The Iraq War, Orientalism, and The Arab Mind

by kathy on May 6, 2008

By Kathy G.

Well, what can I say? Henry has provided me with such a truly awesome intro that I can’t possibly hope to live up to it. But it does give me an additional incentive to do my best, which is what I’ll attempt to do.

Yesterday, following up on something Spencer Ackerman had posted, Matthew Yglesias wrote the following:

It’s really bizarre how, in the context of war, totally normal attributes of human behavior become transformed into into mysterious cultural quirks of the elusive Arab. I recall having read in the past that because Arabs are horrified of shame, it’s not a good idea to humiliate an innocent man by breaking down his door at night and handcuffing him in front of his wife and children before hauling him off to jail. Now it seems that Arabs are also so invested in honor that they don’t like it when mercenaries kill their relatives.

I completely agree, and this gives me an excuse to bust out an argument that has long been marinating in the recesses of the ol’ cranium. It’s this: that America, the Mideast, and the world would have been better off if “the single most popular and widely read book on the Arabs in the US military,” Raphael Patai’s racist tract The Arab Mind, had been taken off Pentagon reading lists, and been replaced with Edward Said’s Orientalism* instead.

As Seymour Hersh and others have reported, the Patai book, which is almost universally held in contempt by academics as “a thoroughly discredited form of scholarship” and “an example of bad, biased social science,” was “the bible of the neocons on Arab behavior” and also “the bible on Arab behavior for the U.S. military.” Hersh reported that:

The book includes a twenty-five-page chapter on Arabs and sex, depicting sex as a taboo vested with shame and repression. “The segregation of the sexes, the veiling of the women . . . and all the other minute rules that govern and restrict contact between men and women, have the effect of making sex a prime mental preoccupation in the Arab world,” Patai wrote. Homosexual activity, “or any indication of homosexual leanings, as with all other expressions of sexuality, is never given any publicity. These are private affairs and remain in private.” . . .In their [the neocons’] discussions, he said, two themes emerged-“one, that Arabs only understand force and, two, that the biggest weakness of Arabs is shame and humiliation.”

The book was used as a kind of guide book for the torturers of Abu Ghraib. Because Arabs were believed to be especially vulnerable to sexualized humiliation, that is the form the torture took.

I am not arguing that, had Patai’s book never been published, the Iraq War would never have started, or that an official policy supporting torture that was, and is, sanctioned at the highest levels of the U.S. government, would not have happened. But a book like Patai’s gave something indispensable to the neocon project: intellectual respectability. The fact that a credentialed academic like Patai was saying these things gave the neocons cover. And since his book was on Pentagon reading lists and assigned at U.S. military colleges, its racist, dehumanizing caricature of what “the true nature of the Arab” really is became accepted in elite policymaking circles. Patai’s book didn’t create the United States’ imperialist project in the Middle East, but you can be damn sure it strengthened it.

In fact, The Arab Mind is the perfect illustration of the main thesis of Said’s Orientalism:

that when it came to “the East” scholarship itself had become a means of serving and legitimating imperial dominance over the Oriental “other.”

What would have happened had those military and foreign policy intellectuals been assigned Orientalism instead? Probably nothing. For many reasons, the Bush administration was hellbent on going into Iraq and they weren’t going to let anything stop them. And for reasons I honestly don’t understand, they seem to have always been big fans of torture as well. As Foucault has pointed out, power produces knowledge, and yes, given the political climate of this country over the past several decades, it’s difficult to imagine that Edward Said would have been received with a warm welcome by our foreign policy elites.

Yet at the same time, as Foucault noted, knowledge itself constitutes power relations. Books and ideas can have a profound impact. I don’t think it would have been quite as easy for the Bush administration to do what they did if racist, imperialist attitudes were not so prevalent amongst the military and foreign policy elites. And if those same elites had read Orientalism instead of The Arab Mind, I’m not so sure that said elites would have been quite so comfortable in their racism and imperialism. A powerful book, which Orientalism (which I have read) certainly is, and which The Arab Mind (which I haven’t read) apparently is as well, can change minds. It can persuade readers who have no fixed views on the subject, and strengthen the views of those who are already inclined to agree with the author.

If Orientalism had been widely read among the military and foreign affairs folks, perhaps the attitudes of some highly influential people would not have been quite so smug. Perhaps they would have entertained a few more doubts. Perhaps the thought of torturing their fellow human beings might have made them a bit queasy.

And perhaps — probably? — I’m just spinning out some sentimental humanist fantasy here. Who knows? But had The Arab Mind been trashed and sent to the dustbin of history where it belongs, and Orientalism taken its place on reading lists, it’s hard to believe things could have been worse.

Policymaking elites crave the approval of academics. They love it when “independent,” credentialed experts and scholars sign off on, or give ammunition to, their ideas and projects, because they know that such approval influences other powerful elites. Which is exactly why academics, scholars, and others with specialized knowledge bear such a heavy responsibility to be guided both by humane values and the highest standards of intellectual rigor and integrity. Ideas have consequences.

*And yes, I know that Orientalism has been harshly criticized, especially in recent years, and some of those criticisms are legitimate. But for the most part I think the critics miss the forest for the trees. The book’s central argument still stands, and there is ample evidence to back it up.



sniflheim 05.06.08 at 5:11 pm

There’s others that could have addressed the situation as directly.


Lisa 05.06.08 at 5:18 pm

This is sort of an odd suggestion. It’s a bit like saying that, instead of the neo-cons holding up ‘The Wealth of Nations’ they’d be better off had they read ‘Capital.’

If we’re talking alternate universes, yes, I would prefer your alternate universe greatly to the one we have. But I don’t think in the alternate universe you imagine, only one thing remains different: The choice of the CIA’s, NSA, State Dept.’s reading material. In the alternate universe where they read ‘Orientalism’ almost everything is different. It would have to be. In terms of the butterfly effect, I’d say in that universe Bernie Sanders is President and American schoolchildren speak three foreign languages by the time they are twelve.


