Impossible Histories: Why the Many Islams Cannot be Simplified”

Impossible Histories: Why the Many Islams Cannot be Simplified”

by Edward Said

Harper’s, July 2002

———— ——— ——— ——— ——— ——— –

Discussed in this essay:
Islam: A Short History, by Karen Armstrong. Modern Library, 2000. 222
pages. $19.95.

What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, by
Bernard Lewis. Oxford University Press, 2002. 180 pages. $23.

———— ——— ——— ——— ——— ——— –

The history of trying to come to terms with this somewhat
fictionalized (or at least constructed) Islam in Europe and later in
the United States has always been marked by crisis and conflict,
rather than by calm, mutual exchange. There is the added factor now
of commercial publishing, ever on the lookout for a quick bestseller
by some adept expert that will tell us all we need to know about
Islam, its problems, dangers, and prospects. In my book Orientalism,
I argued that the original reason for European attempts to deal with
Islam as if it were one giant entity was polemical—that is, Islam was
considered a threat to Christian Europe and had to be fixed
ideologically, the way Dante fixes Muhammad in one of the lower
circles of hell. Later, as the European empires developed over time,
knowledge of Islam was associated with control, with power, with the
need to understand the “mind” and ultimate nature of a rebellious and
somehow resistant culture as a way of dealing administratively with
an alien being at the heart of the expanding empires, especially
those of Britain and France.

During the Cold War, as the United States vied with the Soviet Union
for dominance, Islam quickly became a national-security concern in
America, though until the Iranian revolution (and even after it,
during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) the United States followed
a path of encouraging and actually supporting Islamic political
groups, which by definition were also anti-Communist and tended to be
useful in opposing radical nationalist movements supported by the
Soviets. After the Cold War ended and the United States became
the “world’s only superpower,” it soon became evident that in the
search for new world-scale, outside enemies, Islam was a prime
candidate, thus quickly reviving all the old religiously based
clichés about violent, antimodernist, and monolithic Islam. These
clichés were useful to Israel and its political and academic
supporters in the United States, particularly because of the
emergence of Islamic resistance movements to Israel’s military
occupation of the Palestinian territories and Lebanon. Suddenly a
rush of what appeared to be respectably expert material spouted up in
the periodical press, most of it purporting to link “Islam” as a
whole to such absurdly reductive passions as rage, antimodernism,
anti-Americanism, antirationalism, violence, and terror. Quite
unsurprisingly, when Samuel Huntington’s vastly overrated article on
the clash of civilizations appeared in 1993, the core of its
belligerent (and dishearteningly ignorant) thesis was the battle
between the “West” and “Islam” (which he sagely warned would become
even more dangerous when it was allied with Confucianism) .

What wasn’t immediately noted at the time was how Huntington’s title
and theme were borrowed from a phrase in an essay, written in 1990 by
an energetically self-repeating and self-winding British academic,
entitled “The Roots of Muslim Rage.” Its author, Bernard Lewis, made
his name forty years ago as an expert on modern Turkey, but came to
the United States in the mid-seventies and was quickly drafted into
service as a Cold Warrior, applying his traditional Orientalist
training to larger and larger questions, which had as their immediate
aim an ideological portrait of “Islam” and the Arabs that suited
dominant pro-imperial and pro-Zionist strands in U.S. foreign policy.
It should be noted that Orientalist learning itself was premised on
the silence of the native, who was to be represented by an Occidental
expert speaking ex cathedra on the native’s behalf, presenting that
unfortunate creature as an undeveloped, deficient, and uncivilized
being who couldn’t represent himself. But just as it has now become
inappropriate for white scholars to speak on behalf of “Negroes,” it
has, since the end of classical European colonialism, stopped being
fashionable or even acceptable to pontificate about the Oriental’s
(i.e., the Muslim’s, or the Indian’s, or the Japanese’s) “mentality.”

Except for anachronisms like Lewis. In a stream of repetitious,
tartly phrased books and articles that resolutely ignored any of the
recent advances of knowledge in anthropology, history, social theory,
and cultural studies, he persisted in such “philological” tricks as
deriving an aspect of the predilection in contemporary Arab Islam for
revolutionary violence from Bedouin descriptions of a camel rising.
For the reader, however, there was no surprise, no discovery to be
made from anything Lewis wrote, since it all added up in his view to
confirmations of the Islamic tendency to violence, anger,
antimodernism, as well as Islam’s (and especially the Arabs’) closed-
mindedness, its fondness for slavery, Muslims’ inability to be
concerned with anything but themselves, and the like. From his perch
at Princeton (he is now retired and in his late eighties but still
tirelessly pounds out polemical tracts), he seems unaffected by new
ideas or insights, even though among most Middle East experts his
work has been both bypassed and discredited by the many recent
advances in knowledge about particular forms of Islamic experience.

