What’s Wrong With Utopia?

Edward Said on 9/11, the Media and the Search for Coexistence


When I first met Edward Said last month in his office at Columbia University, he looked a bit puzzled. Why would someone representing a miniscule publication in Texas want to interview him in New York? So I explained. I told him I’m a fifth-generation Southern and Texas Jew, but I live in Manhattan now, and soon after September 11 wrote an essay for TO. I wrote about the awful fear, frustration, and anger I felt at how terror-induced panic was shutting down my–and most Americans’–ability to think critically about our country, the world, and religion. “I want to start reading little, wooly journals of political analysis again,” I wrote. “I want books by the likes of Edward Said.”

TO editors took my plaint to heart: After publishing the essay they asked me to interview Said. In preparation, I read wooly journals, including Said’s articles, and also his books. Like his prolific and nuanced intellect, his writings are voluminous and complicated. Their complexity often reflects that of his own personal history. Said’s Arab parents were Christians (Anglicans, no less) who lived an affluent, apolitical life, mostly in Egypt. His father was born Palestinian, but acquired American citizenship for himself and his children after serving in the U.S. Army with Blackjack Pershing during World War I. His mother was Lebanese; her father, a Baptist minister, had spent some time in Texas.

The Jerusalem-born, Cairo-raised Edward was educated at posh British and American private schools. He earned degrees from Princeton and Harvard, and began teaching comparative literature at Columbia in the early 1960s. Not until after the Six-Day War in 1967 did he become politicized and start to see himself as a dispossessed Palestinian. In the 1970s, he was appointed a member of the Palestine National Council. He also wrote Orientalism, and Culture and Imperialism–both acclaimed studies of the intersection of artistic creativity and cultural prejudice. Numerous other books have followed, including Peace and its Discontents: Essays on Palestine in the Middle East Peace Process.

Said is thus a stunning play of opposites: a Western-educated, secular intellectual–today an Upper West Sider with New Yorkish speech much like Irving Howe’s–whom a significant part of the Arab world nevertheless deems its premier public advocate for Palestinian independence and for a reasoned understanding of Islam. His high profile infuriates opponents. In 1985 the Jewish Defense League called him a Nazi. Shortly thereafter, his office at Columbia was set afire. More recently, the rabidly Zionist magazine Commentary falsely accused him of lying about his Palestinian roots.

Said combines staunch passion for his causes with an unyielding insistence on humanist and principled criticism. He quit the Palestinian National Council in the early 1990s because he opposed the Oslo Accords. (Arafat, he felt, had sold Palestinian rights for a mess of pottage, and the deal was destined to come to no good.) For years he has advocated for a “binational state”–one state in what is now Israel, to be shared by Arabs and Jews. He wants to build bridges between the two groups, because he believes it is vital for them to imagine living together peacefully. To do so, of course, they would have to start thinking of each other as real people rather than demons.

To speed that process, Said (himself an accomplished classical pianist) has joined with his friend, the Argentine-Israeli, Jewish musician Daniel Barenboim, to organize music seminars in Germany with young musicians from Arab countries and from Israel. During the program, the students visited the Buchenwald concentration camp, then discussed the trip, with Said moderating. Said likes to tell the Arabs that when they think about Jews, they must take the Holocaust seriously. But, he adds, “If you just see it as part of the Jewish experience, it’s wrong, because it’s part of the human experience.”

Said has been battling leukemia for a decade; he underwent chemotherapy this autumn. He is preparing to leave New York and teach at Cambridge (England) next fall, in part, he has said, because he is so dispirited by events in the United States following September 11. Still, he has weighed in since that date in various wooly journals, roundly condemning the “magical thinking” and “lying religious claptrap” that propelled the terrorism–and also the American response to it. I began the interview asking him more about that response.

Texas Observer: You recently wrote that all the people you know, including yourself, believe that September 11 “inaugurated a new stage in world history, something unique and unprecedented.” What did you mean?

Edward Said: What I meant, exactly, was that people–including myself–think it’s a new era in world history, and therefore it becomes one. In other words, it was a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy, and everybody feels that some enormous change has been made. It’s too early to tell whether in fact that’s happened, but certainly everyone acts and feels and thinks as if we’re in a new phase. I’m not sure we know all the lineaments of that phase, or whether in fact it is a completely new phase. But it certainly felt like one. A lot of it has to do with the sense of shock and violation that Americans feel that for the first time in modern history there was a violation of our space.

