Said’s Disorientations

MEQ just published my article on Edward Saïd. They entitled it “‘Celebrating’ Orientalism,” which I presume is meant to be ironic. My more direct title was “Disoriented by Saïd: The Contribution of Post-Colonialism to 21st century Jihadi Cognitive War.”

While a number of people have noted how long the piece was, including Elder of Ziyon, it was much longer when I first submitted it. I post below the longer original version for the three people who might be interested in further details, deconstructing Saïd’s covert tribalist and Orientalist attitudes.

The section on Oslo, also highlighted by Elder, has been translated into Polish, by Malgorzata Koraszewska at her blog, Listy z naszego sadu.

Disoriented by Saïd:

The Contribution of Post-Colonialism to 21st century Jihadi Cognitive War

Although Edward Saïd’s impact on the field of Middle Eastern Studies, and beyond, across the social sciences and the humanities, has been viewed from many perspectives, as a brilliant triumph, or as tragedy, few question the astonishing scope and penetration of Orientalism on the academic world. Here I wish to investigate the (unintended) role played by Saïd, and the post-colonial school of thought his works fostered, in the way that the West has so far handled the cognitive-war that triumphalist Muslims[1] wage in their stated goal of imposing Dar al Islam on democratic polities.

Orientalism played a central role in a transformation of academic discourse in the last two decades of the second millennium, assuring the ascendency of critical theory and post-colonialism.[2] The book, despite its enthusiastic reception among many, also received extensive criticism on both the micro and macro level – the multiple (uncorrected) errors that, in many cases reveal a profound ignorance about the history of the Middle East, the selective focus (nothing on major school of German [non-imperialist] scholarship), the tendency to the same essentialism when dealing with Western scholars that it condemned when dealing with inhabitants of the constructed fantasy, the “Orient,” and of course, the reductive thesis (knowledge essentially a form of wielding power, a tool imperialism).[3] Here I wish to look at what may be an unintended consequence of this book’s success – its contribution to the success of the subsequent cogwar waged by global Jihadis against a West they wanted to invade.

In the last five years alone, Saïd’s epigones in academia, journalism, punditry, and policy, have been spectacularly poor in their depictions and analyses of, and prescriptions for acting in, the Middle East. One might even venture to say that they misread every major development, from the democratic “Arab Spring” (2010) to today’s regional melt-down of state apparatus. And the lamentable state of President Obama’s understanding testifies to their signal failure.

Thus this collapse comes under the blows of the most savage kind of tribal and religious warfare, whose very presence, much less remarkable appeal to Muslims in the West, the post-colonial academy studiously avoided discussing.[4] Now we witness the displacement of tens of millions of refugees fleeing these political catastrophes, now pressing, not as conquerors but as victims, at the gates of Europe. In all this, Western information professionals have catastrophically failed in their task of informing knowledgeable, intelligent and effective decision making.

If we have any hope of figuring out what to do for the rest of the 21st century in dealing with this generational war that Western democratic societies have to fight with the forces of global Jihad, we need to rethink our reliance on Edward Saïd’s cognitive and moral compass. The remainder of this essay is dedicated to furthering that agenda by examining one critical area of scholarship that Saïd’s influence has blighted – the topic of honor-shame cultures – and applying it to one of the more catastrophic and persistent diplomatic blunders of the late 20th century produced by that cognitive damage – the Oslo Accord and the ensuing “cult of the occupation.”

Orientalism’s Moral Inversion: Essentializing a Racist West

Saïd’s book exploited a major weakness among Western progressives in the later 20th century: their combination of a propensity to moral self-criticism and their reluctance to criticize other cultures. Thus Saïd could focus his entire attack on the West’s “racist” views of “Orientals,” and at the same time protect the “East” (primarily Arab culture) from any criticism: he defined negative views of the Arab world as reflecting Western ethnocentric constructs rather than accurate observations.[5]

Saïd accused the West of acting on the invidious need to feel superior to the Arabs, hence the compulsively negative depiction of the Orient.[6] This accusation put Saïd in a difficult situation, since the gap between the accuracy and depth of the Western narrative(s) about the East vastly surpassed those of “East” about “West.” As Robert Irwin argues, Saïd’s iconoclastic rhetoric – “a work of malignant charlatanry” – wreaked havoc in a field with many great accomplishments about which Saïd had not an inkling.[7]

Indeed the main point of the book was to accuse the West, in its representative form of scholars studying the “Orient,” of the need to demean and dominate that “Orient.” Who could trust information from “scholars” assembling an discriminatory cultural map for imperial dominion? Any contrasts between the cultures of the democratic West and those of Arab Muslims in the Middle East, certainly any that put Arabs in a poor light, became an ugly example of the Westerners’ true motive: invidious xenophobia about inferior them, whom we will conquer and rule: “Orientalizing” the Arabs, the Muslims, as prelude and accompaniment to imperialism.

All Western knowledge suffered, Saïd insisted, from its profoundly prejudiced view of the Arab world, which it had negatively “othered,” it had “Orientalized.” Speaking of 19th century scholars, in a passage often cited by his foes, Saïd asserted confidently:

It is therefore correct, that every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.[8]

In other words, the gap was “almost totally” complete between the “reality(s)” of the world over there, and this invidious Western orientalizing of that world. Nothing Westerners could say, especially the “racist, ideological and imperialist stereotypes,” stood accused: yet another example of zero-sum, exegetical bad faith: “Here’s all the reasons I’m better than you.”[9]

How then, should we, as responsible scholars trying to understand, to proceed? Invoking a shared humanism, Saïd insisted that we understand the “other” not as different, but through the same prism we understand ourselves:

At all costs, the goal of Orientalizing the Orient again and again is to be avoided, with consequences that cannot help but refine knowledge and reduce the scholar’s conceit. Without ‘the Orient’ there would be scholars, critics, intellectuals, human beings, for whom the racial, ethnic, and national distinctions were less important that the common enterprise in promoting human community.[10]

Note religion’s absence here, not even on the list of things to avoid.[11] And this massive excision of what most inhabitants of this region will tell you are very important issues for them, should, according to Saïd, be done for the sake of “refining knowledge.” In his subsequent volume, Covering Islam (1981), Saïd defended Islam’s image in the West from the monolithically negative treatment of Western Orientalists of all stripes. As a self-identified member of the Islamicate (i.e., a Christian who identifies as part of the Islamic world),[12] his appreciation and apologetics for Islam focus more on civilizational qualities than any serious understanding or appreciation of Islam as a religion.[13]

Thus, the very issues we most needed to understand, he enjoins us to discard in the name of “human community” and to avoid the racist prejudices and the intolerance that a focus on these issues might produce.[14] Saïd made the analogy with American racial prejudices explicit: just as people would never think of articulating negative stereotypes about blacks and Jews, they should not do so about Arabs.

In his 1994 Afterward to a new edition of Orientalism, he reiterated the critique: when the West negatively stereotypes the Arab world, it reveals more about Westerners’ triumphalist need to dominate (knowledge as power), than it does about the dynamics of the Arab and Muslim world. Complaining of the host of academics and journalists who were following Huntington’s lead in noting Muslim expressions of hostility to the West, he saw them as creating “a new empire of evil” through “Orientaliz[ing] Islam.” “Consequently, both the electronic and print media have been awash with demeaning stereotypes that lump together Islam and terrorism, or Arabs and violence, or the Orient and tyranny.”[15] Pas d’amalgames! No lumping! No smearing the entire Muslim or Arab people with these stereotypes about a violent religion.

Even though Saïd grants that there have been some worrisome turns to “nativist religion” in the Muslim world (his sole passing example, fellow literary figure, Salmon Rushdie), he insists this is “not part of the whole picture” and that focusing on it “demeans and dehumanizes… denies, suppresses, distorts” that picture. To focus on them “dehumanizes lesser people.”[16] Hence the very factors now alarmingly dominant in Arab political culture – religious zealotry, violence, terrorism, unbridled authoritarianism and exploitation of the weak (including the Palestinians[17]) – are not to be mentioned because, it might demean Arabs or Muslims (i.e., hurt their feelings). Any resistance to such logic risks eliciting accusations from fellow progressives of racism, and blaming the victim.

