Resounding Silence

JLH has translated an essay about “Islamophobia” and “Orientalism” from the German weekly Die Zeit. It was written more than a week before the terror attack in Garland, Texas, but is uncannily relevant to last weekend’s events — and to the cordon sanitaire that has been put in place around Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller in the days since then.

Resounding Silence

by Volker Weis
April 25, 2015

Translation: JLH

At one time, critiquing religion was the foremost Marxist virtue. But the Western Left has nothing to say about the religious terror of Islamic fundamentalism.

In November 2014 the American filmmaker Ami Horowitz ventured an experiment. He stood on the campus at Berkeley — point of origin of the US Left — waving an IS banner. As he did that, he called out that the IS wanted peace and was merely defending itself against the aggression of the West. From the students came friendly nods and encouragement: “Thumbs up!” Only one criticism — to please not smoke on campus. Shortly afterward, he did the same thing with an Israeli flag, using the same mottos: Israel wanted peace and was only defending itself against attacks. He was answered with considerable aggression.

To be sure, Horowitz is a known polemicist. His works appear on neocon Fox News. His artistic model is Michael Moore, and that does not exactly obligate him to be objective. No doubt he has cut the material to fit his own purposes. And yet the students’ actions are authentic. Worse yet, they were to be expected.

Another example shows that this ignorance is not just an American problem. One month before Horowitz’ performance, the British umbrella organization of student groups, the National Union of Students, refused to condemn the terror militia IS. Reason: This could encourage ‘Islamophobia.” The distinctly progressive group’s decision was communicated by a young woman covered in conservative Islamic fashion. Participation in any commemoration of the Holocaust (and other genocides) was also rejected as “Eurocentric.” The British political science professor Alan Johnson wrote that the Left is no longer capable of distinguishing between fascism and anti-fascism.

This confusion also begets reactions to the shootings in Paris. Although the jihadists targeted Jews for murder, nothing is said on the left about anti-Semitism, but there are warnings against “Islamophobia”. Out of the fear of reproducing a “colonial paradigm,” there is hardly any criticism of Islamism.

It is hardly possible to write about this blind spot in today’s left, without naming the author who essentially formed its discourse on this subject: the Palestinian literary theoretician, Edward W. Said (d. 2003). After its appearance in 1978, his book Orientalism achieved a significance for the 68ers equal to Frantz Fanon’s The Damned of this Earth. Closely aligned to Michel Foucault, the Harvard- and Yale-educated Said revealed the various discursive elements with which the West had formed “the Orient” as its artifact. The goal of the West was the distinguishing of the Orient as the “cultural counterpart” of Europe, in order to justify colonialism. Beginning with Napoleon’s military campaign, Europe had produced “expanded and refined techniques of absorption,” the primary one being study of the Orient. Its description of those colonized, Said complained, “consistently corresponded more to the originating culture than to the purported result produced by the West.” For Said, the orientalist was at best a “hostile scout” and the “Orient” was a discursive creation of the colonial powers and the USA. This “Orientalism,” he said, was more powerful than the economic, military superiority of the West and had helped the West to form its own identity.

Said’s book was brilliantly written and extremely effective. With “Post-Colonial Studies,” it founded an entire new school, which resonated widely in higher education. The Western Left, especially, internalized Said’s theorems in solidarity with economically backward areas of the world. Many of the questions posed by Said were and are contemporary, and yet, today, Orientalism reads like something from another time.

Today, political Islam consciously presents a tableau of contents which would have had to be judged “orientalist” by Said himself. Islamic propaganda, however — with its demonization of Western modernity and secularism, as well as its demonstrative atrocities — does not stem from any Western attribution. It is the product of its own discourse on the construction of an Islamic self at the cost of the “others.” It is no longer travelogues and geo-strategic dossiers from foreign ministries which foist on the world the “stereotypical oriental depictions” and “standardized templates” that had caused Said so much pain. It is the Islamists themselves, who have proudly chosen an identity composed of humanistic nightmares.

