Joseph Morrison Skelly on Postcolonial Theory and the Arab-Israeli Conflict

, October 22, 2009

Jewish Political Studies Review 21:3-4 (Fall 2009)

Having held sway over large swaths of academia for several decades, postcolonalism and its leading theoretician, Edward Said, have come under closer scrutiny in recent years. In 2007, for example, Ibn Warraq published Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism, which is an incisive reassessment of the professor and his legacy. The recent volume, Postcolonial Theory and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, edited by Philip Carl Salzman and Donna Robinson Divine, is an important and welcome addition to this trend. The authors in this volume, who eschew the reflexive intellectual posing of Said’s adherents in favor of a rigorous interdisciplinary analysis, collectively apply a dose of intellectual sandblasting that strips away the ‘trompe l’oeil’ façade of post-colonialism to reveal its flawed inner framework. In sum, they deconstruct its theoretical underpinnings, particularly in the context of Arab-Israeli relations. As Donna Robinson Divine points out in her balanced introduction, “We hope to show in these essays the benefits and losses of a postcolonial approach because knowledge will come only from challenging what has now become the new conventional wisdom in the academy and not from simply accepting it.”

Irfan Khawaja, who teaches philosophy at Felician College in New Jersey, contributes to this search for knowledge by interrogating the foundational text of postcolonialism, Said’s Orientalism (first published in 1978), within the paradigm of essentialism in his essay “Essentialism, Consistency and Islam: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism.” He argues that Said’s “critique of essentialism, though widely influential, is thoroughly incoherent,” especially in combination with his concomitant, sanitized “version of anti-essentialism about Islam.” Indeed, “the real question is…how it is that so utterly incoherent a thesis has managed to survive twenty-five years, achieve predominance in English-speaking intellectual culture, and come to structure a whole discipline of study?” Khawaja cuts to the heart of the matter by identifying “the performative contradiction at the heart of Said’s argument…. On the one hand, Said is committed to the thesis that Orientalism has an essence. On the other hand, he indicts Orientalism for claiming that Islam has an essence. The first claim commits him to essentialism about doctrines; the latter to its rejection. The combination yields a contradiction. Because no contradiction is true, Said’s thesis is false.”

In the same section of the book, Laurie Zoloth, professor of medical ethics and religion at Northwestern University, keeps the reader grounded with her discussion of “the problem of error in social theories, and how one locates, amends, and forgives error” – not only as found in postcolonialism, but in critiques of it as well (such as the chapters in this collection), which are also susceptible to mistakes if they are not rigorously crafted. In her contribution entitled “Mistakenness and the Nature of the ‘Post’: The Ethics and the Inevitability of Error in Theoretical Work,” she challenges scholars to “reflect both on what aspects of theories of postmodernity and postcolonialism are errors, how to identify such errors, and how to repair the world-making gestures that were affected by the error, all the while being ironically and simultaneously aware that this very effort must be shadowed by introspection.”

Gerald Steinberg – “Postcolonial Theory and the Ideology of Peace Studies” – who is the director of the program on conflict management at Bar Ilan University, shifts gears to present a specific case study on the links between post-colonialism and peace studies, whose roots “as an academic discipline can be traced to the late 1940s….” The connection seems to be a meeting of the minds: standard peace studies texts “are often based on anecdotes, unverifiable eyewitness testimony and small numbers of personal narratives, rather than standard academic documentation and references,” while the field as a whole “often reflects the central impact of subjective political positions and objectives, and, in particular, post-colonialism.” The results of this relationship are dubious. The “postcolonial framework condemns the use of military force in self-defense by non-postcolonial state actors (the West and Israel). In a major departure from academic norms of conduct, and in a manner that undermines the credibility of peace studies, faculty members encourage their students to participate in political rallies, boycotts, and similar activities.” Looking ahead, Steinberg asserts that “if the field of peace studies is to survive and provide a useful and realistic foundation for understanding and responding to international conflict, the postcolonial bias will have to be discarded quickly.”

