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December 24, 2009

A Saudi View of Orientalism Islam and the West

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A Saudi View of Orientalism
Islam and the West

Middle East Quarterly
Fall 2009, pp. 73-75

Mazin S. Motabbagani (or, in accurate transcription, al-Mutabaqani) is assistant professor of Orientalism at King Saud University in Riyadh, and head of the Occidental Studies Unit in the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, also in Riyadh. Born a Jordanian by origin in 1950, he submitted his doctoral thesis in 1993 to the faculty of Islamic propagation at Riyadh’s Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University where he also taught. Motabbagani’s thesis, like most of his later academic work, focuses on Orientalism (al-istishraq), the study of Islam and the Muslim world by Western scholars. He has devoted no fewer than seven books and numerous articles to this topic.

Motabbagani’s position takes its cue from the work of Edward Said, treating all Western scholarship on the Muslim world as biased and unreliable. To Said’s leftism, however, Motabbagani adds a heavy dose of Wahhabi intolerance for anything that challenges a strict interpretation of Islam. As such, his article represents a genre of Middle Eastern writing that heavily distorts the West. We publish it to convey what that literature contains and to demonstrate the extent to which Middle Eastern Muslims have accepted Said’s views. Readers should be aware that the text contains many factual errors.

Thus, Motabbagani asserts that “the international Zionist movement applied its attention to these [Orientalist] studies, planting a number of its protégés and professors in order that the studies, conferences, and debates would all support the Zionist perspective,” a conspiracy theory that is not only false but one that ignores the predominantly anti-Zionist tilt of Middle East studies in the United States. Or he writes that “America’s need for [Oriental] studies only grew after the second Gulf war, or Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait in 1990,” which is about fifty years late. Other statements have no basis in fact: writing about “those who called for the monitoring of Middle East studies, evicting any Arab influence from these studies” is wrong and ignores the substantial numbers of Arab scholars working in the field at Western universities. The writer’s claim about an “assassination” of Ismail Faruqi and his wife is also wrong but fits his conspiracy theory about fighting Arab influence.

The following is excerpted from a paper by Motabbagani, originally published in 2003. Raymond Ibrahim translated from Arabic to English.

—The Editors

U.S. Middle East Studies

Motabbagani’s position takes its cue from the work of Edward Said, treating all Western scholarship on the Muslim world as biased and unreliable. To Said’s leftism, however, Motabbagani adds a heavy dose of Wahhabi intolerance for anything that challenges a strict interpretation of Islam.

The West’s concern for studying and knowing the world is very old, as represented by its schools, Orientalist institutions, and various research centers. And while the West has abandoned the name “Orientalism,” it has not done away with its goal, as Middle East—or “area” or “regional”—studies have appeared. These studies have received the care of the United States of America, especially after the withdrawal of the British Empire and America’s readiness to take its place in its sphere of influence. Thus, a number of U.S. governmental regulations supporting Middle East studies, or regional studies, appeared. Among other things, this is what caught the attention of a British governmental committee, led by Sir William Hayter (d. 1995), when it visited America to assess its educational programs.

The United States government continued fostering Middle East studies to the point that the Committee on Foreign Affairs in Senator Henry Jackson’s era increased the number of American and British professors offering degrees dealing with the region. This British Orientalist committee (it went on to become American later) invited Bernard Lewis in 1974; likewise, the U.S. Congress held a number of conferences in 1985 to study what is called “fundamentalism” in the Islamic world.

Edward Said and the Kuwait War

America’s need for such studies only grew after the second Gulf war, or Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait in 1990. Support for such studies grew, as did grants—some of which stipulated service in U.S. governmental departments, particularly intelligence. This provoked strong objections from many of the professors; yet, the American government financed these studies in a conditional manner.

In addition to the American government, the international Zionist movement applied its attention to these studies, planting a number of its protégés and professors in order that the studies, conferences, and debates would all support the Zionist perspective, so that Israel would continue receiving unconditional support. Likewise, some Arabs and Muslims undertook the creation of chairs for Arab and Islamic studies. Yet they did not succeed the way the Zionists did; in fact, some of these chairs produced results opposite of what was intended.

Then a number of Arab and Muslim professors rose to these studies and tried to influence them internally by portraying the Muslim issue in a neutral and honest manner so that the Orientalist approach, which so disfigured Islam and Muslims, would cease. This situation got to the point that some of the major professors were assassinated, such as Ismail Faruqi, and others. His point of view was such that it was impossible for disciplines and studies to be taught in a neutral manner in the United States.

Another thing happened regarding these studies, that is, the appearance of Edward Said and his famous book (Orientalism, 1978), as well as his notable zeal regarding the Palestinian issue. A number of changes occurred in these studies; moreover, these changes spread to related Middle East topics. Voices began appearing discussing the Palestinians as a real people evicted from their land and exposed to killing, imprisonment, and torture.

When communism fell, and the Soviet Union dissolved, and Eastern European governments came crashing down, and when it was announced that the Cold War had come to an end, there appeared in the West, particularly America, those who called on taking Islam as the new enemy in place of the former foe. Many of the top representatives of this view confided in a number of Orientalists—at their head, Bernard Lewis, via his famous U.S. Congressional hearing regarding the situation of the Arabs and Muslims vis-à-vis Western civilization. He later went on to publish this under the provocative journalistic title of “The Roots of Muslim Rage.” A number of journalists and Middle East experts, such as Chris [sic: Charles] Krauthammer, joined him.

Middle East Studies Post-9/11

The events of September 11, 2001, brought about great changes in Middle East studies—foremost among them the persistent accusation that Islam breeds terrorism. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was subjected to a major portion of this attack, due to its prominent place in the Islamic world. Specialists in Middle East studies increasingly came to adopt the policies of the neo-conservatives in the American government. These Middle East specialists came to provide the “intellectual cover” for American policies in the Arab and Islamic worlds, particularly, the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, and other policies.

Nor did the matter rest with blaming Islam for terrorism; there appeared those who called for the monitoring of Middle East studies, evicting any Arab influence from these studies, Arab influence which had taken to speaking the truth in regards to the rights of Palestinians after decades of ignoring—indeed, oppressing—them. The claim was made that these studies had failed in predicting the realities of events, as in Martin Kramer’s book, Ivory Towers on Sand.

Nor did the attacks on the Orient or Middle East studies cease with Kramer’s book; no, Daniel Pipes, Middle East specialist and founder of the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia, launched an Internet website [Campus Watch] dedicated to monitoring Middle East studies, encouraging those immersed in these studies to submit criticisms regarding professors in the field. Likewise, a Jewish organization calling itself “The David Project Center for [Jewish] Leadership,” appeared in Boston supporting Pipes’s project of monitoring and watching Middle East studies, as well as supporting the Israeli point of view regarding origins of the Islamic-Israeli struggle in Palestine. No[r]vell de Atkine and Daniel Pipes went on to coauthor a long article titled “Middle East Studies: What Went Wrong?” In this article, they discussed a number of issues regarding Middle East studies, as if they were presenting a courtroom defense for a number of Middle East studies researchers, at their head, Bernard Lewis, Fouad Ajami, Judith Tucker, and others while directing very sharp criticism at Edward Said, Yvonne Haddad, Joel Beinin, Rashid Khalidi, Joseph Massad, and others.

Among the most dangerous things the field of Middle East studies has been exposed to is the call of neoconservatives, or defenders of the good of the United States—as they call themselves—for a governmental council, approved by the U.S. Congress [Senate] and the House of Representatives, that would monitor Middle East studies in American universities receiving governmental support.

Due to all this, it has become urgent and pressing to investigate the position of Middle East studies in European and American universities, which, by definition, are among the most influential forces directing the external foreign policies of the American empire vis-à-vis the Islamic world, due to essential, and influential, factors in these studies, as well as the sources of pressure which these studies are exposed to.

http://www.meforum.org/2514/a-saudi-view-of-orientalism

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