Robert Irwin’s Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and its Discontents (Overlook, 2006) is a spirited refutation of the late Edward Said’s magnum opus Orientalism. The book chronicles the history of Oriental studies in the West, arguing that practitioners of this trade were not mere agents of imperialism or a demonizing conspiracy, but rather scholars who labored over their studies in good faith. He holds no punches when it comes to tearing down the “Orientalists” Said presents as representative of western scholarship of the Near and Middle East, particularly de Gobineau and Renan. He argues that Said is unlikely to have even read the work of “genuine” Orientalists, instead picking out patently racist and un-scholarly writers from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, along with various other figures irrelevant to Orientalist work. Here he has a point, as Said’s book indeed over emphasizes popular and obscure literature over actual scholarship. Irwin is at his strongest in elaborating on German, Russian and other non-Anglo-French scholarship that was prolific and influential in the field, though almost wholly ignored by Said.
Irwin’s work additionally serves as a biographical survey, a sort of historical dictionary of Orientalists from the European Middle Ages through to the present. In cataloging the personal histories, eccentricities and politics (or non-politics) of various European and Americans scholars, Irwin seeks to rebut Said’s claim that Orientalist scholarship (“old-fashioned,” as he calls it) is the result of the imperialist enterprise, complicit in and reliant on European power and domination of non-western societies. The characters Irwin pulls out are diverse and fascinating and some more a part of the colonial project than others. But that Orientalism’s roots do lay solely in colonizing activity, but rather in an assortment of religious causes (missionary and the desire to better understand the philology of the Bible, in the case of many Germans), intense personal interest, and so on is manifestly clear from Irwin’s narrative, especially in that his history of the subject extends quite far back (to the late Middle Ages). He is quick to call the work of de Gobineau, Renan, Lemmens racist, anti-Islamic and pseudo-scholarship — as he should be — and to emphasize that Said’s lasting influence has been to conflate these figures with well meaning and hard working scholars whose interest in their subject was no born out of a desire simply to make devils out of Muslims and Arabs or justify their oppression through myths of western supremacy. He succeeds in arguing that the image Said paints of the Orientalist tradition is flawed and inaccurate. Overall, the book does what it intends to do and does so with a clear statement of purpose and mission. Three cheers for clarity.
When it comes to modern Orientalism, Irwin’s tale is more troublesome. For instance, he has little negative to say of looming figures like Bernard Lewis or Elie Kedourie. He references Said’s criticism, and that of his sympathizers, but has none of the spirited deconstruction he reserves for those from earlier in the twentieth century. Indeed, his treatment of Kedourie in particular is dreadfully superficial and brief. Kedourie is perhaps one of the most overlooked historians of the modern Middle East; unfortunately so, for he was among the first to apply training in political science to the study of the region in a stalwart way. Not only this, but he is unique among modern scholars for his perspective, shaped by his [Arabophone] Jewish upbringing during the collapse of the Iraqi monarchy. The precarious perspective of the embattled minority informs his worldview and approach to political studies. Deeply skeptical of nationalism, including its Zionist iteration, Kedourie has been lambasted for his skepticism of Arab nationalism and sympathies with Israel, which certainly became apparent in his later writings in Commentary and other popular periodicals. But Kedourie’s worldview is far more nuanced than Lewis’s, and Irwin does it little justice beyond platitudes and fails to scrutinize it. Not only does Irwin fail to offer little more than one can find in Martin Kramer’s generally useful biography of the man, but he fails to open up his actual worldview, which is easily far more engaging and interesting than Lewis’s, on whom Irwin, like Said, spends much time (to be fair, Lewis is certainly the more broadly influential of the two, although Kedourie’s Nationalism remains as influential as Gellner’s or Hobsbawm’s work on the same subject). While he summarizes Lewis’s criticism of Said, along with other prominent scholars — Albert Hourani, Maxime Rodinson and others among them — he simply mentions that Kedourie had “at one point or another” criticized Said’s work, while giving nothing of the character of Kedourie’s critique. Again, we do not read anything of Kedourie’s dated outlook on certain parts of the world; as late as his 1970 “Introduction” to Nationalism in Asia and Africa we can read Kedourie describing African politics as “rightly called primitive” (pg. 29) and educating readers on the troubles of “oriental despotism” as early as 1962 and as late as the 1980s. It is arguable that this was acceptable till at least the late 1960’s, but afterwards Kedourie refused to revise the framework within which he understood authoritarianism in the Middle East, a mixture of “Oriental despotism” and European bureaucracy conspiring to hamper efforts at liberal government. But as is said in Piterberg’s review of his 1992 Politics in the Middle East (Middle East Report, No. 191, Nov.