Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents
by Robert Irwin
New York: The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc., 2006. 410 pp. $35 ($16.95, paper)
Reviewed by Nathan Alexander
Middle East Quarterly
Whatever specialists thought of Edward Said's Orientalism, published in 1978, the book had major impact on Middle East studies. Its thesis was that "Orientalism" was a "hegemonic discourse of imperialism" that "constrains everything that can be written and thought in the West about the Orient, and particularly about Islam and the Arabs." Despite being panned by Arab and non-Arab critics, the book became a best-seller and its author a celebrity. Identifying himself as a Palestinian, Said launched vituperative attacks on his critics and demonized as "racist" those who opposed his views on the Middle East.
Irwin, Middle East editor of the Times Literary Supplement, accomplishes two things in his book Dangerous Knowledge. First, the book is a history of "Orientalism," or Western scholarship of the Middle East, India, and the Far East. Irwin begins with the ancient Greeks and concludes with a survey of Arab scholars writing on the Orient today. This magnificent survey covers French, German, Russian, Dutch, English, Latin, and Arabic scholarship. Irwin argues that while interest in the Orient was often influenced by Western Christianity, Western interest in the Islamic world was, for the most part, of negligible cultural significance. When scholarship on the Orient increased in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the "Orientalists" tended to either exaggerate the virtues of the Orient or be overt anti-imperialists.
Irwin's second purpose is to counter the "malignant charlatanry" that lies behind Said's Orientalism. It was unlikely, Irwin writes, that Said bothered to read many of the Orientalists who serve as his arch villains. In fact, Said knew so little of the field he was writing about that he spent much of his time insulting the scholar to whom he was unwittingly most indebted: Bernard Lewis. While Said frequently failed to properly attribute the sources of Orientalism, it is possible he was simply unaware of them.
Said's work, Irwin writes, has the merits of a good novel. "It is exciting; it is packed with lots of sinister villains, as well as an outnumbered band of goodies, and the picture that it presents of the world is richly imagined but essentially false." The real question posed by Orientalism is how it ever received acclaim in the first place. It is "a scandal and damning comment on the quality of intellectual life in Britain," he concludes. The same scandal, sadly, exists in the rest of the Western world, and especially the United States, whence the study comes.
 Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (New York: Pantheon, 1978).
Related Topics: Academia, Middle East studies | Nathan Alexander | Summer 2008 MEQ
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