive and
painstakingly researched "Encyclopedie" of the many humanist European surveyors
of the East. In a series of illuminating pen portraits, he shows that the West
very often exalted the "rest."
Mr. Warraq starts with the color-blind, cosmopolitan Greeks. The ancient
inhabitants of the island of Chios thought Zeus was black. Herodotus was an
unabashed philobarbaros. Aeschylus rendered Darius tragically and
sympathetically for the theater, and Alexander the Great, who intermarried and
encouraged the practice among his soldiery, had the Persian king's actual corpse
wrapped in his own cloak as a gesture of respect for a vanquished opponent. The
Greco-Bactrians of Eurasia believed they came to India with the descendants of
Dionysus. Even the Dark Ages allow rarely glimpsed shafts of light. Isidore of
Seville (560-636) "introduced Aristotle to his countrymen before the Arabs,"
whom Adelard of Bath, in the 12th century, credited with having the best
critical faculties of any race of man. In the Renaissance, the Muslim
philosophers Averroes and Avicenna were read compulsively in Padua and Bologna,
not least of all by Pico della Mirandola.
Antiquity had the basic philosophical underpinnings right, Mr. Warraq writes,
but the Enlightenment broadened man's scope and gave him a secular, scientific
basis for the study of natural law. Indeed, as a proud atheist, the author of
"Why I Am Not a Muslim," and an anthologist of several books devoted to Muslim
apostasy and exegesis of the Koran, Mr. Warraq would happily color himself an
"Enlightenment fundamentalist," to borrow Timothy Garton Ash and Ian Buruma's
shared animadversion on Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Mr. Buruma had problems with Said's methodology and is cited approvingly in
"Defending the West," so I was curious to hear what Mr. Warraq thought of his
treatment of the Somali dissident. "[Buruma] wrote a disgraceful book full of an
incredible number of errors blaming the victim for bringing it all on herself."
And what about Tariq Ramadan, the "moderate" Islamic philosopher, son of the
Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, who is Buruma's preferred dragoman
for liberal Europe? Mr. Warraq debated him in London last month on the question
of the superiority of Western values. "When [Ramadan] gives interviews in
English, he's incredibly evasive. He's not the kind of guy I'd buy a secondhand
car from. If you ask him, 'Do you think lapidation for adultery should be
banned?,' he never says 'yes' categorically. He says things such as, 'At this
moment, it is not applicable' or 'it is not advisable.' Always this
Mr. Warraq's beef with Said, however, is more a matter of reductionism than
prevarication: that "Orientalism" misses two crucial points about human nature
in its discussion of relations between East and West. The first is that even the
worst offenders aren't always motivated by bigotry or grand imperial designs.
The second is that the institutions they erect are often more significant and
enduring than their venality and greed.
Mr. Warraq praises the British of the 18th and 19th centuries for their role
shepherding India's cultural renewal not to mention in combating the
corruption of British colonialism. Edmund Burke led the moral and legislative
charge against Warren Hastings, the notorious head of the East India Company.
James Prinsep, a secretary of the celebrated Asiatic Society of Bengal, drained
the malarial swamps of Calcutta, restored the collapsing mosque of Aurangzeb
stone by stone, and discovered that once-indecipherable rock inscriptions were
made by the Mughal emperor Asoka Maurya. Mr. Warraq relies on several modern
Indian historians, such as A.L. Basham and Nirad Chaudhuri, to emphasize the
great esteem in which British Orientalists are still held men such as Henry
Thomas Colebrooke, who agitated for the end of the East India Company's monopoly
and composed a systematic study of Sanskrit and Hindu law as well as the only
authoritative analysis of the Veda; Sir William Jones, the "father of Indian
history" and one of the early discoverers of the Indo-European linguistic nexus
(he thought Sanskrit "more exquisitely refined" than Latin or Greek), and
William Carey, the "father of Bengali prose," who single-handedly restored a
Mr. Warraq is no admirer of the "clash of civilizations" thesis, and as if to
prove his own point about self-criticism he says he absorbed a lot of the
negative feedback on "Why I Am Not a Muslim." This is why, in the current
volume, he employs a useful tripartite distinction of Islam borrowed, he says,
from Bernard Lewis: Islam One is the Koran, Islam Two is the hadith, or oral
tradition relating to the words and deeds of the prophet, and Islam Three is
Muslim civilization, which is as variegated as it is large. One and two, Mr.
Warraq says, are incompatible with democracy and human rights. As for three,
"many Muslim feminists try to re-interpret or ignore Koranic passages in order
to improve the lives of all Muslim women. Only time will tell if such strategies
will work." Mr. Warraq tells me: "We're not going to eradicate Islam from the
face of the earth, and I have no wish for it to be
Islam Three is going to
require a lot of sociological and empirical research. One has to be careful when
we talk about Islam, one has to be more specific." This is a courtesy Said
botched, or simply failed to accord, in his examination of the West.
Mr. Weiss is a contributor to Slate, the Weekly Standard, and the New Criterion.
GS Don Morris, Ph.D. at