-Dec., 1994), Kedourie’s “is a particular brand of Orientalism,” in which it is not the import of western ideals and systems that renders positive “progress” in the Arabo-Muslim world. Kedourie contends that this influence has simply made illiberal government more efficient and more durable. He shows a continual nostalgia for the classical “Oriental” forms of toleration, which he identifies with the classical Islamic and especially the Ottoman periods, writing with contempt as he traces the often destructive legacy of European exclusivism from the imposition of a single religion throughout the Roman Empire, the persecution of Iberian Jews and Muslims, onward to the mantra of cuius regio eius religio, up through the development of nationalist doctrines and their export to Asia and Africa where he believes European ideologies did untold damage to traditional societies, imposing upon them a uniquely European kind of intolerance (pg. 33 of Nationalism in Asia and Africa). He is pessimistic about the universalism of democratic government, not for individuals but for societies, often taking swipes at “Europocentric” presentations of the prospects for the triumph of liberal democratic governments in the Arab Middle East, and suspicious of western attempts to lecture to easterners on the nature of their identity, not out of a belief in eastern inferiority but out of a sense that such efforts were doomed to produce more harm than good.†
Certainly, Kedourie wrote with searing contempt on multiple subjects and historical actors; many reviews took this as contempt for Arabs and Islam, but this does not bear out over much of his writing as it is clear that he holds Islamic and Arab social and political traditions to be superior alternatives to western imports in their own settings recognizing that “Europe is not the world” and that the then colonized peoples had the makings of viable government within their own settings (pg. 29-30, Nationalism in Asia and Africa). It is a fascinating perspective that raises important and interesting questions that is not given proper space in Irwin’s narrative. A critical study of Kedourie’s life and work has yet to be completed, for most of it is either dismissive (as can be seen in Rashid Khalidi’s writing) or highly laudatory and uncritical (as in the memorial edited volumes put out after his death, and those by Ephraim Karsh); this is especially true of his views of Israel and Zionism, which evolved over time, and it was possible for him to write nostalgically of the Alliance Israelite Universelle schools, of which he was product, while noting their early opposition to Zionism as a matter of principle (“The Alliance Israelite Universelle, 1860-1960,” in Arabic Political Memoirs and Other Studies (1974)), and to claim “Palestinian Arabs — together with the oriental Jewries,” as “the hapless victims” of the struggle between the Arab states and Israel (“The Middle East and the Powers,” pg. 6 The Chatham House Version). His later articles showed a greater attachment to Israel, though. In any event, other important “Orientalists,” including Albert Hourani, Falzur Rahman, Philip Hitti (who is for some curious reason always given a short, if any, mention in appraisals of western Middle East scholarship, though as has been written here before, he wrote splendid classics) and various others are not treated with due space, especially as recent, twentieth century scholarship is concerned.
Another, similar, problem flows from this short treatment: his characterization of A. L. Tibawi’s ruthless criticism of western writing on Arab and Muslim subjects merely glosses over the actual content of Tibawi’s often razor-sharp demolitions of what he saw as improper interpretation or bad faith. Tibawi’s trifles with Kedourie’s readings of the Husayn-McMahon Correspondence — a rather significant disagreement as contemporary journal articles, reviews and correspondences attest (see M. E. Yapp’s review of Tibawi’s Anglo-Arab Relations and the Question of Palestine, 1914-1921, in The Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 41, No. 3, 1978) — is left unmentioned, though the reader is treated to a reduction of Tibawi’ss brutal review of The Chatham House Version and other Middle Eastern Studies to anti-Semitism or petty grumblings. While it is obvious from Tibawi’s work on the Husayn-McMahon correspondence that he scornfully ignores Kedourie’s significant work on the issue, mentioning it only indirectly, the nature of the dispute carried actual substance (see Tibawi’a Anglo-Arab Relations and the Question of Palestine, 1914-1921 and Kedourie’s In the Anglo-Arab Labyrinth: the McMahon-Husayn Correspondence and its Interpretations, 1914-1939). Irwin paints a picture of a bitter Anglo-Palestinian, hostile to Kedourie’s Jewish roots (and this cannot be ruled out if one is to describe his sentiments, as one can find evidence of this in his reviews of Kedourie’s work, but it is incorrect to boil down the entire character of his work to this) and his a bileful dislike for European treatments of Arab nationalism and Islamic history. The author writes that Tibawi “at several points suggested that non-Muslim scholars should steer clear of discussing what were matters of faith,” but offers no citation for this claim. He falsely claims that Tibawi “does not actually name the book in question” when he compares The Chatham House Version and Other Middle Eastern Studies to the Nazi screed Der Weg zum Reich in his 1971 review of Kedourie’s famous collection of essays (pg. 321). Indeed, Tibawi does not “seem to be referring to,” The Chatham House Version, as Irwin renders — he is most certainly doing so, as dubious and hyperbolic that comparison may be (see Tibawi’s review, from which this episode is taken, in Middle East Journal, Vol. 25, No. 1, Winter, 1971).