James Joyner 05.06.08 at 5:23 pm

Wouldn’t, say, Bernard Lewis’ Islam and the West achieve the desired effect without the reliance on a widely discredited book?


mpowell 05.06.08 at 5:23 pm

Lisa makes a good point. We appreciate the drawing of the contrast between these two books. But the central point of the post is somewhat curious because it at once both trivial and also kind of irrelevant.


abb1 05.06.08 at 5:31 pm

Nah, it’s all backwards. Power elites don’t crave approval of academics. They couldn’t care less. Academics (on average), OTOH, do crave approval of the power elite, they serve the elite, and they always will. Present company excluded, obviously.


tom s. 05.06.08 at 5:36 pm

I don’t get the previous comments. By the same lights it is not relevant to argue about the role of John Yoo in legitimizing torture because who are they going to call on but a lawyer who will give them what they want? The role of academics in supporting and being used to justify projects like the Iraq war is surely worth calling out.

“But a book like Patai’s gave something indispensable to the neocon project: intellectual respectability. The fact that a credentialed academic like Patai was saying these things gave the neocons cover.”


Lisa 05.06.08 at 5:41 pm

I agree with you Tom S. It’s not just cover, though. It’s a whole structure to hang their fears on and they seem to have used it as an instruction manual of some kind. So Kathy G. could be right that this book may have had an important causal role in the incidents at Abu Ghraib and a host of other horrifying incidents.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.06.08 at 5:45 pm

With all due respect to the late Edward Said, I found his writings on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict far more reliable (although he seems to have had a tin ear about many-things-Islamic) than his scholarship in Orientalism. Indeed, I would question whether the book’s central argument still stands: Robert Irwin’s Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and its Discontents (2006) makes a compelling case for thinking that it does not.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.06.08 at 5:46 pm

It seems I don’t know how to properly use the tags, as I meant only to italicize the book titles.


The New York City Math Teacher 05.06.08 at 5:50 pm

These literatures are functional grist for ideological action programs, not part of any intellectual byplay. They appear every time the vanguard conceives of some great enterprise of violence. These literatures coo justifications and just-so platitudes to the uninformed yet essential audience made up of government officials, military personnel, and the unorganized, politically-essential home front.

They aren’t meant to be considered; they are meant to be believed. They have as much validity as a Streicherian screed – none.

What does it say about the strength of our civic religion and the weight of historical morality that this giftpilz is so popular.

Time to reread Gordon Craig’s PotPA, among other texts.


Steve LaBonne 05.06.08 at 5:56 pm

Let’s see now, is there a country- one in which Patai spent part of his life- in which virulent anti-Arab racism is widespread in the population and especially in the political / military elite? And has that country ever been known to have (deleterious) influence on US foreign and military policy by means a lot more direct than Patai’s vile book? Perhaps we’re confusing cause and effect here, as well as ignoring the elephant in the living room. The book is not exactly converting people who would not otherwise have looked favorably on its message.


yabonn 05.06.08 at 6:07 pm


The racism of the book, the trivialisation of the book’s racism, the instant mainstreaming of the books idiocies, the reading of the book as a manual by military dickheads, the consequences.

The unscrutable arabs, the “shock and awe” name for that thing. The wise ponderings on the arab minds. The fucking exoticism of it all.



rickm 05.06.08 at 6:19 pm


In what way did ‘The Arab Mind’ and the ideas contained in it contribute to the Iraq war in general and torture in particular? While the book surely reinforces anti-Arab and Muslim sentiment, I don’t see any positive judgments in the book which would support the case for intervention, or for torturing people. I can’t really see how Orientalist ideas infected the decision making process of the policy-making elite.

There simply really isn’t anything in the documentary record to suggest that Orientalist ideas shaped the thinking of the makers of US foreign policy toward the Middle East in the postwar period.


baa 05.06.08 at 6:29 pm

This post has an air of false dichotomy about it. I have not read Patai, and so can neither dispute or affirm criticism of his book. That said, broad attempts to describe cultures are subject to inherent limitations, but also have utility. While of course there is no unitary “Arab mind” or “American mind,” it’s not like high level generality contains no useful information. You’d *want* anyone involved in foreign affairs to be attempting to understand the cultures with which they are dealing. Whether they use that information is accurate or inaccurate, and whether knowledge is used for good or evil is of course another matter.

A quick google turns up two articles, both skeptical of assigning direct role of Patai’s book in the actions or attitudes of the Bush administration.


Daniel S. Goldberg 05.06.08 at 6:31 pm

Choosing Orientalism as the paragon for a book intended to influence U.S. policy in the “Middle East,” is, as others have noted, a peculiar choice, given the serious problems with Said’s scholarship. And I’m not sure a two-sentence conclusory statement that the book’s “central argument stands” and the “critics miss the forest for the trees” really bolsters your point. If you’re going to hold Said’s work up as an exemplum, I think you need to say quite a bit more about why the serious errors in scholarship that Said seemed to be repeatedly guilty of do not undermine your position.

I find the choice even stranger as there are no shortage of excellent books on the Arab world, whose scholarship is, as far as I know, not subject to the same concerns as Said. Ajami’s The Arab World is quite good, or, for a really wonderful Islamic feminist take, Fatima Mernissi’s Islam and Democracy.


rickm 05.06.08 at 6:32 pm


You did not just cite the ME Forum as a source… did you?


rickm 05.06.08 at 6:35 pm

Can someone please direct me to some criticisms of Said’s scholarship? As far as I know, nearly all the trenchant criticisms are of Said’s methodology–which is something to be expected when a scholar of comparative literature invades the realm of historians.