With his veneer of English sophistication and perfect readiness never
to doubt what he is saying, Lewis has been an appropriate participant
in post-September discussion, rehashing his crude simplifications in
The New Yorker and the National Review, as well as on the Charlie
Rose show. His jowly presence seems to delight his interlocutors and
editors, and his trenchant, if wildly unprovable, anecdotes of
Islamic backwardness and antimodernism are eagerly received. His view
of history is a crudely Darwinian one in which powers and cultures
vie for dominance, some rising, some sinking. Lewis’s notions (they
are scarcely ideas) seem also to have a vague Spenglerian cast to
them, but he hasn’t got any of Spengler’s philosophic ambition or
scope. There isn’t much left to what Lewis says, therefore, than that
cultures can be measured in their most appallingly simplified terms
(my culture is stronger—i.e. , has better trains, guns, symphony
orchestras—than yours). For obvious reasons, then, his last book,
What Went Wrong? which was written before but published after
September 11, has been faring well on the bestseller lists. It fills
a need felt by many Americans: to have it confirmed for them
why “Islam” attacked them so violently and so wantonly on September
11, and why what is “wrong” with Islam deserves unrelieved opprobrium
and revulsion. The book’s real theme, however, is what went wrong
with Lewis himself: an actual, rather than a fabricated subject.

For the book is in fact an intellectual and moral disaster, the
terribly faded rasp of a pretentious academic voice, completely
removed from any direct experience of Islam, rehashing and recycling
tired Orientalist half (or less than half) truths. Remember that
Lewis claims to be discussing all of “Islam,” not just the mad
militants of Afghanistan or Egypt or Iran. All of Islam. He tries to
argue that it all went “wrong,” as if the whole thing—people,
languages, cultures—could really be pronounced upon categorically by
a godlike creature who seems never to have experienced a single
living human Muslim (except for a small handful of Turkish authors),
as if history were a simple matter of right as defined by power, or
wrong, by not having it. One can almost hear him saying, over a gin
and tonic, “You know, old chap, those wogs never really got it right,
did they?”

But it’s really worse than that. With few exceptions, all of Lewis’s
footnotes and concrete sources (that is, on the rare occasion when he
actually refers to something concrete that one could look up and read
for oneself) are Turkish. All of them, except for a smattering of
Arabic and European sources. How this allows him to imply that his
descriptions have relevance, for instance, to all twenty-plus Arab
countries, or to Indonesia or Pakistan or Morocco, or to the 30
million Chinese Muslims, all of them integral parts of Islam, is
never discussed; and indeed, Lewis never mentions these groups as he
bangs on about Islam’s tendency to do this, that, or the other,
backed by a tiny group of Turkish sources.

Although it is true that he protects himself at first by saying that
his polemic “especially but not exclusively” concerns an area he
vaguely calls the Middle East, he throws restraint to the winds in
all of what follows. Announcing portentously that Muslims have “for a
long time” been asking “what went wrong?” he then proceeds to tell us
what they say and mean, rarely citing a single name, episode, or
period except in the most general way. One would never allow an
undergraduate to write so casually as he does that, during the
nineteenth century, Muslims were “concerned” about the art of
warfare, or that in the twentieth “it became abundantly clear in the
Middle East and indeed all over the lands of Islam that things had
indeed gone badly wrong.” How he impresses nonexpert Americans with
generalities that would never pass in any other field or for any
other religion, country, or people is a sign of how degraded general
knowledge is about the worlds of Islam, and how unscrupulously Lewis
trades on that ignorance—feeds it, in fact. That any sensible reader
could accept such nonsensical sentences as these (I choose them at
random) defies common sense:

For the whole of the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century the
search for the hidden talisman [an invention of Lewis’s, this is the
supposed Muslim predilection for trying to find a simple key
to “Western” power] concentrated on two aspects of the West—economics
and politics, or to put it differently, wealth and power.

And what proof is offered of this 200-year “search,” which occupied
the whole of Islam? One statement, made at the start of the
nineteenth century, by the Ottoman ambassador in Paris.

Or consider this equally precise and elegant generalization:

During the 1930s, Italy and then, far more, Germany offered new
ideological and political models, with the added attraction of being
opposed to the Western powers. [Never mind the dangling “being
opposed”—Lewis doesn’t bother to tell us to whom the models were
offered, in what way, and with what evidence. He trudges on anyway.]
These won widespread support, and even after their military defeat in
World War II, they continued to serve as unavowed models in both
ideology and statecraft.

