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Imperial Perspectives


The great modern empires have never been held together only by military power but by what activates that power, puts it to use and then reinforces it with daily practices of domination, conviction, and authority. Britain ruled the vast territories of India with only a few thousand colonial officers and a few more thousand troops, many of them Indian. France did the same in North Africa and Indochina, the Dutch in Indonesia, the Portuguese and Belgians in Africa. The key element is imperial perspective, that way of looking at a distant foreign reality by subordinating it to one’s gaze, constructing its history from one’s own point of view, seeing its people as subjects whose fate is to be decided not by them but by what distant administrators think is best for them. From such willful perspectives actual ideas develop, including the theory that imperialism is a benign and necessary thing. In one of the most perceptive comments ever made about the conceptual glue that binds empires together, the remarkable Anglo-Polish novelist Joseph Conrad wrote that “the conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion and or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish believe in the idea — something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to.”

For a while this worked, as many colonial leaders thought mistakenly that cooperating with the imperial authority was the only way. But since the dialectic between the imperial perspective and the local one is inevitably adversarial and impermanent, at some later point the conflict between ruler and ruled becomes uncontainable and breaks out into all-out colonial war, as happened in Algeria and India.

We are still quite a long way from that moment in American rule over the Arab and Muslim world. At least since World War II American strategic interest there has been to secure (and to ever more closely control) readily accessible supplies of plentiful oil and, second, to guarantee at enormous cost the strength and regional domination of Israel over any and all of its neighbours.

Every empire, including America’s, regularly tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, and that it has a mission certainly not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate the peoples and places it rules directly or indirectly. Yet these ideas are not shared by the people who live there, whose views are in many cases directly opposite. Nevertheless, this hasn’t prevented the whole apparatus of American information, policy, and decision-making about the Arab/Islamic world from imposing its perspectives not just on Arabs and Muslims but on Americans, whose sources of information about the Arabs and Islam are woefully, indeed tragically, inadequate.

American diplomacy has been permanently impaired by a systematic attack conducted by the Israeli lobby on what are called Arabists. Of the 150,000 American troops in Iraq today, scarcely more than a handful know Arabic. David Ignatius makes this point in an excellent piece on 14 July entitled “Washington is Paying for its Lack of Arabists”, (http:// www.dailystar.com.lb/opinion/14_07_03_b.asp) in which he quotes Francis Fukuyama as saying that the trouble is that “Arabists not only take on the cause of the Arabs but also the Arabs’ tendency for self- delusion.”

In this country knowledge of Arabic, and some sympathetic acquaintance with the vast Arab cultural tradition, have been made to seem a threat to Israel. The media runs the vilest racist stereotypes about Arabs (see for example a Hitlerian piece by Cynthia Ozick in the Wall Street Journal on 30 June in which she speaks of Palestinians as having “traduced the life force, cultism raised to a sinister spiritualism”, words that would be entirely in place at the Nuremberg rallies).

Several generations of Americans have come to see the Arab world mainly as a dangerous place, where terrorism and religious fanaticism are spawned, and where a gratuitous anti-Americanism is mischievously inculcated in the young by badly- intentioned clerics who are anti-democratic and virulently anti-Semitic. Ignorance is directly translated into knowledge in such cases. What isn’t always noticed is that when a leader there emerges whom “we” like — eg the Shah of Iran or Anwar El-Sadat — Americans assume that he is a courageous visionary who has done things for “us” or “our” way, not because he has understood the game of imperial power, which is to survive by humouring the regnant authority, but because he has been moved by principles that we share. Almost a quarter of a century after his assassination, Anwar El-Sadat is, it is not an exaggeration to say, a forgotten and unpopular man because most Egyptians regard him as having served America first, not Egypt. The same is true about the Shah. The distortions of imperial perspectives produce further distortions in Middle Eastern society that prolong suffering and induce extreme forms of resistance and political self- assertion.

This is particularly true of the Palestinians, who are now considered to have reformed themselves by allowing Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) rather than the much excoriated Arafat as their leader. But that is a matter of imperial interpretation, not of actual reality. Both Israel and the US regard Arafat as standing in the way of an imposed settlement on the Palestinians that will obliterate all their past claims, and that will represent Israel’s final victory over what some Israelis have called its “original sin”, which was to have destroyed Palestinian society in 1948 and to have dispossessed the nation of Palestinians, who remain stateless or under occupation, until today. Never mind that Arafat, whom I have criticised for years and years in the Arabic and Western media, is still universally regarded as the Palestinian leader both because he was legally elected in 1996 and because he has acquired a legitimacy that no other Palestinian approaches, least of all Abu Mazen, a bureaucrat and long time subordinate to Arafat who does not have any popular support at all.

Moreover, there is now an independent and coherent Palestinian opposition (the Independent National Initiative) to both Arafat’s rule and to the Islamists, but this gets no attention because Americans and the Israelis wish for a compliant interlocutor who is in no position to give us trouble. As to whether any such arrangement can work, that is put off to another day. This is the shortsightedness, indeed the blindness and the arrogance, of the imperial gaze. Much the same pattern is repeated in the American view of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and all the others. The trouble with these views are that they are so incompetent and ideological; they provide Americans not with ideas about Arabs and Muslims, but rather with the way they would like Arabs and Muslims to be. For a great and enormously wealthy country to be producing the kind of mismanaged, poorly prepared and incredibly incompetent occupation of Iraq that is taking place today is a travesty, on intellectual grounds, and how a moderately intelligent bureaucrat like Paul Wolfowitz could be running policies of such colossal incompetence and, at the same time, convincing people that he knows what he is doing, boggles the mind.

Underlying this particular imperial perspective is a long-standing Orientalist view that will not permit the Arabs as a people to exercise their right to national self-determination. They are thought of as different, incapable of logic, unable to tell the truth, fundamentally disruptive and murderous. Since Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, there has been an uninterrupted imperial presence based on these premises throughout the Arab world, producing untold misery — and some benefits it is true — for a huge majority of the people. But so accustomed have we become to the blandishments of US advisers like Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, who have directed their venom against the Arabs in every possible way, that we somehow think that what we do is the correct thing because that’s the way the Arabs are. That this happens also to be an Israeli dogma shared uncritically by the neo-cons who are at the heart of the Bush administration simply adds fuel to the fire. And so we are in for many more years of turmoil and misery in an area of the world where the main problem is, to put it as plainly as possible, US power. But at what cost, and to what end?


Edward Said is a professor of literature at Columbia university. His book Orientalism (1979) revolutionized the literary field. He has written extensively on the Middle East, and his writings can be found in a number of publications such as Z Magazine, the Nation, the Progressive, In These Times, Counterpunch, Al Ahram and more.
More articles by Edward Said on the Mideast

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