on 8 August 2009
Irwin seeks to refute the thesis, propounded most vehemently by Edward Said, that orientalism, the study of Islamic society from historical, sociological, cultural and other points of view, was/is the handmaiden of Western imperialism in the Middle East. Far from being imperialistically-minded, Irwin argues that orientalist scholars were/are motivated merely by a lust for knowing. Given the influence of religion in Europe (and indeed the world over) until quite recently, it is unsurprising to discover that curiosity regarding the Middle East was originally motivated by a desire to add background detail to the Bible stories: where exactly was Mount Sinai?; how did people live during biblical times? etc. With the rise of secularism, orientalist studies continued to justify themselves as straightforward scholarship. Irwin denies that there was a sinister relationship between orientalists and European imperialism. Academic pedants with little interest in contemporary matters, the majority of Orientalists had little connection with imperialism. Strikingly, those who did interest themselves in colonialism tended to oppose it in solidarity with Arab peoples: As Irwin writes, `There has been a marked tendency for Orientalists to be anti-imperialists, as their enthusiasm for Arab or Persian or Turkish culture often went hand in hand with a dislike of seeing those people defeated and dominated by the Italians, Russians, British or French' (p. 204). Such anti-imperialists included Leone Caetani, Edward Granville Browne, Louis Massignon, Jacques Berque, Vincent Monteil, and Claude Cahen, to name just a few. To be sure, some Orientalists were imperialists - Christian Snouck Hurgronje, who worked as an adviser to the colonial administration in the Dutch East Indies, being a prominent example - but they tended to be exceptions to the rule.
With relation to Islam, Irwin argues that, contrary to Said's contention, Christians did not see it as a monstrous `Other', the anathema against which Christianity sought to define itself. True, many clerical Orientalists did engage in personal attacks on the Prophet Muhammad, portraying him as a sex-mad epileptic. However, this was not motivated by racism, but rather by religion: Muhammad was slandered thus because he was seen as an imposter, a heretic, a false prophet leading Arabs, Persians and Turks away from the true religion, Christianity. After all, such attacks were used against heretical movements in Europe itself. If Europeans had an `Other' at all, it was often other Europeans: for Catholics it was free-thinking Protestants; for the latter it was superstitious Papists.
Irwin devotes one chapter to critiquing Said's 'Orientalism' (1978). Refusing to beat around the bush, he describes the book as `a work of malignant charlatanry in which it is hard to distinguish honest mistakes from willful misrepresentations' (p. 4). Far from being a scholarly history of Orientalism, according to Irwin Said's book sought to blame the ills of the modern Middle East on Western imperialism by ascribing racist motives to the Orientalist scholarship - historical, religious, cultural, sociological - which Said alleges underpinned and motivated such colonialism. Moreover, Said alleges that this scholarship created the Orient in the first instance, for, he contends, the place has no objective reality. Subscribing to the pessimism of the intellect, a fashion that seems obligatory for any self-respecting leftie, Said dipped into the bleak theory of Michel Foucault to argue that Orientalism is an inescapable discourse, supplementing it with the work of Antonio Gramsci to argue that Orientalists willingly participate in the construction of `hegemonic' control. Said was oblivious to the fact that the theories of Foucault and Gramsci are contradictory. Indeed, Irwin has a good chuckle at the self-regarding abstruseness of the postmodern and postcolonial `theory' that informed Said's work.
Overall, Irwin's book is worth a read. It has its handicaps though. The main one is that, by focusing on the people rather than the scholarship, Irwin ends up writing a long Orientalist parade, with each scholar given a brief moment in the spotlight to impart a potted biography and a short synopsis of his scholarship. This approach can give rise to tedium and confusion. Nevertheless, it's a good book, reminding us of the existence of Islamic, as well as European, imperialism, with its attendant evils, such as slavery.