Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism
by Ibn Warraq (Prometheus, 2007), 555 pages.
For the last quarter century, many political leaders and candidates have been overly swayed by the willful misinterpretation of Western history instigated by Columbia University’s infamous late professor, Edward Said. As a bromide, Western civilization could greatly benefit if the current crop of presidential hopefuls would immediately read Ibn Warraq’s Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism (Prometheus, 2007).
But what irony Ibn Warraq also finds—that “self-examination for Arabs and Muslims, and especially criticism of Islam in the West” has grown nearly impossible thanks largely to the “pernicious influence of Edward Said’s Orientalism.” The book “taught an entire generation of Arabs the art of self-pity,” by blaming all Arab and Muslim miseries on those “wicked imperialists, racists and Zionists,” but for whom Arabs and Muslims almost universally claim their worlds would once again achieve ascendancy.
Alas, Said neglected the vast era of Islamic imperialism, Ibn Warraq observes—from Mohammed’s invention of the “one true faith” through the 17th Century, with relapses when ever adequate wealth, time and war materiel were available. Enriched with 20th century petrodollars, the Islamic world renewed this effort—via the “modernized” Muslim Brotherhood strategy of ancient Islamic supremacist jihad—and in the 21st century continues aggressively pursuing financial jihad, particularly through “shari’a finance.”
Terror-advocating “experts” such as Pakistan’s Taqi Usmani—a former Pakistani Shari’a Court jurist—set standards for Islamic banking, an MB construct established solely to promote Islamic supremacy. Indeed, to date Usmani remains on the shari’a advisory board of Saudi Arabia’s terror-funding Dallah al-Baraka Group; his Islamic California online bookstore hawks works by U.S.-designated terrorists, and in July 2007 Usmani advised Muslims to live peacefully in Great Britain only until they have the strength to win battles and “establish the supremacy of Islam.” Similarly, Syrian Abdul Sattar Abu Ghuddah is a senior-level advisor to al-Baraka.
Ibn Warraq does not merely criticize Said, however. He also shows at great length many of them innumerable benefits the West delivered to the Islamic world. As Egyptian Nobel-prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz stated, “thanks to Napoleon’s campaign” there, Egypt emerged from “centuries of obscurantism” into modernity, including Western scholars’ discoveries of ancient pre-Islamic Egypt, which anchors Egypt’s tourist industry today.
Not only these Westerners, but almost all of Western history and thought, from ancient Greece onward—were guided by what Ibn Warraq calls “three tutelary guiding lights,”—rationalism (truth and objective knowledge); universalism (openness to others’ ideas); and self-criticism. He examines these attributes at length, in classical antiquity, early Christianity, Indian history and orientalists, archaeologists, and even the British Empire and Lord George Nathaniel Curzon.
All, Ibn Warraq exactingly proves, pursued objective truth and knowledge, were open to others and all humanity—and consistently criticized themselves and their societies to effect improvements. In fact, India’s rich Buddhist traditions were little known until the 19th century, when Western scholars recovered texts in Sanskrit, Tibetan and Pali, thereby discovering a host of Indian monuments that were subsequently excavated and restored. Sir Jadunuth Sarkar thus noted that “the greatest gift of the English, after universal peace and modernization of society . . . is the Renaissance which marked our 19th century.” This was little wonder, since during 500 years of Muslim jihad invasions, from 1000 through 1525, an estimated 80 million Hindus perished, according to Indian scholar K.S. Lal.
In contrast, Ibn Warraq observes that Islamic orthodoxy has always been and remains “suspicious of ‘knowledge for its own sake’,” since “Unfettered intellectual inquiry is deemed dangerous to the faith.” That would explain the Arab Human Development Report of 2003 finding, Ibn Warraq writes, that
“the total number of books translated into Arabic in the last 1,000 years is fewer than those translated in Spain in one year. Greece, with a population of fewer than 11 million, translates five times as many books from abroad into Greek annually as the 22 Arab countries combined, with a total population of more than 300 million, translated into Arabic.”
Yet Said blamed all the Middle East’s ills on Westerners, conveniently forgetting that Arab and Muslim pleas for assistance often brought Western “imperialists” to the Middle East in the first place, as Ibn Warraq also shows.