As Said lamented in various ways, his Orientalism thesis “was interpreted in the Arab world as a systematic justification of Islam and Arabs.” The author struggled against such usurpations, but was too much a prisoner of the Arabic — especially the Palestinian — narrative, to effectively combat it. His origins in a Christian family did not immunize him against an equating of Orient and Islam. And so, his criticism of Western discourse became an “identity” weapon against “the West.” It has contributed to the fact that many Arabic and Western intellectuals in the universe of Post-Colonial Studies are now hardly capable of confronting the Islamist challenge.

And then, it was even possible to read Said subversively. His formulation that “Orientalism is a constituent and not merely a casual element of modern political-intellectual culture — and as such has less to do with the Orient itself than with ‘our’ world,” in turn invites the question of what inner deficits are actually indicated by the hatred of Islamists for “the West.” No one hit upon the idea of using Said’s methodology to analyze rampant Muslim anti-Semitism or the conspiracy theory-rife rhetoric of Middle Eastern regimes (into which Said himself now and then slips). Here is a statement that says nothing about the subject and everything about the speaker. The growing influence of fundamentalist interpretations of Islam (including its own colonizing tradition) should have long ago been investigated with reference to images of self and other. What do the rigid and pervasive sexual morality and the commandment of female covering say about Islamism and its proponents? What do its authoritarian order and grotesquely distorted representations of Western societies tell us?

Above all, the omnipresent argument of wounded religious feelings is itself a product of Orientalism. The appropriate Islamist recruiting videos do not present the jihadists as sensitive souls. These productions are shaped by a desire to style themselves as breaking with the conventions of civilization. You have representatives of equal rights? We sell slaves! You believe in the unseen hand of the economy? We’ll just chop it off! Against this background, the idea that a few drawings could insult these people is naïve.

In fact, the “scandals” of the recent past are not spontaneous upsurges of feeling, but a means of expressing cultural entitlement, as per Said’s own description. The case of Salman Rushdie or the first Muhammad cartoons became of interest to Muslims worldwide only when Islamic states and organizations began to orchestrate protests. The easily excitable masses, like the unpredictable terrorist threat, are political leverage both internally and externally. These applications of pressure operate in service of the orientalist cliché that Muslims function beyond political interests and require special consideration.

This role-playing has long since been carried to absurd lengths by the originally critical claim of Postcolonial Studies and its leftist devotees. Once upon a time, religious criticism was one of the most respectable virtues of the left. The entire Marxist alienation doctrine depends on the transfer of religious criticism to the realm of the economy. But there is now not even a shadow of the 19th-century polemics on religion as the “spirit of a mindless age.” And it is more needed now than ever.

12 thoughts on “Resounding Silence

  1. Another aspect to the ‘thinking’ as exposed in this article is that the ‘thinker’ seems to lack the ability – or simply flat out refuses to do so – to recognize mistakes and to then call out his/her thinking on them.

    Making mistakes is a simple human trait that if used as intended i.e. admitting to them, then one can learn about what life teaches.

  2. Methinks Marxists learned a thing or two about Islamic terrorism from (a) the Basmachi Rebellion in Central Asia; (b) Caucasus Mountaineers collaborating with the Nazis in World War II; (c) the violence Mao used in pacifying Gansu, Qinghai, Yunnan, and Xinjiang; (d) the Indonesia blowup in the ’60’s; (e) the Soviet War in Afghanistan.

    Further, the Marxists themselves were among those plugging _The Autobiography of the [hustler, punk, loon, admirer of slave hunters, professional hater] Malcolm X_as a classic in the USA, as well as naming the most depressed street in every town after him.

    • Actually, I think that street is generally called “Martin Luther King Boulevard”, at least in the towns I’m most familiar with.

  3. As for Said, his critique of Orientalism is one reason why he is a child of the Third World and the people he critiques belong to the First. He can only see a predatory, mean-hearted conspiracy in every instance of intellectual curiosity.

  4. I am not intellectually up to this. All I could think of was when they attacked Salman Rushdie I ran out and bought his book. Started it, but never read it, but it was the only thing I could think of to do back then.