In the 21st century, therefore, the degree to which Western information professionals, from academics to journalists to “human rights” soft-power activists, have embraced this Saïdian approach, is the degree to which we have been collectively blindsided by events. For even as the traits Saïd branded “racist” stereotypes grew in strength in the Middle East, our information professionals stopped discussing them, addressed them reluctantly, and treated them dismissively, even aggressively.[18] Until now, at the very least, we infidels, living in democratic cultures, have been systemically disoriented by this Saïdian prohibition, and systematically misinformed about the Arab and Muslim world by his post-colonial followers.

Saïd’s Honor-Shame motivations: Kalam Alnass and the Prohibition of Public Criticism

While Saïd chose to frame his critique of the West as a post-modern, global, intellectual, one can also frame it within a different conceit: that is to see Saïd’s argument as an expression of the cultural dynamics of honor-shame. Here, the acquisition, maintenance, and restoration of public honor trump all other concerns. In such an environment, criticism, especially public criticism, is a direct and hence intolerable assault on honor. That’s why authoritarian societies give plenty of room to alpha males to violently suppress those whose language or behavior offends them: Malory’s Lancelot could boast of his innocence by claiming to have killed everyone who accused him of adultery with Queen Guinevere.[19] People from honor-shame cultures, with their overriding concern for “face”, thus have immense difficulty with societies that guarantee everyone freedom of speech and of press and religion.

Of all the clearly honor-shame cultures on the planet, Arab culture has one of a public opinion quite harsh and unforgiving about “others” in the community. Notes one Arab psychologist:

Kalam Alnass is the Arabic word for the fear of judgment by others. Arab culture is a judgmental culture and anything a person does is subject to judgment… Avoiding such judgment can be the constant preoccupation of people, almost as if the entire culture is paralyzed by Kalam Alnass. In other words, all of the people in Arab society are hostages of each other.[20]

As a generalization about Arab culture, it may seem “orientalist.” But as an insight into the dysfunctions of the Arab world today, this attention to a crippling and pervasive judgmentalism seems remarkably astute. David Pryce-Jones linked it directly to the perpetual state of zero-sum conflict in Arab culture:

Between the poles of honor and shame stretches an uncharted field where everyone walks perilously all the time, trying as best he can to interpret the actions and words of others, on the watch for any incipient power-challenging response that might throw up winners and losers, honor and shame.[21]

And, in the case of an “assimilated” Arab like Saïd, surrounded by outsiders as a significant “honor group,”[22] he experienced the negative judgments against his (Arab) culture (amplified a thousand-fold by the military humiliations imposed on Arabs by Israel), as a “punishing destiny”:

The web of racism, cultural stereotypes, political imperialism, dehumanizing ideology holding in the Arab or the Muslim is very strong indeed, and it is this web which every Palestinian has come to feel as his uniquely punishing destiny. It has made matters worse for him to remark that no person academically involved with the Near East – no Orientalist, that is – has ever in the United States culturally and politically ever identified wholeheartedly with the Arabs [i.e. with the desire to eliminate Israel]; certainly there have been identifications on some level, but they have never taken an “acceptable” form as has liberal American identification with Zionism…[23]

Saïd shows no concern here for whether or not the Palestinian cause, whose “wholehearted” support he endorses and wishes others to share, reflects (or disdains) the liberal values to which he appeals. For him, this is not about integrity, or any other liberal value, but about his kalam alnass, about his loss of honor, about how to save “face.”

His “Orientalist” playbook, therefore, demands from his Western readers a kind of moral and cultural affirmative action. “Treat us as you treat yourselves, as if we were good liberals too. Do not treat us like were a bunch of savage, irredentist, superstitious, yahoos who feed on fantasies of genocidal revenge and 70 virgins in heaven! How dare you?!”[24] In other words, for outsiders to suspect Palestinian (or Arab, or Muslim) leaders of inveterately hard zero-sum motives and behavior – about which the honor-shame model has much to say – would be an unfair aggression, a form of racism, and, in its effects on someone like Saïd, a “uniquely punishing destiny.”

When dealing with this clash between the right of others to criticize and the very real need to save face, the progressive principle has always held that the personal feelings of the individual (or group), even/especially of the powerful, are subordinated to the rough and tumble world of a free, un-coerced discussion. To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, the citizenry need a thick skin in order to enjoy freedom of speech.[25] People may want and create “safe spaces.” But they cannot demand that the public sphere become their safe space, free from embarrassing criticism.[26] For Saïd, however, this “punishing destiny,” which he shared with fellow Arabs and Muslims the world over, this cultural sense of global disgrace, was too much to bear.[27] Orientalism was Saïd’s answer.

Saïd argued that, given the power-seeking mechanisms that drove Western interests and perceptions of the “Orient”, it was inappropriate, indeed, racist, to focus on the negative traits of the other; and the more negative the trait, the more inappropriate. By the time he wrote his Afterward in 1994, he could airily dismiss anything he disliked, no matter how true, as “a set of lax and characteristically Orientalist formulas – Muslims are enraged at modernity, Islam never made the separation between church and state…”[28]

Fully accepting this prohibition, post-colonial scholars deal with violently zero-sum and belligerent Arab cultural practices, like “honor-killings” and “suicide terrorism,” with great care, if at all. And when such behavior forces itself on their attention, they interpret these behaviors not in the context of autonomous cultural dynamics and exigencies, but above all as contiguous with Western behavior. Honor-killing is merely a form of domestic violence, and, in the case of Palestinian honor-killings a function of the “Occupation.”[29] Suicide terror is a, functional, rational behavior, indeed an understandable response to Western misdeeds.[30] Who are we to judge?

Saïd was adept at exploiting that non-judgmental meme without reciprocating.[31] He demanded that, on the one hand, we project the best of ourselves onto the (Oriental) “other” (they’re just like us, want the same kinds of things, willing to succeed by positive-sum interactions). And on the other hand, he demanded that we introject the worst, that we accuse ourselves of the most despicable excesses of that hard zero-sum political culture about which we may not talk if it concerns Arabs or Muslims.

As a defense of Arab “face,” as a way of dealing with kalam alnass, Saïd’s Orientalism operates as a shield from public criticism. Défense de me critiquer! From the perspective of an honor-shame society, in which what “things look like” in the public eye are more important than any reality, Saïd’s charge to the West was “don’t you dare look at me like that! It dehumanizes me.”[32]

And Saïd’s success produced a generation of academics who described the Arab and Muslim worlds as “thriving civil societies” with “democracy around the corner.”[33] It flattered Arab self-images, at the cost of ignoring the realities that festered on the ground. It gave us the catastrophic misreading of the “Arab Spring.”[34]

This perspective explains one of the curious contradictions characteristic of the criticism aimed at Saïd’s book: some criticize him (as do I) for insisting we not see Arab culture in its own terms, but in the same terms we view ourselves – political, economic, social – and not in terms of primitive factors like ethnic, tribal, and religious identities. Others feel that Saïd essentially insisted that Westerners could not really understand Arabs, who were the only ones to be able to describe their culture.[35] And there’s support for both positions in his work, despite the incommensurability of the positions.

The shame-driven model explains that, on the one hand, when outsiders (Western whites) look at Arab culture they must see it in a favorable light (i.e. use the social and economic categories of their own developed societies), and when Arabs look at themselves, of course they will already be equipped with their culture’s imperative concerns for filtering out unflattering criticism. Indeed, as one unhappy Muslim critic of Islam noted, there’s an honor-brigade ready to attack Muslims with the foolish impression that they, like Westerners, can get away with being self-critical about their side.[36] Thus, the tribalist Arabs side with themselves and the non-tribalist Westerners criticize themselves. The result: the epistemologically flawed post-colonial formula for the priority of the subaltern “other.”