One does not get a sufficient summary of his views or the strength of Tibawi’s scholarship, even in the context of his searing take downs of western authors, one instead reads through a list of surely amusing quotations, taken out of context from his critiques of western writers and Irwin offers no sense as to precisely what direction these angry quotations were originally fielded. In all, his treatment of Tibawi, whose work is not only underrated but in some places masterful and still relevant, treats the scholar’s work as “masterpieces of unintentional comedy,” that “sometimes hit the mark, though more by luck than design,” and his tone is condescending without grace. But if one is to assume that Dangerous Knowledge was written in good faith, this is because the book’s concluding chapters were either rushed or cut for space, as the brevity and simplicity of the book’s last pages suggest. The reduction of certain scholars from the second half of the twentieth century to caricatures leaves the end of the book wanting and appearing unfortunately similar to the negative elements of Orientalism. But in the case of others, such as the fine Moroccan writer Abdallah Laroui, Anouar Abdel-Malek he is correct to extol their efforts and in the case of Zaiuddin Sardar’s useless book, also called Orientalism (1999), he is right to mock and brutally dissect shoddy history and chronology.
Though throughout Dangerous Knowledge Irwin appears uncertain as to whether Said wrote Orientalism in “good faith,” oscillating back and forth between admiration for the man’s personage and principles and contempt for his mass following that was predicated on an expertise he did not posses. By the end of the book, Irwin “cannot believe” that Orientalism was “written in good faith”. One is left to wonder whether the author’s periodic fawning over the eminent Said is out of political correctness or simply wishing not to write entirely ill of a fellow he claims as a friend. In any case, Dangerous Knowledge is worth reading, by students in particular. It succeeds in restoring a sense of scholarly tradition to Near and Middle Eastern studies but will not please those who approach the field from ideological vantage points. It refreshing to hear a clear and well organized rebuttal to Said’s work, though Irwin commits some of the same errors one sees in less convincing rebuttals from the acolytes of Lewis, Kedourie, et al. which is to shower uncritical praise the Orientalists Said attacks, using them as representations of flawless scholarship and their trade at large. Indeed, Irwin has amassed a strong collection of scholars that better represents Middle Eastern studies than Bernard Lewis; the obsession with defending his legacy, as consistently scholarly as his earliest works may be, he nevertheless has reduced the quality and amped up the role of ideology in his most recent writings for mass consumption and to push the views of a powerful set. A defense of good and useful scholarship, which Orientalism is not, and which Dangerous Knowledge purports to be, should readily admit where the field has failed and where it stands proud and present it as it is. Time will tell what comes of the increasingly tiresome and decreasingly relevant debate over Orientalism, and Irwin’s book, though not timely, is an important contribution to the conversation.
† See pages 384-385 of The Chatham House Version, where Kedourie scolds Toynbee for equating the European and Middle Eastern “middle class,” which Kedourie argues are of different socio-economic character; and pg. 369-370 where Kedourie essentially accuses Toynbee of a kind of racism for holding the the mixing of races and development of lingua francas, as a consequence of imperialism, as “symptoms of the process of social disintegration,” among imperial peoples, charging that if not for this process English and Arabic would not be world languages for “innumerable people received these languages [writing of English and Arabic] as a result of conquest or commerce or migrations and have learnt to speak them with ease and elegance, and to . . . express the most elusive ideas, and the most complex and evanescent feelings,” clearly taking this view as a kind of xenophobia (what he calls linguistic “nativism”), clearly referring to himself and others for whom English was not the first language, rejecting Toynbee’s view of language as “deeply harmful and pernicious”. Kedourie usually painted things political with all the bad and only glimmerings of the good.