The late Edward Said was a great defender of his oppressed people and as a Palestinian activist who repeatedly showed true courage in his expressions of pro-Palestinian sympathies has my highest respect. Said was also a prolific writer and literary critic who won rightful admiration for his apt debunking the Eurocentric thoughts on Islam and the Middle East dubbed as “Orientalism.” His book under the same title is a sophisticated and passionate, albeit somewhat over-stated, deconstruction of the dominant western interpretations of Islamic Middle East, bound to remain a mandatory reading in colleges and universities for generations.
But, despite his theoretical defense of “heroic intellectuals” who are solidly committed to truth and released from the bondages of power, denouncing oppression and speaking for freedom whenever and wherever they can, Said in fact fell rather short of the role model he openly espoused in his Responsibility of the Intellectuals. Let me explain.
Back in 1991, Said came to Tuft University to deliver a lecture and we met for the first time afterward in a small gathering. I was teaching a course on Arab-Israeli conflict and, naturally, informed him that his book on the Question of Palestine was on my reading list and quite popular with the students. I then asked him a question that sort of startled him: Mr. Said why didn’t you condemn Iraq’s invasion of Iran? His response still rings in my head. “Are you kidding? I am an Arab nationalist.” I was mesmerized and did not bother to hit him with a request to elaborate. I remember asking myself, “what would Antonio Gramsci or Joseph Conrad say in response?” I knew that Said liked the great Italian thinker and socialist, who meets all the credential of a genuine and creative intellectual. My answer: Gramsci would laugh at Said and mock him by saying, and you claim to be an intellectual? Conrad, who was much admired by Said as a role model, would perhaps shake his head in profound disappointment — at Said’s localist, i.e., Arabist, prejudice.
Shortly after his death, observing the sea of eulogies by world’s intellectual celebrities such as Noam Chomsky, I found it a bit annoying that a true critical overview of Said and his contributions was still missing, giving way to unbounded admiration elevating his status as if above criticism. I then engaged in a bit of detective work to see how Said had addressed the issue of Iran-Iraq war and, as my earlier research had shown, there was a complete silence on his part, but why?
Said must have surely known that the UN had declared Iraq the aggressor, in light of the September 1980 massive invasion of Iran by 12 Iraqi divisions across a 500 mile front, deep into Iran’s territory, a war that lasted 8 years and exacted millions of lives on both sides. Not only that, thousands of Palestinians had fought against Iran in Saddam’s army and some 15000 of them had ended up as Iran’s POWs. To this date, Iran has never played up that aspect of the “imposed war.” During the war, the PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat visited Baghdad and was warmly greeted by the butcher Saddam Hussein, who tried to rally the Arab world behind him, with a measure of success, as a bulwark against “Iranian fundamentalism.” Syria under Hafez Assad was a rare exception that sided with Iran, to the dismay of Palestinians and other Arabs.
A responsible intellectual would have scrutinzed the causes of the Iran-Iraq war and issued a judgment in favor of the invaded country, Iran, which was in the early stages of its post-revolution when Saddam Hussein exploited the internal chaos in Iran for a full-scale brutal invasion that devastated dozens of Iranian cities and towns.. Yet, Said did not bother with this major issue in the Middle East, opting to be selective in his own prescriptions of “heroic intellectuals.” That was, of course, cowardly and fully unprincipled on his part, as well as a definite sign of his Arab chauvenism, which resulted in turning a blind eye to Saddam’s massacre of Kurds and Iranian soldiers and civilians with chemical weapons, instead of outright condemning it.
It was sheer hypocrisy on Said’s part to pretend that there were more important things to write about than the horrific victimization of innocent Kurds in Halabcheh when “Chemical Ali” ordered the bombs to fall and decimate civilians by the thousands. Writing in the London Review of Books, Said turned into a quasi-apologist for Saddam Hussein by claiming that the evidence of his gasing the Kurds “is at best uncertain.” Little wonder, then, that in his rightful rage against the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Said omitted any mention of Saddam’s so many atrocities. There was nothing ‘heroic’ about Said’s critical omissions, and his great shortcoming has so far remained largely unnoticed, maily due to the uncritical embrace of his army of supporters particularly in the academia.
In revisiting this issue and seeking a new, and more critical, appraisal of Said, this author’s hope is that those who have championed the cause of celebrating Said’s legacy without an iota of criticism, such as Noam Chomsky, would realize that in doing so they are behaving below the bar of true intellectuals.