In this context, Orientalism constitutes an elaborate maneuver to get Western academics to stop “shaming” the Arab world by paying attention to its primitive, violent, anti-democratic, tendencies. Saïd’s accusations demanded that Western scholars “respect” his and his people’s dignity, by not criticizing them, or by watering down those criticisms till they were indistinguishable from criticism of Western problems. And, I’d argue, it is to the extent that we scholars have acceded to those demands, that we have been misled and disoriented.

If only Saïd had had the integrity to criticize us as we deserve, without the demeaning essentializing, and also criticized the Arab world for its shortcomings, we might be all much better off today. Maybe there would be less of a gap between our (chastised) Post-colonial discourse and the incomparably harsher and uninformed Arab/Muslim world’s “Occidentalism.” Had that happened, perhaps the dismal 2002 assessment of the Arab world, by Arab intellectuals, might have come considerably earlier. And then, perhaps today, those progressive forces in the Arab world could resist the Jihadis in their midst, and even achieve some of those sparkling goals of thriving autonomy, that the “respectful” post-colonial Westerners, already granted were within Arab political culture’s reach.[37]

The Unmentionable: Arab Honor-Shame Culture

There is perhaps no topic on which we have been more misled, than on the very matter that, one might opine, deeply concerned Saïd personally, namely the dynamics of seeking, maintaining, and regaining honor, and avoiding and eliminating shame.[38] In a brilliant reversal, Saïd, by ridiculing and dismissing any mention of the cultural role of shame as racist, managed to make it shameful for Western academics to refer to these matters in discussing the Arab world (or any “tribal” culture). And yet, few cultures anywhere in the world fit the description of the most problematic (zero-sum) form that honor-shame culture take: one where public opinion accepts, expects, even requires, that one shed blood for the sake of honor.

In a key passage on the subject, Saïd goes full bore on Harold Glidden for his analysis of Arab political culture.

The article itself purports to uncover “the inner workings of Arab behavior,” which from our point of view is “aberrant” but for Arabs “is normal.” After this auspicious start, we are told that Arabs stress conformity; that Arabs inhabit a shame culture whose “prestige system” involves the ability to attract followers and clients (as an aside we are told that “Arab society is and always has been based on a system of client-patron relationships”); that Arabs can function only in conflict situations; that prestige is based solely on the ability to dominate others; that a shame culture – and therefore Islam itself – makes a virtue of revenge (here Glidden triumphantly cites the June 29, 1970 Ahram to show that “in 1969 [in Egypt] in 1070 cases of murder where the perpetrators were apprehended, it was found that 21 percent of the murders were based on a desire to wipe out shame, 30 percent on a desire to satisfy real or imaginary wrongs, and 31 percent on a desire for blood revenge”); that if, from a Western point of view “the only rational thing for the Arabs to do is make peace… for the Arabs the situation is not governed by this kind of logic, for objectivity is not a native value in the Arab system.”[39]

For Saïd, this is the “apogee of Orientalist Confidence,” put otherwise, it embodies everything that is wrong with “Orientalism.” For an observant anthropologist like Philip Salzman, or a journalist like Lee Smith, it’s an accurate description of a coherent and successful pre-modern cultural system.[40]

Rather, this passage provides the reader with a good guide to anti-“Orientalist” rhetoric.[41] The passage assumes that we humanists, we good folks, we all agree that Glidden’s writings is full of mean, nasty stereotypes, amounting to nothing more than demeaning nonsense. Who among us would be so mean-spirited and prejudiced and provocative as to ask: “as generalizations go, how empirically accurate are these stereotypes?”

It turns out, however, they’re very accurate, and had we kept our eyes on that ball, even peripherally, perhaps we wouldn’t be reeling right now. We would, for example, have a far better understanding of the Middle East conflict in the clash of civilizations of the 21st century, if we had stayed aware of these triumphalist propensities in Arab political and religious culture.

Instead, Saïd and his followers have created a “discourse” on the Arab world that systematically avoids any reference to these factors. We have been literally “blindsided” by forces this discourse systematically occulted – all to spare the feelings of Saïd and other Arabs, infuriated by how bad they looked in the eye of the Western beholder. Essentially, Saïd appealed to Western progressives, demanding that, as an act of contrition for their culture’s criminal, imperialist/colonialist past, that it poke out its own eyes when looking at, or analyzing, the Arab world. If that meant failing to understand how deep the cultural belligerence, how hostile to progressive values, then so be it.

The best of Saïd’s progressive audience enthusiastically welcomed his words, many believing the path to avoiding the clash of civilizations lay in giving the Arab world and the Muslim world the benefit of the doubt. Western adopters of Saïd’s discourse saw it as a kind of “therapeutic narrative,” in which by accentuating the positive and glossing over the negative, one could encourage, rather than demean, the “other.”[42] It meant, among other things, treating Arabs as if their political culture had already reached post-modern (i.e., post-Holocaust) levels of a collective, societal commitment to universal human rights, peace through toleration, egalitarianism, positive-sum relations.

Of course, in order to sustain such an egalitarian model, one would have to ignore how widely current Arab political culture reflected pre-modern attitudes and values in their most noxious forms. Ignoring this aspect of a culture that shows strong hostility to ones own values, seems like a strange way to proceed, and, if pressed too far, suicidal. One cannot imagine that strategy succeeding very long in the evolutionary pool. After all, in the political longue durée, Arab loyalty to strong-horse politics is the norm (what Sagan calls the paranoid imperative).[43] Democratic cultures are the outliers.

At this point, the “grant of civility” to Arab culture (the renunciation of “Orientalism”), has gone from therapeutic experiment to dogmatic formula: to question it sounds “racist.” Violators who discuss unpleasant things are punished, excluded, exiled. An academic press turned down a book on contemporary Arab Apocalyptic thought as “hate-speech.”[44] Somehow criticizing haters is more hateful than the (staggeringly) hateful, paranoid, genocidal speech this researcher wished to bring to the attention of the reading public.

In the larger picture, this reasoning is lamentable. It took a millennium of constant and painful efforts for Western culture to learn how to sublimate testosterone to the point of creating a society tolerant of diversity, one based primarily on positive-sum encounters. Now, all of a sudden, we liberal egocentrics have declared that this exceptional, millennial achievement, be considered the default mode for mankind. Nothing here but us humanists (racist “Orientalists” imperialists excepted).

This “humanitarian” critique systematically confuses humane with human, and views anyone who does not consider the “other” humane, as dehumanizing them. Thus, to call someone sadistic – an ugly emotion that is, however, uniquely human – is to “dehumanize” them. The result is that we don’t see important issues. As a result, we lose a war of hearts and minds over the issue of torture, to the side that tortures early and often.[45]

From Oslo Peace to Global Jihad: Consequences of Ignoring Honor-Shame Dynamics

“Oslo Peace Process” constitutes one of the more outstanding examples of misreading honor-shame dynamics. In a typical paradox when it came to his writings and deeds, Saïd opposed the deal (for reasons of honor and shame), even though Oslo’s “logic” reflected his critique of Orientalism.[46] It was based on the principle that “land for peace” would lead Arafat to shift paradigms from the “we Arabs must regain our honor by wiping out the shame that is Israel” to the “get out of exile, come home and be the father of my people’s political independence” paradigm.[47] As Rabin said to his own people (repeated by many like a mantra): “you don’t make peace with friends, but with enemies.” Here, people thought, was the opportunity the Palestinians wouldn’t miss: a rational, positive-sum, both sides give a little, get a lot, neither gets everything, win-win solution. What better way to usher in the new millennium of non-coercive, positive-sum, global relations than with such a solution to the inveterate Arab-Israeli conflict.

