Sunday, August 11, 2013

Dawkins, Islam, the West, and the Saidists


A tweet by Richard Dawkins:

"All the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though."

Norman Geras, The Unrepentant Jacobin, defends Dawkins against charges of racism:

Both parts of that tweet are demonstrably true. And yet it was the object of the usual derision and hostility from those who appear to hold that any criticism of 'minority' cultures is racist and prejudiced by definition, irrespective of its accuracy. Especially when said criticism is expressed by a 'privileged' white Western male, who---it is alleged---harbours a racist agenda to embarrass and humiliate the Muslim world.

A good part of the blame for this lamentable state of affairs can be laid at the door of the late Columbia professor of comparative literature, Edward W. Said. The influence of Said's writing is undeniable and incalculable. His key works...revolutionised the way in which the Middle East is studied, discussed and perceived in the Occident, and the first of these, Orientalism, is credited with having midwifed the birth of Post-Colonial studies in Western academia...


As the neo-Conservative writer Joshua Muravchik allows in an otherwise highly critical piece for World Affairs:

[Said] not only transformed the West’s perception of the Israel-Arab conflict, he also led the way toward a new, post-socialist life for leftism in which the proletariat was replaced by “people of color” as the redeemers of humankind. During the ten years that have passed since his death there have been no signs that his extraordinary influence is diminishing.

...As Said explained in one particularly intemperate passage: "It is therefore correct that every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric."

...Two wars had devastated the European continent and beyond; technological advances were suddenly in the dock following the summary obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; post-Colonial guilt tormented those horrified by the crimes committed by their forefathers in the name of Empire; the brutal war for independence waged by the people of Algeria had ended in 1962; the bitter struggle for racial equality in the United States had finally been won, but Martin Luther King was dead; and, across the globe, American foreign policy was held in contempt for its military involvement in South-East Asia...

But aside from indulging a Western penchant for self-flagellation, Orientalism and its quasi-sequels also had a deleterious (and, I assume, unintended) effect on prospects for progress within the Muslim world. As Ibn Warraq, the ex-Muslim scholar and founder of the Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society, commented:

[Orientalism] taught an entire generation of Arabs the art of self-pity - "were it not for the wicked imperialists, racists and Zionists, we would be great once more" - encouraged the Islamic fundamentalist generation of the 1980s, bludgeoned into silence any criticism of Islam, and even stopped dead the work of eminent Islamologists who felt their findings might offend Muslim sensibilities and who dared not risk being labelled "Orientalist". The aggressive tone ofOrientalism is what I have called "intellectual terrorism", since it seeks to convince, not by arguments or historical analysis, but by spraying charges of racism, imperialism and Eurocentrism from a moral high ground; anyone who disagrees with Said has insult heaped upon him.This included Muslims like the Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya, who argued that the gravest problem facing Muslim countries was not their comparatively brief history under European Imperialism or the opinions of nineteenth century Orientalist scholars, but the escalating cruelty of their own autocratic and theocratic rulers in the here and now. For this, Said labelled Makiya a "native informer".

The difficulty for Saidists is not that they cannot tell the difference between rational, legitimate criticism of Islam and the Muslim world on the one hand and triumphalist chauvinism and racism on the other. The difficulty is that they don't believe there to be any difference. Western criticism, study, analysis of the Orient undertaken from a position of Western power and 'privilege' are colonialist by their very nature.

But the Islamic break with scientific progress and the impediments to progress Islam erected long pre-date the British and French colonial projects in the Middle East.

A once intellectually and culturally vibrant part of the world, the region had enjoyed a relationship of productive cultural exchange with Ancient Greece. In the ninth century, the Abassid Caliphs Harun al-Rashid and his son al-Ma'mun moved their capital to Baghdad and there established the House of Wisdom---a vast archive of world knowledge, a translation institute and the most important centre of learning and scientific inquiry of the Islamic Golden Age.

However, by the end of the ninth century, its influence was already in decline, not least because the Caliph Al-Mutawakkil believed Greek thought to be un-Islamic. As the traditionalist Ash'arite school of Islam asserted itself over the rationalist Mutazilites, this decline would accelerate and free thinkers in the Muslim world found themselves subject to vicious persecution. The Orientalist Ernest Renan noted in an 1883 lecture that any progress made in the Muslim world during the second half of the Middle Ages occurred despite Islam, rather than because of it...

More Dawkins on Islam

Thanks to Harry's Place for the link.

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