A Predatory Orientalism: What Went Wrong?



Cover: Book by Prof. Edward Said.

In an earlier era, before the Zionist movement descended on the heads of unsuspecting Palestinians, the least bigoted voices in the field of Oriental studies were often those of European Jews.

At a time when most Orientalists took Muhammad for a scheming imposter, equated Islam with fanaticism, denigrated the Qur'an as a crude and incoherent text, and claimed that the Arabs were incapable of abstract thought, Jewish scholars of Islam often took opposite positions. They accepted the sincerity of Muhammad's mission, described Arabs as "Jews on horseback," viewed Islam as an evolving faith that is more democratic than other religions, and debunked Orientalist claims about an unchanging Islam and a dynamic West.

Ironically, these pro-Islamic Jews did not escape the voracious interest of Bernard Lewis, the leader of the new Zionist Orientalists. In a 1993 essay, he writes that they "were among the first who attempted to present Islam to European readers as Muslims themselves see it and to stress, to recognize, and indeed sometimes to romanticize the merits and achievements of Muslim civilization in its great days." It would appear that these Jews were anti-Orientalists long before Edward Said.

These contrarian positions had their origin in a variety of motives. Even as the Jews began entering the European mainstream, starting in the nineteenth century, they were still outsiders, only recently emerged from the confinement of ghettos, and it would be scarcely surprising if they were seeking to maintain their distinctiveness by emphasizing, and identifying with, the achievements of another Semitic people, the Arabs. In celebrating Arab civilization, these Jewish scholars were perhaps sending a non-too-subtle message to Christian Europe that their civilization was not unique, that Islamic achievements often excelled theirs, and that Europeans were building upon the achievements of their adversaries in science and philosophy. In addition, their discussions of religious and racial tolerance in Islamic societies, towards Jews in particular, may have offered hope that this was attainable in Europe too. It may also have been an invitation to Europeans to incorporate religious and racial tolerance into their standards of civilizations.

Yet the vigor of this early anti-Orientalism of Jewish scholars would not last; it would not survive the logic of the Zionist movement as it sought to create a Jewish state in Palestine. Such a state could only emerge as the bastard child of imperialist powers, and it could only come into existence by displacing the greater part of the Palestinian population, by incorporating them into an apartheid state, or through some combination of the two. In addition, once created, Israel could only survive as a militarist, expansionist, and hegemonic state, constantly at war with its neighbors.

In other words, once the Zionist project entered into its implementation phase after 1918, it was inevitable that the European Jews' attraction for Islam was not going to endure. In fact, it would be replaced by a bitter contest, one in which the Jews, as junior partners of the imperialist powers, would seek to deepen the Orientalist project in the service of Western power. Bernard Lewis played a leading part in this reorientation. In the words of Martin Kramer, a Zionist Orientalist himself, Bernard Lewis "came to personify the post-war shift from a sympathetic to a critical posture."

Ironically, this shift occurred when many Orientalists had begun to shed their Christian prejudice against Islam, and several were making amends for the excesses of their forebears. Another factor aiding this shift towards a less polemical Orientalism was the entry of a growing number of Arabs, both Muslims and Christians, into the field of Middle Eastern studies. The most visible upshot of these divergent trends was a polarization of the field of Middle Eastern studies into two opposing camps.

One camp, consisting mostly of Christians and Muslims, has labored to bring greater objectivity to their study of Islam and Islamic societies. They seek to locate their subjects in the matrix of history, see Islamic societies as adjusting to the challenges posed by the West, neither innately hostile to the West and Western values, nor trapped in some unchanging obscurantist mindset. The second camp, now led mostly by Jews, has reverted to Orientalism's original mission of subordinating knowledge to Western power, now filtered through the prism of Zionist interests. This Zionist Orientalism has assiduously sought to paint Islam and Islamic societies as innately hostile to the West, and to modernism, democracy, tolerance, scientific advance, and women's rights.

This Zionist camp has been led for more than fifty years by Bernard Lewis, who has enjoyed an intimate relationship with power that would be the envy of the most distinguished Orientalists of an earlier generation. He has been strongly supported by a contingent of able lieutenants, whose ranks have included the likes of Leonard Binder, Elie Kedourie and David Pryce-Jones. There are many foot-soldiers too who have provided distinguished service to this new Orientalism. And no compendium of these foot-soldiers would be complete without the names of Daniel Pipes, Martin Kramer, Thomas Friedman, Martin Peretz, Norman Podhoretz, Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol and Judith Miller.

