Defending the West-Against Itself

Lee Nisbet

Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism, by Ibn Warraq (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2008, ISBN 9778-1-59102-484-2) 556 pp. Cloth $29.95.


Ibn Warraq’s Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism offers not only a devastating critique of Edward Said’s flawed scholarship and illogical arguments found in his highly influential Orientalism (Vintage Books, 1979) but, more important, a breathtaking, learned masterwork that persuasively demonstrates what qualitatively distinguishes the West “from the rest.”

Warraq’s book raises disturbing questions. How and why could Said’s flawed piece of scholarship have become so influential among Western liberal intellectuals? Why now do Western values and achievements especially need to be defended against attacks from its most influential foes—the Western left-wing intelligentsia? And is it merely serendipitous that this immensely learned apologia issues from a foreign-born Muslim apostate who has put much more than a career on the line to express very, very politically incorrect views?

Published three decades ago, Said’s Western-bashing Orientalism made the transplanted Palestinian Columbia University professor one of the most famous, celebrated, and influential scholars of his era. Ironically, despite this celebrity, Said claims it was the degrading treatment he received in his adopted homeland that led to writing his polemic against Western intolerance: “My own experiences of these matters are in part what made me write this book. The life of an Arab Palestinian in the West, particularly in America, is disheartening. . . . The web of racism, cultural stereotypes, political imperialism, dehumanizing ideology holding in the Arab or the Muslim is very strong indeed as it is in this web which every Palestinian has come to feel as his uniquely punishing destiny” (Orientalism, p. 27).

Said’s argument in Orientalism is simply that the contemporary American web of racism, negative stereotypes, and political imperialism, aimed at dehumanizing and exploiting Palestinians in particular and Arabs and Muslims in general, is but a contemporary expression of the intolerance that has driven and drives “Orientalism”—the Western scholarly movement to know “the Orient.” From the Church Council of Vienne in 1312, which established chairs in Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, and Syrian, but especially from the Enlightenment to contemporary times, Said claims that Western scholars have been deliberately complicit in the West’s successful campaign to dominate and humiliate Islamic Arab civilization, especially by constructing it as “the other.” In the nineteenth century, for example, “the Orient studied was a textual universe by and large . . . when a learned Orientalist traveled in the country of his specification, it was always with unshakeable abstract maxims about the ‘civilization’ he had studied; rarely were Orientalists interested in anything except proving the validity of these “musty” truths by applying them, without great success to uncomprehending, hence degenerate natives” (ibid., p. 52).

“Orientalism” in Said’s view (following Foucault) is not knowledge, which is impossible, but rather a discourse in power, a political tool “by which European culture was able to manage, even produce—the Orient, politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically and imaginatively during the post enlightenment period” (ibid., p. 3). Oriental studies were, and are, the intellectual sword of Western occupiers, imperialists who express and justify their racist, xenophobic, power-driven policies by creating false categories—the Oriental “others.” Critiquing, for example, the early twentieth-century views of Lord Arthur Balfour, British Prime Minister and Consul General in Egypt for twenty-five years, Said claims: “The argument, when reduced to its simplest form, was clear, it was precise, it was easy to grasp. There are Westerners, and there are Orientals. The former dominant; the latter must be dominated. . . . Once again, knowledge of the subject races or Orientals is what makes their management easy and profitable; knowledge gives power, more power requires more knowledge, and so on in an increasingly profitable dialectic of information and control (ibid., p. 36).

This view of Western Orientalism as conspiratorial is carried on throughout the book to the last chapter, “Orientalism Now.” The work of Bernard Lewis, the well-respected Princeton University Orientalist, is characterized thusly: “For at least a decade and a half his work in the main has been oppressively ideological, despite his various attempts at subtlety and irony. I mention his writing as a perfect exemplification of the academic whose work purports to be liberal objective scholarship but is in reality close to being propaganda against his subject material. But this should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the history of orientalism; it is only the latest—and in the West, the most uncriticized—of the scandals of scholarship” (ibid., p. 316).

The impact of this conspiracy argument (as explicated in great detail in Part 1 of Defending the West) has been to create a climate of opinion in the West where scholarly criticism of Islamic-Arabic culture is regarded by the “intellectually enlightened” as insensitive, ideologically suspect, an instance of blaming the victim—in sum, a tool that Zionist and Western interests can use to continue their oppression of the East. (These are the same fallacies of damning the origin and creating misgivings that make intelligent discussion of racial and gender issues mostly impossible in today’s climate.) Across the Middle East, Said’s victimization theme was (and is) wildly popular among Islamists and other anti-democratic, anti-Western elements. In both the West and Middle East, the strengthening of such sentiments that Said has facilitated obviously makes the acquisition of objective knowledge and mutual understanding extremely difficult.