TO: What about Pearl Harbor?

ES: But this is a symbolic attack. The analogy I always give is the novel The Secret Agent, by Joseph Conrad. The hero is a member of a band of anarchists and terrorists, and there’s a plot, orchestrated by foreign powers, maybe Germany and Russia. The mastermind thinks it’s necessary to do an outrage on England: to bomb the Greenwich Observatory, which has no value at all except that it’s an attack on pure science, in the city of London. It has symbolic value. They use an idiot boy to do it; he gets killed. Of course, the observatory isn’t hurt. It’s very much of that sort–this 9/11 thing: the World Trade Center as a symbol of capitalism. It is quite clear from all the subsequent declarations that he made that Osama bin Laden thought it was, too, and that he was attacking America. Not the United States, but America–the idea of America. That he was drawing a line between the world of Islam and the world of non-Muslims; and drawing people into a battle on a Blakeian scale.

Think of the word “terror.” It has no particular definition or foundation. It’s an unanchored phrase that is used for what we consider to be evil, and unmotivated, and unappeasable. It partakes of the quality of Moby Dick. The rhetoric of Bush and the United States has a metaphysical and apocalyptic quality that really transcends the political. So the fact that the strategic interests of the United States are being pursued in Afghanistan quite beyond or in another realm from the destruction of the Taliban and Al Qaeda and terrorism and the rest of it–that’s never discussed. Because we prefer to stay in the realm of terror and evil.

TO: So you’re saying that people’s thoughts about September 11 as being unprecedented and opening up a new era–that these thoughts in themselves have power?

ES: I think so. This isn’t to say that the events of September 11 were not real. Of course they were real. But they are magnified and put into play by the media and the discourse of the state, and hundreds of thousands of orators and commentators, everyone trying to outdo the other with shock and outrage and revulsion and anger and condemnation. The result is that there is very little analysis. In fact, analysis, until recently, has been taken to be a sign of anti-Americanism.

TO: You’ve lamented that the current, generalized inability in the United States to look at America’s role in world history is exactly what bin Laden wanted. If we were able to analyze why other countries feel such animosity towards the United States, what, primarily, would we need to consider?

ES: To a lot of people in the Third World–the world from which I come–America really exists on two levels. One level is the world of materiality: the America where everybody wants to go, where the children are sent to school if you’re well to do and middle class, where you come on vacations, where you buy jeans and cokes and McDonald’s.

And then there’s another, abstract and metaphysical America, which is the level about which Osama bin Laden and most people talk. This is America as a tremendous power, which in the memory of most people in the Islamic world has always been against us. It represents everything that we don’t. It supports unpopular countries and rulers. It has contempt for people’s wishes and notions about self-determination and equality. And it’s always using its power in ways that are, in the end, deeply unattractive. For example, the image that many Arabs have of America is the battleship New Jersey, off the coast of Lebanon in 1983, lobbing shells into the Lebanese mountains–shells the size of Volkswagens.

And all Muslims feel there have been a lot of Muslim deaths recently, whether you look at Bosnia, or Chechnya, or Palestine or other places in the Islamic world. There’s a sense that Muslim life is very cheap and can be easily sacrificed to overriding Western interests–especially with Iraq and the Iraqi sanctions, where a million and a half people have died in the past few years. This is a war of insults and accusations that I don’t like to play. But it’s very much part of the rhetoric.

Then there is the centrality of Palestine. There’s no question that all the commentators downplay its importance to 9/11. It was recognized immediately by Blair and Bush, when they said, “We have to deal with the Palestinian question”–not only as a way of keeping the coalition together, but because they perceived that this was a really unifying issue in much of the Islamic and certainly the Arab world, on the popular level. Then, the moment Bush and Blair saw that they could ignore it, and the way Sharon played into it by saying “We’re fighting bin Laden here, too,” turning all Palestinians into terrorists, they just got off it. Now they say nothing. Bush hasn’t said anything about what’s taking place [now, in Israel].

TO: What about the “modernity” argument that fundamentalist Muslims, even Muslims in general, are very Puritanically exercised about the sexualization of consumerism that America represents?

