As Israel Intensifies Its Occupation in Palestinian Territories, a Conversation with Edward Said

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Since the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, political commentators have flooded the mainstream media with superficial commentary about the nature of Islam, its relation to the Taliban, and the challenges the US faces in being understood and appreciated in the Muslim and Arab world. [includes rush transcript]

The Bush Administration is continuing in its efforts to convince Arab and Muslim states to support its plans for wide-ranging military action against the Taliban, using a combination of threats, diplomacy and the lure of military and economic aid.

But there has still been little reflection on the social, political and economic basis of the resentment that US power has engendered, not just in the Middle East and Central Asia, but around the world. There has been even less discussion of what a just relationship with Arab and Muslim states might look like or how the US might get there ,ideas that seem lost in the Bush administration’s single-minded preparation for a war we still know almost nothing about.


  • Edward Said, Professor of Literature at Columbia University. Author of many books, including Orientalism, Culture and Imperialism, and his memoir Out of Place. He is also considered a leading voice for Palestinian self-determination.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Since the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, political commentators have flooded the mainstream media with superficial commentary about the nature of Islam, its relation to the Taliban, and the challenges the US faces in being understood and appreciated in the Muslim and Arab world.

The Bush administration is continuing in its efforts to convince Arab and Muslim states to support its plans for wide-ranging military action against the Taliban, using a combination of threats, diplomacy and the lure of military and economic aid. But there’s still little reflection on the social, political and economic basis of the resentment that US power has engendered, not just in the Middle East and Central Asia, but around the world. There’s been even less discussion of what a just relationship with Arab and Muslim states might look like or how the US might get there, ideas that seem lost in the Bush administration’s single-minded preparation for a war we still know almost nothing about.

We’re joined on the telephone right now by Edward Said. He’s a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University and author of many books, including Orientalism, Culture and Imperialism, and his memoir Out of Place. He is also considered a leading voice for Palestinian self-determination.

Welcome to The War and Peace Report, Professor Said.

EDWARD SAID: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Thomas Friedman writes in his column in today’s New York Times, quote, “I understand that this particular act of terrorism we just experienced is something so much more frightening than what [Beirut’s residents] had to deal with.”

He ends his column with the reflection, “I went to the ballgame Friday night, took in Dvorak’s 'New World' Symphony at the Kennedy Center Saturday, took my girls out to breakfast in Washington Sunday morning, [and] then flew to the University of Michigan. Heck, I even went out yesterday and bought some stock. What a great country.

“I wonder what Osama bin Laden did in his cave in Afghanistan yesterday?”

Professor Said, can you comment, help us unpack some of the assumptions in these words?

EDWARD SAID: Well, I think, in the first place, you know, speaking as a New Yorker and somebody who has lived here really the major part of his life, I mean, I feel I’m second to none in feelings of horror and sorrow and disorientation as a result of what happened. But there’s no need, I think, to take us out of history and out of time and turn the agony of New York into sort of a unique event of all time.

I mean, what — I mean, I’m a man of two worlds, really. I mean, my entire family went through the siege of Beirut by the Israeli army, when in the course of three months 20,000 people, in a country of roughly two-and-a-half million people, were killed by the Israeli army — basically people living with no protection, no anti-aircraft guns, no missiles, nothing to protect the onslaught of Israeli F-15s and helicopter gunships and missiles and rockets and all the rest of it. So, you know, “sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” I mean, suffering under such horror is equal, it seems to me, in every part of the world.

And what is implicit in a lot of what Friedman writes is that the Arabs and Muslims are to be talked down to, that somehow their experiences are not as valid or somehow not as valuable as those of the so-called West. I mean I say “so-called,” because the West is really a very nebulous idea. Most Lebanese think of themselves perhaps as part of the West. So, you know, it’s difficult to make — to draw distinctions of this sort.

