An Introduction to Edward Said

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Students, Teachers, and Edward Said: Taking Stock of Orientalism Since the publication of Orientalism in 1978, Edward Said's critique has become the hegemonic discourse of Middle Eastern studies in the academy. While Middle Eastern studies can improve, and some part of Said's criticism is valid, it is apparent that the Orientalism critique has done more harm than good. Although Said accuses the West and Western researchers of "essentializing" Islam, he himself commits a similar sin when he writes that Western researchers and the West are monolithic and unchanging. Such a view delegitimizes any search for knowledge--the very foundation of the academy. One of Said's greatest Arab critics, Syrian philosopher Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, attacked Said for the anti-intellectualism of this view. Since German and Hungarian researchers are not connected to imperialism, Said conveniently leaves them out of his critique. Said also ignores the positive contribution that researchers associated with power made to the understanding of the Middle East. Said makes an egregious error by negating any Islamic influence on the history of the region. His discursive blinders--for he has created his own discourse--led him before September 11, 2001 to denigrate the idea that Islamist terrorists could blow up buildings and sabotage airplanes. Finally, Said's influence has been destructive: it has contributed greatly to the excessively politicized atmosphere in Middle Eastern studies that rejects a critical self-examination of the field, as well as of Middle Eastern society and politics. The study of the Middle East, or "Oriental studies," as this discipline was once referred to in the past, has faced increasing criticism since the 1960s by scholars both in the region and from the West. Indeed, in any comparison of the accomplishments of Middle Eastern studies with developments in the writing of European and American history, the former is found wanting, particularly in the area of methodology and in the subjects studied.[1] There are several reasons for Middle Eastern studies' relative stagnation; some have to do with the nature of historical sources in the Middle East, and others have to do with the development of the discipline, which had its beginnings in the philological tradition as a branch of learning that was not integrated in the wider discipline of history. Leading the charge of critics have been Edward Said's writings, and above all Orientalism (1978).[2] Indeed, academic scholarship on the Middle East has been profoundly altered by this book. Its success was a combination of several processes, including a great enthusiasm for the Third World in the American academy, increased criticism of America's policies following the Vietnam War,[3] and generational as well as ethnic changes in the research community--expressed mostly by the entrance of many new researchers of Middle Eastern origin to Western and especially U.S. institutions. Edward Said expressed the bitterness of academics toward previous research approaches and the United States itself. According to Martin Kramer, the Orientalism critique gave these researchers an apparent advantage over their Western colleagues, since they were, presumably, free from the limited Western ethnocentric perspective and could interpret and examine it in a more reliable way. This orientation was reinforced by the collapse of the modernization theory, which was perceived rightly as a reflection of an empirically flawed Western ethnocentric perception, and the rise of other theories in the field of social sciences, such as the dependency theory, which blamed most Third World problems on Western imperialism. Moreover, the development of historical and social science research proved that the traditional, philological method had been found wanting, and, at times, even misleading.[4] The purpose of this article is to analyze and put in perspective some of the debates which resulted from Said's book and its...
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