Such calculations systematically underestimated the role of zero-sum honor-shame dynamics in Arab political and Muslim religious culture and therefore, underestimated that “honor-group’s” hold over Arafat. Above all, it underestimated its role in Arab-Muslim religiosity. In that faith-based calculus, Jews in Dar al Islam should be dhimmis, blameworthy by their (lack of) faith, “protected” from Muslim violence by their subjection, objects of an apparatus of oppression and humiliation which varying rulers could use or not as they willed. Israel, as a sovereign state of Jews in the (Jewish) “heart” of Dar al Islam, blackened the face of triumphalist Arab Muslims. Its very existence was not only deeply shameful, but blasphemous. Would – could – Arafat accept a deal in which any Jewish independent state existed? Could he give Israel peace on any part of the land?

The US and Israel counted on Arafat’s ultimate preference of their honor group, the “global leaders” led by the President of the United States, and embodied in the Nobel Peace Prize he received for merely signing onto the Accords. This honor-group, they confidently expected, would override the irredentist Arab-Muslim honor-group, in the same way that it had with Anwar Sadat. After signing the deal on the White House lawn, however, Arafat found himself the target of much hostility from the Arab-Muslim honor-group, for making so humiliating a deal which, among others, Edward Saïd considered had Palestinian leadership “submitting shamefully to Israel.”[48]

Only six months after returning from Tunisia to Palestinian territory as a result of the deal, Arafat revealed how he managed the honor-shame dilemma of having made public concessions to the Jews, and therefore having brought shame upon himself and his people. In a visit to a mosque in Johannesburg South Africa, he spoke not of the “peace of the brave” but of waging a Jihad to liberate Jerusalem and all of Palestine. When asked about Oslo, he responded: “I see this agreement as being no more than the agreement signed between our Prophet Muhammad and the Quraysh in Mecca” known as the Treaty of Hudaybiyya. By that he meant, it was a humiliating treaty, done at a time of weakness, waiting to be broken when circumstances permit regaining honor through violence and dominion. As one of his (more moderate) advisors later put it, “Oslo was a Trojan Horse.”[49]

By and large, Western journalists and policy-makers, including the “peace camp” in Israel, ignored Arafat’s invocations of the Treaty of Hudaybiyya, something that, from the point of view of an honor-shame dynamic, was highly inadvisable. Advocates of peace read these as antics designed to appease public opinion (itself a thing worth pondering); they remained confident that, in the end, the more mature call of the international community would sway Arafat to the side of positive-sum reason. Dennis Ross, in his 800-page memoir on the Oslo failure, has not a word to say about the Hudaybiyya meme, despite how much it matches Arafat’s other behavior, beginning with what Ross considers his “greatest travesty as a leader,” his “failure to prepare his people for the compromises necessary for peace.”[50] And yet, repeatedly, and from the beginning, Palestinian leaders made their intentions clear.[51]

But rather than examine this evidence, the gatekeepers of the Western public sphere attacked anyone who drew attention to this statement and its meaning. CAIR led the attack, and did so in the name of protecting the prophet’s reputation. Daniel Pipes wrote a post on the Johannesburg Mosque speech, the meaning of the Treaty of Hudaybiyya, and the trouble anyone who brought up the subject incurred, in which he was quite “fair” to the Prophet. That nevertheless earned him furious attacks and one of the earlier accusations of “Islamophobia.” This accusation of Islamophobia has come to play the role of the sea serpents that strangled Laocoön: any criticism of Islam that offends Muslim sensibilities – as defined by Muslim “human rights groups” like CAIR – becomes the occasion of furious, “non-violent,” retaliation, including legal action.[52]

Throughout the controversy, the anger and threats of Muslims against anyone who criticized the Prophet, played a key role in soliciting repeated apologies from anyone foolish enough to tackle the subject. It was almost as if critics were forbidden to examine the evidence relevant to their concerns.[53] On the contrary, following Saïd’s strictures, the Palestinians had to be viewed as full-fledged modern players, who wanted their own nation, who could be counted on to keep their commitments, who would chose the win-win.[54] And that is precisely not who their leaders were, how they spoke, or what they did.

The inability to understand the dynamics of maintaining honor (fighting Israel) and avoiding shame (compromising with Israel) doomed Oslo to failure from the beginning. And, once it fell apart, by continuing to operate according to Oslo principles Westerners doomed themselves to systematically misunderstanding events.[55] In the aftermath of Arafat’s resounding but predictable “no” at Camp David in July of 2000, and the outbreak of the “Al Aqsa Intifada” in October of that year, massive efforts to interpret Arafat’s behavior as “rational” and to dismiss any hostile analysis as “racist” came from a wide range of sources.[56]

For example, in a particularly high-profile response to Ehud Barak’s remarks about Palestinian culture’s ease with lying, Agha and Malley wrote:

…[Barak’s] words in the initial interview were unequivocal. “They are products of a culture in which to tell a lie…creates no dissonance,” he pronounced. “They don’t suffer from the problem of telling lies that exists in Judeo-Christian culture. Truth is seen as irrelevant.” And so on. But, plainly, factual accuracy and logical consistency are not what Morris and Barak are after. What matters is self-justification by someone who has chosen to make a career—and perhaps a comeback—through the vilification of an entire people.

This is classic Saïd: attack the motives, claim moral injury at the insult… and in the process, distract attention from the accuracy of the remarks. Although backed by examples of the extensive and fluent use of lying in the negotiations, Barak’s charge becomes, in the hands of Arafat’s defenders, the “vilification of an entire people.”

Not surprisingly, the academic literature on “lying” in Arab culture, which should cover walls of bookshelves (at least the libraries of our intelligence services), is almost non-existent.[57] Only “orientalist” books like David Pryce Jones’ Closed Circle, which dare to identify specific peculiarities of Arab culture, dare make comparisons:

In the West, what is said and done more or less corresponds to the intentions of the speaker and the doer. Liars and cheats abound, of course, but generally they can go only so far before being caught out in the contractual relationships of their society. Lying and cheating in the Arab world is not really a moral matter but a method of safeguarding honor and status, avoiding shame, and at all times exploiting possibilities, for those with the wits for it, deftly and expeditiously to convert shame into honor on their own account, and vice versa for their opponents. If honor so demands, lies and cheating may become absolute imperatives.[58]

In other words, Arab culture is still primarily a zero-sum culture: my honor, your shame. As unpleasant as that may “sound,” it “rings” true, as anyone familiar with the current dysfunctions of Arab political culture at this time. As result of stigmatizing this line of inquiry, we Westerners flounder in a sea of misinformation about this region, precisely where it is most needed. And the consequences have been immensely damaging.

The Western Disorientations Resulting from Saïd’s Arab Shame

I do not think that Saïd intended to create the actual and disastrous real-world consequences brought on, in significant part, by the cecity imposed on us by him and his enthusiasts among our information professionals. Saïd was not a secret Jihadi, but a secular globalist. In his eagerness to strike at those whom he resented most, however, he proved a dupe of Jihadis. Ironically, he played so important a role in helping them, because he wanted to save himself and his fellow Arabs from the crippling shame of a disapproving Western, a fortiori, Jewish, gaze. If he was in any way aware of the dangers involved in empowering Jihadi violence against the West, he seems to have ignored it. He’d sooner savage the Western media for their coverage of “Islam,” than contribute to an understanding of such a ferocious religious enemy of his “refined humanism.”

It seems heart-breaking to think that such a petty vendetta about shame could have had so powerfully noxious an impact on much of the Western academy. And yet, what Herbert Lewis says about Saïd’s impact on Anthropology, one could readily apply to many of social “sciences”:

Anthropology today is in a perilous state – brought to this condition by the great train of ideologies of which Post-colonialism is just one of the last cars. The science of human behaviour through the study of comparative cultures has been consigned to a wicked past, and study of the peoples of the world in all their complexity is in danger of being replaced by turgid and non-replicable treatises on violence, inequality, ill-health, and poor body image.[59]

In other words, post-colonialism and the tyranny of guilt have radically atomized and disoriented our understanding of other cultures and societies.[60]

We can continue to follow Saïd by trying to push the “variegated” reality that emerges into knowledge categories like political and economic; and we can continue to refine a post-colonial narrative that satisfies the “social justice” warrior in us. But that doesn’t guarantee we have a serious understanding of the actual forces at work in Arab and Muslim culture. Quite the contrary, for “almost totally ethnocentric” scholarship, little compares with the performances of the academic media experts explaining the Arab “Spring.”