The other is that the experiences — much as one hates them and despises them, the experiences that produce the kind of mad mindset of which Osama bin Laden has become the embodiment are the tip of the iceberg. You know, I mean, I, myself, don’t understand what would drive a person to suicide and to the kind of mass murder that these bombers did on September the 11th. But certainly the feeling of resentment and human dismissal, which a lot of people in the Arab and Islamic world feel, is very, very real, not because of some fantasy about America. Most of them, in fact, are very interested and fascinated and indeed like America. Their children come here. I’m talking now about the intellectuals, of whom, of course, Osama and his people are examples. They’re not the “Wretched of the Earth.” They’re not people who live in a refugee camp. These are educated, middle-class people, who have gone bananas as a result of a tremendous pressure on their minds of what they perceive as American contempt and dismissal of them as human beings, their religion, their — it’s very — and their culture.

It’s very difficult for a Muslim today in Pakistan or in Saudi Arabia or in Egypt not to make connections between the agonies of Chechnya, the agonies of the Palestinians, the contempt with which Islam is regularly discussed and treated in the media, the way in which the United States has, for the last ten years, more or less single-handedly, been inflicting a regime of horrendous, genocidal sanctions against the people of Iraq, and to see all of this as a product of one power which can get away with it and, when the disaster strikes, as it did last week, horribly, maleficently, in the worst and most barbaric way, of course, to see this as a kind of a retribution and to see it as a kind of, you know, sort of just dessert and not feel the kind of compassion and fellow suffering that most people would ordinarily feel, partly, they think, because none of that compassion and fellow feeling and fellow suffering has been manifested toward them. They’ve been treated as the enemy. The United States supports regimes like that of Saudi Arabia, for example, or the Israeli government, you know, because it suits them, not because it’s a humane support or support for humane purposes.

And in this mind, which we have no inkling of — there’s very little interchange on any level at all, really — connections are made and ascriptions are made for which there’s very little contradiction, but simply because the Arab and Islamic world are treated with the kind of contempt and inferiority that we feel they deserve. It’s mostly ignorance, I think, a terrible, terrible ignorance, the result of poor education in our part of the world and poor education in their part of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Professor Edward Said of Columbia University. Others, as well as Friedman of the New York Times, write of the Taliban, in particular, and the Muslim world, in general, as being anti-modern, jealous of American technology, and attacking the United States for its freedom.

EDWARD SAID: Well, this is one of the most monstrous ideological fictions I’ve ever heard. It was originally started around the time — I mean, and gained currency, around the time of Huntington’s article on “the clash of civilizations.” And it comes from the work of several very, very reactionary, in my opinion, and mischievously inclined, politically inclined Orientalists, who have argued exactly that: that the world of Islam is a basically medieval world, that it is a world that resents modernity and, above all, the symbol of modernity, the United States, and so on and so forth. I mean, that’s complete nonsense.

In the first place, modernity, in the sense of McDonald’s and computers and airlines and shopping centers and malls, etc., has come to the entire world, certainly the Islamic world, as well. And, you know, it’s quite clear that, on the level of culture, there is an exchange that goes on despite the ideologues who say that east is east and west is west, on both sides. I mean, it’s very difficult to distinguish between the everyday life of one over the other.

But it is also the case that people in the Islamic world feel that they, for the most part, live in polities and in states, in countries, ruled by unpopular regimes, all of whom, without any exception that I can think of, in one way or another — of course, Iraq is an exception — but are supported by the United States. I mean, one mustn’t forget, in the first place, that the Mujahideen, who preceded the Taliban, the sort of the previous incarnation of the Taliban, were supported by the United States as fighters on the side of Islam against the godless communists in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. And when their leaders came to Washington in — I’ll never forget this as long as I live — these bearded people, to my mind, being a secular person from a part of the world that produces monotheistic religions — Islam, Christianity and Judaism — I was horrified that Reagan greeted these people as, in fact, the moral equivalent of the founding fathers, of our founding fathers. You know, so it suited the United States to coddle these people, as it has all these years the government of Saudi Arabia, because of its oil, not because of its enlightened policies. And many people in these countries, there is a healthy secular opposition. There’s a women’s movement. There’s a human rights movement. So, in all respects, I think one can find not only the elements, but the wide currents of modernity, inside contemporary Islamic societies.

The question is that they’re engaged in a political struggle with people who want to take Islam back to some earlier state, just as in this country we have people who want to return — well, we have Falwell and Robertson and all the hundreds of thousands, millions even, of fundamentalists, Christian fundamentalists, in this country who want to return us to a puritanical and simpler society. So that’s the war. It’s not between Islam and the West. It’s between ideas of the past that exist in the West and ideas of the past and of a correct tradition that exists in the Islamic world, indeed everywhere, the Jewish world. Look at the struggle within Israel between different interpretations of Judaism. So I would say it’s really the struggle of interpretations and not the struggle between modernity, the modernity of the West and the success of America, which many people — most people in the Arab world that I know find very attractive and somewhat at odds with America’s behavior internationally, as a major — as the only superpower, on one hand, and people who want to — who want to return society to an earlier, purer, less sinful state. I mean, it exists everywhere.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Professor Edward Said, and we’ll be back with him in a minute, after we break for stations to identify themselves. Then we’re going to Peshawar and Islamabad to talk about the humanitarian disaster that is brewing right now in Afghanistan. Up to one million Afghans face starvation as Bush officials plan to bomb them. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking with Professor Edward Said, a comparative literature institute professor at Columbia University, who has recently written a piece about the latest that has taken place in the United States, the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York, a piece called “Collective Passion: Can the Voice of Rationality Be Heard over the War Drums?” This appeared in Al Ahram Weekly online, based in Cairo.

You were just talking about understanding the Muslim and Arab world and also comparing fundamentalisms, whether it’s Muslim fundamentalism or Christian or Jewish fundamentalism. Would you like to continue on that point? 

EDWARD SAID: Yes, I mean, I think they — the mix of religion with politics — and that I found rather chilling in some of the President’s statements — is a very unhealthy one, because, you know, if you think you have the vision and you’re in touch with the divine and that speaks through you, then, you know, there’s virtually no stopping what you do. I mean, I think that’s certainly true of Muslim fundamentalism. It’s true of Christian and Jewish fundamentalists and produces the most skewed and immoral and pathological — I think that’s the right word for it — pathological politics, whereas it would seem to me that as a great country, I mean, with enormous power, it would seem to me that the United States ought to be setting the standard for universalistic norms that apply across religions and across cultures, if you like, that should govern human behavior.

There’s no reason, for example, why a man who was responsible, like Sharon was, for the massacres of Sabra and Shatila should not be included in the war against terrorism or why only Muslim terrorists are singled out, as, of course, in this case, they should be. But, you know, the idea is that there should be a universal norm, you know, set by the United Nations, obviously, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by which human behavior and state behavior is governed, and not these religious justifications with which you can’t argue. I mean, if you are possessed of the truth, there’s nothing that can be said to you. And that’s clearly the mindset of people who believe that God has given them x land, and they should take it and drive out these, you know, inferior others who happen to be there, this sort of thing. So, I think monotheistic fundamentalism is really the same across the board. And if we want to single out one, we ought really to include in that, not invidiously, but we ought to include inclusively all the others, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Said, Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, is going to meet with Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jack Straw —


AMY GOODMAN: — following a fifteen-minute phone call between Sharon and the Prime Minister, Tony Blair.


AMY GOODMAN: Sharon had earlier called off the meeting because of remarks Straw made in an article in an Iranian newspaper. The passage which caused offense said, “One of the factors that helps breed terror is the anger that many people in the region feel at events over the years in the Palestinian territories.” Well, Downing Street said the phone call took place this morning at the request of Sharon.