ES: In many ways, that argument about Islam and modernity is a confection of reactionary Orientalists in this country. People like Bernard Lewis, who’s just published a book called What Went Wrong? which purports to show that Muslims are enraged with modernity. I was struck by the very little evidence that he presents. Most of it is taken from Turkish sources. He obviously doesn’t know Arabic [but] has many research assistants working for him, digging up quotations.

The idea that you can characterize 1.3 or 1.4 billion people as Islam, and as all angry and full of rage and a sense of failure–and he appears on television saying this nonsense–is never checked, because it’s the going mode. It’s one of these fantasies that has persisted for 600 or 700 years and makes its appearance every so often. It’s what [“Clash of Civilizations” proponent Samuel] Huntington has traded on. It’s what Thomas Friedman has traded on. And George Will, [Charles] Krauthammer, that whole crew.

They have no concrete knowledge of the kinds of debates that are taking place, let’s say in Arabic, which I read and keep in touch with. In fact, if you look at debate in Arabic in the Islamic world–which is by no means the whole of Islam, only a tiny corner of it–it’s much more varied and difficult to pin down than these notions about rage at modernity.

TO: Talk about the veil, the burqa. During the first days after September 11, President Bush denounced men’s faces being covered under the Taliban, but not women’s. Bush’s image of body oppression had to do with Afghan males not being able to shave their beards. Only later did the female burqa become a trumpeted U.S. politico and media apologia for military intervention in Afghanistan.

ES: I remember in the early days of the Iranian revolution, everybody, especially in the Western feminist movement, was talking about the chador. Talk about the burqa doesn’t strike me as very edifying. In the Arab world, the Islamic world that I grew up in, there are many different varieties of head coverings. They go from–like Catholic women wearing a scarf to go to church–covering your head and arms if you’re going into a mosque, all the way to wearing a complete face mask and gloves.

I don’t know, am I supposed to condemn it all? It’s very hard for me to figure out what I’m supposed to do with that. It exists. In a country like Egypt, for example, [the veil has] become an item of clothing and a form of dressing up. So it’s difficult for me to conclude that it’s male domination. Male domination exists, God knows, tremendously. But I’m not sure that the best sign of it is the veil. There’s so little knowledge of the status of women otherwise, or the fact that there are quite lively and powerful women’s movements in many of these countries, which are demanding much more important things than to take off the veil.

For example, in the country from which my wife comes, Lebanon, women inherit less than a man from the same father. Women are not allowed to give their children nationality, whereas the father is. These are the issues about which women organize. The oppression of woman cannot be adequately described by saying, “Look at the burqa.” There are many worse things, like not allowing women to go to school or to work or drive or go out into the street. The sins of the Taliban are legion, but I don’t think the burqa is the worst of them.

TO: You’ve talked about an organized media campaign started in the mid-fall pressing the Israeli vision of the world on the American public with the trope, “Now America is like Israel, and Arafat is like bin Laden.” Can you talk about this?

ES: The timing of it is very interesting. It’s a very uneven war–it’s not really between two sides since there’s only one side that has an army and a state and a very well-equipped military and the others are basically occupied people.

One of the terrible things for me, in the sense of being powerless to do anything about it but just watch, is that this is the extension of a military occupation that’s already gone on for 35 years. It’s the longest occupation in modern history! And there’s no awareness of this. It’s just terrorist Palestinians against Israelis fighting for their lives. In fact, the exact opposite is true. It’s Palestinians fighting for their lives, unable to lead their lives, and the Israelis applying the most brutal and sadistic collective measures, all of them outlawed, against the Palestinians. And not a shred of commentary to this effect in the U.S. media. It’s amazing!

I’ll give you another example. I watch Al-Jazeera on satellite. I have it in my house. They have a two-hour-long news program, whose title in Arabic means “The Middle of the Day,” that I try to watch every morning to see what they say about Palestine. On Wednesday morning, they showed the after-effects of the Israeli raid on Nablus, the second largest town on the West Bank, where the Israelis killed four men in an apartment house. You go up the stairs with the camera, into the apartment, and you see the damage done by the machin
guns and the gren
des, and the mutilated bodies of the four men. Then there’s an interview with a neighbor who lives in the same building, saying there was no noise except that of the Israelis firing on these men and turning the whole house into a shrieking mass of hysterical civilians.