Said’s book created a paradigm; a paradigm that explains more about how the West views the middle east than nearly any other paradigm. Pointing out that Germany had fair-minded and objective orientalists doesn’t undermine Said’s point.


baa 05.06.08 at 6:37 pm


Is it in ill odor here? As I say, a quick google: the Smith and the Atkine were among the first things that came up. I have no investment in either the authors or in the venues in which their pieces were published. One can of course evaluate the content of both for oneself…


mattm 05.06.08 at 6:39 pm

I believe we can add, “The Closed Circle” to the list of books to be banned. That is another popular book in military circles. If you think “The Arab Mind” is bad for your attitude, try reading that.

I agree with the other posters, that it is not a matter of what you read. You can find racist elements in books such as “A History of the Arab Peoples”, which is allegedly a straight forward history.
Perhaps I make the argument here by saying that having lived in the Middle East for years, you can find elements of truth in all the books. The bigger issue is walking into any culture trying to “find” something that confirms or denies anything you hold a priori to your encounter with it.

Just some random thoughts


robsalk 05.06.08 at 6:40 pm

You make a good point, but at what point does legitimate sociological observation cross the line into racist or ethnocentric generalizations about “the other?” I suspect our enemies could profitably read Richard Hoffstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics for a pretty clear roadmap of our response to 9/11, even though it does not paint a very flattering picture of our political discourse. At the same time, I found some value in The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs by David Pryce-Jones, which makes a coherent (and fairly depressing) argument about the structures of Arab society without attributing them to racial tendencies or anything inherently “Arab” or Middle-Eastern.

I really object to the whole Said school of deligitimizing inquiry because it serves a cultural project that he disagrees with. We need all our analytical tools to understand our world. We also need to be ready to look critically at those tools, because even the best ones are not always right.


dsquared 05.06.08 at 6:46 pm

“widely discredited”, “serious problems with scholarship” etc etc – like “devastating critique”, when I see these sonorous phrases deployed with no specifics accompanying them, they tend to make me think a little better of the person being criticised and a little worse of the person doing the criticising.


Steve LaBonne 05.06.08 at 6:47 pm

It’s in ill odor among sane people everywhere, not just here. Unless you think Daniel Pipes is a distinguished scholar. (In which case you’re not sane.)


grackle 05.06.08 at 6:59 pm

Curious to base a post on an opinion about a book one hasn’t read.


Walt 05.06.08 at 7:06 pm

Excuses for Abu Ghraib from grackle in 3, 2, 1…


Questioner 05.06.08 at 7:09 pm

First, in response to Steve Labonne, I’ve heard from a left-wing scholar of the middle east (at Wright State University in Dayton, OH) that Pipes is a distinguished scholar–of middle ages Islam. Obviously, that doesn’t mean he has anything sane to say about the contemporary middle east.

Second, re: Patai’s book: I actually think it doesn’t support Kathy G’s point at all. Maybe I’m missing something, but if you genuinely thought that Arabs only understand force and that they’re so different from us, etc., etc., then the idea of trying to democratize them and make them like us would actually lose plausibility. I think Patai’s book is much more related to the phenomenon of thinking that Palestinians are constitutionally incapable of democracy, and not the phenomenon that Iraqis are easily convertible to midwestern Americans.


abb1 05.06.08 at 7:18 pm

…then the idea of trying to democratize them and make them like us would actually lose plausibility

The point is not that Cheney&Co. read the book and decide to invade, it is (or should be, anyway) that the book is used to desensitize the rank-and-file military and the public in general.


Stephen Frug 05.06.08 at 7:19 pm

I haven’t read it, but that seems to be the theme of this thread, so…

A few people have complained that no one is citing any names for the anti-Said scholarship. But this is unfair, as Patrick O’Donnell cited one above: Robert Irwin’s Dangerous Knowledge.

Which leads us to the questions: has anyone read that? Does it make its case?

In any event, I think that Daniel Goldberg’s point is fair: if you’re going to hold a book aloft as your banner, even while acknowledging that it’s been legitimately criticized, a bit more explanation is called for. There are a lot of other good books out there to suggest as replacements for racist drivel, after all.


Jim 05.06.08 at 7:22 pm

Neither of these books is worth a crap as any kind of country guide – if the the military had been serious about this, they would have assigned the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible as required reading. Two birds with one stone: a much better insight into how people think and act in that part of the world, and a much reduced sense of exoticism, at least within the evangelical/fundamentalist demographic in the military.


David Weman 05.06.08 at 7:26 pm

“Second, re: Patai’s book: I actually think it doesn’t support Kathy G’s point at all. Maybe I’m missing something, but if you genuinely thought that Arabs only understand force and that they’re so different from us, etc., etc., then the idea of trying to democratize them and make them like us would actually lose plausibility.”

You’d think so, but in fact the 19th century imperialists had the same strange mix on the one hand, a messianic zeal and grand visions of instantly transforming and “civilizing” the conquered nations, and on the other a fierce racist contempt for the inhabitants.


virgil xenophon 05.06.08 at 7:29 pm

mattm: Do you mean Sir John Glubb Pasha’s “A Short History of the Arab Peoples?”


rickm 05.06.08 at 7:29 pm


Dangerous Knowledge’s central argument is that Said ignores German orientalists and a few French and British orientalists. Which is to say, Irwin argues Said overstates his thesis. Big deal. My point is that the arguments against Orientalism point to specific instances where the paradigm does not apply–they never claim that Said engaged in faulty scholarship or distorted facts. That’s because he didn’t. His book was a textual analysis of various French and British orientalists, and I defy anyone to outsmart Said in the realm of textual analysis. He then took that analysis and used Foucault’s ideas and applied them to interpreting how the Western world constructed itself through an ideology of difference against the East in order to facilitate imperialism. The only way of really arguing against that aspect of Said’s thesis is to reject applying Foucault.

And Ibn Warraq is in the same boat as Daniel Pipes.