I try to visualize an encounter between these new Orientalists and some of their eminent predecessors like Hienrich Heine, Abraham Geiger, Gustav Weil, Franz Rosenthal, and the great Ignaz Goldziher. What would these pro-Islamic Jews have to say to their descendents whose Orientalism denigrates and demeans the societies they study and who work to incite a civilizational war between Islam and the West? Would Geiger and Goldziher embrace Lewis and Kedourie, or would they be repelled by their new predatory Orientalism?

M. Shahid Alam teaches Economics at Northeastern University. His recent book, Poverty from the Wealth of Nations, was published by Palgrave (2000). Copyright: M. Shahid Alam.


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  18 Comments   Comment

  1. Charles Jacks from USA

    Please be aware that John Norman is an Internet Troll. Such people get their jollies dragging bait through conversations trying to catch people. They are the internets equivalent to "contrary illuminaries" that try to inject anger and hate into any conversation. And for all I know one could be ridding John's forebrain injecting opiates into it anytime he catches a fish. The poor sap is probably quite addicted to the behavior by now. The thing to note is that those that respond to him in kind are likely candidates to be ridden that way as well. It spreads like a virus destroying mental and moral health.

    The way to deal with such things is as an object lesion in how not to act and as a counter example to that which is better. Their lack of original behavior makes them predictable and with a little practice one can be played like a two part harmony on a piano (example and counter example). Why do you think The Creator created the devil? Not only to test but to teach. Who watches the watchers, John?

    As Muslims we must train our brains to 1: recognize the tricks of the tempters and 2: use the recognition to teach that which is better. Once we have practiced this we can not only keep ourselves from being caught but can use them to spread understanding. We must make ourselves temptation proof by learning to recognize and meet temptation with that which is better. That should be the initial goal of every Muslim. To protect and serve.

    Practice, practice, practice. What you practice you become.

  2. Abdur Razzaq from usa

    Let us clear one thing up! While the ayat of the Qur'an are clear in there command to fight the Jihad UNDER THE APPROPRIATE CIRCUMSTANCES (the existence of an amir, the ability to be successful, etc)the historical context for warfare in Islam is not simply murder and bloodshed. The original expansion of Islam were initiated by written overtures. But due to the hostilities of some arab tribes (like the Ghassanides), the Jews in and around Medinah, and threats from both the Roman and Persian empires, the small Muslim state had no other recourse but to begin "pre-emptive strikes" (hum ... that sounds familiar) against these people before they themselves attacked to the Muslims. As it spread, it was clear that Islam was and is the best solution for all people, especially at that time. So let us compare...the US had to fight the overwhelming forces of the british to attain freedom and peace. The they fought to expand the influence in "their New World" by fighting the French, the Native americans and Mexicans. That sounds familiar.

    Israel fought Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Palestinian "rebels" to secure its freedom and security. Then usurps land from the Palestinians, Syrians, Jordanians, and Egyptians for its settlements. Hey that sounds familiar too.

    The ignorance of the American public is appalling but it is partly the fault of the Muslims, yaa Ikhwan wa Akhawaat, for not going out and giving daw'ah in both word and action - as true Eeman in in the heart, on the tongue, and in the actions of the limbs. We must arm ourselves with knowledge and taqwa, as historically, that has won more converts to Islam than any war.

    Jazaakullahu Khair.

  3. Hassan Juma from USA

    Of the foot soldiers, the most natable name that is absent is that of Dennis Prager, who masquerades as a clarifier of the differences between the civilizations but is in reality, a one sided unaaplogetic Zionist with an agendum of furthering the Jewish State under any circumstances.

  4. Gusti Phutu from Bali

    Obviously john norman haven't gain anything for frequenting this site...all those enlighting articles seems Greek to him.

  5. Montana Skies from USA

    John Norman's desperation makes me envisage a mountain climber who decided to tackle a mighty mountain then got stuck; neither can he come down nor can he continue, just stuck there on the barren sheer wall yelling and screaming but nobody pays attention. It's strange to feel sorry for a man who disseminates hate by playing up history's darkest spots and human -not Islam's- action rather than study the religion itself (study? Gee, that's too dangerous.)

    We should build interfaith bridges that collectively may bring peace to all of us; all monotheistic religions teach good things because, inherently, they emanate from the source of all goodness. I predict that John will die full of hate and bitterness -an unrepentant Scrooge who is stingy with his feelings (but then again, if he reserves his soft spots for the butchering Zionists, what could be said about these feelings?)