Mercifully, since they are “unavowed models,” one doesn’t need to
offer any proof of their existence as models. Naturally Lewis offers

Or consider, even more sublime, this nugget, which is intended to
prove that even when they translated books from European languages,
the wretched Muslims didn’t do it seriously or well. Note the
brilliant preamble: “A translation requires a translator, and a
translator has to know both languages, the language from which he is
translating and the language into which he is translating. ” (It is
difficult for me to believe that Lewis was awake when he wrote this
peculiarly acute tautology—or is it only a piercingly clever truism?)

Such knowledge, strange as it may seem, was extremely rare in the
Middle East until comparatively late. There were very few [sic]
Muslims who knew any Christian language; it was considered
unnecessary, even to some extent demeaning. For interpreters, when
needed for commerce, diplomacy, or war, they relied first on refugees
and renegades from Europe and then, when the supply of these dried
up, on Levantines. Both groups lacked either the interest or the
capacity to do literary translations into Middle-Eastern languages.

And that is it: no evidence, no names, no demonstration or concrete
documentation of all these Middle Eastern and Muslim incapacities. To
Lewis, what he writes about “Islam” is all so self-evident that it
allows him to bypass normal conventions of intellectual discourse,
including proof.

When Lewis’s book was reviewed in the New York Times by no less an
intellectual luminary than Yale’s Paul Kennedy, there was only
uncritical praise, as if to suggest that the canons of historical
evidence should be suspended where “Islam” is the subject. Kennedy
was particularly impressed with Lewis’s assertion, in an almost
totally irrelevant chapter on “Aspects of Cultural Change,” that
alone of all the cultures of the world Islam has taken no interest in
Western music. Quite without any justification at all, Kennedy then
lurched on to lament the fact that Middle Easterners had deprived
themselves even of Mozart! For that indeed is what Lewis suggests
(though he doesn’t mention Mozart). Except for Turkey and
Israel, “Western art music,” he categorically states, “falls on deaf
ears” in the Islamic world.

Now, as it happens, this is something I know quite a bit about, but
it would take some direct experience or a moment or two of actual
life in the Muslim world to realize that what Lewis says is a total
falsehood, betraying the fact that he hasn’t set foot in or spent any
significant time in Arab countries. Several major Arab capitals have
very good conservatories of Western music: Cairo, Beirut, Damascus,
Tunis, Rabat, Amman—even Ramallah on the West Bank. These have
produced literally thousands of excellent Western-style musicians who
have staffed the numerous symphony orchestras and opera companies
that play to sold-out auditoriums all over the Arab world. There are
numerous festivals of Western music there, too, and in the case of
Cairo (where I spent a great deal of my early life more than fifty
years ago) they are excellent places to learn about, listen to, and
see Western instrumental and vocal music performed at quite high
levels of skill. The Cairo Opera House has pioneered the performance
of opera in Arabic, and in fact I own a commercial CD of Mozart’s
Marriage of Figaro sung most competently in Arabic. I am a decent
pianist and have played, studied, written about, and practiced that
wonderful instrument all of my life; the significant part of my
musical education was received in Cairo from Arab teachers, who first
inspired a love and knowledge of Western music (and, yes, of Mozart)
that has never left me. In addition, I should also mention that for
the past three years I have been associated with Daniel Barenboim in
sponsoring a group of young Arab and Israeli musicians to come
together for three weeks in the summer to perform orchestral and
chamber music under Barenboim (and in 1999 with Yo-Yo Ma) at an
elevated, international level. All of the young Arabs received their
training in Arab conservatories. How could Barenboim and I have
staffed the West-Ostlicher Diwan workshop, as it is called, if
Western music had fallen on such deaf Muslim ears? Besides, why
should Lewis and Kennedy use the supposed absence of Western music as
a club to beat “Islam” with anyway? Isn’t there an enormously rich
panoply of Islamic musics to take account of instead of indulging in
this ludicrous browbeating?

