Edward W. Said slammed the views on Islam expressed by Bernard Lewis and V. S. Naipaul


After 9-11, my study of globalization abruptly turned toward the "engagement" of the West with Islam. It seemed clear to me that the diplomatic and military initiatives precipitated by the violence visited on the American mainland would take priority over the economic and cultural spearheads of globalization.

In taking that turn, I grabbed readily identifiable resources. They included the imaginative reportage of novelist V.S. Naipaul (A Way in the World and Beyond Belief) and the writings of Bernard Lewis. My early perceptions of "Islam & the West" consequently took shape under the influence of these two writers. It was salutary, therefore, that I ran across vigorous objection to them both in essays by the late Edward W. Said, who defined "Orientalism" for us in the 1970s.

Said outspokenly defied Western scholarly formulations of his native grounds in the Middle East. He took exception to the views of both Naipaul and Lewis in essays over the years. To balance my evolving understanding, I record the following notes about several of those essays.

"Bitter Dispatches from the Third World" (1980).

V. S. Naipaul in Edward Said's reading was a disenchanted voice that arose in an in-between colonial situation. Naipaul saw no authenticity in the native worlds overrun by Western colonials. He disparaged the post-colonial attempts of natives to seize their destiny, as Said read him. In his turn toward reportage on the "Third World," Naipaul became a "scavenger" who was "sending back dispatches to an implied audience of disenchanted Western liberals, not of presumably unteachable colonials." (100) Naipaul found fault with the failures of nationalist guerillas but, Said observed, never with the excesses of imperialism at the root of their motivation. Naipaul became Western in spite of his odd personal displacement as a twice-baked colonial, rooted in India but transplanted to the West Indies. Naipaul told the liberal West what he thought it wanted to hear from the colonial front: that natives inflicted their own wounds in their failed aspirations toward the only true values, those of the West.

Naipaul thus appeared to be in total conflict with Said's own complex understanding. Intellectuals in the West, Said argued, demeaned the whole of colonized culture through the strategies of "Orientalism." Naipaul's collaboration with the colonizers added a native voice against other natives. Such a voice reinforced "more dependence, self-disgust, collaboration, apathy." (103) Born in Palestine and reared in Egypt, Said as a native could only lament this apostasy of a fellow native. At best he could hope that Naipaul would wake up and "see himself with less bad faith." (104)

"Among the Believers" (1981).

Edward Said objected specifically to V. S. Naipaul's view of Islam in a review of Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey. Naipaul reported on his visits to Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Naipaul took a "safe" tour with strong Western attitudes about Islam and predictably sent a report to the West on Islam's essential flaw, situated in a simplistic faith that could not accommodate the benefits of the West. In Said's reading, Naipaul believed "that the old days were better, when Europe ruled the coloreds and allowed them few silly pretensions about purity, independence, and new ways." As in his previous essay on Naipaul, Said condemned what in America would have been his "Uncle Tomism."

"Orientalism Reconsidered" (1985)

When Edward Said's landmark book Orientalism appeared in 1978, it aroused a storm of response. Said's basic argument there was that the study of the Orient by western scholars (the social science of Orientalism) had made the multivarious East into "an object frozen once and for all in time by the gaze of western percipients." (201) This reduced the people studied to the West's "silent Other" and banned those studied from having a voice in the study of themselves. Those studied, Said argued, had the right "to speak for and represent themselves." (200) (Said's objection to Naipaul's reporting dovetails with this view. He thought that Naipaul's condescending approach toward natives implied that they had neither the right nor the ability to speak for themselves as colonialism broke up.)

