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The Legacy of Edward Said

by TANWEER AKRAM

Yesterday, I learned that Professor Edward Said is no more. Said was not only a scholar but an activist who worked tirelessly for peace and justice. His devastating critique of Western scholarship about Islam, Middle East, and the “Orient,” exposed the ingrained basis of intellectuals in service of power interest, economic and political imperialism, and cultural domination. His work was inspired by his life long commitment to truth, justice, and peace. The writers of the Electronic Intifidahave written a moving obituary to this remarkable man.

I first learnt of Professor Edward Said when he came to give a guest lecture on “Culture and Imperialism” at Grinnell College, Iowa. Drawn by the erudition and impeccable logic of his arguments, I got hold of his books: Covering Islam, Orientalism, and The Question of Palestine. His detailed analysis of Western intellectual discourse and knowledge of texts shows how writers and intellectuals have wittingly and unwittingly served imperial interests. He supported his thesis by extensive study of both historic and current works on Islam, Arab civilizations, Palestine, Iran, Egypt, and India. His books were strong antidotes to the likes of Bernard Lewis and the distortions of CNN and Thomas Friedman. Later at Columbia University, I had the pleasure of attending Said’s public lectures on the Middle East and on literature and imperialism. In mid 1990s, there was a special conference held in his honor but organized mostly by graduate students.

Said’s knowledge, wit, and passion for truth will continue to inspire peace activists and genuine scholars. He represented what it means to be a great intellectual and a teacher, like Bertrand Russell or Jean Paul-Sartre. He stood for all Palestinians and peaceful coexistence of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, people of other religions, and those of no religious faith. He embodied the best values of Western and Arab civilizations. He used his knowledge for seeking justice. If he wanted he could have easily become a Minister or a high official. But he choose to work with the people, tell the truth, and expose the lies. He was a critic of the limitations of the Oslo process and the Palestinian authorities, including Yasir Arafat. He was dedicated to humanism and to a secularism vision of coexistence of Palestinians and Israeli Jews in historic Palestine.

The Associated Press’ (AP) report of the news of Professor Edward Said’s death, which appeared in the New York Times, does deserve a critical scrutiny because as media critic Ali Abunimah says, “it reflects, ironically, what Said fought against all his life.”

The AP report said: “When it came to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Said was consistently critical of Israel for what he regarded as mistreatment of the Palestinians.” It is interesting that the AP had to insert “for what he regarded as mistreatment” as if there is any question about the human rights abuse under Israeli occupation. Bishop Desmond Tutu has compared Israeli occupation of West Bank and Gaza to apartheid regime.

The AP report also stated: “In 2000, he prompted a controversy when he threw a rock toward an Israeli guardhouse on the Lebanese border.” Indeed, Edward Said did throw a rock at Israeli army which had illegally occupied Southern Lebanon for years, killed over 17,000 Lebanese and Palestinians, and provided logistic support to terrorist Phalangist militias that carried out the massacres of Sabra and Shatilla. Throwing a rock at such an army would only be considered controversial in the twisted culture of intellectuals and academics serving Western imperialism. Said’s decision to throw a stone at the Israeli army was a symbolic act of solidarity with the Lebanese and the Palestinian people who face the cruelty of Israeli army supported by arms and funds provided by the United States and other rich countries.

The AP report did not mention that Professor Said had received threats from various fanatical groups in the United States. Right-wing publications, such as the New Republic, and the Commentary, would regularly engaged in vilify Edward Said.

Said’s Legacy

On learning Pierre Bourdieu’s death, Said wrote:

“I wish I could have been with you in Paris today. Pierre’s death is too poignant to experience alone in America at such a distance, so keenly felt is it by me and many others for whom his work and example were both inspiring and warm, particularly at a time when humanity has a shortage of champions, while the orthodoxy of virtue and power seem so unchallenged and, alas, so ascendant. It is Pierre Bourdieu’s magnificently critical and oppositional spirit that we must hold on to and try, unceasingly, to perpetuate.”

The same could be and should be said about Professor Edward Said, and perhaps much more. Said’s death is our collective loss. Professor Said would be proud of the initiatives of the younger generation of Palestinian scholars and activists, and solidarity groups, such as ISM. His work and life sets an example to follow, in Palestine, in the United States, and elsewhere. His spirit will never die.

TANWEER AKRAM is an economist. His papers and reviews have appeared in Applied Economics, Journal of Emerging Markets, Bangladesh Development Studies, and Kyklos. He is a regular contributor to www.pressaction.com

 

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