Interview with Edward Said conducted by Nabeel Abraham

Lies of Our Times
May 1993
pp. 13 – 16

Widely acknowledged as one of the country's leading intellectuals, Edward W. Said is University Professor at Columbia University. He is author of numerous books including Orientalism, which appeared in 1978. His most recent book, Culture and Imperialism (New york: Alfred A. Knopf House, 1993), has received wide acclaim. Until recently, Said was a member of the Palestine National Council, and he remains a prominent and outspoken supporter of Palestinian self-determination.

Nabeel Abraham talked with Edward Said on 18 May 1993.

Nabeel Abraham: Last April, Iraqi-born Kanan Makiya's Cruelty and Silence was hailed by Geraldine Books in the Wall Street Journal as "one of the most important books ever written on the state of modern Middle East" (April 7, 1993, p. A12). New York Times Columnist A.M. Rosenthal described the author as "an Iraqi writer who speaks for freedom" (April 13, p. A13). Writing in the New Yorker, Michael Massing linked Makiya to Emile Zola (April 26, P.114). The work was also favorably mentioned in the New Republic, Dissent, and elsewhere.

The Nation excerpted it, and recently Edward Mortimer gave the work a fairly positive review in the New york Review of Books (May 27, p.3). Makiya was interviewed on the highly regarded Fresh Air Program on National Public Radio.

Do you see any connection between the attention the book received and its message?

Edward Said: Yes. A widespread ignorance of and hostility toward Arab culture already exists. Then somebody who seems knowledgeable comes along and writes as if from within, and trashes it. Such a work is going to be very popular.

NA: You were cited by a number of reviewers – Rosenthal, Brooks, and several others – who seized on Makiya claim that Arab intellectuals have been silent on the crimes of Arab rulers, preferring instead to blame the West for Arab society's ills. What's your reaction? Were Arab intellectuals silent?

ES: No. What is particularly scurrilous about the book and about Makiya himself are two things about which he is deliberately misleading. One is that all the intellectuals he attacks are in fact the most vocal in opposition to the current regimes in the Middle East. What Makiya does is literally mistranslate their Arabic, misrepresent their views, distort their opinions. Why? Principally because all of them opposed the Gulf war at the same time that they all opposed the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. And out of this concoction Makiya has tried to make a larger case, which is completely without basis, that Arab intellectuals are silent. With a few exceptions, all the intellectuals he attacks have been imprisoned, and/or exiled for speaking out; in the case of Abdelrahman Munif [Cities of Salt (New York: Vintage Books, 1989)], the man was stripped of his nationality by the Saudis because of his works. Munif is therefore far braver than Makiya, who sits pretty, wherever he is.

None of the reviewers so far, not even so-called experts who don't read the language (like Mortimer), who know nothing about the Arab world except clichés and stereotypes (like Brooks), who detest the Arabs (like Rosenthal), is in any position at all to judge whether Makiya is telling the truth or not, and they're too lazy to check.

Moreover, the second point is that in the late 1960s and early 1970s Makiya was a card-carrying Trotskyist, a member of the Fourth International. He used a pseudonym then. Then he switched sides and during the during the early 1980s he and his father, who own a firm called Makiya Associates, were employed by President Saddam Hussein to build a large number of buildings and projects, including a military parade ground for the observation of Saddam's birthday in Tikrit [Saddam's hometown], so he benefited from his connection with the Iraqis. And it was during this time that he used his second pseudonym, Samir al-Khalil, to write Republic of Fear [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989].

Makiya worked for Iraq, he was part of the Ba'athist regime, he has profited from Iraq, whereas none of the people he cited – especially me, because I never went to Iraq or accepted any invitations to do so – has had such connections. So the book is in effect a tremendous coverup for himself. And all the information about Makiya Associates and so forth that I've mentioned here, was published in a New Yorker profile a year and a half ago [January 6, 1992]. But, interestingly, none of the reviewers refers to it, as if it had no relevance. Makiya's whole book is about collaboration and complicity, yet nobody ever thought to inquire whether he was collaborating and therefore complicit.

NA: So they just seized on those parts that were…

ES: All of the people who have seized on him are basically very happy to bash critics of Israel and the U.S. like me, Noam Chomsky, Ibrahim A. Abu-Lughod, and others. That's the agenda, not any interest in the state of Arab culture or anything of the sort.

NA: Or promoting freedom

ES: Or promoting freedom. They don't give a damn about freedom.

NA: How do you square the bashing you and other Arab intellectuals have received with the favorable reception your latest book, Culture and Imperialism, was accorded in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere?

ES: No one is a simple creature who just does one thing all the time. I am seen by the people who review Makiya as essentially a supporter of Palestinian rights, and therefore a critic of Israel. Hence they will call me a professor of terror, a liar and a murderer, and all the rest of it. But they're not the same people who will review my book in the New York Times Book Review or the Washington Post, where my book has a different audience.