When Saïd insists that Western “experts” like Glidden produce a discourse in which “neither Muslims nor Arabs nor any of the other dehumanized lesser peoples recognize themselves as human beings or their observers as simple scholars,” he means the scholars are motivated by invidious need to compare themselves favorably to others, and what they say has nothing to do with their subjects’ experience of the world. This has produced the post-colonial formula of the epistemological priority of the subaltern “other.” For the “privileged,” this means “their side right or wrong,” for the “subaltern,” this means my side right or wrong, a kind of marriage of post-modern masochism and pre-modern sadism.

Instead we need to ask two key sets of questions in each case.

  • On the one hand, weigh the value of the judgment being made: Is this talk of honor-shame dynamics a case of monolithic essentializing, irrelevant to any real understanding of the situation? Or was it an effort at an (always relatively) in/accurate description of an important cultural trait, a judgment that we need to examine and assess on its empirical, informational merits?
  • On the other hand, we must question the nature of the response: Is the “non-recognition” that Arabs or Muslims feel when faced with these outside descriptions, the result of hearing something utterly alien to themselves? Or is it a response of denial to the shame of looking in the cultural mirror and seeing that others do not see them as they see themselves?

Obviously, the cookie crumbles in all kinds of ways, which is why the positive-sum principle is “whoever is right, my side or not.” But those zero-sum players who do not wish to face unpleasant, embarrassing realities, who invoke as a mantra “blaming the victim,” we cannot allow them to “kill the messenger,” by forbidding us from listening to the information professionals’ presumably, if relatively, accurate and relevant accounts.

These are particularly important questions in the 21st century, since in the last fifteen years, a key new player, global Jihad, has entered both the Muslim and global public sphere. For Jihadis, this denial of the more brutal aspects of the Muslim world is less a matter of losing face before a global community (for whom they have deep disdain), but rather a cognitive war tactic. Jihadis “know” full well that (their) Islam is a religion of war and conquest. They just don’t want the infidels they target to acknowledge that. They want the infidels to say, “Islam is a religion of peace.” And, alas, and whatever their motives, many Westerners, from George Bush right after 9-11, and Barack Obama in still more dogmatic terms, to many Western academics have complied.[61]

Until we ask ourselves these kinds of questions, about honor-shame dynamics and triumphalist religiosity – we will continue acceding to Saïd’s insistence that we indict the critic, not the criticized. Every time we do that, we reward behavior in our own public sphere that is based one a hostile honor dynamic in its zero-sum struggle for dominance against the academic world’s integrity. In order to spare the feelings of the honor-obsessed (and avoid being accused of racism and Islamophobia), we avoid discussing matters of critical import even as we encourage them.

This has spread throughout academia and become increasingly insistent on controlling language, even unto banning “micro-aggressions” that might offend, lest they “dehumanize the lesser people,” all those marginalized and under-represented, subaltern voices which must be heard.”[62] And this politically correct approach has even infected our intelligence services, certainly at the level of general assessment.[63]

Perhaps not surprisingly, some of those “marginalized and under-represented minorities,” thus protected from criticism, seem to have few scruples about abusing and degrading others – as honor-shame dynamics prescribes: “deftly and expeditiously to convert shame into honor on their own account, and vice versa for their opponents.”[64] The wide range of fully-identified Palestinian supporters who now dominate much of campus discourse – “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free!” – have created an environment hostile to the mildest of Zionists, an overt hostility that makes Saïd’s “uniquely punishing” experience in the 1970s very mild by comparison. The honor-shame dynamic moves on: from saving face and regaining public honor, to blackening the face of those who shamed you and driving them out of the honorable world.

In other words, through the backdoor of an unreciprocated concern about the “other’s” feelings, we have allowed a particularly bullying honor-shame discourse to take over much of our discussion. As a result we have reintroduced the most violent, zero-sum dynamics of alpha-male, honor-shame, cultures into our open and necessarily vulnerable civil polities.[65] What we have built up over centuries, through our ability to self-criticize, we now destroy by exempting enemies from that responsibility.

Instead we treat them as good-will equals, while redoubling the burden of self-criticism and confession upon ourselves. We renounce offending the honor-driven, and we allow the honor-driven to offend. And when it comes to the obsessional object of the honor-drivens’ need to demean – hated Israel – too many have joined forces with the honor-brigade to offend and demean her.

The Man without a Land: The Fallibilities of “Perfection”

Herbert Lewis notes the uncomfortable links between Saïd’s life and his intellectual stances:

Edward Said can claim some credit for this attitude to the idea of culture [i.e. that to reify culture is a criminal form of racism and imperialism] in the discipline of anthropology. He projected his personal extreme unease about his ethnic identity and his misunderstandings of and discomfort, with depictions of Arab and Muslim culture and history, into Orientalism. His autobiography, Out of Place, bears striking witness to his visceral aversion to matters of ethnic identity, customs and cultures, and differences.[66]

In his own mind and heart, Saïd was a ferocious anti-tribalist.

And yet, shortly before his death, at the height of the Intifada and just as the US began to plan a war in Iraq, Saïd wrote an angry screed that revealed his “other,” tribal self. In it, he denounced self-critical Arabs for filling the Western public sphere with negative images of the Arab world:

The only ‘good’ Arabs are those who appear in the media decrying modern Arab culture and society without reservation. I recall the lifeless cadences of their sentences for, with nothing positive to say about themselves or their people and language, they simply regurgitate the tired American formulas already flooding the airwaves and pages of print. We lack democracy they say, we haven’t challenged Islam enough… Only what we, and our American instructors say about the Arabs and Islam – vague re-cycled Orientalist clichés of the kind repeated by a tireless mediocrity like Bernard Lewis – is true… (If I had the time, there would be an essay to be written about the prose style of people like Ajami, Gerges, Makiya, Talhami, Fandy et al., academics whose very language reeks of subservience, inauthenticity and a hopelessly stilted mimicry that has been thrust upon them.)[67]

Uncle Toms, Oreos, the lot of them. Analyses of Saïd could fill several volumes of a collection of articles entitled: Subaltern Ressentiment Studies.

What Saïd admired, then, was not this self-critical intelligentsia, but his image of the Palestinian people, whose leaders, only 18 months earlier had chosen an asymmetrical war of suicide terror over getting their own state.

Remarkably, though, the great mass of this heroic people seems willing [sic] to go on, without peace and without respite, bleeding, going hungry, dying day by day. They have too much dignity and confidence in the justice of their cause to submit shamefully to Israel as their leaders have done. What could be more discouraging for the average Gazan who goes on resisting Israeli occupation than to see his or her leaders kneel as supplicants before the Americans?[68]

Is this not the very Orientalist mindset that Saïd insisted was a Western invention – the dream-palace fantasy of proud defiance whose price falls so heavily on the “heroic” shoulders of the people – or, in Saïd’s unfortunate word choice, “the great mass”?[69] Little wonder Jihadis could enlist such unwitting but willing allies.

In his treatment of Saïd’s “secularism”, Courville discusses Saïd’s predilection for Hugh of St. Victor’s (Augustinian) and anti-tribal formula: “he is perfect to whom the whole world is a foreign land.”[70] This passage:

…is utilized [by Saïd] to uncannily spin his idea of secularization as a largely individual struggle to become conscious of, and then to free one’s self from, largely unconscious historical and sociocultural determinisms. The freedom is made to make another history, one that would be other than the unenlightened repetitions of age-old fear and greed generated blood feuds. His is calling for a type of renunciation, a renunciation of a type of worldview but this for the sake of all of the world’s peoples, not one above any others.[71]

Saïd’s own career, with his deep commitment to Palestinian honor and revenge against the shame Israel inflicted on his adopted people, was far more “an unenlightened repetition of age-old… blood feuds,” than a noble effort at benefitting “all of the world’s peoples, not one above any others.” In a sense, he fell prey to his own version of cultural tribalism. And, alas, it has most benefitted those religious and political forces in the global community most driven by what Augustine deplored as libido dominandi.