That same night, [the McNeill/Lehrer Report’s] Jim Lehrer begins his broadcast, “The Israelis killed four Hamas militants in a bomb factory in Nablus.”

What is the evidence that it was a bomb factory? Obviously the Israelis decided that it was. I would have at least quoted the Israelis, by saying, “This is what they said it was.” Al-Jazeera hasn’t hesitated to say, “These were Hamas activists.” But they didn’t say it was a bomb factory. They used the word “alleged” or “suspected.” The man they spoke to from the apartment suggested something quite different. Which means that it wasn’t an open-and-closed thing. The Israelis have assassinated 80 Palestinians. I would have thought, “Look into some of this. Who decides what these people are?” It’s astonishing to me that the news media in this country just goes with the Israeli version of things without questioning.

TO: Given your long-standing criticism of Arafat as a leader, how do you feel about what’s happening to him now?

ES: It’s terrible. It’s a deliberate humiliation of a man, as a symbol of Palestinian authority and statehood. I used to be very close to him. I became a critic of his after Oslo, where I think he signed a disadvantageous accord with the Israelis. He trusted too much in the Americans, and he didn’t prosecute the negotiations with any serious intelligence. I think his main concern was to keep himself in power. And he very badly ran things under his control in the Palestinian Authority. But what’s happening to him now has very little to do with what he did. It has to do with Sharon’s psychotic desire to destroy as many Palestinians as possible, beginning with their symbolic leader: confine him, make it impossible for him to move, destroy all the symbols of his authority: the airport, the radio, the police stations, and to do it blatantly, using the entire U.S. arsenal: F-16s, Markava tanks, Apache Cobra helicopters, in full view of the world.

TO: Is this a direct result of 9/11?

ES: Absolutely. No question about it. Sharon’s been trying to do something like that [for a while] and he hasn’t been very successful. But I think since September 11 he found a bond of sympathy with Bush, who could only see terrorism. And Bush now thinks of himself as a kind of heaven-sent figure with a mission. I think it’s terribly frightening, because some of the consequences of this for the future, and I don’t only mean for U.S. policy, I mean for Americans–everywhere–are quite dire.

The most important one, I think, is that the idea of citizenship, of participating, of having a voice in and knowledge of what is taking place in the name of the U.S. has diminished basically into patriotism and rallying around the flag and supporting the leader, no matter what he does. That is catastrophic for me. As it should be for most Americans. And the Defense Department now can do whatever it pleases. We’re an unchallenged power in the world. What’s most frightening is either the indifference or the anesthetization of the American consciousness, which seems to say, ‘Too bad if they don’t like it. Look what they did to us. We’re right to do whatever we want.”

TO: What did you think of Fouad Ajami’s New York Times Magazine article in November about Al-Jazeera’s being extremely biased, and a danger to the United States?

ES: It was preposterous. Ajami–who I should tell you is an ideological opponent of mine–was extremely shoddy and I thought hysterical in his presentation. His conclusion that Al-Jazeera is anti-America was simply wrong. I watch Al-Jazeera. There is a very large range of opinion, some of it pro-American, some of it anti-American. The announcers present the news as it occurs in the Arab world, obviously differently from the way the Israelis and the Americans present the news, but why shouldn’t that have a status of its own? Why should just one version be the accepted version? And certainly it’s a much freer, more diverse range of discussion than in any American media. For instance, you’ve got much wider coverage than normally available here of what was taking place in Afghanistan before the American invasion or bombing began. Al-Jazeera had three or four people inside Afghanistan, one of whom was a casualty of the American bombing of their main office in Kabul. And [on news programs dealing with Palestine] they regularly put on Israeli spokesmen, many of them very fluent in Arabic. They’ll not only have Hanan Ashrawi [a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and the Arab League’s Arab Media General Commissioner] and the head of some institution in Gaza and some spokesman for Arafat, but they’ll bring someone from the [Israeli] foreign ministry, somebody from the Army, to talk about what the Israelis think they’re doing, and they’re given quite a bit of time.

TO: Reading your writings immediately after September 11 and all the times you said that you as a New Yorker were shocked and grieving like everyone else, I sensed that you felt the need “to get with the program,” and show that even though you’re an Arab and strong critic of U.S. policy, you’re a bona fide American.

