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My position in this essay is that Edward Said applies a basically Marxist analysis to the cases of Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestine generally. Indeed he applies Marxist tools to Islam as a whole. Some commentators may say that Said was more of a post-Marxist, or a neo-Marxist, than a plain Marxist of any of the old schools. Yet others would argue that he was not a Marxist of any kind. They may say that he owes more to post-structuralism, structuralism, post-modernism, literary theory, etc. than he does to 'old-fashioned' Marxism. I am not sure what Said himself would have thought about these classifications. However, to my mind, in this book at least, he is indeed a Marxist even an old-fashioned Marxist.
As I have said, Said offers us a Marxist analysis of Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islam generally, in which he sees these groups and the religion itself as (mere) 'superstructure' or epiphenomena above 'material conditions' such as 'class', 'class conflict', 'imperialism' and other such socio-economic and political phenomena.
However, despite that general and overarching Marxist analysis in which religion, Islam qua Islam, is downplayed, he does the exact opposite when talking about the state of Israel and Israelis generally. That is, he emphasises the religious nature of Israel and its leaders rather than downplays it. Thus all of a sudden Said's Marxist lenses seem to be taken off when thinking about or discussing Israel. More than that, one gets a very strong sense that he is indeed favourable to Islam, qua Islam, and distinctly unfavourable to Judaism, qua its ostensible implementation in the state and nation of Israel. This appears to be a blatant contradiction at best. At worst, it seems like straightforward bias, if not downright prejudice.
One of the most amazing and frankly astounding assertions of Said is that Islam and even more specifically, Hezbollah and Hamas, are not anti-Semitic. He doesn't say it those words. He does say that their anti-Semitism is 'putative' (page 77). We all know what 'putative' means. It means that we simply presume, suppose, allege, etc. that these groups are anti-Semitic. However, if we bear in mind Said's Marxist, or post-Marxist, or neo-Marxist, position, then Hezbollah, Hamas, etc. being non-anti-Semitic would (sort of) follow. That is because Islamic anti-Semitism is primarily based on the religion itself (with a bit of pre-20th and Nazi racism thrown in for good measure). Said has already classed religion as a superstructure or epiphenomenon above the 'civil, political and human' material conditions underneath. Indeed he often reduces religion to 'class', 'class conflict' and even 'imperialism' in other parts of his writing.
Of course the belief that Hamas, Hezbollah, and other Islamists are anti-Semites is part of the 'Israeli official line' (pg., 78). No it's not! Hamas and Hezbollah are anti-Semitic according to Hamas and Hezbollah! Did Said, again, ever actually read any of their literature or did he see that too as a mere epiphenomenon above the more important 'material and political conditions'? Not only is anti-Semitism part of these movements, it can easily be argued that it is the most important part! And getting the Jews out of the Islamic waqf has been vitally important part of Islam since the Prophet Mohammed made it vitally important over one thousand five hundred years ago.
Said again gives what can only be a Marxist - OK, a post-Marxist - account of Hezbollah. That is, he condemns the 'United States press' for 'pressing Hezbollah's religion' and thus making sure its religion is 'emphasised' (x1iv). No. It is Hizbollah that stresses its own religion, not the US media or anyone else. Even if Hizbollah didn't openly stress its religion, as it does, Said could have easily read its literature or listened to its spokesmen. Then he would have seen that Hezbollah itself 'stresses, and 'emphasises' its religious basis. Of course Said must have read Hezbollah's literature. That doesn't matter. As a Marxist or post-Marxist he would have seen the religious stuff a mere superstructure or the epiphenomena above the underlying material and thus socio-economic and political substructure. That would mean, as it does in Marxism generally, that no matter how much Hizbollah rants and raves about Islam and the Jews, it is still all just the mere superstructure or epiphenomena above the far more important political and social things 'underneath'. It is because of this traditional Marxist slant on religion (plus other examples of superstructure) that Said is almost bound to see Hizbollah as 'basically a guerrilla group fighting an illegal occupation in their country' (x1iii). Of course Hizbollah may be
i) a religious group and a guerrilla army (or a guerrilla army and a religious group).
ii) or it can be just or only a religious group.