Enter Ibn Warraq: humanist, secularist, atheist, and scholar, the author of Why I Am Not a Muslim and other writings familiar to readers of Free Inquiry. In Defending the West, he devotes Part 1 to both the exegesis and the vivisection of Said’s argument, destroying it and his reputation as a serious scholar. Warraq continually demonstrates that Said cannot make up his mind whether there is or is not an Orient, whether “the Orient” is merely a Western “construction” or whether there is an Orient that exists independently of Western Orientalists. As noted in the quotations above, Said claims Orientalists “constructed” the Orient. But then, as Warraq notes, he claims in the next sentence, “Finally, the very power and scope of Orientalism produced not only a fair amount of exact knowledge about the Orient . . .” (Defending the West, p. 52). As Warraq points out, numerous slips such as this on Said’s part throughout the book leave the constructionist/postmodernist argument seriously compromised. But beyond Said’s muddled philosophizing, Warraq documents numerous false historical claims (“howlers”). For instance, Said claims that at the end of the seventeenth century, Britain and France dominated the Mediterranean when it was actually controlled by the Ottomans. Moreover, Warraq notes that Said systematically mischaracterizes Western Orientalists through selective quoting. He shows that Said’s assertion that the West long dominated the Middle East is suspec
t when we consider that Egypt was under European control for only sixty-seven years, Syria for twenty-one years, Iraq for fifteen years, and Saudi Arabia, never—as compared to the fact that southern Spain was under Muslim control for 721 years and Greece for 381 years, while the Ottomans controlled Egypt for 280 years.

However, in my view, it is not Warraq’s destruction of Orientalism that makes Defending the West most worth reading. His criticism of Orientalism sets the stage for the book’s larger purposes, developed in its parts 2 and 3: to demonstrate what separates the West qualitatively from other civilizations (especially Islamic) and to explore the vexing question of why many contemporary Western intellectuals and self-professed liberal thinkers find West-hating victimologies such as Said’s so emotionally satisfying, so self-evidently true. The answers Warraq gives to these questions are directed not to “the other” but to us.

In Warraq’s view, what separates the West qualitatively, as he puts it, from the rest, is not that its peoples and nations have behaved differently from any other civilizations in terms of committing terrible crimes (genocides, religious terror, slavery, dictatorship, etc.): “Yet there persists a profound difference between the West and the rest. Western intellectuals, writers, historians, politicians, and leaders have themselves chronicled the follies of the West and have forced Westerners to fundamentally rethink their policies, ideas, and political and social behavior, thereby bringing about change” (ibid., p. 76).

Self-criticism originating in the Socratic method and evolving into critical moral and political inquiry is thereby the distinguishing hallmark of the West. It led to the first efforts to eliminate slavery, the defense of human rights for women and minorities, and the sustained criticism of imperialist empire-building.

In Warraq’s view, critics such as Said fail because as they selectively chronicle the West’s failings, they are blind to the fact that they themselves write in the distinctively Western tradition of self-criticism. The West’s anti-slavery, anti-imperialism, and anti-racism movements came from within, not from the outside. As Warraq notes, “the whole of Western literature from the Greeks to the present can be seen as criticism of life . . . self criticism is not just the chance tenor of scattered writings in the Western cannon and is not confined to some minor and subliterary genre such as satire; it is the entire warp and woof of Western civilization” (ibid., p. 79).

Warraq contrasts the tradition of self-criticism in Western civilization to the cultural tendencies in modern Islamic culture—a culture built on the attainment of honor, pride, and dignity and conversely on the avoidance of shame and disgrace. The consequence of institutionalizing those virtues and vices is that “in such a system it is impossible to admit publicly that one is wrong” (ibid., p.80). And further, he argues, democracy requires freedom of conscience, which in turn requires secular government that is legitimized by the sovereignty of the people, that governs by the consent of the governed. Hence, Western traditions of the rule of law and individual rights have created the concept of the individual “who may decide what meaning he wants to give his life.” Contrariwise, “In an Islamic theocracy, sovereignty belongs to God. One has to obey unquestioningly the dictates of those who interpret the Holy Book . . . the notion of an individual—a moral person—who is capable of making rational decisions and accepting moral responsibility for his free acts is lacking in Islam” (ibid., pp. 294–95).