    I want to bring Pam Geller here to Kansas, where she would be relatively safe.

  5. Carrying things to absurd lengths is to be expected of Marxism because the explanation for failure is never that there is a fundamental flaw with some part of Marxist “theory”. The explanation is always “we just didn’t go far enough.” This very clearly puts Marxist belief into the realm of faith rather than science.

    Marxist critical theory is only supposed to be applied to the bourgeoisie, never to the proletariat because, as we know, all of the problems of the proletariat are always caused by the bourgeoisie. Therefore it makes no sense to “punch down” as the light thinking devout Marxist religionist Gary Trudeau clearly stated from his articles of Marxist faith.

    The only exception to this is that critical theory must never apply to the Marxist members of the bourgeoisie either. After all, that would be like questioning the state religion, and the bourgeoisie Marxists might be forced to admit that they really aren’t members of the proletariat.

    So the key to avoiding criticism by Marxists (who are almost all now neo-Marxists, unaware that this is what they are) is to somehow get classified as part of the cultural proletariat. Islam is now considered part of the proletariat, therefore it is beyond criticism regardless of whether it’s considered a religion or not.

  6. With all due respect to Volker Weis, only a German or Frenchman would refer to Said as a “literary theoretician” and his fraudulent bloviating as “brilliantly written.” Germany, is after all the country where incomprehensible tautologists like Heidegger or warmed- over Marxists like Habermas are considered intellectual giants. As to Said, his popularity and influence are a measure of our “best and brightest’s” moral and intellectual bankruptcy, and not of Said’s own greatness.

    A few words about Said excerpted from one of my earlier articles at “GoV”:

    “All this and Said’s professorship of English and comparative literature at Columbia University could not have been attained had he not produced his celebrated books by perverting the history he knew and inventing the history he didn’t know — particularly the history of Western Civilization and the Middle East, his major subject. He also tampered with quotations, falsified translations, constructed incoherent arguments based on faulty methodology, ignored anthropology, sociology and psychology, ignored the bulk of Orientalism’s important literature because he didn’t know German, misrepresented the work of many scholars, and flung willy-nilly pejoratives, hyperbole, hysterical exaggerations and false imputations of racism and other guilt [12] — all in the holy cause of postmodernism’s jihad against whitey and his civilization, bolstered by his personal bile as a torch-bearing Arab living in an Israel-supporting Anglo country.

    Said credited his politics to his reading of Antonio Gramsci, Adorno, Foucault and Raymond Williams. Gramsci had been the inventor of the Cultural Marxism idea later perfected by the Frankfurt School; Adorno was a main pillar of the Frankfurt School alongside Marcuse; Foucault has been our subject here, and Williams was a Welsh New-Leftist communist. Said’s Orientalism (1978) was an application of the Gramscian concept of controlling hegemony in combination with the Foucauldian bla-bla of discourse and knowledge in the service of power.

    Said used that mélange to deconstruct and malign the West’s attitudes and interactions with the Arab or otherwise Muslim East. His particularly bizarre charge was that the academic study of Islam in the West has served as a tool of imperialist domination

    One of the most influential books of the last 50 years, ever since its publication Orientalism has been obligatory reading in every field of the arts and humanities where the Frankfurt School’s Critical Theory has any sway — which means all of them. Above all, it has fueled the field of postcolonial studies — one of those academic disciplines that grow in a society of spiritless capitalist surplus like mold does on leftovers from a sumptuous picnic. But the book is just an exercise of a misshapen pot calling a big, sturdy kettle black, though the pot be the blacker one by a factor of three [13].

    One could hardly deconstruct the Palestinian deconstructor’s famous book better than the erudite Ibn Warraq has done in his Defending the West [14]:

    ‘What makes self-examination for Arabs and Muslims , and particularly criticism of Islam in the West very difficult is the totally pernicious influence of Edward Said’s Orientalism. The latter work taught an entire generation of Arabs the art of self-pity — “were it not for the wicked imperialists, racists and Zionists, we would be great once more”- encouraged the Islamic fundamentalist generation of the 1980s, and bludgeoned into silence any criticism of Islam. [snip] The aggressive tone of Orientalism is what I have called ‘intellectual terrorism’, since it does not seek to convince by arguments or historical analysis but by spraying charges of racism, imperialism, Eurocentrism [snip]; anyone who disagrees with Said has insult heaped upon him.’

