Edward Said closed one of his last published essays with the lines: “We are in for many more years of turmoil and misery in the Middle East, where one of the main problems is, to put it as plainly as possible, U.S. power. What the U.S. refuses to see clearly it can hardly hope to remedy.”
Said’s frustration was obvious, but so too was the determination of the man Salman Rushdie once said “reads the world as closely as he reads books.” No one worked harder and longer than Said to awaken Americans to the damage their government’s policies had done to the prospects for peace and justice in the Middle East. It cannot be said that he succeeded in that mission, but nor can it be said that he failed. If successive presidents refused to listen to Said’s wise counsel, millions of citizens were influenced directly and indirectly by his speeches, writing and tireless advocacy. To the extent that there has been a broadening of sympathy for the cause of Palestine and Palestinians in the United States in recent years — especially among younger Americans — it can be traced in no small measure to the work of the world-renowned scholar, author, critic and activist who has died Thursday at age 67 after a long battle with leukemia.
Born in 1935 in British-ruled Palestine, and raised in Egypt, Said came to the United States as a student. He would eventually become a professor at Columbia University and the author of internationally acclaimed books on literature, music, culture and imperialism. His groundbreaking 1978 book, Orientalism, forced open a long-delayed and still unfinished debate about Western perceptions of Islam.
Said was horrified by the ignorance and distrust of Islam, Arabs and, in particular, of Palestinians that he found in the United States. “Every empire… tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate. These ideas are by no means shared by the people who inhabit that empire, but that hasn’t prevented the U.S. propaganda and policy apparatus from imposing its imperial perspective on Americans, whose sources of information about Arabs and Islam are woefully inadequate,” Said wrote in July. “Several generations of Americans have come to see the Arab world mainly as a dangerous place, where terrorism and religious fanaticism are spawned and where a gratuitous anti-Americanism is inculcated in the young by evil clerics who are anti-democratic and virulently anti-Semitic.”
Said bemoaned the “blind imperial arrogance” of the United States and argued that, “Underlying this perspective is a long-standing view — the Orientalist view — that denies Arabs their right to national self-determination because they are considered incapable of logic, unable to tell the truth and fundamentally murderous.”
Echoing the concern he had expressed for many years, Said reminded his American readers that, “Since Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, there has been an uninterrupted imperial presence based on these premises throughout the Arab world, producing untold misery — and some benefits, it is true. But so accustomed have Americans become to their own ignorance and the blandishments of U.S. advisors like Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, who have directed their venom against the Arabs in every possible way, that we somehow think that what we do is correct because “that’s the way the Arabs are.” That this happens also to be an Israeli dogma shared uncritically by the neo-conservatives who are at the heart of the Bush administration simply adds fuel to the fire.”