CG 05.06.08 at 7:37 pm

Said, like Obama, is uniquely (and very vehemently) criticized for minor failings in argumentation, where major failings get the pass from everybody else. It has something to with the widespread paranoia induced by their especially cogent condemnations of Middle Eastern historiography and present-day political/media gamesmanship, respectively.


mattm 05.06.08 at 7:39 pm

To be clear about what we mean by military circles, the Marines specifically cite Patai’s book as one to read. The Air Force is heavily in B. Lewis sycophant land. The Navy has nothing of note really. The army is light on the reading, believe it or not.

Let’s not paint with too broad a brush here. We should also remember that the military is conservative by nature and certain writers will tend to “agree” with the military mindset.

Additionally, while I know people find it inherently racist to state that certain countries are incapable of democracy. I think it is better and more accurate to say that nations and countries for that matter are not presently capable. There is something to the argument that a winner take all attitude prevents the sort of compromises demanded in a democracy. We struggle with that here in the West. You can’t just walk into a country who has known repression and one vote one time politics and expect the parties to just recognize compromise as a powerful tool. It is a process.

Again, random thoughts here.


mattm 05.06.08 at 7:44 pm

virgil: I mean “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani and Malise Ruthven.


Alex 05.06.08 at 7:53 pm

A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan has been my guide to the Iraq war, and so far I haven’t been wrong.


Stephen Frug 05.06.08 at 7:59 pm


I haven’t read Irwin’s book, but I did read reviews of it — and I find it hard to reconcile your summary with the widely-quoted sentence of Irwin’s about Said’s Orientalism that “That book seems to me to be a work of malignant charlatanry in which it is hard to distinguish honest mistakes from wilful misrepresentations.” That sure doesn’t sound like it squares with the claim that “they never claim that Said engaged in faulty scholarship or distorted facts”, nor with the idea that Irwin’s claim is simply that Said overstated his thesis.

Now, it’s not my field, so I don’t know who’s right (or who’s right in what ways about what partial aspects of what); and, again, I haven’t even read Irwin’s book. But it certainly sounds from reviews & quotes like the disagreement is far more fundamental than you make it sound.


SamChevre 05.06.08 at 8:16 pm

I’m trying to figure out what conceivable benefit the US military would gain from Orientalism; like most of Kathy’s ideas, this one seems to suffer from a rather entire lack of comprehension of the point.


SamChevre 05.06.08 at 8:18 pm

Sorry–hit submit too soon.

Because the point of a military book is, “If I’m fighting so-and-so, what’s most likely to make him lose?”


Walt 05.06.08 at 8:22 pm

Au contraire, samchevre. If the military had assigned Orientalism as reading, we would have won the war.


seth edenbaum 05.06.08 at 8:23 pm

“Let’s see now, is there a country- one in which Patai spent part of his life- in which virulent anti-Arab racism is widespread in the population and especially in the political/military elite?”

Let’s see now. Why is the only link to an arabic speaker from this site to an anglo american academic?


Reality Man 05.06.08 at 8:25 pm

As Reza Aslan put it, Ajami is the last brown Orientalist, so citing him as a better alternative is not the best idea. Ajami’s opinions on key topics like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict also change overnight depending on where his next meal ticket is coming from. I’m not saying everyone should take Khalidi as gospel, but there are better alternatives for a general study of the Middle East than Ajami.

Also, Daniel Pipes was not even able to finish his PhD program, so doubts about how much he is an actual expert at anything are doubtful.


Bloix 05.06.08 at 8:31 pm

Reality Man – His name is Daniel Barenboim.

Said’s book is about seeing the world through simplistic dichotomies. Us vs. the Other. West vs. East. Christendom vs. Islam. Europe vs. the Orient. Masculine vs. Feminine. Active vs. Passive. Modernity vs. Antiquity. Science vs. Wisdom. Rationality vs. Emotion. Straight vs. Gay.

Take just about any pair of words you want and you can map it onto the West/Orient fault line. Top vs. Bottom. Light vs. Dark. Sun vs. Moon.

This, he says, tells us something about ourselves (ie Western intellectuals) but very little about the people we’re supposedly studying.

Said’s book could be a helpful corrective for people who look into mirrors and think they’re windows, but it wouldn’t help much past that.


Matt Weiner 05.06.08 at 8:52 pm

Stephen, I only just heard of Robert Irwin, but I found this London Review of Books review of a different book of his attacking Said, which says “Irwin’s factual corrections, however salutary, do not so much knock down the theoretical claims of Orientalism as chip away at single bricks.” The reviewer seems to suggest that Irwin thinks his critques are much more devastating than they are.

samchevre, surely the mindset that asks only “If I’m fighting so-and-so, what’s most likely to make him lose?” is part of the problem. Or at least, the mindset that doesn’t see that understanding the local people is key to answering that question; in order to “win” in Iraq (under whatever definition that is) we would’ve had to get the Iraqis to not support our enemies (whoever they happened to be at the time). A book that describes Arabs as indiscriminately violent isn’t going to help there.

Most likely, a true understanding of the Iraqi people would’ve revealed that, like every other people on the face of the planet, they don’t like military occupations, and so our war aims (whatever they are) were hopeless. But that still would’ve been worth knowing.


mark 05.06.08 at 9:17 pm

Interesting that this was posted today, because Laura McNamara (Sandia Laboratories; Member, AAA Ad Hoc Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the US Security and Intelligence Communities) is giving a talk at UC-irvine today on this subject, entitled “Iron Hands in Ethnographically-Informed Gloves? Anthropology, Torture, and the Importance of Engaged Critique in the Global War on Terrorism.” This description of the talk was given out: “In May 2004, the New Yorker magazine published three articles which investigative reporter Seymour Hersh speculated that the 2003 Abu Ghraib abuses were informed by Raphael Patais’ 1973 ethnography, The Arab Mind. Hersh’s allegation set the anthropology community in an uproar, with many scholars publicly decrying the use of anthropological knowledge in torture.

