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Defending the West: A Critique of Edward…
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Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said's… (utgåvan 2007)

av Ibn Warraq (Författare)

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782261,578 (3.73)1
This is the first systematic critique of Edward Said's influential work, Orientalism, a book that for almost three decades has received wide acclaim, voluminous commentary, and translation into more than fifteen languages. Said's main thesis was that the Western image of the East was heavily biased by colonialist attitudes, racism, and more than two centuries of political exploitation. Although Said's critique was controversial, the impact of his ideas has been a pervasive rethinking of Western perceptions of Eastern cultures, plus a tendency to view all scholarship in Oriental Studies as tainted by considerations of power and prejudice. In this thorough reconsideration of Said's famous work, Ibn Warraq argues that Said's case against the West is seriously flawed. Warraq accuses Said of not only willfully misinterpreting the work of many scholars, but also of systematically misrepresenting Western civilization as a whole. With example after example, he shows that ever since the Greeks Western civilization has always had a strand in its very makeup that has accepted non-Westerners with open arms and has ever been open to foreign ideas. The author also criticizes Said for inadequate methodology, incoherent arguments, and a faulty historical understanding. He points out, not only Said's tendentious interpretations, but historical howlers that would make a sophomore blush. Warraq further looks at the destructive influence of Said's study on the history of Western painting, especially of the 19th century, and shows how, once again, the epigones of Said have succeeded in relegating thousands of first-class paintings to the lofts and storage rooms of major museums. An extended appendix reconsiders the value of 18th- and 19th-century Orientalist scholars and artists, whose work fell into disrepute as a result of Said's work.… (mer)

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I admit that I have never read Edward Said's Orientalism, but references and arguments that draw from that work have definitely trickled down into many articles and comment flame wars that I am quite familiar with. Colonialist representations of Eastern cultures and peoples as weak, static, passive and feminized for the purposes of implying inferiority and justifying subjugation are facts that can be attested. One need simply consider something as banal as the Tintin comic books and their portrayal of black Africans. But even while Orientalism is probably onto something in its breakdown of offensively stereotypical depictions of the East, the debatable point is whether Said's rather reductionist theory holds true for even the great majority of "Orientalist" work; whether nearly all Western engagement with the East can (rather ahistorically, the criticism goes) be attributed to colonial and racist malice.

I believe that Ibn Warraq's critique makes an almost unassailable case that Said's central thesis is nowhere near as universally applicable to Western depictions of the East as it is made out to be. The author extensively describes - so there can be no doubt as to the force of his arguments - examples of Orientalists who had genuine sympathy, passion and love for the cultures they studied. They often contended with colonialist powers on behalf of natives, and many endured great personal and financial hardship in order to carry out their work. These Orientalists - whether linguists, historians, painters or archeologists - are respected and appreciated by modern Eastern scholars, who acknowledge the Westerners' contributions and even thank them for the cultural and academic revivals that succeeded them - e.g. the Bengali Renaissance, which Warraq devotes considerable attention to. He mentions entire schools of Orientalists - for example the German school - that could impossibly be said to have colonialist ambitions or malicious motives. He notes the popularity of Orientalist paintings among Arab collectors, and tracks the history of Western openness to the "Other" from antiquity to modern times. All in all, he makes a good case for Orientalist pursuits and provides a much-needed counterpoint to Said's unbalanced and even pernicious rhetoric. He raises valid questions as to the methodology of Said and his followers (most notably Nochlin, who is subjected to very severe criticism, though not unfairly, I believe) and the book is well-sourced and based on quite extensive research.

However, it's important to remember that Defending the West is meant as a kind anti-Orientalism, hence it is skewed toward positive examples of Orientalists* and toward fair or sympathetic depictions of Easterners by said Orientalists. This is not really a criticism, since the book itself makes its nature abundantly clear, but I fear Ibn Warraq often frames his defense in very conclusive terms, and never recognizes any instance in which Said's theory holds true. There is no real acknowledgement of the racism and chauvinism that did in fact exist and no attempt to add nuance to the exclusively positive spin given on Orientalism.

Part of this bias also stems from the fact of Ibn Warraq's worldview - a devotion to the arts and sciences as the ultimate good, as humanity's raison d'être. He waxes lyrical (it is quite touching, really; I felt inspired to become an academic) about the glories of human achievement, the ennobling quest for knowledge for the sake of knowledge and the unassailable morality of his Orientalist subjects. Part of his narrative seeks to vindicate Western atheism/secular humanism as morally superior to other worldviews, which I think leads to some unfortunate pronouncements - such as the assertion that the audiences of Wagner concerts are vastly more spiritual than believers who seek deities in order to be healed of physical infirmities or otherwise aided in their lives. The problem is not so much the contention itself, but the arrogant certainty with which it is pronounced and the lack of insight into religious devotion and the many intersecting motivations behind it. To be fair, Warraq sometimes shows admiration for religion, but mostly in terms of certain philosophical or artistic achievements that he approves of. Too often, he assumes his worldview to such an extent that he does not seek to argue or develop even quite contentious points.

