Archive interview with Edward Said. It offers a pre-9/11 insight into the West’s kneejerk fear of Arabs.
Q&A with Edward Said
By Ken Shulman
March 11 1996
Born into a Palestinian Christian family in East Jerusalem in 1935, Edward Said, a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, has written extensively on Middle East politics. He spoke with Ken Shulman in Percoto, Italy.
Q. Has the West’s attitude toward Islam improved since you published “Orientalism” in 1978?
A. I don’t think it has improved at all. In fact, it has decidedly worsened. If you look at how Islam is represented today in newspapers and on television, you see that it is still considered a threat, something that must be walled out. The Arab world is depicted as a place full of terrorists and fanatics.
Instead of expanding, the West’s comprehension of the Arab world is contracting.
Q. What is the history of this anti-Arab prejudice?
A. The prejudice was created at the same time Islam was born, when Islam was a political and economic threat to Europe. It is no coincidence that Dante places Mohammed in the next to last circle of hell in his Divine Comedy, right next to Satan. In the Renaissance, we have the figure of Shylock, but we also have the figure of Othello.
It wasn’t just the Jew who was suspect in Christian Europe. It was also the Arab. The Arab who was indolent, diabolic and dishonest. On one hand, this world of the Orient fascinated the Europeans. On the other, it terrorized them.
Q. Is there a hint of truth in the current stereotype of the Arab world?
A. Of course there is, just as there is a hint of truth in all stereotypes. This is what makes it possible for them to be so widely accepted. But the distortions in the stereotype are far greater than the few elements of realism they may contain. Today, the standard view of the Orient is a vestige of 19th-century European colonialism, when anti-Eastern prejudice reached its zenith.
The West’s almost obsessive emphasis on terrorism and fanaticism in the Arab world is a form of exorcism. They see it in Islam so they won’t have to recognize that the same elements exist in their own societies, and in alarming levels.
Q. Is the West’s prejudice against the Arab world more virulent than its prejudices toward other non-Western cultures?
A. I don’t think so. If you read the European political literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries, you will see the same disdain expressed toward India, China and Africa.
Q. How does a nation that has been treated with such persistent scorn view itself?
A. The self-image of the Arab world is often negative, and this can be quite damaging for a people. There is a great component of self-loathing, and of desperation.
Q. Has the peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians altered the West’s perception?
A. Very much so. Once Arafat was portrayed as the most diabolic man on the planet. Now he is supported and invited to appear on mainstream talk shows. Unfortunately, this aperture doesn’t apply to all Palestinians. It just applies to the “right” ones, the ones with the “right” ideas. It hasn’t led to any greater awareness of the problems and the history of the Palestinian people.
Q. Is there a danger that in using force to maintain order among its own people, the Palestine Liberation Organization will begin to lose some of the sympathy it has gained in the West?
A. I hope so. Because when the current Palestinian authorities jail newspaper editors and torture prisoners, they are merely doing Israel’s dirty work. Israel and the Western governments want Arafat to repress certain elements of his society. They want him to be a dictator. The mechanism of the peace accord makes this perfectly clear.
I am for peace. And I am for a negotiated peace. But this accord is not a just peace.