  6. Mokaddes Khan from USA

    I just want to give a short reply to the mail sent by Esther(USA). The Muslims invade Spain in 711AD. It was in response to the pleading of the Jews living there who were being severely oppresed by the Visigoth King who was suppported by the Roman Church. That was when General Tariq (for whom Gibraltar is named, as in, Jbeel Al Tariq aka the Mountain of Tariq or Rock of Gibraltar) landed with his forces from Morocco. And it was primarily with the help of the Jews(who were being oppresed) that the muslim army conqured Spain.

  7. Nazim Haqqani from US

    Kudos to Prof. Alam's article! I learned so much. Whoever told me that you could never learn enough on Islamicity was thoughtfully and absolutely right 🙂

  8. kam from EastAsia

    Atomic bomb itself was the typical example of 'a weapon of mass destruction' ...

    p/s: we use a different weapon ...

  9. Solomon Weiskop

    Professor Alam,

    Your characterization of Israel as a "bastard child" reveals a lack of serious objective scholarship on your part. This is not language appropriate to mature academic discourse. It is, rather, the language of political propaganda, which is most certainly what your article is.

  10. Charles Jacks from USA

    Some people consider the story of King Author to be nothing more than a cute story while in fact it is a story of bringing Britain out of the bronze age and into the iron age. The first person who could extract iron from ore (the rock) could create superior enough a weapon (the sword) to become a king. But the secret was reserved for someone with sufficient compassion and intelligence to rule varied peoples responsibly. Similarly, the Bible and Quran are best read from the perspective of a Supreme Intelligence attempting to teach initial humanity the principles of modern physics and cybernetics to prepare them for the task of being God's Gardeners. But you must be cognizant of the security concerns and cosmology (ancient definition) to appreciate humanities response so far.

    Statements like "with us or against us", "why do they hate us" and "what went wrong" are symptomatic of a selfish parochialism that dooms us all. We should not view our situation as a clash of civilizations but as cybernetic (self organizational) failures. In that framework we can understand how we got into this mess and more importantly how to get out. The Quranic prescription is symbiosis. It doesn't take advanced mathematics to understand where population pressures, depleted resources and advanced technologies that can be used as weapons will take us otherwise.

    The scientific models predict the number of humans to peak between 2030 and 2050 at around 10 to 12 billion after which it will decrease by over 50% by the end of the century. The more detailed the model the closer that decrease gets to 100%. The conditions necessary to create such a reduction will inevitably create social unrest(war). The meek may well inherit the earth but whether it will be able to sustain them is another question entirely. In the western way of war the first casualty is the environment followed quickly by infrastructure. Praise be to God we are taught not to imitate them. Remember we are God's Gardeners.

  11. Grendizer from UK

    A great article. The presence of so many crooked and opportunist individuals in the field of "orientalism" should be enough to alert any sincere person of its real aims and objectives.

    I'm not at all surprised to see jewish racist and bottom feeder john norman praising and defending this wicked institution with his usual litany of lies and half-truths.

    Seems the apple doesnt fall far from the tree.

  12. kam

    It is very obvious, the Arab's countries have plenty of oil reserve where the Iraq is the 2nd ...

    p/s: "in business, time is monies, monies can be made and lost, we mean business around the clock"

  13. Saif from England

    It should be borne in mind that the events that shaped these fluctions in intellectual expression were the great wars. The agendas of the orientalist arguments were always in the vested interests of individuals who in some cases lined themselvs with or in less favourable times against the prevalent governing power. The unique place Islam has in the world with regard to the requirements of it's peoples and the way they view the world is in the foundation of the creed and the purpose of the message. Intrinsic to that message is that sovreignty belongs to the creator alone and not the human mind. Hence the Islamic Laws when observed from it's basis do not lead to imperialist or dictatorial rule. This is understood only when people begin to question matters such as the existence of a creator, purpose of creation, way of life, justice and laws. Undoubtedly mankind is provoked to ask these questions by sheer instinct. So who can say they are implimenting justice when they are ruling through the arogance of coercion and force and time-dependent 'common sense', attributing the victor as representing all things which are good and the defeated as deserving the wrath of God as in the case of present day governments ?

