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The Progressive Interview

By David Barsamian

Edward W. Said

Urbane and sophisticated, Edward W. Said is in many ways the quintessential New Yorker. His love for the city is palpable. “New York,” he says, “plays an important role in the kind of criticism and interpretation which I have done.” He mirrors the city's restless energy and diversity. In addition to his great love for literature and his unflagging interest in politics, he is an inveterate devotee of opera and classical music. An accomplished pianist, he opens his home on New York's Upper West Side to artists, writers, and musicians from all over the globe.

He's been a New Yorker since 1963 when he accepted a position at Columbia, where he now holds the position of University Professor. Born in Jerusalem and educated at schools there and in Cairo, Said came to the U.S. in the early 1950s and attended Princeton and Harvard. There's lots of talk these days about public intellectuals. Much of it is hot air. Edward Said is the real thing. His creative intellectual talents and abilities are infused with passion and a sense of outrage at the hypocrisies, contradictions, and indignities of what passes for political commentary, particularly when it comes to the Middle East. He is no doubt the most prominent spokesperson for the Palestinian cause in the United States.

His productivity and range of interests are impressive. A relentless and indefatigable worker, he maintains a rigorous schedule while struggling against leukemia. A prolific author, he most recently published Reflections on Exile and Power, Politics, and Culture. Much of his political writing is not only excavating buried memories and affirming the Palestinian presence but also pointing toward a future where peace is possible. 

We have done many interviews over the years, and what always strikes me is his tremendous intellectual energy and, yes, enthusiasm to talk. He remains doggedly hopeful. His oppositional role is “to sift, to judge, to criticize, to choose so that choice and agency return to the individual,” he says. He envisions a community that doesn't exalt “commodified interests and profitable commercial goals” but values instead “survivability and sustainability in a human and decent way. Those are difficult goals to achieve. But I think they are achievable.” I talked with him by phone in late September.

Q: The events of September 11 have bewildered and confused many Americans. What was your reaction?

Edward W. Said: Speaking as a New Yorker, I found it a shocking and terrifying event, particularly the scale of it. At bottom, it was an implacable desire to do harm to innocent people. It was aimed at symbols: the World Trade Center, the heart of American capitalism, and the Pentagon, the headquarters of the American military establishment. But it was not meant to be argued with. It wasn't part of any negotiation. No message was intended with it. It spoke for itself, which is unusual. It transcended the political and moved into the metaphysical. There was a kind of cosmic, demonic quality of mind at work here, which refused to have any interest in dialogue and political organization and persuasion. This was bloody-minded destruction for no other reason than to do it. Note that there was no claim for these attacks. There were no demands. There were no statements. It was a silent piece of terror. This was part of nothing. It was a leap into another realm--the realm of crazy abstractions and mythological generalities, involving people who have hijacked Islam for their own purposes. It's important not to fall into that trap and to try to respond with a metaphysical retaliation of some sort.

Q: What should the U.S. do?

Said: The just response to this terrible event should be to go immediately to the world community, the United Nations. The rule of international law should be marshaled, but it's probably too late because the United States has never done that; it's always gone it alone. To say that we're going to end countries or eradicate terrorism, and that it's a long war over many years, with many different instruments, suggests a much more complex and drawn-out conflict for which, I think, most Americans aren't prepared.There isn't a clear goal in sight. Osama bin Laden's organization has spun out from him and is now probably independent of him. There will be others who will appear and reappear. This is why we need a much more precise, a much more defined, a much more patiently constructed campaign, as well as one that surveys not just the terrorists' presence but the root causes of terrorism, which are ascertainable.

Q: What are those root causes?

Said: They come out of a long dialectic of U.S. involvement in the affairs of the Islamic world, the oil-producing world, the Arab world, the Middle East--those areas that are considered to be essential to U.S. interests and security. And in this relentlessly unfolding series of interactions, the U.S. has played a very distinctive role, which most Americans have been either shielded from or simply unaware of.

In the Islamic world, the U.S. is seen in two quite different ways. One view recognizes what an extraordinary country the U.S. is. Every Arab or Muslim that I know is tremendously interested in the United States. Many of them send their children here for education. Many of them come here for vacations. They do business here or get their training here.The other view is of the official United States, the United States of armies and interventions. The United States that in 1953 overthrew the nationalist government of Mossadegh in Iran and brought back the shah. The United States that has been involved first in the Gulf War and then in the tremendously damaging sanctions against Iraqi civilians. The United States that is the supporter of Israel against the Palestinians.

If you live in the area, you see these things as part of a continuing drive for dominance, and with it a kind of obduracy, a stubborn opposition to the wishes and desires and aspirations of the people there. Most Arabs and Muslims feel that the United States hasn't really been paying much attention to their desires. They think it has been pursuing its policies for its own sake and not according to many of the principles that it claims are its own--democracy, self-determination, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, international law. It's very hard, for example, to justify the thirty-four-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It's very hard to justify 140 Israeli settlements and roughly 400,000 settlers. These actions were taken with the support and financing of the United States. How can you say this is part of U.S. adherence to international law and U.N. resolutions? The result is a kind of schizophrenic picture of the United States.