In sum, Warraq argues that out of the cardinal trait of self-criticism, “liberating doubt”—the willingness to acknowledge personally (or collectively) that I (or we) can be, are, or were wrong, which developed distinctively in the West—have evolved the distinctive institutions of modern democratic life. These include the rule of law; the safeguarding of dissent and inquiry; the primacy of the self-governing, morally responsible individual; and the separation of church from the secular state. None of these institutions and values are present in Islamic culture, nor are they homegrown in any other civilization. These are the distinctive institutions and values that qualitatively separate the West from the rest.

However, Warraq acknowledges that despite these spectacular accomplishments, all is not well in the West. A kind of modern de Tocqueville surveying Western and American intellectuals, Warraq must account for the great success—in the West, no less—of the very West-hating ideas he so effectively criticizes. In short, he must explain a nasty irony: How have rationalistic self-criticism and a universalistic concept of man, the great gifts of the West, evolved into contempt for that civilization on the part of the very group that most energetically employs and enjoys those gifts—the Western left-wing intelligentsia? In short, why do important sectors of the Western intelligentsia show not gratitude but contempt for the very civilization that makes their work possible and influential? Why do so many among them see the West as a whole, and also their particular countries, through eyes so much like those of Said? It is the liberal, secular intelligentsia itself that is both the target of, and the audience for, Warraq’s work.

In a chapter provocatively titled “The Pathological Niceness of Liberals, Antimonies, Paradoxes and Western Values,” he asserts: “It could be argued that the three defining characteristics of the West—rationalism, universalism (with its underlying or implied liberalism), and self criticism can lead to their opposites, or to other undesirable consequences . . . rationalism can lead to scientism, with its adulation of science and technology at the expense of human values . . . that universalism can lead to cosmopolitanism which tends to deprive one’s sense of belonging and loyalty to one’s country or culture; and limitless self-criticism leads to self-hatred . . .” (ibid., p. 273).

Ironically (and Defending the West is all about the ironies of contemporary secularism and liberalism), the distinguishing virtues of Western civilization have evolved into self-annihilating vices. Self-criticism aimed at reform has turned into, for many intellectuals, guilt-ridden West-loathing: a selective emphasis on every Western defect while ignoring the obvious fact that the distinctively Western institution of freedom of inquiry signifies the greatness of the very civilization they despise.

Warraq asserts that “Moral relativism, and the attendant consequences of multiculturalism, political correctness and moral equivalence, along with an overriding sense of guilt, have left Western intellectuals ill prepared, unable, or unwilling to defend the West” (ibid., p. 290). In stronger terms: “. . . many leftists are not just self-critical, they are inverted nationalists. They identify with their nation’s enemies . . .” (ibid., p. 278).

So Ibn Warraq, foreign-born Muslim apostate, secular humanist, and champion of liberal values, has stepped into the relativist-nihilist void. The bulk of this 556-page masterwork details not only how the West has singularly championed free inquiry, contrary to Said, but also the West’s sincere and distinguishing scholarly appreciation for the aesthetic and intellectual achievements of non-Western civilizations, specifically those of the Orient, from the ancient Greeks to the present. The detailing of these Western enthusiasms builds appreciation of Warraq’s erudition, but, more important, it provides a bracing in-depth exploration of what qualitatively distinguishes the West from all other civilizations.

But if the primary purpose of the book is to promote a more honest, evenhanded, comparative examination of our civilization, how persuasive will Warraq’s argument be to a liberal secularist audience? The exchange between Laurence Britt and Warraq (in the September 2008 issue of Free Inquiry) concerning the aptness of the term Islamo-fascism as a descriptor of the militant Islamic movement is deeply illustrative both of the accuracy of Warraq’s analysis of the West’s contemporary intellectual ills and the difficulty his book’s argument may well have in finding acceptance among a secularist audience.

At first glance, one might find it hard to believe that liberal secularists could find a more repellent, odious ideology than one whose adherents, for “religious” reasons, emphasize the need to kill or harm anyone who disagrees with their moronic pronouncements on just about anything. But they have.

Specifically, Mr. Britt argues that for a variety of reasons the term Islamo-fascism does not correctly describe militant Islam. However, for our purposes here, what is most interesting is his conclusion that the term fascism more aptly describes the Bush administration:

Among the harshest critics of the Bush administration, the word fascism is also wafting through the air. But it’s not aimed at the Islamic terrorists. It’s aimed at the Bush administration itself—the perpetrators of warrantless wiretaps, flaunters of the Geneva Convention, extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo, torture, secret prisons, the right to perpetrate preemptive attack on other countries, overthrowing uncooperative governments, and the grabbing of other nation’s [sic] resources. Now that is a comparison to fascism with some validity.