Not only is peace studies distorted by a postcolonial slant, but postcolonialism itself is riddled with prejudices, one of the most fundamental being its irrational vilification of European colonialism. It is ironic, then, that several essays in this collection take a closer look at hidden dimensions of Islamic imperialism. Efraim Karsh, who has published an excellent book on this subject, corrects the historical record in “The Missing Piece: Islamic Imperialism.” It is not in the West but “in the Middle East where the institution of empire not only originated (for example, Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Iran, and so on) but where its spirit has also outlived its European counterpart. From the prophet Muhammad to the Ottomans, the story of Islam has been the story of the rise and fall of an often astonishing imperial aggressiveness and, no less important, of never quiescent imperial dreams.”

In his study of the reaction of Islamic academics to their own colonial history – “The Muslim Man’s Burden: Muslim Intellectuals Confront their Imperialist Past” – David Cook of Rice University notes how “there is a great deal of cognitive dissonance for the Arab Muslim when confronting his past.” Why is this so? “Historical reality is unpleasant for the fantasy addict.” Muslim scholars, for instance, “are far more guilty of their connections with Muslim imperialism and colonialism, and their justification of Muslim aggression in the past (and in some cases in the present), than are the despised Orientalists” of Edward Said’s narratives.

Philip Carl Salzman – “Arab Culture and Postcolonial Theory” – and  Richard Landes – “Edward Said and the Culture of Honour and Shame: Orientalism and our Misperceptions of the Arab-Israeli Conflict” – evaluate postcolonialism within the ambit of Middle Eastern culture. The former, a professor of anthropology at McGill University and author of the groundbreaking study Culture and Conflict in the Middle East (2008), refutes the “postcolonial argument that people are really more or less the same, and that any distinctions between cultures imposes a false essentialism aimed at defining certain populations as ‘other,’ primarily to demean them and justify imperial and colonial oppression….” What is more, the “postcolonial argument that knowledge of other cultures is impossible, because people and cultures do not exhibit uniformity, jumps from a known fact to a false inference.” Working within Salzman’s framework in an effort to drill to the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Landes asks some tough questions about the place of honor and shame within Arab culture.

“But what if Arabs do grow up in an honor-shame culture in which face is regained by the shedding of another man’s blood? What if this logic of belligerence does characterize Arab culture, perhaps not for all time, but certainly, and with some distinction, right now? What if the intractable nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict derives not from a calculus of rights and wrongs that can be negotiated between Israelis and Palestinians of good will – land for peace – but rather from a calculus of honor and shame that must be resolved in victory over the humiliating enemy….”

The answers to these questions have profound implications, yet the refusal of post-colonialists even to contemplate them limits our knowledge of the very culture they purportedly champion.

The last section of this volume concentrates on post-colonialism’s relationship to selected aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Gideon Shimoni, in “Postcolonial Theory and the History of Zionism,” posits that “theories of nationalism, which command a vast and profound literature, are far more valuable aids in comprehending the history of Zionism and the nature of the Arab-Jewish conflict than whatever goes by the description of postcolonial theory.” Donna Robinson Devine delineates the influence of Edward Said on recent critiques of Zionism by Daniel Boyarin, a professor of rabbinics at the University of California, Berkeley, in “The Middle East Conflict and its Postcolonial Discontents.” The “paradigms deployed by Said and Boyarin,” she concludes, “inaccurately describe the past while they hold the Palestinian future hostage to a set of unrealistic expectations.”

The success that Shimoni, Divine, and all of the other scholars in this volume achieve in dissecting postcolonial theory means that it should find a place in university libraries throughout North America, Europe, and the Middle East. The paperback version has just been released, making it an ideal addition to course reading lists on the Middle East, Israel, Islamism, literary theory, and international relations. In his conclusion, Philip Carl Salzman properly asks if “the postcolonial rejection of Enlightenment cannons of knowledge” may be “leading us toward a new intellectual Dark Age?” At first glance this may appear to be the case, but, owing to the platform provided by this collection, its contributors have resisted this trend, and, if some of their students and colleagues join with them, the still considerable power of the Enlightenment may yet consign postcolonialism to the past.

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JOSEPH MORRISON SKELLY is the treasurer of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa and Associate Professor at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in New York City.

Joseph Morrison Skelly

Joseph Morrison Skelly is the treasurer of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa and Associate Professor at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in New York City.