Said opts for the option that
iii) Hizbollah is only a political group.
Most people would say that
iv) Hizbollah is both a religious group and a political group; though not necessarily a 'guerrilla group'.
Said hints again at what he sees as the fact that Palestinian or Lebanese 'resistance' is not religious at least not 'primarily' religious. For example, he mentions Walzer by saying that
'when Palestinians resist Israeli colonialism it is Walzer's firm assertion that such resistance is religious, not political or civil or human' (41).
There are a couple of responses to this:
i) Palestinian resistance can be religious and 'political or civil or human'.
ii) Palestinian resistance is religious. But that religiousness expresses itself in 'political or civil or human terms'.
As we are always told by Muslims, Islam is a 'political and civil religion'. Thus proposition ii) makes a lot of sense within that particular position.
It is also debatable whether or not Israel actually has a 'colonialist' position. That is, can't a state have a position of land ownership and control without it thereby also being colonialist? Even if we accept 'the Nakba', it is still the case that the Israelis did not exploit Palestinian labour. And even the land was not exploitable when the Palestinians lived on it. It was the Jews who made it exploitable when they cultivated it, drained it and so on. Even Palestinian Arabs came to benefit from what the Israelis did to the land.
Not only does Said see the Israeli state as colonialist it, he sees it as being only colonialist. That is why he writes that the Israeli regime has a 'thin colonialist façade of liberalism, secularism, socialism, or democracy' (41). This creates a strange Saidian inversion. Thus:
i) When Jews, or Israelis, say that they are 'secularists, socialists, or democrats', they are basically lying. They are, instead, primarily 'religious'.
ii) When the Palestinians, Palestinian groups, say that they are 'religious', Said thinks that they are in fact 'political or civil or human'. (Did Said think that they were lying too? Or was religion simply a Palestinian (Marxist) superstructure or epiphenomenon?)
I find it very strange that Said should say of writer called Judith Miller that for her 'Mohammed is the begetter of an anti-Jewish religion' (xxxviii). Elsewhere he also talks about her writing about 'Mohammed's depredations against the Jews' (xxxix). Yes. And Said's point is? Surely Said can't be saying that Islam is not an anti-Jewish religion. Mohammed was certainly anti-Jewish, and for many religious, social and political reasons. Islam throughout its history has shown itself to be repeatedly anti-Jewish. Today, Said's Hamas, Hezbollah, the Palestinians generally as well as Iran, are all 'anti-Jewish'. It is strange, then, that Said does not feel the need to argue the point that Islam and Mohammed were and are not anti-Jewish.
Said often does that. He points out the West's negative attitudes towards Islam, and displays the content and varieties of that negativity, but he rarely, if ever, attempts to argue the case for Islam not being the negative things it is painted to be. It is as if it is enough for Said to merely point out and then criticise the many examples of Western criticism of Islam and that is enough. Thus it is wrong in itself, as it were, to criticise Islam so much and so uniformly
It does not seem to matter to Said that many of the criticisms of Islam may be true, accurate or justified. The very fact of Western criticism shows us how biased we all are towards Islam and that is enough to prove to Said that there is something fundamentally wrong somewhere. He simply fails to even countenance the possibility that at least some 'Western' criticisms may be true, correct or justified. The very fact of criticising another culture or another religion is itself ideologically suspect. That is partly why Said, and people like Said (especially Leftists), seem to accept and even defend all sorts of Islamic wrongs, from forced marriage, to cliterodectamy, to suicide bombing. That is, it is simply forbidden for Westerners, or Christians, or the West, to castigate or criticise another culture, and that includes Islam, no matter how bad or objectionable the things are that are being criticised. The 'oppressed', whether Muslims or Africans, can never be criticised by the West simply because they are the oppressed. Or, I should say, because they are compartmentalised as 'the oppressed' by Leftists and others. That is why, for example, many Leftists do not think that Muslims and other oppressed groups can be racist.