NA: Why do you think certain Arab authors, professors, and specialists residing in the U.S. are embraced and promoted by the major media and leading opinion journals, while others are ignored or downplayed?

ES: I think there's a cultural war in this country between spokespersons for the West, the U.S. and Israel, on the one hand, and those who are perceived as pro-Arab, pro-Islam, pro-Palestinian, and therefore critical of U.S. policy, on the other hand.

This is a real cultural war. It has little to do with truth; it has little to do with seriousness of scholarship. It has to do with ideological interests. The first group is much more prevalent and receives more attention in the media, than the second group. If you are perceived as belonging to the second group, then you're trashed and attacked in the most scandalous way. I think it's gotten worse since I wrote Orientalism [1978] and Covering Islam [1981], because now there's no Cold War anymore. So Islam has become the official enemy.

There's a desperate attempt, which you've talked about in LOOT, to turn Islam into a world threat. And anybody who says, "That simply isn't true," or, "You can't talk about Islam in that kind of reductive and monolithic way," or, "The world isn't made for or against the U.S. There are other things of worth" – anybody who says that type of thing is going to be trashed and attacked. People who can write freely in the Times (like Judith Miller) or in Foreign Affairs are engaged in ideological writings that suit the purposes of some interests to publish and promote. Claims such as those proffered by Bernard Lewis, who just published Islam and the West [New York: Oxford University Press, 1993], a collection of appalling pieces claiming that Islam is enraged at the very idea of modernity, are repeated by others – even though they are without any evidence to speak of.

NA: In a rambling and disjointed essay, Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani reduced various attempts at questioning orthodox or official truth to the level of Holocaust denial. She wrote that "the deconstructionists and like-minded thinkers foster a climate in which ideologues and propagandists, like Holocaust deniers, can try to assail those two pillars of human civilization: memory and truth" (April 30, p.C1; see Edward S. Herman and Nancy Watt Rosenfeld, "Kakutani Versus Historical Truth," LOOT, July/August 1993, p.19).

To what extent have the mass media assailed the memory and truth of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?

ES: Pretty powerfully. For one, even as we speak, there's no account in the American media of what took place yesterday on the West Bank and Gaza, namely, that the place is being choked to death and the Palestinians are slowly being killed by encirclement, by incredible economic hardship, by curfews, by blowing up of houses, by killing of people, by imprisonment, by torture, by collective detention – methods that are barbaric in the extreme. Yet there's no mention of that in the mainstream press. And these are easily obtainable facts. Israel is an ally of the U.S. It gets massive economic support from the U.S. and is therefore a ward of the U.S. For the American media, in a systematic fashion, simply not to record any of this, is in fact an assault on the collective experience and memory of the Palestinians, who themselves were thrown off their land and dispossessed in 1948.

This gives you an indication of how the media are moved by official pieties. Recently there was a longish segment on 60 Minutes by Leslie Stahl about South African blacks who were thrown off their land and want it back now that the situation has changed inside South Africa [May 16]. Well, that exactly duplicates the Palestinian experience, but no mention was made of it. 60 Minutes has never run a program of that sort.

NA: Why do you think the Palestinians are so marginalized in the U.S.?

ES: Because they are the last unaccommodated political force today. They stand up to Israel and the U.S., admittedly in a meager and now attenuated way. But still, they haven't capitulated, and as such they're a kind of embarrassment. Their experience abuts, again, very embarrassingly, on the experience of the Jews. They're an inconvenience to the memory of that other experience. The Jews went through a horrendous genocide, and, now, one would expect them to be enjoying the fruits of their survival. But, in fact, here are these Palestinians, who were dispossessed in Palestine and are under military occupation since 1967 by Israeli forces, who speak in the name of the entire Jewish people. The Palestinians are deeply embarrassing and troubling: Therefore it's better to try to marginalize them and not give them too much attention. On the other hand, in fairness it has to be said that there hasn't really been an organized Palestinian effort in this country to make the Palestinian experience better known, to disseminate it, to constantly remind people of it – the way, for example, the anti-apartheid forces in the West were generally successful in doing during the 1970s and the 1980s. The Palestinians haven't done it. There's a lack of leadership in the Palestinian community, there's a lack of political will, there's a general discouragement, which is extremely distressing.

NA: There is another irony here concerning the Holocaust. Deborah Lipstadt shows in Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 1933-1945 [New York: Free Press, 1986] that, contrary to popular perception, "the facts were there, but published in such a tentative way as to minimize the impact on U.S. readers." For example, reports of mass murder and other atrocities were buried on the back pages and treated as solely Jewish claims. The irony is that history seems to be repeating itself with the victims treating the Palestinians in the same way.