The disinformation strategy is simple. If the Bush administration can name the enemy as fascism, then how can anyone accuse it of exhibiting the same characteristics? [Free Inquiry, August/September 2008, p. 27]

This conclusion builds upon an op-ed piece written by Mr. Britt published in the Spring 2003 issue of Free Inquiry titled “Fascism Anyone?” The editors describe the piece as “beyond doubt the most widely reprinted (and most widely bootlegged) single article in Free Inquiry’s history.” What did Mr. Britt argue in what I take to be a very well received essay?

“And fascism’s principles are wafting in the air today, surreptitiously masquerading, challenging everything we stand for” (Spring 2003, p. 20)—referring, of course, to the Bush administration and its struggle with militant Islam and Islamic terrorist groups here and abroad. How does Mr. Britt prove that President Bush’s administration is (or possibly is) a fascist regime? He has studied seven fascist and proto-fascist regimes in the twentieth century and finds “the absolutely striking convergence of their modus operandi” (ibid.). Specifically, he claims they all share fourteen characteristics, such as emphasizing nationalism, disdain for human rights, scapegoating, militarism, a controlled mass media, rampant sexism, an obsession with national security, religion and the ruling elite tied together, suppression of intellectuals and control of the universities, and fraudulent elections, including “maintaining control of the election machinery intimidating and disenfranchising opposition votes, and as a last resort, turning to a judiciary beholden to a power elite” (Spring 2003, p. 22).

Even if we grant as true (which it is not) the claim that the Bush administration shares these fourteen characteristics, the logically astute will immediately recognize here the fallacy of the undistributed middle.

All fascist regimes are those that share fourteen specified characteristics.
The Bush administration shares these fourteen specified characteristics.
Therefore, the Bush administration is or might be fascist.

But the middle term (shares fourteen specified characteristics) is undistributed in both premises; that is, it makes no claim about all members of the class denoted by the term. Hence, it doesn’t provide any common ground between the subject (the Bush administration) and the predicate (fascism) in the conclusion. For example, it would be fallacious to argue that because all whales are mammals and all humans are mammals, therefore all humans are whales (valid arguments are those in which true premises can never generate false conclusions).

It doesn’t help to recast the argument into other logical forms, for example, the conditional form.

IF P The Bush administration is fascist
Then Q it will have fourteen specified characteristics
Because Q it does have those fourteen specified characteristics
Therefore P The Bush administration is fascist

Here the fallacy of affirming the consequent (Since Q) does not prove that the conclusion (The Bush administration is fascist) is true because Q is only a necessary condition for P and hence logically insufficient to prove P true.

For example,

If one is dead
then one cannot see.
Because you cannot see
you are therefore dead

Logically, all things share characteristics (i.e., democratic and fascist regimes), but sharing characteristics isn’t sufficient to make them the same kind of thing. The important issue is not how things are the same but how they are different (the not-Q). Only by ignoring differences (i.e., the same Supreme Court that “stole” the presidency for Bush is the same court that subsequently awarded habeas corpus rights to Guantánamo detainees; the Bush administration obviously doesn’t control opinion, hiring on university/college campuses, mass media treatment of the Iraq War or domestic politics, etc.) can Mr. Britt claim moral and empirical equivalency between a constitutional democracy and a fascist regime.

Was the Wilson administration fascist for making criticism of America’s entry into World War I illegal (the Sedition Acts)? Was the Roosevelt administration fascist for interning Japanese-American citizens in World War II? If so, were there no distinguishing political differences between America and Nazi Germany? Likewise, only by ignoring the profound differences between the West and the rest can Said and his receptive audiences maintain that the West is the problem. It is doubtful that the logical and historical cogency of Warraq’s comparative arguments will ever change such minds. But Defending the West not only helps to sensitize minds that are more agreeable to free, nonbiased inquiry to the values that distinguish our civilization from all others but also convincingly demonstrate in exhilarating breadth and depth why these distinctive values are worthy of our support. And for this magnificent accomplishment, free minds owe Ibn Warraq their genuine gratitude.

Lee Nisbet

Lee Nisbet is professor of philosophy at Medaille College and a contributing editor of FREE INQUIRY.


Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism, by Ibn Warraq (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2008, ISBN 9778-1-59102-484-2) 556 pp. Cloth $29.95. Ibn Warraq’s Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism offers not only a devastating critique of Edward Said’s flawed scholarship and illogical arguments found in his highly influential Orientalism (Vintage …

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