The official line is that oppressed or exploited peoples
cannot be racist. Only the powerful can be racist. Only the West is
racist. To slag off Islam, or any oppressed group, is effectively to
become part of the oppressor West. It is to be an oppressor no
matter what or whom one is criticising, from jihad to wearing the
burka to Osama bin Laden. That is why Said simply objects to every
criticism of Islam, Muslims or Islamic states. At the same time, he
does not try to defend, or justify, what it is that is being
criticised. The very criticism of Islam is wrong, regardless of the
truth, correctness, or justification of those criticisms.
Thus, until there is a radical shift of power from the West to the Muslim world, Said argued, or should have argued had he been more explicit about it, then no criticism of Islam is acceptable or even allowed from a Leftist position. This will explain the unthinkable examples of Leftist quiescence and even support or defence when it comes to all manner of outrages committed in the Muslim world or by individual Muslims. In addition, in domestic terms, that is why Western countries have so easily allowed things such as halal meat, Muslim schools, sharia law, criminal activity, polygamy, 'hate speech', forced and arranged marriages, and so on from Muslim communities or from individual Muslims.
Said has a sick and conspiratorial mind when it comes to the Jews or Israelis.
Why do we in the West use the word 'terrorism' when talking about Hamas, Hezbollah, the 'insurgents' in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and even al-Qaeda? Because Israel has told us to. Well, not quite. Said writes that our
'loose application of the word "terrorism" to "Islam", and the attitude that elevates Israelis views of Islam's "dangers" to the level of United States policy' (xxix).
Did the Israelis tell those animists and Christians in southern Sudan, who have been killed and exterminated, to class the Janjaweed as 'terrorists'? Do they all read the Israel Times or the New York Times? Did we need to be told by the Israelis, or anyone else for that matter, that those responsible for 9/11 were terrorists? Except, of course, for the fact that some far leftists and many Muslims, think the Jews or Israelis were really responsible for that outrage as well! When you have a psychotic mind, you really can't escape from the Jews or the 'Israel Lobby'.
What does Said's phrase the 'loose application of the word "terrorism" to "Islam"' actually mean? How does that work? I don't think it even makes sense as a statement. It sounds like yet another ideologically-loaded soundbite on Said's part. He has got himself in a froth and forgotten to actually make sense here.
The Jewish Lobby, as well as the Jewish conspiracy in more general terms, is seen by Said as even bigger and more all-encompassing than some of the Islamists in the Muslim Brotherhood or Hizb ut-Tahrir do. Let's give it in full. All of us, that is you and I, belong to what Said calls pax Americana-Israelica (xxxv), which also rules the Middle East. At least he had the wisdom to include America. So the Jews need at least a little help? Except for the fact that the Israeli or Jewish Lobby also runs America! Brilliant! The true World Government encapsulated by a bit of pseudo-Latin from Said.
Said gives an example of the 'Israeli view' in the guise of the Times. He says that the Times is not interested the 'facts'. Why is that? Because it did not support Hezbollah, or its position, in Lebanon (1996)? This is the story of Israel's air strikes against terrorist targets in Lebanon. According to Said, Hezbollah is not a terrorist group at all; it is made up of what he calls 'guerrillas'. The Times got that wrong for a start. Fancy mistaking guerrillas for terrorists. The Times thinks what it thinks simply because Israel 'wishes it to be known that that country's terrorists are militant Muslims rather than Guerrillas resisting occupation' (x1iv). It's not a case of the Times thinking that Hezbollah is a terrorist group. It's more a case of Israel telling the Times what to think about a bunch of 'guerrillas'. (What about 'freedom fighters'?) If Said believes that the Times can't think for itself when it comes to any foreign country that would be, if not fine, at least consistent. That's not the case, though, because we are talking here about Israel. We all know how powerful and deceitful the Jews are. Don't we? Said even suggests that the Times wants its readers to think that it's 'the mad Muslims are at it again, killing Jews as usual' (x1iv). Well, they have killed a lot of Jews. In fact they have killed a lot of Jews for being Jews. Indeed they have killed non-Israeli Jews in various parts of the world, most spectacularly in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Did Said never read Hezbollah literature or listen to its religious leaders when they talked about the Jews ruling the world, their being 'apes and pigs' and that they were going to kill every last Jew on earth? Actually, Said did read such things from Hezbollah. After all he too believes in the Israel Lobby and the Jewish Conspiracy as well as the supreme power and malevolence of the Jews.
The truth, according to Said, is this. Hezbollah exists (partly?) because of the fact that Israel 'displaced 200,000 residents of South Lebanon, having already bombed the area from the air, land, and sea' (x1v). The thing is that there's an easy answer to this. The Israelis 'displaced 200,000 residents of South Lebanon' etc. because Hezbollah, and other Islamic groups, had already bombed northern Israel for years before that. Now, of course, all a Saidian needs to say is that Hezbollah 'bombed northern Israel' because ... Yes, fill in the dots yourself, because I'm not sure if this game of mono-causality actually gets us anywhere in the end.
Said's original source of truth, on this occasion, was Robert Fisk; the guy who basically takes the same ideological positions on Israel as Said himself. After all, Said would have in all modesty admitted that he was not himself a journalist or reporter. So let's get things straight. Fisk 'concentrated on what in fact happened' (x1v). In other words, he didn't tell us 'what Israeli or United States officials wanted the world to believe was happening' (x1v). What was happening was that Lebanese 'guerrillas [were] resisting occupation' (x1v).
Not only did Said deny that Hezbollah is a terrorist group, he also seemed to deny that that it is a 'militant Shi'a group backed by Iran' (x1vii). Actually; fair dues. He doesn't really deny this. He says that Hezbollah is not 'primarily' a militant Shia' group backed by Iran. It is Israel and the West, apparently, who think that. What is Hezbollah, then, 'primarily'? Said does not explicitly say. I must assume that he thinks that Hezbollah is primarily a guerrilla group or a 'resistance movement' because that's what he repeatedly calls them elsewhere. (Unless Hezbollah is primarily made up of social workers or something like that.)
Let's get back to Israel brainwashing the US; and then the US brainwashing the rest of the West. Why does Israel and the US, or why do we, believe that Hezbollah is a terrorist group? Well we certainly don't believe that Hezbollah is a terrorist group because it is a terrorist group. We don't believe that Hezbollah is a terrorist group because it is fanatically anti-Semitic and that it frequently bombs civilians because it doesn't actually see any Israeli civilian as a civilian. No. We believe that Hezbollah is a terrorist group because its 'resistance is [thereby] dehumanised and rendered illegitimate' (x1vii). Aren't child-killers and fanatical anti-Semites inhuman and illegitimate? A lot of being people, brainwashed people in Said's eyes, would think that they are. Even if Israel did occupy southern Lebanon 'illegitimately', would that miraculously make child killing and fanatical anti-Semitism humane and legitimate?
Said's logic is simple and massively mistaken. He suggests that we should not see Hezbollah, Hamas and even al-Qaeda (?)in terms of Islam, or their being Muslims, at all. It is, it seems, the wrong way of looking at these movements. He gives us an equivalence which is closer to home (or so he thinks). He writes:
'Of course no one has equated the Jonestown massacre or the destructive horror of the Oklahoma bombing or the devastation of Indochina with Christianity...' (9)
Said must think that we, or the West, should believe the following:
Of course no one has (or should!) equated 9/11 or the London bombing or Hezbollah/Hamas suicide bombs with Islam.
That is what he is getting at. Yes; it is incredible! He wants us to believe that these outrages were more to do with 'resistance', 'national liberation', 'oppression' or whatnot than were about Islam.
But his list is disingenuous because both the Jonestown massacre and the Oklahoma bombing did have religious aspects. However, to say that the 'devastation of Indochina' was a kind of Christian crusade is ridiculous. Yes, a capitalist crusade or an imperialist crusade or a crusade against communism. I can just about accept that. But a Christian crusade, or Christianity being at the heart of the Indochina wars, is plain silly. Yes, most of the soldiers were Christians and most of the leaders of the US army were Christian. That still wouldn't have made it a Christian crusade. The other thing is that Timothy Mcveigh was a loner. Hamas, Hezbollah, etc. aren't loners. Said himself sees them as resistance movements for Palestine and Lebanon respectively. Thus the comparison with Mcveigh just doesn't work. Did Mcveigh's family support him? No. Did his (Christian) community support him? No. Is there much of a rational for his actions in Christian literature, etc. Well, possibly. But not unequivocally and absolutely, as is really the case for the Islam of Hamas or Hezbollah. Even in the case of the Jonestown massacre. There might have been a community of sorts. But it was a community that was at odds with the communities around it. That is not the case with Hezbollah and Hamas. They have strong support in Lebanon and Palestine respectively. So Said's comparisons are little more than examples of Islamist or far leftist tabloid journalism.
The Jewish Conspiracy, or I should say, the Israel Lobby, is a simple fact. Of course it is a fact because there is indeed an Israel Lobby, as there is a gay lobby, an arms company lobby and probably even a poker players lobby. But Said is not talking about the weaklings of the lobby circus. He is talking about that 'the role of Israel in mediating Western and particularly America views of the Islamic world sense World War II' (34). Thus the US itself is not mediating how we should see the Islamic world. Not even the West is. It is Israel, or perhaps the Israel Lobby, that is doing that. On that strength, in a sense Israel is actually more powerful, if only ideologically, than the West and the US at least when it comes to the Middle East and Palestine/Israel particularly. Said then shows us how the Israel Lobby makes us forget about Israel. It makes us forget 'Israel's religious fanaticism' (34). This must be in contrast to Hezbollah's, or Iran's, 'religious fanaticism', which we don't ignore. There are indeed Jewish fanatics in Israel. They are minuscule in number and hardly any Israelis support them. Many Israelis are secularists in that they believe that there should be a big gap between synagogue and state. However, these minority religious groups do have quite some power because of Israel's proportional representation system. This allows parties and groups with only 2.0% votes and over a say in Israel's parliament. On top of that, as with all PR systems, these groups have a power beyond their size because non-religious groups often have to form alliances with them in order to achieve political victories, or gain more votes, etc. These facts can be part of an argument against PR but not one against Israel's religious fanaticism as a whole or its hold over Israeli society and government.
Yes, and it also true that that these religious nuts are largely responsible for the settlements in Gaza, the West Bank and elsewhere. Yet even here it is also the case that many other settlers are not fundamentalist Jews but are also secular in outlook. They have built settlements not for religious reasons but to improve their standard of living. Even Said acknowledges that it 'is a convenient fact that it was "secular" labour governments that first instituted illegal settlements on the West Bank' (34). Isn't it also an 'inconvenient fact', for Said himself, in that just a few sentences before he was trying to make the point that Israel, or its Government, is as religious as Hamas, Hezbollah or even certain Muslim-majority states?
The 'secular' nature of the Israeli government's instituting settlements in the West works against Said's general argument. Unless Said is saying that we should more or less ignore the religious nature of Israel in the way we should more or less ignore the religious nature of Hamas and Hezbollah (even of Muslim states), as he does. Ignoring the Islamic nature of Hezbollah and Hamas would be like ignoring the Catholic beliefs of the Pope as a justification or explanation for his actions. In any case, Said, both in this book and elsewhere, has certainly not ignored the religious nature, or natures, of the Israeli state. So what he wants us to do with Hezbollah, Hamas, etc., he does not want us to in the case of Israel and its leaders.
Despite the fact that Said seems to defend Islam, or the legitimacy of Islam within the global Marxist context of Islam-versus-the-capitalist/colonialist-West, and even defend Islam's autonomy despite his otherwise materialist analysis, Said doesn't stop himself from making quite a few critical and ironic comments about the general religiosity or religious nature of the state of Israel. Clearly, despite his professed secularism and materialism (or plain non-religiosity), he does indeed prefer Islam to Judaism. For example, he says of 'Begin's Israel' that it was
'a regime fully willing to mandate its actions by religious authority and by a very backward-looking theological doctrine' (31).
This comment comes immediately after speaking about Iran and how it is seen as 'atavistic' and 'mediaeval' by 'the West'. Said thinks it is not. It is Israel that is atavistic and mediaeval. Iran is, if anything, 'revolutionary'. This is something Said frequently says; sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly. The Far Left has always had a rosy view of post-1979 'revolutionary Iran' precisely because of its purportedly revolutionary and liberatory potential. Foucault admired the early stages of this regime. The Far Left often defends it. The Socialist Workers Party even today would support Iran in a nuclear war with the West. And so on. Thus Said was not alone in his penchant for revolutionary Shia Iran.
Perhaps all this is partly why there are lots of crosscurrents and similarities between the Far Left and Islam specifically Iran's Islam. There are other similarities as well. Ironically, Said himself quotes a writer who offers some of these very similarities between Far Leftism and Islam. That writer is Daniel Pipes. He writes that 'radical Islam' is
'closer in spirit to other such movements (communism, fascism) than to traditional religion... While fundamentalist Islam differs in its details from other utopian ideologies, it closely resembles them in scope and ambition. Like communism and fascism, it offers a vanguard ideology; a complete program to improve man and to create a new society; complete control over society; and cadres ready, and even eager, to spill blood.' (xviii)
However, it appears that Said does not altogether, or at all, appreciate Daniel Pipe's comparisons. No doubt that was partly because it was a 'perfervid anti-Muslim' who was offering them. Perhaps if a Muslim had written the above, with a few changes of rhetoric and content, Said would have concurred with it. After all, Pipe's description and analysis does sound very much like the Iran of the immediate revolutionary and post-revolutionary period, which was precisely the time in which Said, Foucault and many other Leftists saw many things they admired in Iran. Perhaps it was Pipe inclusion of the triad
Islam fascism communism
that Said did not like. That is, comparing radical Islam with communism is OK. But comparing it with fascism as well; that's not OK. (Said may not even have liked the comparison of fascism and communism, but that is a different story.)
We have just talked about the Islam-fascism-communism triad. Now Said also includes a duo:
Adolph Hitler Ayatollah Khomeini
Again, this is a quote from another writer. This time from George Carpozi. We can now be sure that Said has used this quote to show us how silly it is. But is it?
'Like Adolph Hitler in another time, Ayatollah Khomeini is a tyrant, a hater, a baiter, a threat to world order and peace. The principle difference between the author of Mein Kampf and the compiler of the vapid Islamic Government is that one was an atheist while the other pretends to be a man of God.' (44)
Here, as on many other occasions, Said simply takes it for granted that his reader will agree with him by seeing the above comparison as over the top or whatever. Again, this is because he does not attempt to refute it or even display its hyperbolic nature. What if it is largely correct in its analysis? I say 'largely correct' because I am not completely happy with this passage myself. I am not happy with the psychological or ad hominem phrase that the Ayatollah Khomeini 'pretends to be a man of God'. I am absolutely sure that he did not pretend anything of the sort. I am absolutely sure that Khomeini did see himself to 'be a man of God'. Indeed, to me, that was precisely the problem.
In the end though, don't radical Islam, communism and fascism have more similarities, if this is quantifiable even in principle, than they have dissimilarities?
- Edward W. Said, Covering Islam, 1981/97, Vintage Books, London.
Paul Austin Murphy lives in Birmingham England and frequently writes on aspects of Islam. This article was submitted August 7, 2010.
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