In the case of the Palestinians, at least there is more news about the Arab-Israeli conflict. For example, I counted 28 news stories about the 400 expellees over a 27-day period. Then they disappeared from the headlines. Is more news necessarily better?

ES: No, it isn't that. It is really what use you make of the news. That is to say, the media work according to their own laws. It would be foolish to pretend that they work according to a concern for the truth or for trying to get all the story out. There are expediencies of time and place, of other headlines and interests, and so forth, that compel them to do what they do. The point is, take the presence in this country of a Palestinian delegation, which has been here for nine rounds of peace talks: Effectively, with the exception of Hanan Ashrawi, who appeared on television and gave a few interviews to the press intermittently, the delegation confined itself to the hotel and the State Department. There was no attempt to reach out to the Palestinian community, which now numbers almost half a million people in this country, or to the American people.

Delegation members said they weren't going to come unless all the deportees were returned. Then they turned up, and it was reported in the press that one of the reasons they came was that the PLO was promised money by the Saudis.

Well, in the end, the money wasn't delivered; the Israelis and the Americans made no further concession; the deportees still remained in South Lebanon; and the delegation went home. It may be unkind to be critical at this point, but their plans did not seem to be terribly efficient or strategically well thought-out.

NA: In May the Times ran a series on Muslims in the U.S. that was fairly informative. Yet on the editorial and opinion pages of the same paper, one encounters accusations and claims about this same religious community that would have provoked outrage had they been made about any other community.

For example, Flora Lewis wrote back in 1990 that many Middle-Easterners "bemoan the fact their religion hasn't joined the march to democracy. They suffer most from their own sick societies" ("Baghdad Rages On," April 28, 1990, p. A25; emphasis added).

Last year, former columnist Leslie Gelb wrote, "For Israel peace with the Arabs entail great risks" because Islam doesn't "recognize coexistence as a basic doctrine"' (Gelb, citing Yehoshafat Harkabi, "Hear, O Islam," June 22, 1992, p. A17). The Arabs, Gelb said, are "consumed by fantasy."

Both Lewis and Gelb make claims about Islam and Arabs that are outrageous, while at the same time their paper – the New York Times – can report fairly accurately about Muslims in America. Do you see a contradiction here?

ES: No, because, on an anecdotal level (which is what those stories on Islam in America were), you can say anything you like about Muslims by way of reporting their activities, their gathering places, their habits, and so forth. The moment you get to conclusions drawn from those anecdotes and facts, then they're entering another realm. That's the realm I call Orientalism, where there's a startling persistence of a handful of simple reductive clichés that are employed and re-employed and have been so, in the modern period, for the last two hundred years – irrespective of what is or is not true about Muslims.

What Leslie Gelb says is complete nonsense. He doesn't cite any evidence, just the kind of statements Orientalists have historically leveled against Islam. This is because there is a cultural war against Islam: Muslims are considered to be the enemies of the West. On the one hand, there's a long history of that, and, on the other, there is a sense that Muslims are basically one homogeneous people, not subject to time and place, that there is some kind of mindset that keeps them imprisoned. This sort of racism has really not been combated on a very large scale. The important thing is that it's aided and abetted by senior academic experts, like Bernard Lewis, Ernest Gellner, and others, who get their stuff published all the time without any serious effort being made to refute them except by a few individuals. I made an attempt 15 years ago and I haven't stopped trying.

What Gellner says about Muslims today is drivel, but it still gets circulated in places like the New Republic and the Times Literary Supplement and the Atlantic Monthly. There has never been a concerted attempt by Muslims or Arabs in the West to engage in this debate, even to the extent of having their work published systematically. So, in many ways, one has to go back to blame this quite extraordinary supine attitude of the people who are being attacked in this way for not responding enough, for not responding to the challenge.

NA: Do you see an irony in the calls of some of the biggest supporters of Israeli militarism and expansionism – people like William Safire and A.M. Rosenthal – for U.S. and international action to block Serbian aggression, as they put it, and territorial expansion in Bosnia? How does one reconcile their pronounced contempt and animus toward the Arabs and Islam in the Middle East with their professed support for Bosnia's Muslims?

ES: Because behind their attitudes toward Bosnia and Serbia and Croatia are Cold War attitudes. That is to say, by attacking the Serbs, you are probably attacking the Russians, and there's great fear and contempt for the Germans who back Croatia, and so forth. In the final analysis, I don't think it has much to do with the Bosnian inhabitants. Safire and the others had nothing to say about the slaughtering of hundreds of thousands in Timor. They have never said anything about the killing of Palestinians on a daily basis or about mass slaughters such as Sabra and Shatila. I think one has to seek the reasons elsewhere. The principal reason is that they're prisoners of Cold War ideology.