I have gone into all this detail to give a sense of the unrelieved
rubbish of which Lewis’s book is made up. That it should fool even so
otherwise alert and critical an historian as Paul Kennedy is an
indication not only of how low most people’s expectations are when it
comes to discussions of “Islam” but of the mischievous ideological
fictions that pseudo-experts like Bernard Lewis trade in, and with
which they hoodwink nonexperts in the aftermath of September 11.
Instead of making it possible for people to educate themselves in how
complex and intertwined all cultures and religions really are,
available public discourse is polluted with reductive clichés that
Lewis bandies about without a trace of skepticism or rigor. The worst
part of this method is that it systematically dehumanizes peoples and
turns them into a collection of abstract slogans for purposes of
aggressive mobilization and bellicosity. This is not at all a matter
of rational understanding. The study of other cultures is a
humanistic, not a strategic or security, pursuit: Lewis mutilates the
effort itself and pretends to be delivering truths from on high. In
fact, as even the most cursory reading of his book shows, he succeeds
only in turning Muslims into an enemy people, to be regarded
collectively with contempt and scorn. That this has to do neither
with knowledge nor with understanding is enough to dismiss his work
as a debased effort to push unsuspecting readers toward thinking
of “Islam” as something to judge harshly, to dislike, and therefore
to be on guard against.

Karen Armstrong is the other best-selling author tossed up by the
mass anxiety so well traded on by the media in recent months. Like
Lewis, she wrote her book long before the September events, but her
publishers have pushed it forward as an answer to the problem of our
times. I wish I could say more enthusiastically that in its modest
way it is a useful book, but, alas, for too much of the time it’s too
humdrum for that. Yet her intentions seem decent enough. Most of the
book is potted history that chronicles events since Muhammad’s birth
without much insight or particularly fresh knowledge. The reader
would get as much out of a good encyclopedia article on “Islam” as
from Armstrong, who seems to be a very industrious if not especially
knowledgeable author. Her Arabic is frequently flawed (“madrasahs”
for mada¯ris, for example), her narrative often muddy, and, above
all, one reads her prose without much sense of excitement. It is all
very dutiful and, like Lewis’s book, too frequently suggests great
distance and dehumanization rather than closeness to the experience
of Islam in all its tremendous variety.

Unlike Lewis, however, she is interested in concrete aspects of
Islamic religious life, and there she is worth reading. Her book’s
most valuable section is that in which she discusses the varieties of
modern fundamentalism without the usual invidious focus on Islam. And
rather than seeing it only as a negative phenomenon, she has an
admirable gift for understanding fundamentalism from within, as
adherence to a faith that is threatened by a strong secular
authoritarianism. As an almost doctrinaire secularist myself, I
nevertheless found myself swayed by her sympathetic and persuasive
argument in this section, and wished that instead of being hobbled by
a rigid chronological approach she had allowed herself to wander
among aspects of the spiritual life of Islam that, as a former nun,
she has obviously found congenial.

Of course one can learn about and understand Islam, but not in
general and not, as far too many of our expert authors propose, in so
unsituated a way. To understand anything about human history, it is
necessary to see it from the point of view of those who made it, not
to treat it as a packaged commodity or as an instrument of
aggression. Why should the world of Islam be any different? I would
therefore suggest that one should begin with some of the copious
first-person accounts of Islam available in English that describe
what it means to be a Muslim, as in Muhammad Asad’s extraordinary
book The Road to Mecca (a gripping account of how Leopold Weiss, 1900–
92, born in Lvov, became a Muslim and Pakistan’s U.N.
representative) , or in Malcolm X’s account in his memoir, or in Taha
Hussein’s great autobiography, The Stream of Days. The whole idea
would be to open up Islam’s worlds as pertaining to the living, the
experienced, the connected-to- us, rather than to shut it down,
rigidly codifying it and stuffing it into a box labeled “Dangerous—do
not disturb.”

Above all, “we” cannot go on pretending that “we” live in a world of
our own; certainly, as Americans, our government is deployed
literally all over the globe—militarily, politically, economically.
So why do we suppose that what we say and do is neutral, when in fact
it is full of consequences for the rest of the human race? In our
encounters with other cultures and religions, therefore, it would
seem that the best way to proceed is not to think like governments or
armies or corporations but rather to remember and act on the
individual experiences that really shape our lives and those of
others. To think humanistically and concretely rather than
formulaically and abstractly, it is always best to read literature
capable of dispelling the ideological fogs that so often obscure
people from each other. Avoid the trots and the manuals, give a wide
berth to security experts and formulators of the us-versus-them
dogma, and, above all, look with the deepest suspicion on anyone who
wants to tell you the real truth about Islam and terrorism,
fundamentalism, militancy, fanaticism, etc. You’d have heard it all
before, anyway, and even if you hadn’t, you could predict its claims.
Why not look for the expression of different kinds of human
experience instead, and leave those great non-subjects to the
experts, their think tanks, government departments, and policy
intellectuals, who get us into one unsuccessful and wasteful war
after the other?


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