Efraim and Inari Karsh conclusively prove in Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Master in the Middle East, 1789-1923 (Harvard University Press, 1999), the Muslim world repeatedly sought help from the Western powers. Upon Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1789 conquest of Egypt, Ottoman Sultan Selim III declared Jihad against the French—joining the infidel British and Russian empires to protect his imperial territories from the French. In 1804, the Ottomans requested and received territorial integrity guarantees from the Russian and Austrian empires. In 1809, the Ottomans allied with the infidel British after squabbling with Russia.
Britain and France opposed construction of the Suez Canal, which they feared would violate the Ottoman Empire and hurt over-land trade routes to Asia. In 1866, though, the Sultan relented and conceded to Egypt’s khedives. Then, Khedive Ismail’s bribery of Sultan Abdul Hamid II (to build his mini-Egyptian empire) nearly bankrupted his protectorate. To lighten his massive debts, Ismail in 1875 sold his Suez shares to Britain for roughly their £4 million nominal value.
Despite even the ensuing riots, British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone (1868—74; 1880—85; 1886 and 1892—94) did not heed repeated Ottoman pleas that England rule Egypt. Only in 1882 did Gladstone agree—after the Ottomans begged for a British naval squadron. Yet the British “imperialists” tried mightily to return canal ownership to Egypt—which the Sultan ironically refused.
But again, Ibn Warraq does not simply complain. He defends the West, as the title of this superb volume suggests, by offering many of the historical comparison that Said offends worst by neglecting. Said tries the West on the basis of a few examples, taken out of context, “judged and condemned as the source of all evil.” He excoriates the West for practicing slavery, despite its abolition, for example.
However, Ibn Warraq shows that things were all together otherwise. “Black Africa was a full and active partner in the slave trade,” produced black captives and was solely responsible for organizing and controlling their sales. “African powers remained in control of the sale of the slaves as long as the slave trade lasted.”
Moreover, Arabs participated heavily in the black slave trade as well—according to their own accounts, which Bin Warraq duly cites. The 10th century Arab geographer al-Maqdisi termed Bantu-speaking East Africans and Africans generally as “Zanj.” Al-Maqdisi wrote, “they are people of black color, flat noses, kinky hair and little understanding.” Similarly, a 10th century Islamic Persian treatise described black Africans as “people distant from the standards of humanity,” while a 13th century Persian observed, “the ape is more teachable and more intelligent than the Zanji.” And Islamic social scientist, economist, historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) wrote, “the Negro nations are, as a rule, submissive to slavery because [they] have little [that is essentially] human and have attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals, as we have stated.”
In fact Muslim traders were far more culpable than Westerners. From the 1700s through the 1920s, Arab traders handled over 17 million black slaves—including 1.5 million who died en route, many crossing the Sahara, according to a 2004 comparative study by Olivier Petre-Grenouilleau. By contrast, little more than 11 million crossed the Atlantic. Whereas the Occident finally outlawed slavery, abolitionism “did not resonate in either black Africa or the Islamic world.” Indeed, Muslims regarded Western abolitionists as “a threat to their very livelihood but also as an affront to their religion,” writes A. Azumah in Islam and Slavery. Thus Orientals were the largest slave traders, as Ibn Warraq shows here, through collected sources.
Even the supposedly “tolerant” Ottomans accepted slavery, “perpetuated [it] by tradition and sanctioned [it] by religion” and lacked an abolitionist movement, according to Ehud Toledano and Turkish historian Y.H. Erdem (again, carefully cited).
The Ottomans also engaged in a huge enterprise manufacturing and trading eunuchs—males usually castrated during boyhood. In the Muslim Mediterranean—southern Europe, North Africa and the Near East including all of the Ottoman Empire at its largest point—”large harems [maintained] by the upper classes greatly stimulated demand for males who could be trusted with large numbers of nubile women.” Eunuchs survived “total removal of testicles and penis” that caused extensive hemorrhaging and death rates of 90% or more in the sub-Saharan west and west-central Africa, according to Jan Hogendorn’s 1999 essay, “The Hideous Trade.”
Said includes none of these historically significant factors in Orientalism, much less any others of his works.