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:
Weekend Edition
July 22, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Good as Goldman: Hillary and Wall Street
Joseph E. Lowndes
From Silent Majority to White-Hot Rage: Observations from Cleveland
Paul Street
Political Correctness: Handle with Care
Conn Hallinan
The Big Boom: Nukes And NATO
Ron Jacobs
Exacerbate the Split in the Ruling Class
Richard Moser
Actions Express Priorities: 40 Years of Failed Lesser Evil Voting
Eric Draitser
Hillary and Tim Kaine: a Match Made on Wall Street
Jill Stein
After US Airstrikes Kill 73 in Syria, It’s Time to End Military Assaults that Breed Terrorism
Jack Rasmus
Trump, Trade and Working Class Discontent
John Feffer
Could a Military Coup Happen Here?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Late Night, Wine-Soaked Thoughts on Trump’s Jeremiad
Andrew Levine
Vice Presidents: What Are They Good For?
Michael Lukas
Law, Order, and the Disciplining of Black Bodies at the Republican National Convention
Margaret Kimberley
Gavin Long’s Last Words
Mark Weisbrot
Confidence and the Degradation of Brazil
Brian Cloughley
Boris Johnson: Britain’s Lying Buffoon
Lawrence Reichard
A Global Crossroad
Kevin Schwartz
Beyond 28 Pages: Saudi Arabia and the West
Charles Pierson
The Courage of Kalyn Chapman James
Michael Brenner
Terrorism Redux
Bruce Lerro
Being Inconvenienced While Minding My Own Business: Liberals and the Social Contract Theory of Violence
Mark Dunbar
The Politics of Jeremy Corbyn
David Swanson
Top 10 Reasons Why It’s Just Fine for U.S. to Blow Up Children
Binoy Kampmark
Laura Ingraham and Trumpism
Uri Avnery
The Great Rift
Nicholas Buccola
What’s the Matter with What Ted Said?
Aidan O'Brien
Thank Allah for Western Democracy, Despondency and Defeat
Joseph Natoli
The Politics of Crazy and Stupid
Sher Ali Khan
Empirocracy
Nauman Sadiq
A House Divided: Turkey’s Failed Coup Plot
Franklin Lamb
A Roadmap for Lebanon to Grant Civil Rights for Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon
Colin Todhunter
Power and the Bomb: Conducting International Relations with the Threat of Mass Murder
Michael Barker
UK Labour’s Rightwing Select Corporate Lobbyist to Oppose Jeremy Corbyn
Graham Peebles
Brexit, Trump and Lots of Anger
Anhvinh Doanvo
Civilian Deaths, Iraq, Syria, ISIS and Drones
Christopher Brauchli
Kansas and the Phantom Voters
Peter Lee
Gavin Long’s Manifesto and the Politics of “Terrorism”
Missy Comley Beattie
An Alarmingly Ignorant Fuck
Robert Koehler
Volatile America
Adam Vogal
Why Black Lives Matter To Me
Raouf Halaby
It Is Not Plagiarism, Y’all
Rivera Sun
Nonviolent History: South Africa’s Port Elizabeth Boycott
Rev. Jeff Hood
Deliver Us From Babel
Frances Madeson
Juvenile Life Without Parole, Captured in ‘Natural Life’
Charles R. Larson
Review: Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian”
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail