As of last April, the late Edward Said's "Orientalism," originally published in 1978, was no. 2 on the best-seller list in Cairo. No. 1was a book arguing that Saddam Hussein hadn't really been executed — all cell phone video evidence to the contrary, the writer argued, was a fabrication of the CIA
Michael Weiss has a terrific review of the new book by Ibn Warraq, the preminent scholar of Islam, Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said's Orientalism. Warraq is the Islamic scholar's scholar and if you have not read his work, start now.
THE BERTRAND RUSSELL OF ISLAM Michael Weiss, NY Sun hat tip Andrew Bostom
And what about Tariq Ramadan, the "moderate" Islamic philosopher, son of the Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, who is Buruma's preferred dragoman for liberal Europe? Mr. Warraq debated him in London last month on the question of the superiority of Western values. "When [Ramadan] gives interviews in English, he's incredibly evasive. He's not the kind of guy I'd buy a secondhand car from. If you ask him, 'Do you think lapidation for adultery should be banned?,' he never says 'yes' categorically. He says things such as, 'At this moment, it is not applicable' or 'it is not advisable.' Always this prevarication."
Mr. Warraq's beef with Said, however, is more a matter of reductionism than prevarication: that "Orientalism" misses two crucial points about human nature in its discussion of relations between East and West. The first is that even the worst offenders aren't always motivated by bigotry or grand imperial designs. The second is that the institutions they erect are often more significant and enduring than their venality and greed.
Mr. Warraq praises the British of the 18th and 19th centuries for their role shepherding India's cultural renewal — not to mention in combating the corruption of British colonialism. Edmund Burke led the moral and legislative charge against Warren Hastings, the notorious head of the East India Company. James Prinsep, a secretary of the celebrated Asiatic Society of Bengal, drained the malarial swamps of Calcutta, restored the collapsing mosque of Aurangzeb stone by stone, and discovered that once-indecipherable rock inscriptions were made by the Mughal emperor Asoka Maurya. Mr. Warraq relies on several modern Indian historians, such as A.L. Basham and Nirad Chaudhuri, to emphasize the great esteem in which British Orientalists are still held — men such as Henry Thomas Colebrooke, who agitated for the end of the East India Company's monopoly and composed a systematic study of Sanskrit and Hindu law as well as the only authoritative analysis of the Veda; Sir William Jones, the "father of Indian history" and one of the early discoverers of the Indo-European linguistic nexus (he thought Sanskrit "more exquisitely refined" than Latin or Greek), and William Carey, the "father of Bengali prose," who single-handedly restored a lost literature.
Mr. Warraq is no admirer of the "clash of civilizations" thesis, and — as if to prove his own point about self-criticism — he says he absorbed a lot of the negative feedback on "Why I Am Not a Muslim." This is why, in the current volume, he employs a useful tripartite distinction of Islam borrowed, he says, from Bernard Lewis: Islam One is the Koran, Islam Two is the hadith, or oral tradition relating to the words and deeds of the prophet, and Islam Three is Muslim civilization, which is as variegated as it is large. One and two, Mr. Warraq says, are incompatible with democracy and human rights. As for three, "many Muslim feminists try to re-interpret or ignore Koranic passages in order to improve the lives of all Muslim women. Only time will tell if such strategies will work." Mr. Warraq tells me: "We're not going to eradicate Islam from the face of the earth, and I have no wish for it to be… Islam Three is going to require a lot of sociological and empirical research. One has to be careful when we talk about Islam, one has to be more specific." This is a courtesy Said botched, or simply failed to accord, in his examination of the West.