  14. Asher Fawad from USA

    I am pleased to read this article as it has helped me be aware that there are orientalist who are writing books on Islam with the intent of maligning it. I read Bernard Lewis book "What went wrong?" and found it to be very fair. But I trusted the opinions of Bernard Lewis too quickly. From now on, I will read different works of orientalists before jumping to coclusions about their credentials.

  15. Charles Jacks from USA

    By the command of God, humanity was scattered hither and yond to cover the face of the earth. Viewed across time we see one or another advancing and receding, each pushing back the frontiers of knowledge in an area unique to their culture. We were made many people that we may know one another not that we might hate each other. The hater of humanity tries to get us to destroy each other by thinking of ourselves as superior and the others inferior. But the wise ones know that variety is not only the spice of life it is its strength. I did not understand the sequence of creation mentioned in Genesis until I read a report on the fossil record from a thermodynamic perspective. And I didn't understand the trust and the development of humanity in the Bible till I read the Quran. No man is an island unto themselves nor is any culture. We can not linger on the past as divisiveness but to the future as unity. One God, One humanity, filled with tinkers, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, teachers, solders ... some Christian, some Jew, some Muslim ...(to each people has been sent a prophet) in a web as complex as life itself as befits The Vast, The All Knowing, The Wise. The dispersement of Bable has ended not by command but because we have covered the face of the earth, that part has been fulfilled. But another beckons. Our knowledge and infrastructure is reaching critical mass. Some will use this toward humanities destruction others toward the development of tools and preparation of humanity to accept the trust. Which shall you be? Servant of life or destroyer of it. Both are predicted.

  16. Charles Jacks from USA

    Einstein's original equation was M=E/c^2 indicating that matter is actually energy in some constrained form. It is generally written E=Mc^2 to emphasize one can obtain energy by destroying matter. The Creator is a being of infinite energy ((AIU) An illustrative understatement) that took part of Its energy (infinite - finite leaves infinite) and constrained it into the matter-space-time complex we know as reality. If infinite energy were brought into our finite universe it would be like a super nova across the total volume of the universe (AIU) so "The Projector is not in the projection" and God uses angels (Beings of light (a (MIM) most illustrative metaphor)) to communicate and "meter down" the energy. God also created beings within the constrained region that are not as constrained as matter (Jinn (MIM "smokeless fire, searing wind")) that have confused humans because their will is not constrained. God also put the constrained energy into various forms: solid (MIM "earth"), liquid (MIM "water"), gass (MIM "air") and plasma (MIM "fire"). But there is a special form that is a combination (clay) of these: organic (MIMs "wood", "humus"). From this organic form God created humus beings - humans and others. We can elect (and did) to form a layer (rank) in the communication process to the rest of the clay, wood and earth (sorry for using multiple language origins). We form the bridge between the spiritual (non corporeal) and the matter (corporeal) for we have components of all of them: soul (from God), angelic (recording, reminding, protecting...), jinn (test, trial and even teach) and matter (body, senses ...). We are thereby uniquely qualified for this trust if we will align our will with The Best of Planners. And we can grow into being kalifia (representatives), christs (anointed messengers), takhdim (servants) and, most importantly, humans. (MIM) There is no god but The Creator, and nothing else worthy of worship. Don't get sidetracked. United we stand, divided we fall.

  17. john norman from uk

    One wonders how a civilisation that murdered 5000 defenceless Jews in Grandada in 1066, for example, or 1.500.000 Armenians in Turkey or butchered its way across India could be called tolerant. If that was tolerance then the word has been eviscerated and no longer means what it is supposed to mean.

    It could be argued that those earlier Jewish Orientalists were at pains to point out Christian Europe's deficencies viv-a-vis the Jews with the hope of securing Jewish equality and that the "Orient" or Islam was a useful tool to use. In the process, and whatever the purpose of their "Orientalism", they deigned to turn a blind eye to Islam's intolerance. That they should have done so after 1860, when Druze and Muslim intolerance turned Lebanon into a living hell for the Christian population, speaks volumes for their manipulation of facts and history.

  18. Esther from USA

    I doubt the Jews hate Muslims. After all they are from the Middle East. Because of this they have culture things in common with the people of the Middle East. For one they write their beautiful writing right to left. Islam does promot the family, and moral values. So I don't see why anyone would hate Islam. However, back then the Muslims did use military force. One needs to keep in mind that before the Crusades and Spainish Inquisition that the Muslims started to invade Europe. Early in 711 AD they invaded Spain. Even after the Crusades and the Inquisition they invaded Europe.