In this 1985 essay, Said sought to respond to responses to his original thinking on Orientalism. In Bernard Lewis's criticism of his work, Said saw an ideologically charged enemy. Lewis represented the established study of the Orient before it came under Said's attack. His scholarship epitomized for Said the faults of traditional Orientalism mentioned above. It was bad enough that Lewis froze the Orient into a silent Other; worse, as Said saw him, was that he was grinding a political axe while claiming to be an impartial scholar:

He became a widely rated authority for anti-Islamic, anti-Arab, Zionist, and Cold War crusades, all of them underwritten by a zealotry covered with a veneer of urbanity that had very little in common with the "science" and learning Lewis purported to be upholding. (205)

Lewis outraged Said when, despite his purported political motive, he had the “effrontery to disassociate Orientalism from its 200-year-old partnership with European imperialism.” (207) Lewis associated his studies with “modern classical philology and the study of ancient Greek and Roman culture.” (207)

In short, Said saw the likes of Lewis as the intellectual counterparts to the political imperialism that suppressed the voice of the colonized. The biases of western culture found in Lewis led to descriptions of the Orient that, in Said’s view, grossly distorted its complex and living reality. He ended this essay by finding correspondences between the new cultural studies of feminist and black studies and a new Orientalism that transcended the imperialist perspective of Bernard Lewis and his ilk.

"The Clash of Definitions" (2000—not previously published)

In this final essay of the collection, Edward Said criticized Samuel Huntington’s thesis that the new post-Cold War phase of world politics would involve the clash of the West with other “civilizations”—a kind of continuation of the Cold War with the transmutation of a single adversary into more than half a dozen.

Said thought that Huntington supported his argument with tendentious sources, Bernard Lewis among them (along with neocon journalist Charles Krauthammer). Indeed, Said revealed that Huntington’s clarion title, “The Clash of Civilizations,” came straight from a 1990 essay by Lewis in The Atlantic Monthly titled “The Roots of Muslim Rage.” (572)

Said alluded then to Lewis’s execrable methods—“the lazy generalizations, the reckless distortions of history, the wholesale demotion of civilizations into categories like irrational and enraged.” (572) He condemned Huntington for picking up the anti-Islam polemical rhetoric of Bernard Lewis: “Like Lewis, Huntington defines Islamic civilization reductively, as if what matters most about it is its supposed anti-Westernism.” (573)

Over-generalization and absurd reductivism were the principal targets of Said’s criticism of Huntington and Lewis. They saw “common objective elements” throughout the Islamic civilization; Said saw a vast diversity that would not reduce to a civilizational “Other” neatly counterpoised against the West.


Said’s passionate allegiance to the lands of his birth and upbringing fired his criticisms of Naipaul and Lewis, representatives, in his mind, of the intellectual corruption accompanying the social corruption of colonialism/imperialism. Where they saw defeat and resentment in a wide swath of the human race, Said saw pride and rich human value that refused to be packaged and standardized.

His antagonism to Lewis in particular seems to epitomize the difference between modernist and postmodernist scholarship. Lewis, coming out of the high modern period when imperialism was riding high, gravitated predictably to large generalizations about the march of western culture toward universal implementation. Said, coming later, was offended by such a metanarrative on intellectual grounds but also, passionately, on personal grounds, given the outrages that he harbored about the places of his youth, Palestine and Egypt. In some measure, Said against Lewis is a clash of intellectual generations.

In talking about the failures of Orientalism as a branch of social science, Said was talking about the failures of colonial imperialism itself. By the time he wrote in the 1970s, the facts about imperial failure were well established, even if some were not immediately prepared to make the connection between those facts on the ground and the intellectual constructs that still remained and that Said was seeking to dismantle.

For someone in 2004 who is trying to cope with a post-9-11 world, Said’s comments on Naipaul and Lewis are a useful corrective. I can now note that their perspectives probably delivered to me a distorted picture of the Islam that I have been trying to understand. At the same time, I can resolve to keep their constructions intact. They give me an anchor of meaning while I look around for more accurate readings. Armed with Said’s criticism, I can qualify what they report.

It is interesting to me that Bernard Lewis emerged immediately after 9-11 as the voice of authority in the press on Islam. His long piece on Islam shortly after 9-11 in The New Yorker clearly aimed to give information-starved Americans like me what passed as an expert insight into the culture (“civilization”) from which the bombers came. I saw Lewis on several talk shows in the aftermath of the attack. Said’s unbridled attack on Lewis catches my breath and makes me think twice.

Somehow, his attack on Naipaul did not surprise me as much. I did not take Naipaul as seriously as I took Lewis. It was always clear to me that Naipaul was as interested in finding a literary form as he was in giving an accurate report from the far reaches of Islamic culture. Indeed, I gave up on Naipaul as a source of useful post-9-11 information.


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