Here again, although I disagree with the author's convictions, it is his delivery that bothers me and that I wish to criticize. Defending the West often isn't sure whether it is a source of levelheaded analysis to balance out rabid Saidism or a polemical work advancing a particular philosophical vision. Small jabs and biased comments get a pass from me, as does the singling out of Islam for criticism (e.g. the section on slavery) since Warraq is a Muslim apostate, but what I found inexcusable was the following rant: Chapter 8: The Pathological Niceness of Liberals, Antimonies, Paradoxes, and Western Values. This chapter simply doesn't belong in the book, not because its claims are necessarily false, but because they are so sweeping and so subjective that their defense requires much more than the brief but blustering tirade that was this chapter. It jumped from topic to topic, making bold assertions as mere afterthoughts and generally departing from the largely respectful and scholarly tone of the rest of the work. It made a very bad impression and injected the book with an unnecessary dose of "opinionated jerk". I don't mind scholarly endeavor being colored by personal conviction, since pure objectivity is mythical, but chapter 8 crossed a line in terms of gratuitous subjectivity.

Addressing form, the quality of the writing in Defending the West is not bad, although not exceptional either. It is often a strange mixture of ironic jabs or impassioned language and very dry, encyclopedic run-downs that I found myself almost skimming. Chapters and sections often end rather abruptly without unifying conclusions and are structured in a less-than-obvious manner. Generally, however, the prose has a decent flow and the subject matter is of sufficient interest render the book quite engrossing. Its real problem is that Warraq tries to address far too many topics and struggles to structure them cohesively. Defending the West is at times an encyclopaedia, at times an essay, at times a textbook. Neither form nor substance are consistent throughout the entire work.

One thing I do appreciate is Ibn Warraq's point of view as a non-Westerner, which should deflect the standard accusations of racism, colonialism, privilege, etc. He highlights the variety of opinion on Orientalism among "Orientals" themselves and points out that Said and his ilk engage in a lot of the stereotyping and homogenization of Easterners that they supposedly condemn. He astutely remarks on Said's essentialization of the West, his (more than) occasional incoherence and his purely theoretical and ideological framework that does not accord much value to empirical evidence. In the spirit of Western self-criticism, Warraq also rightly points out the egregious racism that is not only tolerated, but completely normalized in many non-Western countries. Few non-Western nations are willing to self-criticize and soberly assess their culture, history and society, and I definitely agree that this is one of the most noble features of Western civilization.

As an overall assessment, Defending the West is fair and justified as a criticism of Said, but rather flawed in structure and tone; a necessary counterpoint to Orientalism that nevertheless remains ideologically charged and only presents the positive examples of East-West relations.

*The term "Orientalist" is used rather loosely by both Said and Warraq. It refers to the historical Orientalists of the 19th century, but also generally to Westerners who take interest in and study Eastern cultures, regardless of the time period. ( )
  bulgarianrose | Mar 13, 2018 |
A Muslim apostate takes on Said's Orientalism, standing up for the values of western civilization that he feels have allowed him (and Said) to have the freedom to speak their mind. He suggests that without western civilization's tolerance and acceptance, Said would not have the ability to speak out in criticism of the west, and become such a big name. A valuable corrective to the claim that it is always the west that is wrong, and a great deal of food for thought. ( )
  Devil_llama | Apr 26, 2011 |
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This is the first systematic critique of Edward Said's influential work, Orientalism, a book that for almost three decades has received wide acclaim, voluminous commentary, and translation into more than fifteen languages. Said's main thesis was that the Western image of the East was heavily biased by colonialist attitudes, racism, and more than two centuries of political exploitation. Although Said's critique was controversial, the impact of his ideas has been a pervasive rethinking of Western perceptions of Eastern cultures, plus a tendency to view all scholarship in Oriental Studies as tainted by considerations of power and prejudice. In this thorough reconsideration of Said's famous work, Ibn Warraq argues that Said's case against the West is seriously flawed. Warraq accuses Said of not only willfully misinterpreting the work of many scholars, but also of systematically misrepresenting Western civilization as a whole. With example after example, he shows that ever since the Greeks Western civilization has always had a strand in its very makeup that has accepted non-Westerners with open arms and has ever been open to foreign ideas. The author also criticizes Said for inadequate methodology, incoherent arguments, and a faulty historical understanding. He points out, not only Said's tendentious interpretations, but historical howlers that would make a sophomore blush. Warraq further looks at the destructive influence of Said's study on the history of Western painting, especially of the 19th century, and shows how, once again, the epigones of Said have succeeded in relegating thousands of first-class paintings to the lofts and storage rooms of major museums. An extended appendix reconsiders the value of 18th- and 19th-century Orientalist scholars and artists, whose work fell into disrepute as a result of Said's work.

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