The failure to deconstruct Saïd very early on, to identify the silences that his voluble discourse occulted, may be one of the more exceptional miscarriages of the post-modern school of “critical theory.” It has certainly been a disaster for the academy’s contribution to our understanding of the formidable foe of global Jihad now rearing its head in so many places around the world. Until we democratic information professionals reclaim and till the fields of honor-shame dynamics, we cannot possibly understand this part of the world (and many others, including our own inversion of those dynamics). To quake at accusations of “racism,” when tackling these issues constitutes, above all, matters of nurture rather than nature, is to succumb to post-colonial, anti-“Orientalist” peer pressure of the most shame driven kind.

Maybe we could afford that indulgence in the 20th century.

But at this time? When that experiment in human freedom and equality, about which Abraham Lincoln, a century and a half ago, wondered how long it could endure, is in such great peril and need?

I think not.


[1] A note on triumphalism. It is an outsider term for those who believe their group is superior to all others, and that as proof of that superiority, it should triumph and dominate over others: “we are right, our faith is true, because we triumph over you.” When applied to Islam it refers to that form of religiosity that believes that Islam’s destiny is to submit the whole world to Allah’s will (Sharia law); that the world is divided into Dar al Harb (realm of the sword) and Dar al Islam (realm of submission), and that the latter should replace the former; that in the ideal situation Muslims give infidels the choice of conversion, death or subjection. Modern democracies based on the “separation of church and state” require the formal renunciation of triumphalist religiosity. See Landes, “Triumphalist Religiosity: The Unanticipated Problem of the 21st Century,” Tablet, February 10, 2016;

[2] For a recent critique of critical theory, post-modernism and post-colonialism (PoMo-PoCo), see Shmuel Trigano, La nouvelle ideologie dominante: le post-modernisme (Paris: Editions Hermann, 2012).

[3] For the most extensive and devastating reviews, see Martin Kramer, Ivory Towers on Sand (Washington, DC: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001), pp. 27-44; Ibn Warraq, Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2007); Robert Irwin, Lust for Knowing: Orientalists and their Discontents (London: Penguin, 2007); Joshua Muravchik, Making David into Goliath (New York: Encounter Books, 2014), pp. 98-122.

[4] More than one current specialist in apocalyptic Jihad faced the problem: pursue this subject and there is no place for you in the academy.

[5] See, for example, Terry Eagelton, “Edward Said got many things wrong, but his central argument was basically right. The west’s denigration of the east has always gone with imperialist incursions into its terrain,” The New Statesman, February 13, 2006;

[6] “Is the notion of a distinct culture (or race, or religion, or civilization a useful one, or does it always get involved either in self-congratulation (when one discusses one’s own) or hostility and aggression (when one discuss the “other”)? Saïd, Orientalism, p. 325. The idea that such a dichotomy is necessary, and that one cannot see both positive and negative in different cultures and civilizations is both astounding, and contradicted by the very “Orientalists” Saïd analyzes.

[7] Irwin, Lust for Knowing, p. 4.

[8] Edward Saïd, Orientalism (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978), p. 204. For a critique of the way that critics of Saïd (Ibn Warraq, Martin Kramer) cite this passage (as do I), see Matthieu E. Coureville, Edward Said’s Rhetoric of the Secular (London: Continuum, 2010), pp. 59-61, who points out that this now infamous sentence is, in context, far less sweeping than it seems. Of course, even restricted to 19th century examples, like Richard Burton, the generalization is gross, to put it mildly.

[9] On the relentless and polemical use of “racism [as] an epithet [Saïd] uses to try to silence the opposing side in a broader debate over how the Middle East should be interpreted,” see David Shipler’s review of Saïd’s The Politics of Dispossession: “From a Wellspring of Bitterness,” NYT, June 26, 1994;

[10] Saïd, Orientalism, p. 323.

[11] On Saïd’s secularism, see W.D. Hart, Edward Saïd and the Religious Effects of Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), who is categorical about Saïd’s univocal negativity towards religion. Coureville considers himself more nuanced, but agrees that Saïd remained a “staunch secular humanist”: Saïd’s Rhetoric, chap. 3.

[12] “I know that I may be speaking only for myself when I say that as an Arab Christian I have never felt myself to be a member of an aggrieved or marginal minority. Being an Arab, even for a non-Muslim, means being a member of what the late Marshall Hodgson called an Islamicate world, or culture. Any attempts at severing the tie are, I believe, doomed to failure,” Saïd, “The Other Arab Muslims,” NYT Magazine, November 26, 1993.

[13] “Jihad” appears in the book only to be dismissed as a Western exaggeration and misrepresentation: Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How we See the Rest of the World (New York: Vintage, 1981, 1997), p. 114. See also Coureville, Saïd’s Rhetoric, pp. 66-73.

[14] In her rejection of Benny Morris’ book, 1948, which Holt had commissioned, the editor, Sarah Bershtel deemed his remarks on the role played by Jihad and anti-Semitic, Qur’anic passages in motivating the Arab side of the war, as well as references to the “Arab leadership’s corruption, incompetence, and disunity” as “racist.”

[15] Orientalism, p. 346.

[16] Said, Orientalism, p. 345.

[17] See Landes, “Palestinian Suffering,” Augean Stables, Confirmed by (anonymous) voices from a highly repressive culture:

[18] When the riots in France broke out in November/ Ramadan of 2005, it took the NYT ten days to report on them, and then, Craig Smith, “Riots Spread From Paris to Other French Cities,” NYT, Nov. 6, 2005. At no point did the article discuss the possible role of Islam in the riots, despite mentioning that Muslim leader joined the Prime Minister’s ministers in council. See Bruce Bawer, Surrender, for the failures of Western cultural leaders to inform people on the threat they faced as infidels.**

[19] See excellent analysis by James Bowman, Honor: A History (New York: Encounter Books, 2007), pp. 41-45.

[20] Talib Kafaji, The Psychology of the Arab: The Influences that Shape an Arab Life (Bloomington IN: AuthorHouse, 2011), p. 75. For a scholarly discussion of this term and its impact of Arabs living in the West, see Nadine Naber, Arab America: Gender, Cultural Politics, and Activism, (New York: NYU Press, 2012), pp. 99-109.

[21] For multiple examples of the impact of such concerns on the dysfunctions of Arab society today, see David Pryce Jones, The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs (London: HarperCollins, 1989 2002), chap. 4.

[22] “I traversed the imperial East-West divide, entered into the life of the West, and yet retained some organic connection with the place from which I originally came.” Saïd, Orientalism, p. 336. On the “honor group” as the primary group upon which one depends for public recognition of honor, see Anthony Kwame Appiah, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happens (New York: Norton, 2011).

[23] Orientalism, p. 27 (italics mine).

[24] Raymond Ibrahim, “How Dare You?! The Supremacist Nature of Muslim ‘Grievances’,” Islam Translated, July 12, 2013; online:; and Nick Cohen, “You sexist/racist/liberal/elitist bastard! How dare you?” Spectator, April 7, 2014; online:

[25] See “Reflections on Justice Black and Freedom of Speech,” Valparaiso University Law Review, 6:3-4 (1972): 316-31;

[26] See Eric Posner’s protest against insulting free speech: “The World Doesn’t Love the First Amendment,” Slate, September 25, 2012;

[27] Landes, “Why the Arab World Is Lost in an Emotional Nakba, and How We Keep It There,” Tablet Magazine, June 24, 2014;

[28] Orientalism, p., 341.