In this talk, McNamara describes a year’s worth of archival research in which she looked for evidence of the connection that Hersh implied. In 2004, a coalition of civil liberties and human rights groups used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to force the federal government to release thousands of pages of primary documentation related to detention, interrogation, and torture in the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). Her reading of this primary corpus has led her to believe that there is next to nothing to support the idea that Patais’ book provided Abu Ghraib guards and interrogators with a manual for intensive interrogation (to quote one anthropologist). In explaining how she came to this conclusion, she will not only describe what is missing from these documents namely, evidence of a smoking book but also point to sources of publicly available evidence that better explain the origins of the euphemistically named coercive interrogation techniques that surfaced so viscerally in Abu Ghraib.

This is not to say that this search for evidence of anthropologically informed torture was fruitless. The second part of this talk describes the problems that did emerge in the course of her research, from the dissemination of folk knowledge about what works in interrogation, to the problem of digital trophy photography among soldiers phenomena that point to the struggles that US national security institutions are encountering as they make sense of a global environment profoundly different than the Cold War that forged them.

In closing, she revisits the question of anthropology’s relationship to national security, arguing that productive critique must extend beyond well-meaning resolutions decrying the putative use of anthropology as an instrument of torture, to include creative and revolutionary forms of engagement on the part of anthropologists themselves.”


Stephen Frug 05.06.08 at 9:22 pm


Fair enough; but it seems worth pointing out that there were factual corrections and that Irwin did think his criticism was devastating, whether or not others agreed. (Other reviewers certainly did think Irwin devastated Said’s argument. (Again, I don’t know who’s right.))

Oh, and I think it’s the same book — certainly sounds like it — maybe it had different UK/US titles? (I’ve never understood the logic behind those, but they happen a lot.)


Laleh 05.06.08 at 9:26 pm

#10 – Robert Irwin doesn’t even come close to debunking Said. He doesn’t even understand what Said says, for god’s sake.

#17 – The best critique of Orientalism is by Aijaz Ahmad in his book _On Theory_. There are others that are also pretty good: Clifford, Al-Azm, Robert Young. Certainly not Lewish or Ajami.

As for “understanding Arabs”, _please_ don’t read Ajami. The man is a terrifying travesty of a human-being. In fact, why “understand Arabs”? Would we try to “understand Europeans”? Or “South Americans”?


Laleh 05.06.08 at 9:34 pm

And, far be it from me to invoke “expertise”, but I do teach Said every year to my Masters students and I teach all the major critiques, and my cleverest students have very good critiques that Irwin doesn’t (can’t) even approach….

Those people who think Irwin demolishes Said are in the same boat as him: thinking that Said’s argument is about the fusty orientalists, rather than the interrelation of orientalist knowledge and imperial domination.

Which is why Rickm at 31 (“Dangerous Knowledge’s central argument is that Said ignores German orientalists and a few French and British orientalists. Which is to say, Irwin argues Said overstates his thesis. Big deal.”) is absolutely right.


geo 05.06.08 at 9:40 pm

#25: the idea of trying to democratize them and make them like us would actually lose plausibility

It’s depressing that, at this late date, anyone still believes that democratizing the Middle East was any part of the purpose of the American invasion of Iraq. “Democratization” was entirely a transparent rationalization, a mere public relations sham.


seth edenbaum 05.06.08 at 9:41 pm

A better discussion of War And ‘Anthropology’ by Helena Cobban. With context, including, importantly, Palestine and Sadr City

I have been concerned about the Pentagon’s program to enlist anthropologists into its “Human Terrain System” (HTS) program ever since I first heard about it. The relationship between western “anthropology” (literally, in Greek, a “study of the human condition”) and various extremely exploitative colonial ventures over the past 120 years is very well-known.
Recently, I identified one of my key concerns with this latest version of the same-old, same-old attempt to use specialized knowledge about the condition of other peoples in order to subjugate and control them. It is this idea that our fellow-humans around the world could be considered, in the military sense or any other sense, to be merely “terrain” to be fought over, won, and controlled.
In military science, geographical terrain (from the Latin, meaning “earth”) is something that is to be studied, mapped, and understood– and then, that understanding is used in order to control and exploit that terrain.
So what are we saying about our fellow-humans if we say they are merely “terrain”?


Jim Harrison 05.06.08 at 9:46 pm

Orientalism could only be influential by reputation because it’s written in impenetrably dense postmodern jargon–Said himself apologized for its then trendy obscurity and wrote his later works in much more straightforward English. You can make the opposite complaint about Patai’s book. It’s too easy to read. It presents the Arab as possessing an unchanging essence rather as Medieval bestiaries describe the lion or the peacock as having an eternal nature. That sort of ethnic stereotyping, tarted up with some semi-Freudian psychobabble, is very easy to sell. It sounds “deep,” mysteries we Westerners don’t understand and all that, and yet makes no demands at all on the intellect of an audience.


Bloix 05.06.08 at 9:48 pm

In fact, why “understand Arabs”? Would we try to “understand Europeans”? Or “South Americans”?

Yes indeed, we would. For example, Americans routinely misunderstand European attitudes toward religion because we have no experience with state religions operating as instruments of oppression. There is a huge amount of understanding that even a small amount of historical and cultural context can provide.


Laleh 05.06.08 at 9:57 pm

But Bloix, what “European” attitudes towards religion? The Polish? The French? The British? The Northern Irish Catholic? The Sicilian? The Bavarian? These attitudes are distinctly different, as they are products of different socio-historical trajectories. Despite the reduction-as-a-result-of-distance effect, there actually isn’t a singular “European” attitude towards religion.


Martin Bento 05.06.08 at 10:19 pm

What’s more interesting to me that the legitimacy or otherwise of invoking Said in this context is that the substance of many of the anti-Arab stereotypes sound a lot like some of the pop cultural left’s attack on Christian fundamentalism and conservative culture generally, particularly in the 60s/70s heyday of the pop left. Homophobic are they? Hung up with shame about sex and the (especially female) body? Sexually repressed and therefore sexually obsessed? Sexually frustrated and therefore prone to violence? Bigoted against those not like them? Worshipful of arbitrary ethnic/religious divisions? All this sounds like hippiedom railing against the establishment circa 1971.

