FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

A Predatory Orientalism

by M. SHAHID ALAM

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). He can be reached at: m.alam@neu.edu

Copyright: M. SHAHID ALAM.

 

M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University. This is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Macmillan, November 2009). Contact me at alqalam02760@yahoo.com.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

January 16, 2017
Paul Street
How Pure is Your Hate?
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
Did the Elites Have Martin Luther King Jr. Killed?
Robert Hunziker
Global Warming Clobbers Ocean Life
Patrick Cockburn
The Terrifying Parallels Between Trump and Erdogan
Kenneth Surin
The Neoliberal Stranglehold on the American Public University
Lawrence Davidson
Is There a Future for the Democratic Party?
Douglas Valentine
Who Killed MLK Jr?
Robert Fisk
The Foreign Correspondent in the Age of Twitter and Trump
Dale Bryan
“Where Do We Go from Here?”
David Swanson
The Deep State Wants to Deep Six Us
Dan Bacher
Obama Administration Orders Speedy Completion of Delta Tunnels Plan
Mark Weisbrot
Obama Should Make Sure that Haitian Victims of UN-Caused Cholera are Compensated
Winslow Myers
The Light of the World
Bruce Mastron
My Latest Reason to Boycott the NFL: Guns
Weekend Edition
January 13, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Gregory Elich
Did the Russians Really Hack the DNC?
Jeffrey St. Clair
The President Who Wasn’t There: Barack Obama’s Legacy of Impotence
Anthony DiMaggio
Ethics Fiasco: Trump, Divestment and the Perversion of Executive Politics
Joshua Frank
Farewell Obummer, Hello Golden Showers
Paul Street
Hit the Road, Barack: Some Farewell Reflections
Vijay Prashad
After Aleppo: the State of Syria
John Wight
Russia Must be Destroyed: John McCain and the Case of the Dodgy Dossier
Rob Urie
Meet the Deplorables
Patrick Cockburn
The Russian Dossier Reminds Me of the Row Over Saddam’s WMDs
Eric Sommer
U.S.-China War: a Danger Hidden from the American People
Andrew Levine
Are Democrats Still the Lesser Evil?
Linda Pentz Gunter
What’s Really Behind the Indian Point Nuclear Deal?
Robert Fantina
Trucks, ‘Terror’ and Israel
Richard Moser
Universal Values are Revolutionary Values
Russell Mokhiber
Build the Bagdikian Wall: “Sponsored News” at the Washington Post
Yoav Litvin
Establishment Narcissism – The Democrats’ Game of Thrones
David Rosen
Return of the Repressed: Trump & the Revival of the Culture Wars
Robert Koehler
War Consciousness and the F-35
Rev. William Alberts
The New Smell of McCarthyism Demands Faith Leaders Speak Truth to Power
John Laforge
Federal Regulator Halts Move to Toughen Radiation Exposure Limits
Norman Pollack
Farewell Address: Nazification of Hope
David Swanson
Imagine the Confirmation Hearing for Secretary of Peace
CJ Hopkins
Why Ridiculous Official Propaganda Still Works
Ron Jacobs
Striking in Reagan Time
Missy Comley Beattie
The Streep
Graham Peebles
Climate Change: The Potential Impacts of Collective Inaction
Uri Avnery
Confessions of a Megalomaniac
Kenneth Worles
Black Without a Home: King’s Dream Still Deferred
Geoff Dutton
The Russian Patsy
Jill Richardson
The Coming War on Regulations
Jeremy Brecher
Resisting the Trump Agenda is Social Self-Defense
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail