Edward Said Covering Islam Analysis Essay

128 the minnesota review REVIEWS Edward W. Said, Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (New York: Pantheon, 1981). Pp. xxxi, + 186. $10.95. It was a source of outrage for hostile reviewers of Edward Said's Orientalism (1978) that he had refused to characterize Islamic culture, had failed, that is, to give an alternative to the misperceptions he finds in Orientalist vision. There was an assumption abroad that his attack on the Orientalist style must be a defense of Islamic culture, and if so it must be a particularly evasive and unprincipled defense because the proper facts about Islam were not part of his thesis. Other readers saw that this was the point, that the polemic of Orientalism is directed against exactly this naive tendency to sum up and categorize. (The societies of the Islamic world resemble us at least in this, that they are complex, unpredictable, human, elusive.) Nathan Glazer, among those who saw the point, argued in The Chronicle Review that Said was still wrong, that our new experience of the Islamic world after the collapse of the Pahlavi regime gave us data which allowed us to conclude that the Middle East was more homogeneous than Said would admit: While I was reading this book the Ayatollah Khomeini was returning to Iran. It was certainly not a good context in which to view Said's approach charitably. The Ayatollah and the vast crowds who greeted him did not seem to think The Koran and Islam don't matter .... The simple observation of the world, unblinded by ideology, leads one to the sad conclusion that yes, there are ethnic groups, and religions, and yes, they explain more about the world than the differences Said wishes Orientalists had concentrated on in their place (5 March 1981). The issue, then, is that the perception of a phenomenon is itself a valid object of inquiry: "Orientalist" perception is the belief in the existence of a simple culture whose essence is, unlike ours, visible on the surface. (That willed belief — we might call it an ideology — is not held together without epistemological strain; there arises to buttress it a contrary reading according to which the Islamic character is elusive, devious, inscrutable.) The new government in Iran has proven helpful in keeping that perception alive. With the figure of Khomeini, acting the part of the westerner's caricature Moslem (no doubt consciously and programatically), we have what appears to be a transparent signifier, a momentary scene where the opaque and inscrutable surface of Islam parts and the simple truth behind steps forth, legalistic, humorless, authoritarian. Why we accept these simplifications is a difficult question. The subject of institutions which themselves, independently of individual conscience , function to alter, rechannel or redistribute information is of course a central interest with Said; to examine those institutions is the shared project of the trilogy which begins with Orientalism. In Orientalism the site of that redistribution is specialized knowledge, and the unanswered question was, I think, where to locate the agent of distortion: to what extent it was the result of impersonal forces inherent in the institution, to what extent the pressure of willed misrepresentation. In the book which follows, The Question ofPalestine (1979), the project is to recover a specific tract of history lost, or at best deemphasized, in the official version. In Covering Islam the subject is perception again, but we are further downstream in the process, in the realm of the press and television news, informed by specialist knowledge but in its curious way resistant to it too. Covering Islam is a more accessible book than Orientalism, and the relation between the two is a direct one: it is a kind of case history assembled from familiar materials to test the theoretical construct of its predecessor. And they are indeed familiar materials: Covering Islam addresses above all the American reaction to the occupation of our embassy in Tehran, not so much the rage we felt as the channels into which it was diverted. (Though Said does not deal with it, it seems worth examining the sources of that rage as well. Was it the illegality...



Edward W. Said 1935–2003

The following entry presents an overview of Said's career through 1996.

Palestinian-born American critic and essayist.

A Palestinian refugee in his youth and a respected though controversial professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, Said (pronounced sah-EED) is an influential and often polemical cultural critic. Said is a public intellectual who frequently writes about the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East and actively supports the cause for Palestinian national rights. His most celebrated and contentious work, Orientalism (1978), which examines Western representations of Middle Eastern societies and cultures, established his reputation for innovative and provocative explorations of the interrelationships between texts—literary and otherwise—and the political, economic, and social contexts from which they emerged. In his writings Said adopts a Continental, interdisciplinary approach to literary criticism and uses the principles of phenomenology, existentialism, and French structuralism to make connections between literature and politics. Although his theories and methods have exerted a profound influence on the American academy, especially on literary theory and cultural studies, Said often is the target of phone threats and hate letters, principally for his unwavering advocacy of Palestinian political and cultural rights in the Middle East. "Said occupies a unique place in contemporary literary criticism," wrote John Kucich. "He is a much-needed link among humanistic values and traditions, theories of textuality, and cultural politics. His work is … a careful integration from these various positions and an original prescription for the renovation of literary and cultural study."

Biographical Information

Said was born November 1, 1935, in Jerusalem in what was then Palestine. The only son of Wadie and Hilda Musa Said, prominent members of the Christian Palestinian community, he was baptized as an Anglican and attended St. George's, his father's alma mater. In December, 1947, his family fled to Cairo, Egypt, to avoid the turmoil surrounding the establishment of Israel as a nation. In Cairo, Said studied at the American School and Victoria College, the so-called "Eton of the Middle East," before he completed his secondary education at a preparatory school in Massa-chusetts. Said became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1953. After graduating from Princeton University in 1957, he undertook graduate studies in comparative literature at Harvard University, where he earned his M.A. in 1960 and his Ph.D. in 1964. His dissertation on the psychological relationship between Joseph Conrad's short fiction and his correspondence became his first published book, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (1966). Hired as an instructor in English at Columbia University in 1963, Said became a full professor by 1970; his distinguished teaching career at Columbia included two endowed chairmanships in the 1980s and 1990s. Said enhanced his growing reputation for literary scholarship with Beginnings (1975), which won Columbia's Lionel Trilling Award in 1976. During the 1970s Said actively involved himself in the Palestinian cause by writing numerous essays for scholarly journals and independent publications. From 1977 to 1991 he belonged to the Palestinian National Council, the Palestinians' parliament in exile, meeting Yasir Arafat many times and helping to draft the Palestinian declaration of statehood in 1988. Said pursued his work following the groundbreaking Orientalism, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, with the publication of two "sequels," The Question of Palestine (1979) and Covering Islam (1981); the essay collection, The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983); and a meditative essay on Palestinian identity featuring the photographs of Jean Mohr, After the Last Sky (1986). During the 1980s and 1990s, Said was named to several visiting professorships and lectured extensively on both literary and political themes. In 1991 he published Musical Elaborations, a volume of original music criticism that grew out his lifelong fondness for playing the piano. Said was diagnosed with leukemia in 1993. His subsequent works—Culture and Imperialism (1993), The Politics of Disspossession (1994), Representations of the Intellectual (1994), and Peace and Its Discontents (1995)—continue to provoke controversy.

Major Works

Said's writings cover diverse topics, but at their center lies a concern for the multiple relationships between the act of writing and cultural politics, language and power. Beginnings theorizes about the reasons several writers begin their works the way they do, demonstrating that prevailing cultural ideas of the beginning act change and limit a writer's choice to begin. Orientalism reveals how Western journalists, fiction writers, and scholars helped to create a prevalent and hostile image of Eastern cultures as inferior, stagnant, and degenerate, showing the extent to which these representations permeate Western culture and have been exploited to justify imperialist policies in the Middle East. Orientalism provides much of the theoretical and thematic groundwork for many of Said's subsequent works, and it contains the dictum of orientalism: "They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented." The Question of Palestine outlines the history of the Palestinians and the Arab-Israeli conflict, describing the opposition between an Israeli world informed by Western ideas and the "oriental" realities of a Palestinian culture. Covering Islam, elucidating the themes of Said's previous books in more practical terms, investigates the influence of orientalist discourse on the Western media's representation of Islamic culture. Written between 1968 and 1983 on wide-ranging literary and political topics, the twelve essays comprising The World, the Text, and the Critic offer an assessment of contemporary criticism and scholarship in the humanities, highlighting Said's notions of "antithetical knowledge" and the synthesis of literary and political writing. Culture and Imperialism examines how imperialism, the "culture of resistance," and postcolonialism helped to shape the French and English novel, exemplified by close, provocative readings of Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, Albert Camus, W. B. Yeats, and Jane Austen. The essays in The Politics of Dispossession critique the Islamic revival, Arab culture, Palestinian nationalism, and American policy in the Middle East, revealing a moderating stance toward Israel and a distancing from the Palestinian Liberation Organization (P.L.O.). Representations of the Intellectual is a case study of the intellectual persona.

Critical Reception

Owing partly to the nature of his thought and partly to his allegiance to the Palestinian cause, Said has generated controversy upon publication of nearly every book. Despite his persistent denials, he has been questioned about terrorism throughout the course of his career. Robert Hughes has reported that "none of Said's political foes have been able to cite a single utterance by him that could be construed as anti-Semitic or as condoning either tyranny or terrorism." Most scholars, however, have recognized the extent to which his oppositional criticism has influenced debate beyond literary issues and cultural politics, especially Orientalism, which has been cited as often as criticized by literary theorists, historians, anthropologists, and political scientists—the book even has spawned a new subdiscipline, the cultural study of colonialism. "The Orient was a product of the imagination," opined Albert Hourani of that book, "and Mr. Said's delicate and subtle methods of analysis are good tools for laying bare the structure of the literary imagination." Dinitia Smith remarked that Orientalism "has changed the face of scholarship on the Arab world and the Third World in general." Although many critics have praised the study, some have focused on imperfections in the argument of Orientalism, accusing Said of perpetuating the same Eastern stereotypes for which he had faulted the Western imperialist. Some critics have noted that although many of Said's writings have been translated into many different languages, his books on Palestinian affairs had not been published in Arabic by 1994. Robert Hughes has described Said as "a scholar and humanist,… the controversial voice of Palestine in America and an eloquent mediator between the Middle East and the West."

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