I think the hippy critique was quite shallow but not completely without merit on some points. But the military now is, by many accounts, permeated with conservative Christian culture. Do they see themselves in how they see their enemies, and are they trying to kill an image of themselves that they have seen in the popular culture, but are trying to deny?


Rickm 05.06.08 at 10:35 pm

Jim Harrison wrote:

“Orientalism could only be influential by reputation because it’s written in impenetrably dense postmodern jargon—Said himself apologized for its then trendy obscurity and wrote his later works in much more straightforward English.”

Methinks finding Orientalism ‘inpenetrable’ says more about the reader than the writer.

The book itself is superbly organized–the first 18 pages contain the thrust of Said’s thesis, and can be easily disseminated and digested. Although the excoriations of Bernard Lewis in the conclusion are great fun.


dsquared 05.06.08 at 10:58 pm

Orientalism could only be influential by reputation because it’s written in impenetrably dense postmodern jargon

It naffing isn’t. I’ve got a copy right here on my desk, by chance. This is another of those critiques which makes me think rather better of Said – frankly, I read the book and rather disagreed with him on a lot of points, but then I read Irwin’s book and I now more or less worship Said as a demigod.


Richard Byrne 05.07.08 at 12:02 am

Orientalism could only be influential by reputation because it’s written in impenetrably dense postmodern jargon

Surely you’re not serious. It’s a very well-written book. Much better written, for instance, than Irwin’s ultimately unconvincing book.

Back to Kathy G’s point, however, I think substituting Culture and Imperialism for Orientalism might have made for an even more interesting post, because it really does get more directly at some of these issues, whereas Orientalism (though influential) does so more indirectly.


novakant 05.07.08 at 12:09 am

the substance of many of the anti-Arab stereotypes sound a lot like some of the pop cultural left’s attack on Christian fundamentalism and conservative culture generally, particularly in the 60s/70s heyday of the pop left.

But the military now is, by many accounts, permeated with conservative Christian culture. Do they see themselves in how they see their enemies, and are they trying to kill an image of themselves that they have seen in the popular culture, but are trying to deny?

Good points. It’s worth noting, though, that it’s not only conservative Christians in the military that are in an awkward ideological situation. The left/liberals themselves are torn between two poles, namely multiculturalism and anti-colonialism vs. fight against oppression/for universal human rights.


James 05.07.08 at 12:14 am

Speaking of Obama (32), I’m sure this picture of him with Said will emerge at some point as evidence of yet more evidence of Obama’s links with the terrorists…


James 05.07.08 at 12:17 am

That’s an interesting article about Obama lining up with AIPAC by the way:

“Over the years since I first saw Obama speak I met him about half a dozen times, often at Palestinian and Arab-American community events in Chicago including a May 1998 community fundraiser at which Edward Said was the keynote speaker. …Obama was forthright in his criticism of US policy and his call for an even-handed approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The last time I spoke to Obama was in the winter of 2004 at a gathering in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. He was in the midst of a primary campaign to secure the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate seat he now occupies. But at that time polls showed him trailing.

As he came in from the cold and took off his coat, I went up to greet him. He responded warmly, and volunteered, “Hey, I’m sorry I haven’t said more about Palestine right now, but we are in a tough primary race. I’m hoping when things calm down I can be more up front.””


Barry 05.07.08 at 12:54 am

“A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan has been my guide to the Iraq war, and so far I haven’t been wrong.”
Posted by Alex

Amen. I had heard about it, and just read it. Is there a phrase like ‘deja vu’, but referring to the sense of smell, particularly a stench?


Kaveh Hemmat 05.07.08 at 1:40 am

I would assign the introduction and the first chapter of Said and leave out the rest. Culture and Imperialism I just don’t see being that convincing to military folks, but maybe I underestimate them…

I really object to the whole Said school of deligitimizing inquiry because it serves a cultural project that he disagrees with.

Said absolutely does not delegitimize inquiry. This is a common, probably often willful misunderstanding of Said. He doesn’t oppose studying of any of the topics Orientalists studied. What he objects to is framing that activity as study of The East(TM), as opposed to the study of the shari’ah, history of mysticism, history of Central Asia, etc. Most scholars of Islamic history (for example) weren’t taking silly ideas like “the Arab mind” seriously as a framework for inquiry in Said’s day, and hadn’t been for a long time.

Said makes it pretty clear that he sees things that way too, by singling out Bernard Lewis as the exemplary figure of ‘those trends still existing in contemporary Area Studies scholarship’ (paraphrasing Said here).

Though, even relatively recently (e.g. 1970s or later), there has been serious scholarship with major flaws of the type Said describes. One example is Andre Miquel’s work on Arabic geographical works: he posits a decline in Islamic geographical knowledge based on (so he claims) fewer works of geography being written in Arabic after the 11th century, failing to realize that people started writing geography in Persian and Turkish instead of Arabic. There is also some work that adheres to a ‘decline’ paradigm of some sort, which I think it’s safe to say is a legacy of “Orientalism” of the type Said talks about, maybe also a result of present-day prejudices.

Bottom line is, the things in the old Orientalists’ scholarship that Said criticizes aren’t helpful for inquiry anyway.


joneilortiz 05.07.08 at 2:03 am

I’m not sure if this has been mentioned in the comments but the promoters of Patai in the military were well aware of Edward Said and had engaged in a monologue battle with his positions throughout the 90s. Norvell DeAtkine, who is in fact responsible for much of the recent military interest in Patai, wrote the following in 1999:

“Said’s earlier classic Orientalism has been supplemented by his newer book Culture and Imperialism, which makes the case that the literary ascendancy of the West has created a self-validating picture of an incurably inferior Near East. In Said’s latest articles he has modified his thesis somewhat to link the now-admitted inferiority of the Arab world to a malaise, a “sense of powerlessness,” marked by the tendency to substitute words for action. This is a trait of Arab culture depicted by Raphael Patai in his much-maligned classic The Arab Mind, still far and above the best exposition of Arab culture.” (Norvell B. DeAtkine, “The Middle East: The Question Is Not Why We Care but Rather Should We?” Parameters, Summer 1999, pp. 141-47)


Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.07.08 at 2:54 am

I hope those who have yet to read Irwin’s book will do so despite some of the comments above. His argument is, in the main and in particulars, devastating to Said’s thesis. Incidentally, the hagiographic attitude some take to Foucault’s work is troubling (not unlike the veneration of Gramsci among many New Left academics of my generation). Said himself faced insuperable difficulties in reconciling Gramsci and Foucault, and his appropriation of the latter was ambivalent if not contradictory, as Irwin explains. “[H]aving read Foucault and Gramsci, [Said] was unable to decide whether the discourse of Orientalism constrains Orientalists and makes them victims of an archive from which they are powerless to escape, or whether, on the other hand, the Orientalists are the willing and conscious collaborators in the fabrication of a hegemonic discourse which they employ to subjugate others.”

Let’s sample just a taste of what he has to say:

“I really am attacking the book rather than the man. I have no significant disagreements with what Said has written about Palestine, Israel, Kipling’s Kim, or Glenn Gould’s piano playing.”

Irwin grants that Said and others have “raised profound and difficult questions about the nature of discourse, the ‘Other,’ ‘the Gaze,’ and a wide range of epistemological issues.”

“Orientalism has the look of a book written in a hurry. It is repititious and contains lots of factual mistakes [many of which Irwin lists*].” Indeed, “…it is hard to distinguish honest mistakes from wilful misrepresentations.”

Said uses the term “Orientalism” “in a newly restrictive sense, as those who travelled, studied or wrote about the Arab world [so much for Turkish and Persian studies!] and even here he excluded consideration of North Africa west of Egypt.”

“Until the nineteenth century, Orientalism had little in the way of institutional structures and the heyday of institutional Orientalism only arrived in the second half of the twentieth century.”

“Since there was no overarching and constraining discourse of Orientalism, there were many competing agendas and schools of thought.”

“…[E]ach generation of Arabists found the previous generation’s work unsatisfactory.”

“Clealy, a great deal of misinformation about Islam circulated throughout medieval Christendom. Equally obviously, this was because those who touched on Islamic matters did not trouble to get their facts rights and polemical fantasy answered their need. Getting things right was what the Orientalists did from the sixteenth century onwards.”

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Orientalists were “those who were interested in Islam, Arabic and the Arabs [recalling that ‘not many people were so intersted’]. Those who were tended to be somewhat detached from worldly affairs and their approach to Islam and the Arabs was usually scholarly and antiquarian rather than utilitarian. [….] The Orientalists tended to model their study of Oriental languages on the way Latin and Greek were studied by their contemporaries.”

“[T]he scholarly invasion of Egypt [in the late 18th and early 19th century] was a milestone in the history of Egyptology, effectively its founding document, it had little or no influence on the way Arabic and Islamic studies developed in the following century.”

“‘Orientalism Now’ is the most polemical chapter. Jewish academics and journalists are the particular objects of Said’s denunciations here. It is obvious that bitterness about what had been happening to the Palestinians since the 1940s fuelled the writing of this book. But rather than blame British, American and Soviet politicians, Zionist lobbyists, the Israeli army and, for that matter, poor Palestinian leadership [which Said in fact elsewhere critizes at some length], in a wierd kind of displacement Arabist scholars of past centuries, such as Pococke and Silvestre de Sacy, were presented as largely responsible for the disasters of Said’s own time.”

Irwin provides convincing evidence that Said could not make up his mind when Orientalism began: “A lot of the time he wished to link its origins to Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt in 1798. Orientalism is repeatedly presented as a secular Enlightenment phenomenon. [….] But at other times, Said seems to regard d’Herbelot’s Bibliotheque orientale (1697) as the founding charter of Orientalism. But then again, maybe Postel was the first Orientalist? Another possible date is 1312 when the Council of Vienne set up chairs in Hebrew, Arabic and other languages (though Said seems unaware that the Council’s decrees regarding the teaching of Arabic were a dead letter).”

“At several points in his book Said contends that the Orient had no objective existence. In other places he seems to imply that it did exist, but that the Orientalists systematically misrepresented it. If either proposition were true, what use would the writings of Orientalists be to the men who went out to govern the British and French empires? If all that Said was arguing was that Orientalists have not always been objective, then the argument would be merely banal. Orientalists themselves would be the first to assert such a proposition.”

*After noting some of Said’s conspicous errors, Irwin writes that one “could go on and on listing the mistakes. Some are small ones, but others are large indeed. Sophisticated allies of Said have suggested that facts, or factual errors, are not the point. Indeed, recourse to ‘facts’ and ‘evidence’ are, it is hinted, a time-honoured recourse of reactionary Orientalists. It is suggested that such is the essential truth of Said’s indictment of Orientalism that the sweep of his argument is not undermined by the lack of a detailed factual basis.”

Irwin writes that for Said political problems tend, in the end, to be textual ones.


geo 05.07.08 at 4:02 am

#56: “I think substituting Culture and Imperialism for Orientalism might have made for an even more interesting post, because it really does get more directly at some of these issues, whereas Orientalism (though influential) does so more indirectly.”

Can’t agree, Richard. Culture and Imperialism is a silly book, as I’ve argued here:


John Meredith 05.07.08 at 10:56 am

Blimey, that is a lot of words and indignation over a book you haven’t read. I dread to think of the frenzies there might be in store if you ever get round to turning a few pages.

I agree with the sceptical comments on here about Said’s Orientalism. Some of his fans are doing him a disservice by promoting one of his weakest books so determinedly. It would be a shame if his reputation stood too much on this book because it could well mean the end of his reputation.


John Meredith 05.07.08 at 11:00 am

Anyway, leaving aside the debate about the scholarly value of Orientalism, the thesis in the post misses because the ‘neocon project’ was pointedly not racist in the ‘Orientalism’ sense. As has been remarked over and again, if the neocons made a racist mistake it was that the Arab peoples of Iraq were culturally too like American and European westerners, not that they were too ‘other’.


abb1 05.07.08 at 12:22 pm

if the neocons made a racist mistake it was that the Arab peoples of Iraq were culturally too like American and European westerners…

Where’s the evidence of this? Here’s their “Carthago delenda est” manifesto from 1998:
…try to find anything in there that isn’t garden variety imperialism or scaremongering.


John Meredith 05.07.08 at 12:39 pm

“Where’s the evidence of this?”

It is everywhere you look. We all remember how the troops would be greeted by flag waving crowds eager to adopt western style democracy, don’t we? The letter you link to is neither here not there. You may disagree with its prescriptions but I don’t see how it is an example of racism of any kind (unless you consider waging war to be necessarily racist or ‘orientalist’ in some way?), certainly not of the Said-style ‘orientalist’ flavour.


abb1 05.07.08 at 12:58 pm

The ‘flowers and chocolate’ stuff has nothing to do with anything but building public support for the war. I’m not saying that the document is racist, on the contrary, I’m saying that they view Iraq as a geopolitical entity and nothing else. So, I guess, basically I’m with you on this, it’s just that you go a little too far, to the other side.


richard 05.07.08 at 2:18 pm

could somebody please actually read The Arab Mind, Dangerous Knowledge and some body of the Orientalist writing Said criticises and then tell me what to think about it all?

I’ve read Orientalism, and I assume most commenters here have, too, and I’ve found it to be a useful work as far as my own epistemology is concerned, without being able to critique Said’s sources. Unless I put in the homework I don’t think I can comment much on this post, however.

…Except to say that, while I thought Buruma and Margalit’s Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies was execrable, it does seem to me that relying on torture and sexual humiliation rather confirms the whole perverted-Babylon trope about the West that they refer to, and makes even me (a Westerner) wonder if some ‘elective affinity’ wasn’t at work in selecting Patai as a guide for abusing prisoners.


Ralph Hitchens 05.07.08 at 5:40 pm

Instead of Patai’s book the military should have turned to one of its own, republishing and passing around an article in the Fall 2000 edition of the online journal American Diplomacy, “Why Arabs Lose Wars” by Col. (Ret.) Norvell B. De Atkine.


Richard Byrne 05.08.08 at 6:22 am

>>Culture and Imperialism is a silly book, as I’ve argued here:<&lt;

Silly, George? I disagree, though you’re right to dock it for style points. What I was trying to argue was that it’s a scenic route from Orientalism to the neocon project in Iraq. C&I is the expressway.


engels 05.08.08 at 10:28 am

As has been remarked over and again, if the neocons made a racist mistake it was that the Arab peoples of Iraq were culturally too like American and European westerners, not that they were too ‘other’

Yes, because as everyone knows, if you illegally invade and occupy a country whose people are white, you will be greeted with universal gratitude.

And why does Meredith imagine that anyone could give a crap what his estimation of Said’s ‘reputation’ is?


s.e. 05.08.08 at 2:25 pm

Gaza Beirut and Sadr City

As’ad AbuKhalil – The Legacy of Rafiq Hariri: Dahlan Plan for Lebanon.

Jimmy Carter – On Gaza

The world is witnessing a terrible human rights crime in Gaza, where a million and a half human beings are being imprisoned with almost no access to the outside world. An entire population is being brutally punished.
This gross mistreatment of the Palestinians in Gaza was escalated dramatically by Israel, with United States backing, after political candidates representing Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian Authority parliament in 2006. The election was unanimously judged to be honest and fair by all international observers.
Israel and the US refused to accept the right of Palestinians to form a unity government with Hamas and Fatah and now, after internal strife, Hamas alone controls Gaza. Forty-one of the 43 victorious Hamas candidates who lived in the West Bank have been imprisoned by Israel, plus an additional 10 who assumed positions in the short-lived coalition cabinet.


musa 05.08.08 at 4:50 pm

“Irwin provides convincing evidence that Said could not make up his mind when Orientalism began”.

And a “start date” for orientalism is necessary for his argument because…?


Ellis Goldberg 05.10.08 at 10:29 pm

Patai’s book, as I recall, has some interesting bloopers. Like claiming that there is no word in Arabic for child but only for boys and girls. There is a word for child but it’s also true that people may not use the word when they talk about their own children. Patai does indeed argue that sex and issues of sex are very important but largely absent as issues of open discussion. Perhaps if he had written after the pre-post-modern period he would have been able to talk about absences. However it’s not clear to me that he’s saying much different than what the great Egyptian writer Yusuf Idris argued in some of his stories. I do, perhaps naively, find it difficult to imagine that anyone can seriously find fault with a book s/he hasn’t read. It reminds me all too much of the furor around Satanic Verses in Arabic in which, people rushed to dissociate themselves from a book they pointedly disdained to read. The vogue for Patai comes because the book appears to tell you something about daily life (quasi-anthropological) and it’s critical of historical academic scholarship (stuff about poetry and history written in a classical Arabic that no one actually uses). Interesting as it is to play the “one book that would have changed everything” game, Orientalism is notably a book that doesn’t help (and doesn’t claim to help) anyone actually understand the Middle East since it’s not about the Middle East at all. The neo-cons themselves would have done better to re-read large sections of Edmund Burke’s Impeachment of Hastings before invading any country about which they had effectively no local knowledge where they would be crucially dependent on local alliances. But I suppose what makes them “neo” is that they’ve abandoned classical conservative thinkers and themselves seem quite taken up in the search for the single book.

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