[29] For example, Wendy Aujla, Aisha K. Gill, “Conceptualizing ‘Honour’ Killings in Canada: An Extreme Form of Domestic Violence?” International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences, 9:1 (2014); For a response, see Phyllis Chesler, “Are Honor Killings Simply Domestic Violence?” Middle East Quarterly (Spring 2009); On Palestinian honor-killings as a response to the Israeli occupation, see Amnesty International’s Israel and the Occupied Territories: Conflict, Occupation and Patriarchy, Women Carry the Burden,

[30] On the functional approach to suicide bombing as a rational response to “occupation,” see Robert Pappe, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (New York: Random House, 2005).

[31] “The book’s general thesis fed upon the West’s hand-wringing and guilt about its imperialist past,” Irwin, Lust for Knowing, p. 309. On this hand-wringing, see Pascale Bruckner, The Tyranny of Guilt (Princeton: Princeton U. Press, 2010). As for a significant element on the Muslim world, there’s no trace of guilt for their own imperialism; on the contrary, considerable triumphalism.

[32] I heard precisely this formulation as part of a dialogue group in the early aughts, coming from a Palestinian: when I complained about the moral depravity of suicide terror, he responded angrily: “you’re dehumanizing my people.” No one wanted to hear me respond: “Your people are dehumanizing themselves.” That would be attributing too much agency to them.

[33] Augustus Richard Norton (ed), Civil Society in the Middle East (Leiden: Brill, 1992-). Martin Kramer reviews the inexorably optimistic school of Saïdian scholarship about the imminent prospects of democracy in Arab world, Ivory Towers on Sand (Washington: Washington Institute of Near East Policy, 2001), chapter 4.

[34] Daniel Pipes, “Arab Spring” – Misnomer, National Review Online, May 31, 2011:; Yoel Guzansky , Mark A. Heller (eds.), One Year of the Arab Spring: Global and Regional Implications (Tel Aviv: Institute for National Security Studies, March 2012):

[35] David Landes, Wealth and Poverty, pp. **; Ibn Warraq, Defending the West, pp. **.

[36] Asra Nomani, “Meet the honor brigade, an organized campaign to silence debate on Islam,” Washington Post, January 16, 2015;

[37] Arab Human Development Report: Creating Opportunities for Future Generations (UN: 2002); Historian Victor Davis Hanson wrote that the report’s findings “lend credence to almost everything brave [“Orientalist”] scholars like Bernard Lewis and Daniel Pipes have been saying for years.” Hanson, “A Ray of Arab Candor,” City Journal, July 3, 2002; See review of discussion in “How the Arabs Compare: Arab Human Development Report 2002,” Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2002, pp. 59-67;

[38] The literature on honor-shame, especially from the world of anthropology, is highly contested, even before Saïd, who merely added his voice to an already strong insistence that anthropologists should not “judge” the cultures they study. Since the (should have been seminal) collection of Persistany, Honor in Mediterranean Cultures (1966), little scholarly literature has explicitly tackled the notion of an “honor-shame culture.” See however, the journalist David Pryce-Jones, The Closed Circle, and Philip Salzman, Cultures of Conflict. Of course, saving face, gaining honor, avoiding shame, are such pervasive motives among all humans, that even though scholars avoid the conceptual framework, they necessarily continue to discuss the dynamics.

[39] Orientalism, p. 48; Harold Glidden, “The Arab World,” American Journal of Psychiatry, 128:8 (1972), 984-88. Note that all of the three motives for murder are synonymous with the shame imperative: shed blood to restore honor.

[40] Salzman, Culture and Conflict in the Middle East (New York: Prometheus Books, 2008); Lee Smith, The Strong Horse: Power, Politics and the Clash of Arab Civilizations (New York: Doubleday, 2010). Landes, “Islamic Triumphalism.”

[41] For further discussion of this quote and Saïd’s approach, see Landes, “Edward Said and the Culture of Honour and Shame: Orientalism and Our Misperceptions of the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” Israel Affairs, 13:4 (October 2007): 844–858;

[42] This kind of history lay at the heart of the Black Athena controversy of the 1980s: see Anthony Kwame Appiah, “Europe upside down: Fallacies of the new Afrocentrism,” Times literary supplement, no. 4689 (1993): 24-25.

[43] On “Strong horse” politics, see Lee Smith, The Strong Horse; on the paranoid imperative, see Eli Sagan, The Honey and the Hemlock (New York: Basic Books, 1991).

[44] David Cook, Contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2008).

[45] Master Sargeant Michael Clemens, Special Investigator, The Secrets of Abu Ghraib Revealed: American Soldiers on Trial (Dulles VA: Potomac Books, 2010).

[46] Ironically, Saïd opposed the Oslo Peace Process because it conceded too much to Israel. It was, in his words, a “degrading… act of obeisance,” a “capitulation” that produced a state of “supine abjectness.” Saïd, “The Morning After,” London Review of Books, October 21, 1993; online: Edward W. Said, ‘An Unacceptable Helplessness’, Al-Ahram, January 2003; online:

[47] Excellent chapter on this paradigm shift in response to the end of the Cold War in Ofira Seliktar, Doomed to Failure?: The Politics and Intelligence of the Oslo Peace Process (Santa Barbara CA: ABC Clio, 2009), chap. 2. She notes: “The neo-Kantian tradition within the idealist camp, known as the ‘democratic peace,’ postulated that ‘the spread of democratic regime would virtually assure international peace.’ While rooted in Western experience, these theories were thought to be applicable cable to the Middle East,” p. 27. On the revenge-for-shame motivation of Arab (Muslim) opposition to Israel, see Landes, “The Emotional Nakbah,” Tablet, June 24, 2014;,

[48] Edward W. Said, ‘An Unacceptable Helplessness’, Al-Ahram, #621, 16-22 January 2003;

[49] Faysal al Husseini, “Interview with al Arabi,” MEMRI, July 6, 2001, Special Dispatch No. 236; online:

[50] Dennis Ross, The Missing Peace: Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2004), pp. 767-69, 776. It was a matter of principle for practitioners of “Peace Journalism, among them Hebrew University Professor Gadi Wolfsfeld, not to mention such discouraging news items: Wolfsfeld, The Media and the Path to Peace (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004). On the other hand, Raphael Israeli spends a chapter examining how central the Hudaybiyya analogy was to Arafat, how widely understood in his own culture, and how completely ignored by the Israelis: “We learn then that the choice of the Hudaibiyya– Jihad– Jerusalem trinity by astute Arafat was not accidental or inconsequential, but well-perceived, if ill-conceived, and misunderstood by his Israeli partners to the negotiations.” The Oslo Idea: The Euphoria of Failure (New York, Transaction Publishers, 2012), chap. 2.

[51] As documented by Efraim Karsh, “Arafat’s Grand Strategy,” Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2004, and The Oslo War: A Tale of Self-Delusion [Hebrew] (Tel Aviv: BESA Publications, 2003). For an analysis of how “peace journalism” practiced by only one side leads to war, see Landes, “The Place of Journalism in Palestinian Cognitive Warfare,” The Augean Stables, May 28, 2013; online: Muravchik, David into Goliath, pp. **-**.

[52] Paul Marshall and Nina Shea, Silenced:

[53] For the best sustained study of the phenomenon of denial and deliberate ignoring of evidence, see Ken Levin’s The Oslo Syndrome,

[54] This meme dominated “peace talk,” embraced by both Democrats (Obama) and Republicans (Rice).

[55] The two best treatments of this issue are Ken Levin, Oslo Syndrome; and a study in the cognitive dissonance of messianic hopefuls (in a world governed by positive-sum principles) once the evidence contradicts the belief: Golan Lahat, HaPitui haMeshichit: Aliyato uNefilato shel haSmol haYisraeli [The Messianic Temptation: Rise and Fall of the Israeli Left] (Tel Aviv, Am Oved 972 series, 2004). For an interesting application of Lahat’s model to the writing of Eitan Haber on the Disengagement from Gaza, see Joel Fishman, “The Delusions of Oslo in the Service of Disengagement,” Makor Rishon, August 20, 2004; online:

[56] The most elaborate of these came in the pages of the New York Review of Books, by Robert Malley and Hussein Agha, including accusations of racism against Ehud Barack for discussing the extensive use of lying on the part of the Palestinian negotiating team. Other public intellectuals joined the fray: Richard Falk, “Ending the Death Dance,” Nation Magazine, April 11, 2002; online:; Robert Wright, “Was Arafat the Problem?” Slate Magazine, April 18, 2002; online:

[57] See a 1994 paper for the CIA, Peter Naffsinger, “Face among Arabs”; More recently, Talib Kafa, The Psychology of the Arab: The Influences That Shape an Arab Life (Bloomington Indiana: Authorhouse, 2011), pp. 57.