    A longtime contributor to the communist magazine The Nation, in 2001 Said published there an attack on old-school Harvard professor Samuel Huntington, whose “Clash of Civilizations” we reviewed earlier. Said titled it, “Clash of Ignorance”. What he writes there is beside the point; it’s a waste of time like anything this and other poststructuralists have written. More cogent and closer to the core of Reality is what Ross Douthat wrote about Said writing about Huntington:

    ‘There is something sad, truth be told, and a little desperate about Said’s essay: It reads like the flailings of an intellectual who realizes, too late, that history is passing him by. He lashes out indecorously, calling Huntington “a clumsy writer and inelegant thinker” — an odd accusation from a essayist [sic] whose prose often reads like something badly translated from an obscure Eastern European tongue.’

    Again, that desperate flailing of failed Marxism, in Said’s case channeled to power the threshing of a failed culture, Islam. The historian Richard Landes has argued that Said had deliberately misconstrued Islamic culture by ignoring its unique honor-and-shame aspects, demonizing studies of that culture that showed its “otherness” and cowing the entire Oriental Studies field into a position of academic fraud and politically correct disconnect from Reality.”

  7. It is difficult to think of a single book more destructive and more influential that Edward Said’s “Orientalism”. It is worth reading, or at least beginning, to get a sense of how flaccid and silly its reasoning is.

    The premise is that European perception and recording of the East (by which Said means the Arab-Muslim world, not East Asia) is a project aimed at a) making Europeans feel good about themselves and superior to the “other”; and b) serving the political aim of subjugating and exploiting the “East”. Seriously, he actually borrows from the, ideologically akin, gender discourse to assert that Orientalism depicts the “East” as weak, soft and feminine and the “West” as strong, hard and masculine. He uses those very terms.

    Orientalism is a very simplistic and mendacious book, dressed up with superficially intellectual bells and whistles to give the appearance of serious scholarship. There is nothing clever about it, let alone brilliant. That the Western academy embraced it says a great deal about the low grade of intellectual standards that has prevailed since the 1970’s. BTW His “Politics of Dispossession” is unreadable; he takes pages and pages to say what a stylish writer could say in a paragraph. One is very surprised to learn that English was his first language.

    In short Said and his Orientalism are the academic/scholarly equivalent of an affirmative action hire. Yeah, he and it are utter rubbish, (you can imagine the putative publisher saying to the commissioning editor who wants to turn it down), but we don’t have any other Arab scholars so we should just give him a break and pretend that what he’s written has some relevance, some bearing on the real world. You never know, people may just buy into it.

    Personally Said was a nasty, intolerant, sneering, dishonest, poseur: anybody that disagreed with him, no matter how decorously and politely argued (even those who were on his side in the Arab-Israeli conflict), got a face full of personal abuse and a lifetime of hatred.

  8. I first came across Said when I a read an interview with him were he, among other things, discussed Western media’s use of the phrase “Arab street” to describe popular sentiment in the Arab world. He said:

    “Let me tell you something about the word ‘street’. It’s used a great deal by Orientalists. There’s a kind of unconscious identification between the word ‘street’ in connection with the Arabs, and the late nineteenth and early twentieth century usage of the term ‘street Arab’. Street Arabs are vagrants. A lot of Victorian writing refers to people on the street, what we would call ‘street people’. Peddlers, panhandlers, and the like are frequently referred to as ‘street Arabs’. So I think referring to the ‘Arab street’ in this way suggests that these are riff-raff, the kind of unimportant flotsam and jetsam of a society which is basically made up of barbarians and subhuman people. I think it’s not an accident that this term is always used to talk about Arab public opinion.”

    So then I knew he was an idiot.

    • Yes, you’ll find late C19th literature and journalism just brimming with references to “Street Arabs”! Not.

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