Now we come to the really sad part. The Arab rulers are basically unpopular. They are supported by the United States against the wishes of their people. In all of this rather heady mixture of violence and policies that are remarkably unpopular right down to the last iota, it's not hard for demagogues, especially people who claim to speak in the name of religion, in this case Islam, to raise a crusade against the United States and say that we must somehow bring America down.

Ironically, many of these people, including Osama bin Laden and the mujahedeen, were, in fact, nourished by the United States in the early eighties in its efforts to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. It was thought that to rally Islam against godless communism would be doing the Soviet Union a very bad turn indeed, and that, in fact, transpired. In 1985, a group of mujahedeen came to Washington and was greeted by President Reagan, who called them “freedom fighters.” These people, by the way, don't represent Islam in any formal sense. They're not imams or sheiks. They are self-appointed warriors for Islam. Osama bin Laden, who is a Saudi, feels himself to be a patriot because the U.S. has forces in Saudi Arabia, which is sacred because it is the land of the prophet Mohammed. There is also this great sense of triumphalism, that just as we defeated the Soviet Union, we can do this. And out of this sense of desperation and pathological religion, there develops an all-encompassing drive to harm and hurt, without regard for the innocent and the uninvolved, which was the case in New York. Now to understand this is, of course, not at all to condone it. And what terrifies me is that we're entering a phase where if you start to speak about this as something that can be understood historically--without any sympathy--you are going to be thought of as unpatriotic, and you are going to be forbidden. It's very dangerous. It is precisely incumbent on every citizen to quite understand the world we're living in and the history we are a part of and we are forming as a superpower.

Q: Some pundits and politicians seem to be echoing Kurtz in Heart of Darkness when he said, “Exterminate all the brutes.”

Said: In the first few days, I found it depressingly monochromatic. There's been essentially the same analysis over and over again and very little allowance made for different views and interpretations and reflections. What is quite worrisome is the absence of analysis and reflection. Take the word “terrorism.” It has become synonymous now with anti-Americanism, which, in turn, has become synonymous with being critical of the United States, which, in turn, has become synonymous with being unpatriotic. That's an unacceptable series of equations. The definition of terrorism has to be more precise, so that we are able to discriminate between, for example, what it is that the Palestinians are doing to fight the Israeli military occupation and terrorism of the sort that resulted in the World Trade Center bombing.

Q: What's the distinction you're drawing?

Said: Take a young man from Gaza living in the most horrendous conditions--most of it imposed by Israel--who straps dynamite around himself and then throws himself into a crowd of Israelis. I've never condoned or agreed with it, but at least it is understandable as the desperate wish of a human being who feels himself being crowded out of life and all of his surroundings, who sees his fellow citizens, other Palestinians, his parents, sisters, and brothers, suffering, being injured, or being killed. He wants to do something, to strike back. That can be understood as the act of a truly desperate person trying to free himself from unjustly imposed conditions. It's not something I agree with, but at least you could understand it. The people who perpetrated the terror of the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings are something different because these people were obviously not desperate and poor refugee dwellers. They were middle class, educated enough to speak English, to be able to go to flight school, to come to America, to live in Florida.

Q: In your introduction to the updated version of Covering Islam: How The Media and The Experts Determine How We See The Rest of The World, you say: “Malicious generalizations about Islam have become the last acceptable form of denigration of foreign culture in the West.” Why is that?

Said: The sense of Islam as a threatening Other--with Muslims depicted as fanatical, violent, lustful, irrational--develops during the colonial period in what I called Orientalism. The study of the Other has a lot to do with the control and dominance of Europe and the West generally in the Islamic world. And it has persisted because it's based very, very deeply in religious roots, where Islam is seen as a kind of competitor of Christianity.If you look at the curricula of most universities and schools in this country, considering our long encounter with the Islamic world, there is very little there that you can get hold of that is really informative about Islam. If you look at the popular media, you'll see that the stereotype that begins with Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik has really remained and developed into the transnational villain of television and film and culture in general. It is very easy to make wild generalizations about Islam. All you have to do is read almost any issue of The New Republic and you'll see there the radical evil that's associated with Islam, the Arabs as having a depraved culture, and so forth. These are impossible generalizations to make in the United States about any other religious or ethnic group.

Q: In a recent article in the London Observer, you say the U.S. drive for war uncannily resembles Captain Ahab in pursuit of Moby Dick. Tell me what you have in mind there.

Said: Captain Ahab was a man possessed with an obsessional drive to pursue the white whale which had harmed him--which had torn his leg out--to the ends of the Earth, no matter what happened. In the final scene of the novel, Captain Ahab is being borne out to sea, wrapped around the white whale with the rope of his own harpoon and going obviously to his death. It was a scene of almost suicidal finality. Now, all the words that George Bush used in public during the early stages of the crisis--”wanted, dead or alive,” “a crusade,” etc.--suggest not so much an orderly and considered progress towards bringing the man to justice according to international norms, but rather something apocalyptic, something of the order of the criminal atrocity itself. That will make matters a lot, lot worse, because there are always consequences. And it would seem to me that to give Osama bin Laden--who has been turned into Moby Dick, he's been made a symbol of all that's evil in the world--a kind of mythological proportion is really playing his game. I think we need to secularize the man. We need to bring him down to the realm of reality. Treat him as a criminal, as a man who is a demagogue, who has unlawfully unleashed violence against innocent people. Punish him accordingly, and don't bring down the world around him and ourselves.

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