ES: No! [Shock and grief] is what I felt! I felt it because it was so much in continuity with my own early life. I was a boy when [Israeli terrorists] blew up the King David Hotel, 300 or 400 yards from the house I lived in in Jerusalem. I was 10 at the time, and because our house in those days was in an area that wasn’t fully settled, you could see right down the slope to where the King David was. There was a huge explosion; I remember hearing a tremendous sound.

By 1948, my entire extended family had left Palestine, all of them refugees. Later on, in the 1950s, [I experienced] explosions and plots and fires in Cairo, where my family was at the time. Then the Lebanese civil war, 15 years ago. So [September 11 is] quite on the same continuum of horrible, eruptive events.

TO: Do you think we will see more such events? Regardless of where bin Laden is now, does it make any difference?

ES: I don’t think it does. There probably are people taking up his cause elsewhere, maybe in Indonesia, maybe in the Philippines, in some of the Arab countries. It’s not outside the realm of probability that there will be more of this, since there’s been plenty of it, except in America. Whether we’ll see more in America I don’t know.

TO: What should Americans be reading to understand the nuances of Islam? Can you recommend authors and books?

ES: If somebody came to you and said, “I want to look at the contemporary politics of the United States,” you wouldn’t send them to the Bible. You might suggest Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States or Eric Foner’s The Story of American Freedom. Likewise, it’s a fundamental mistake to think that in dealing with contemporary Islam you’re talking about essentially a faith, rather than a society or many societies. It would be better to focus on contemporary societies rather than reading a book that codifies the faith.

There are too many books to mention on the basic concepts of Islam. Tarif Khalidi. [Arab Historical Thought in the Classical Period (Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization), 1997; Classical Arab Islam: The Culture and Heritage of the Golden Age, 2000.]He goes through the main concepts of the religion, just as a way of finding out about it. Olivier Roy is a French political scientist who writes about political Islam. His The Failure of Political Islam is quite different in that it doesn’t deal with faith–it deals with contemporary social movements. It’s a good book to look at. And John Esposito’s The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality.

Then, I’d look at books about Islam in places like Egypt or Syria or Palestine. I would change the focus from looking at doctrinal issues to history, political economy, intellectual, and cultural history. And why not read [the fictional]The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz? It’s the story of a family in which, in the third generation, there are two grandsons, one of whom becomes a communist and the other a Muslim Brother in Egypt [the fundamentalist group the Muslim Brotherhood]. You see? This is reading to get a sense of the society rather than trying to deal with abstractions such as “the rage against modernity” and nonsense of that sort. The more concrete you keep it, the better.

TO: I know Jews who are very sympathetic to your views, but who feel that your call for a binational state is utopian because Israelis and Palestinians hate each other so much.

ES: Even more so now!

TO: So how do we get from the present situation to the binational state?

ES: Obviously, you’d have to do it via two states. There would have to be an independent Palestinian state, presumably on the lands of the 1967 conquest, vacated of the settlements and the Israeli army. But the space itself is so small–and 20 percent of the Israeli population is made up of Palestinians. What I was talking about was a mode of coexistence between two peoples in one land. The finest form of coexistence is to live in one state rather than a partitioned state.

TO: But that doesn’t seem possible at this point.

ES: Oh, I don’t know. Look at India. They tried partition, with India and Pakistan. But there are still more Muslims in India than there are in Pakistan. And they coexist, there’s still a democracy in India. There are periodic sectarian conflicts in India–destroying mosques, and so on. And there is a Hindu nationalist party in power. But most Indians and Pakistanis that I know regret partition. I think the move toward something that implies a closer form of coexistence than two states staring across a militarized border at each other is a better solution. I’m not trying to argue that it isn’t utopian. It is utopian. But what’s wrong with that? It’s better than anything we have now.

TO: I told a Yiddish scholar I know that I was going to interview you. As a young man he was a “territorial Zionist”–he thought Jews needed their own state, but saw no reason why it should be in Palestine, since he didn’t think that a mythological document like the Bible, or even real but ancient Jewish history, could justify throwing a modern people off their land. Anyway, when I told him I would be talking with you, he said to send you greetings, since, as he put it: “Said–s’a yid.” “S’a yid” is Yiddish for “He’s a Jew.”

ES: [Laughs]. Interesting.

Contributing writer Debbie Nathan is the author of Women and Other Aliens: Essays from the U.S.-Mexico Border and co-author of Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt.