The Intellectuals and the War

An Interview with Edward Said

by Barbara Harlow
published in MER171

Edward Said is Parr Professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University, a member of the Palestine National Council and a contributing editor of this magazine. Along with Noam Chomsky, he is one of the foremost opposition public intellectuals in the United States, a role he plays in the Arab world as well. Barbara Harlow interviewed him in New York in early April 1991.

How would you characterize the portrayal of the Gulf crisis and war in the US and in Europe?

Representation of the conflict in the West, by the first week of the crisis in August, had succeeded, first, in demonizing Saddam; second, in personalizing the crisis and eliminating Iraq as a nation, a people, a culture, a history; and third, incompletely occluding the role of the United States and its allies in the formation of the crisis.

But there were divergent opinions on the crisis, particularly among intellectuals.

I’m talking about policymakers and mainstream media. The media mobilized for the war in perfect synchrony with the administration. Even among the alternative media and intellectuals there’s been a reluctance to deal with the Middle East. One reason is its setting and the people involved. Then there’s so-called post-modernism. The United States, as the last empire, has, in the case of its intellectuals, internalized imperial rule. That generally sets intellectuals above such issues, perhaps because of a widespread sense of helplessness, impotence and fragmentation due to specialization. The American intellectual community in the main doesn’t consider itself sufficiently bound by responsibilities toward the common weal, doesn’t feel responsible for the behavior of the United States internationally. In the Middle East, the United States has routinely obstructed struggles for human rights. The US has sided with every entrenched and rooted power against struggles for women’s rights, for minority rights, for rights to free assembly and free speech. All as matters of policy.

With regard to this history, which has very little to do with the Palestinians, the large body of American intellectuals are basically provincial, drawn only by virtue of expertise. If they’re Latin American specialists, they don’t talk about anything other than Latin America.

There is no sense of affiliation with the public sphere, with a cause. I remember once a friend of mine, a literary Marxist in this country, said, “Well, you’re lucky, Edward, you were born Palestinian, but this other person, who’s an American, doesn’t have a cause to which he was born.” As if there’s some tremendous privilege to being subjected to the travails of the Palestinians. If you are an American, you’re above all causes. Unless you’re born to the thing or you’ve been given a degree in the subject, it doesn’t matter.

The senior Middle East experts were dying to be called to Washington. They were not saying things that would disturb the policy train. The rest of us were fragmented, didn’t have access to the media and had to rely on kind of samizdat publications.

Contrast this situation with the remarkable interview in January with the French scholar Jacques Berques, in which he was able to distinguish between Saddam and Iraq and the Arabs and imperialism, between the state of human rights in the Arab world and in Europe historically, and point out that butchery and violence are by no means the monopoly of Iraq. And get it published prominently, in L‘Autre Journal [February 1991]. Nothing like that happened in this country, where mainstream scholars of his stature, almost to a man or woman, affiliated themselves with the administration.

Yet French intellectual circles, just as in the US and Britain, generally failed to respond coherently and with principle. Has this crisis challenged the intellectual class to begin to examine its own history?

Not really. They were perhaps glad it was as short as it was. The problem is a history of disengagement from international questions, above all from the Middle East and the Arabs generally. The small number of us who tried to engage intellectuals in general questions of responsibility were too few. In the meantime, this country has produced an entire literature of instant expertise and knowledge, all of which puts forward a view of the Middle East and of this conflict in particular that largely supports the administration’s position.

How has this cult of expertise developed? Who are the main practitioners of intellectual policing today with regard to the Middle East?

During the Vietnam war there emerged a powerful and vocal group in the universities that challenged the administration. And this had a noticeable effect upon the media. The difference with this war is that Vietnam evolved over a longer period of time. And the presence of Israel is a complicating factor.

With very few exceptions, the leading Middle East scholars gravitated either toward Washington or to the media and were made use of there. Their sights were not focused on the region; they were focused on ways to the region as provided by CBS, NBC, the New York Times and whatnot, or by the policymaking institutions in Washington. You didn’t see the emergence of a strong, well-profiled opposition sympathetic to the Arabs as a people and a culture, to Iraq as a nation, one that opposed the Iraqi invasion and annexation of Kuwait but also opposed the US military presence.

Instead, the media hooked on to the war policy, in its wake bringing up a lot of retired military men -- men, always men -- and what I call the scholar-combatants -- Fouad Ajami, Daniel Pipes, Bernard Lewis and so on -- and with them a handful of journalists like Tom Friedman who were virtually indistinguishable from policymakers.

These scholar-combatants also have engaged in a kind of curriculum building.

There was a reading list publicized by National Public Radio which didn’t have a single work on it either by or about an Arab. The New York Times published a list that covered an entire page in which there wasn’t a single book about Iraq after about the seventh century BC! Iraq was left pretty much at Sumer! There were five Israeli novels, three or four histories of the Jews, Conor Cruise O’Brien, but nothing on the modern history or culture of Iraq.

What you have is a canon, which now includes Samir al-Khalil’s Republic of Fear, Fouad Ajami’s The Arab Predicament, the instant books by journalists, and of course Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem, David Fromkin’s Peace to End all Peace and, occasionally, Albert Hourani’s book. Now if you exclude Hourani’s History of the Arab Peoples (which, although it’s now on the bestseller list, is not a book to be digested easily), these books are generally unsympathetic to the Arabs and advance the thesis that the feuds and the violence in the Middle East are due to, relatively speaking, prehistoric causes, inscribed in the very genes of these people. Such things as a rational argument presented by the Arab people of the twentieth century about their own sense of history, their identity, their achievements -- all of these are dismissed as fraudulent and essentially self-deluding. In the words of Ajami, the problems of the Arab world are the result of “self-inflicted wounds.” This literature pretty much exonerates the United States and its policymakers, and of course Israel, from any role in this appalling mess we’re living through today.

In his book Teachers, Writers and Celebrities, Regis Debray advances an interesting argument that relates to the situation we are discussing. These authors are all without significant scholarly attainment or expertise. Fromkin’s book has no real connection with the Middle East in terms of scholarship or anything that he wrote prior. Friedman is a journalist. Ajami is a mediocre scholar who has written one 20-year-old collection of essays and a dismissible history of Musa al-Sadr. These people belong to the genre of media celebrities rather than to that of university teachers or to that of artist-writers. They have no particular anchor in the process of intellectual work or in institutions of intellectual production. They are therefore, paradoxically, much more difficult to dislodge, precisely because they belong to no particular institution, except the corporate media. They are creatures of the moment.

What effect has the Gulf crisis had on Arab political culture?

My impressions are roughly as follows. Almost all of what is now published in the daily newspapers in the Arab world -- one can always find exceptions -- is politically motivated, in the narrow and most vulgar sense. To write, you have to be affiliated with a particular line or regime or ruler. If you’re independent, unorthodox, creative in some way, it’s either extremely difficult or impossible to make a break.

Has the Gulf crisis destabilized those structures to allow for a reconfiguration of intellectual projects?

The credibility of the right has been undermined. Since almost everything that is written today directly reflects a political influence in the most literal sense, nothing anyone writes is going to be above question. Opportunities will open up, new alignments will take place. But the first question people will ask is not whether what the writer is saying is true or not, but who is this person really speaking for. As they say in Arabic, man warahi?, “who’s behind it?”

There is now, because of the war, a general collapse of cultural institutions in the Arab world. Patterns of funding and staffing have been changed in ways we’re only now beginning to assess. There’s a seismic shift in the intellectual and cultural topography of the Arab world, which is very hard to assess but which can’t be good.

An Arab world divided between victor and vanquished. The Palestinians are losers. The Egyptians are desperately trying to cast themselves as winners. This has an effect on the micro level, at institutes, at cultural and political endeavors.

Suspicion across borders has increased. The Saudi deportation of 800,000 Yemeni workers was not about a fifth column or destabilization: It was an act of petty vengeance against an entire people.

There’s also something quite new in the Arab world: the idea that inside these borders people are homogenized in some way, that Syrians are homogeneous Syrians, and so on. This is something quite foreign to our culture and history, because the essence of the region is precisely that it comprises a tremendous diversity. There’s no purity at all; it’s a consecrated hybridity almost unique to Islam. And that’s why people objected to the various comical nationalisms that appeared in one or another of these countries. But now it’s become a situation in which, for example, the king of Jordan claims “I am a sharif.” There’s now a contest to ground one’s identity in some distant, pure and primitive first state, whether that is Islam or a tribe or a border. That’s not the world I grew up in.

What has been the effect of all this on the Palestinian movement?

A part of it is quite different from the other nationalisms: It is in a certain sense transnational, it’s about principles. But we don’t live in a vacuum. In 1985, I went to Kuwait as a guest of Kuwait University. Because I was an outsider, both the Kuwaitis and Palestinians who worked there sought my ear to accuse the other of malfeasance, usually on national grounds. You can sympathize with the Palestinian who is a minority in a country like Kuwait, but it breeds that whole atmosphere of people being identified ethnically and through the prism of a very narrow and narrowing nationalism; it breeds even in the victim a general lack of generosity. Of course, I’m privileged, I live in New York, but I was very disappointed when Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza identified with Iraq bashing the Kuwaitis. Even if the Kuwaitis are arrogant, why would a victim identify with the oppressor? That’s one of the roles intellectuals and leaders could play: to say that this is a matter of principle. Invasion is invasion.

Do you see, within the Palestinian intifada right now, any possibilities for rehabilitation?

I’m relatively optimistic about that. The difficulties are tremendous and the sufferings horrific, but there has been a cataclysmic shakeup. If it doesn’t kill one, that can induce a clarification of priorities. The alliance of the Palestinian national movement with Gulf money has not been such a wonderful thing. Building hospitals, libraries and kindergartens with help from the Palestinian community in the Gulf and from the Gulf states themselves was important, but the political price has been high. It’s taught an entire generation of Palestinians to depend on shortcuts induced by money. Now Palestinians are thrust back on the resources and the energies of the people themselves, and not outside interests.

One could say that this crisis demonstrated the failure of the Palestinian movement to provide leadership for the democratic forces within the Arab world, leaving a vacuum into which Saddam Hussein was able to move.

Palestinians will tell you that Arafat’s positions during the war followed from the fact that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza took those positions. I disagree. One of the things that leaders do is lead. Many of us failed in this role. It would be unfair to ascribe it entirely to the Palestinian leadership: It’s a general failure over the last two years, the abandonment by the Arab states and regimes of the intifada.

I’ve often felt the PLO has been remiss in not releasing publicly the minutes of the US-PLO meetings in Tunis, so that people could see what little we got as a result of our historical compromise. Palestinians need to make political gains out of the lessons of the intifada, which are a blueprint for democracy and solidarity between people. We are the only national movement still in existence today in the Arab world that functions according to democratic, largely non-coercive and inventive modes of association and coordination, which remain for the most part secular.

It would be foolish not to recognize that the odds against us are horrifically great. But one of the lessons we’ve learned in the last 20 years as Palestinians, and I think many Israelis have also learned, is that we have no military option against each other. They could slaughter us, but they’re not going to get rid of every Palestinian, and they won’t snuff out the flame of Palestinian nationalism. Conversely, we have no military option against the Israelis. What we do have is a vision, a way of including them in the Middle East based on the respect of nationalities for each other, the right to live within secure and safe borders, and to coexist in a profitable way with other peoples.

That is our main weapon, but most of us have not realized it. We still believe in the outdated and useless slogans of an Arab nationalist movement based on military might, on the one-party state, and above all on the cult of the great leader. Those are not necessary to the Palestinian struggle and have never been central to it. To the extent that we are still a part of the Arab world, that we speak Arabic, that we read the same literature, that we employ the same discourses, it’s very important for our discourse to emerge as distinctive from that of the others, and lead the others, rather than to drown -- as we did.

In the Arab countries democratic movements are more or less moribund at the moment. How can those movements be reactivated?

There are generally two time frames we have to work on. One is the immediate: That agenda is dominated now by the regimes. As the events in Iraq demonstrate, even the worst of them are not easily dislodged, or if they are it is simply by alternative versions of themselves. And the game of the regimes is now dominated by the United States and its allies. There are some fairly opportunistic things to be done, given the presence of the Palestinian issue high on the agenda. You have to play that game, not always very hopefully.

Then there’s the other agenda, a “slow politics” that takes place over a long period of time, which can allow for coalition building. The really popular position in the Arab world, if you were to study it carefully, is a rejection of what Saddam stands for, and the disastrous results which he brought to his own country and people, and a rejection of the American military solution.

The necessary coalition would be between people in different parts of the Arab world who are actively involved in local struggles for democracy, economic justice, women’s rights, human rights groups, university groups -- for example, the Jordanian student university movement of the mid-1980s. There are gatherings of intellectuals in some transnational Arab institutes, like the Institute of Arab Unity and the Arab Human Rights Organization, various lawyers’ groups, university and intellectual groups that collaborate on small projects, journals like Mawaqif or Fusul or Alif. There are serious discussions between secular and Islamic forces for the first time.

What we really need is a critical language and a full-scale critical culture, not name-calling or the rhetorical equivalent of political murder. One purpose is to assess and critique power in the Arab world. Not according to grandiose schemas imported from Hegel and Stalin and so on: Many of the miseries of the Arab left are ascribable to the importation of methodological instruments or Orientalist models from abroad having no relation to our life. We must indigenously and imaginatively develop composite or hybrid models of the sort, for example, of Abdallah Laroui in North Africa or Anwar Abdel-Malek or Muhammad Jabri. Like-minded individuals have to give such a critique of power greater currency in their discussions.

We also need a language of appreciation based not on dogmatic orthodoxy or reverence for Qur’anic and authoritative ideas, but rather one that develops out of this critique of power. We need to be able to say what we are for in our world and in our lives, as opposed to using the fundamentalist model of saying that we’re for the way it was done in the past. We need a developed sense of what it is that we care about.

Out of this combined critique of power and discourse of care and attention can come accountability. This can lead to participation, which is something in Arab intellectual life that has struck me as very problematic. There is in the Arab world a tremendous sense of provincialism and isolation. We’re not -- whether in our literature or intellectual work -- part of the ongoing debate in the world. Our inability to take part is largely due to ourselves. We are the focus of a lot of world attention, but we’re always outside it, we’re not participants, intellectually, in the determination of our own future, although God knows our complaints and grievances (rather boring ones) are well-known enough!

This brings us back to the role of the intellectual -- Arab and non-Arab -- here in the US.

Yesterday I heard a panel discussion on the lessons of the Gulf war. One participant was Samir al-Khalil. What struck me as extraordinarily sad, not to say desolate, was his appeal to the United States, which had just devastated his country militarily, to enter further into Iraq and unseat Saddam Hussein. For him the only issue is the one that he as an Iraqi, genuinely in pain, feels. That seems to me to be part of the misery of this whole story. He is intelligent, fluent, but unable to attach himself to anything but an issue of the moment, with no realism in his perspective. He’s suddenly discovered he’s got to do something, and what does he do? He appeals to the United States, which has just destroyed his country, to come and rescue him! It’s astonishing.

One of the roles Arab intellectuals play in the West is that of a sort of guinea pig witness. Since you’re from Iraq, you tell us about Iraq. When we’re not interested in Iraq, we don’t want to hear from you. The native informant. That’s simply an unacceptable role. We have to be everywhere. We have to deal not only with general problems in the Arab world, but we have to be able to say things about this country, where we live and work.

You can’t just burst in and do this kind of Tolstoyan grandiloquence which is going to rescue your people. Al-Khalil appeals to the very same people who are responsible for a large part of the present tragedy of his country. They collaborated with Saddam and now they’re propping him up after destroying the infrastructure. After such knowledge, what can possibly emerge?

In 1967, in the context of the US war in Vietnam, Noam Chomsky wrote his essay, “The Responsibility of the Intellectuals.” What would be the main components of such an essay today?

One would have to pretty much scuttle all the jaw-shattering jargonistic post-modernisms that now dot the landscape. They are worse than useless. They are neither capable of understanding and analyzing the power structure of this country, nor are they capable of understanding the particular aesthetic merit of an individual work of art. Whether you call it deconstruction or post-modernism or post-structuralism or post-anything, they all represent a sort of spectacle of giving back tickets at the entrance and saying, we’re really out of it. We want to check into our private resort and be left alone.

Reengagement with intellectual process means a return to an old-fashioned historical, literary and, above all, intellectual scholarship based upon the premise that human beings, men and women, make their own history. And just as things are made, they can be unmade and remade. That sense of intellectual and political and citizenry empowerment is what the intellectual class needs.

There’s only one way to anchor oneself, and that is by affiliation with a cause, with a political movement. There has to be identification not with the secretary of state or the leading philosopher of the time but with matters involving justice, principle, truth, conviction. Those don’t occur in a laboratory or a library. For the American intellectual, that means, at bottom, that the relationship between the United States and the rest of the world, now based upon profit and power, has to be altered to one of coexistence among human communities that can make and remake their own histories and environments together. This is the number one priority -- there’s nothing else of that magnitude.

Universities cannot afford to become just a platform for a narcissistic Moliere-like specialization. What you need is a regard for the products of the human mind. That’s why I’ve been very dispirited by some aspects of the “great Western canon” debate, which suggests that the oppressed of the world, in wishing to be heard, in wishing their work to be recognized, really wish to do dirt on everything else. That’s not the spirit of resistance. We come back to Aimee Cesaire’s line, “There is room for all at the rendezvous of victory.”

Within certain university contexts there have been lately two major issues: the Gulf war and multiculturalism. I have not seen any linkage between the two.

Even inside the university, the prevalence of norms based upon domination and coercion is so strong because the idea of authority is so strong, whether it’s derived from the nation-state, from religion, from the ethnos, from tradition. It is so powerful that it’s gone relatively unchallenged even in the very disciplines and studies that we are engaged in. Part of intellectual work is understanding how authority is formed. Authority is not God-given. It’s secular. And if you can understand that, then your work is conducted in such a way as to be able to provide alternatives to the authoritative and coercive norms that dominate so much of our intellectual life, our national and political life, and our international life above all.

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