[58] Pryce-Jones, Closed Circle, p, **.

[59] Herbert Lewis, “The Influence of Edward Said and Orientalism on Anthropology, or: Can the Anthropologist Speak?” in Postcolonial Theory and the Arab-Israel Conflict, ed. Donna Divine and Philip Salzman (New York: Routledge, 2008), p.106.

[60] See Kramer, Ivory Towers, chapter 6: “The cultivation of irrelevance.”

[61] On Bush’s speech at Islamic Center in Washington a week after 9-11, see; on the academy’s treatment, see Kramer, Ivory Towers, chap. 3.

[62] Perhaps the most startling example of this tendency can be seen in the guidelines that UC President (and former Homeland Security Chief), Janet Napolitano issued for instructors in her university system: Josh Hedke, “California professors instructed not to say ‘America is the land of opportunity’,” The College Fix, June 10, 2015; online:

[63] Hillary Clinton and *** on Arab Spring

[64] Pryce-Jones, Closed Circle, p, **.

[65] Pessin knows the CA case

[66] Lewis, “The Influence of Edward Said,” p. **.

[67] Edward W. Said, ‘An Unacceptable Helplessness’, Al-Ahram, #621, 16-22 January 2003; Italics mine.

[68] Ibid., italics mine.

[69] Among Saïd’s major targets were two Arab’s who criticized precisely this tendency at sacrificing the commoners for elitist fantasies: Fouad Ajami, The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation’s Odyssey (New York: Vintage, 1999); Kanan Makiya, Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising, and the Arab World (New York: Vintage, 1994).

[70] Hugh of St. Victor, Didascalion, book 3, chapter 19.

[71] Courville, Saïd’s Rhetoric of the Secular, p. 88f. See also, Saïd’s claim in the “Afterward” to the 1994 edition of Orientalism: In all my works, I remained fundamentally critical of a gloating and uncritical nationalism. . . . My view of Palestine . . . remains the same today: I expressed all sorts of reservations about the insouciant nativism, and militant militarism of the nationalist consensus; I suggested, instead, a critical look at the Arab environment, Palestinian history, and the Israeli realities, with the explicit conclusion that only a negotiated settlement, between the two communities of suffering, Arab and Jewish, would provide respite from the unending war (p. **).

4 Responses to Said’s Disorientations

  1. Jon says:

    Dear Richard,

    A lot of people talk about the phenomenon of second-generation Muslim immigrants, to well-off parents somewhere like the UK and US, going extremely radical and performing attacks. In some cases parents warn the authorities about their children.

    I was wondering if this was an Islamic culture that has grown within an Honor-Shame system; being transplanted into a Pride-Guilt system, and going wild.

    So, it seems to go something like:

    Honor-Shame: you care deeply about looking good to those around you and fitting in with them; and act on this impulse;
    Pride-Guilt: you want to feel pride in yourself and care about how you judge yourself and your own actions; and act on this impulse;

    In the book, Son of Hamas, the author says that the traditional state for Muslims is a general feeling of guilt that they aren’t living up to the Islamic ideal by just getting on with their lives. He says that the Islamic ideal is Jihad. But the traditional state suppresses Jihad except in organised wartime by force of wanting to fit in and look good to your neighbours.

    This sounds like Honor-Shame and Islam naturally reached a balance in Arab culture over the centuries, where they balance and people just feel a bit guilty.

    Now, Muslims move to the US and Europe, their children grow up in very much a Pride-Guilt culture where you should be driven by not fitting in and pursuing your own values with courage. My school teacher used to play the anthem “What have you done today to make you feel proud” every lesson!

    So Islamic teachings maybe lose their counter-weight, and take on their full force — go kill infidels.

    Does this make any sort of sense? Or is it just my ignorance talking? Just something that occurred to me, reading your piece.

    • Richard Landes says:

      A lot of people talk about the phenomenon of second-generation Muslim immigrants, to well-off parents somewhere like the UK and US, going extremely radical and performing attacks. In some cases parents warn the authorities about their children.

      like the 7-7 bombers in England or the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston.

      I was wondering if this was an Islamic culture that has grown within an Honor-Shame system; being transplanted into a Pride-Guilt system, and going wild.

      i prefer integrity-guilt.

      So, it seems to go something like:

      Honor-Shame: you care deeply about looking good to those around you and fitting in with them; and act on this impulse;

      everyone cares about looking good. the issue is: who are those around you that you want to please, or, in technical terms, what’s your primary honor group. so, eg, many Arabs and Muslims come to the West, do well in school, get high level professional jobs, and seem just like everyone else, get married to Western women, and then, when they take them back to their families, revert to the behaviors and attitudes that fit in, much to the dismay of their wives.

      Pride-Guilt: you want to feel pride in yourself and care about how you judge yourself and your own actions; and act on this impulse;

      or, you follow a different honor-group that, for example, considers dueling, slave-holding, contempt for minorities and women, to be shameful behavior.

      In the book, Son of Hamas, the author says that the traditional state for Muslims is a general feeling of guilt that they aren’t living up to the Islamic ideal by just getting on with their lives.

      This is the condition of all monotheist believers. And it’s more a sense of inadequacy than guilt. Rabbi Sacks characterizes Yom Kippur as a way of addressing the inevitable sense of inadequacy that any human being who wants to live an ethical life inevitably feels.

      He says that the Islamic ideal is Jihad. But the traditional state suppresses Jihad except in organised wartime by force of wanting to fit in and look good to your neighbours.

      that’s a classic case of the bully boys running the show: if you don’t fight and risk your life – you’re not a man till you’ve killed another – then you’re a coward.

      This sounds like Honor-Shame and Islam naturally reached a balance in Arab culture over the centuries, where they balance and people just feel a bit guilty.

      Not clear what you mean here. I’d say Islam, despite evidence of an early challenge to primary honor-shame attitudes, ended up being dominated by them. I’ve discussed this at length in my chapter of the apocalyptic genealogy of Islam, and the shift from waiting for Allah to punish evil-doers at the Last Judgment, to Muslims punishing evil-doers (infidels) through Jihad. As you say, if the pressure is to fight the jihad, then that’s a reflection of that tribal warrior honor-shame development.

      Now, Muslims move to the US and Europe, their children grow up in very much a Pride-Guilt culture where you should be driven by not fitting in and pursuing your own values with courage. My school teacher used to play the anthem “What have you done today to make you feel proud” every lesson!

      So Islamic teachings maybe lose their counter-weight, and take on their full force — go kill infidels.

      I’m not sure what you mean with this last comment. Can you elaborate?

      Does this make any sort of sense? Or is it just my ignorance talking? Just something that occurred to me, reading your piece.

  2. Dennis LM says:

    Dear Professor Landes,

    I’ve just finished reading your ‘Celebrating [!] Orientalism’ article in Middle East Quarterly. It’s a superb essay, which provides some necessary context to the current turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa and also to the struggles of European countries to absorb millions of Muslim migrants.

    I’ve lived and worked in several countries in the Arabian Gulf for over ten years and the tribal Honour-Shame dynamics you outline in your article is a very accurate characterisation of the culture that I’ve observed in these countries.

  3. philip goodman says:

    It would be most interesting to ask Mr. Ross to respond to your comment that “In his 800-page memoir on the Oslo failure, Dennis Ross, … has not a word to say about the Hudaybiya controversy…”

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