AMY GOODMAN: Straw is visiting Tehran as part of a US-British effort to form an international coalition that would include Iran. What do you think of this latest — well, what Straw said and also the meeting with Sharon?

EDWARD SAID: Well, I think Straw — for the first time, you know, a British official at a high level that told the truth. I mean, there’s no question. There’s absolutely no question in the Arab — don’t forget, we live in the age of television and satellite television, which has brought the Arab world together to watch the daily sufferings of Palestinians during the Intifada. I mean, in my opinion, having been there and watching it now from a distance, there’s no question that Israel’s behavior includes the worst collective punishment that ought to qualify for terrorism, state terrorism, imaginable. I mean, the idea of locking people in their house, making it impossible for them to travel, demolishing their houses, taking their land, uprooting — you know, they’ve uprooted 200,000 trees! I mean, that’s sheer sadistic cruelty, to say nothing of endless killings and what they call “targeted killings” which are, in fact, assassination of political leaders. I mean, you know, and the settlements go on, and the humiliation of Palestinians at the checkpoints, where they can’t move without being — without going through Israelis. I mean, this has been a fantastically galvanizing, I would even say polarizing, awareness amongst Arabs everywhere, who watch this every day, powerless to do anything about it — and with the United States, more or less, continually supplying Israel with arms.

I mean, that, of course, doesn’t in any way justify horrendous acts, heinous acts of criminal violence, senseless destructiveness of the kind that hit our city. But it goes a long way to explaining a mood in which, you know, the United States and Israel are perceived as a malevolent and not the kind of pure and innocent creatures that perhaps they want to pretend they are.

So, I think what I’m really pleading for is a kind of secular, open and rational understanding of human behavior and not to condemn it to the realms of the supernatural and say this is, you know, evil we don’t — you know, it comes from the devil and all. No, no, these are human beings who are acting in unacceptable ways. There are degrees one ought to be able to analyze without, of course, condoning. One ought to be able to explain and, at the same time, make judgments.

But I think unless one does that, uses one’s mind and tries to get past the collective passion, whether it’s in the Arab world, in the Islamic world, against the Unites States, or in our country against — you know, just wanting to go to war without some understanding of what the ground is like. I don’t mean just the geography, but the moral and political and historical ground is like in the minds of others. We live in one world. We don’t live in twenty-seven different worlds. And once, you know, this campaign is over, we’ll have to go back to a world very much altered, in which I think the exchange between people becomes, I think, paramount.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think of bringing Iran into the coalition?

EDWARD SAID: Well, I doubt that Iran will be in the coalition. Properly speaking, I think the Iranians, you know, who are the sworn enemies of the Taliban, you know, there’s no love lost at all between them. You know, every country acts according to its interests. And Tehran is not, you know, quite in the same position of being pressured as Saudi Arabia and the Emirates are, who have in fact been supporting these Taliban and the Mujahideen originally, because the US made them do it. But there are lots of private contributions from these countries to Afghanistan. The Iranians, I think, are in a quite a different position, and they may think of this as a way of perhaps improving their position with the United States, but, I think, entirely on their terms. I don’t think there will be any military actions from Iran. I think there will be an attempt to somehow soften the atmosphere and make possible normal relationship.

AMY GOODMAN: The House of Representatives voted yesterday to release half-a-billion dollars that the United States owes in back dues to the United Nations, ending a long-running squabble —


AMY GOODMAN: — at a time when the Bush administration says international cooperation is needed.


AMY GOODMAN: What do you make of this right now?

EDWARD SAID: Well, I mean, it’s obviously too little, too late. I mean, I’m glad they did it, but we still owe — the United States still owes at least another billion in back dues to the UN. You know, some members of the Senate and House have made no secret of their contempt for the United Nations. They feel, as I suppose many Americans, but not all, feel, that, you know, we — the United States should go it alone, and why should we be bound by protocols that bind the rest of humanity?

Well, you know, maybe this is the beginning of a change. And certainly the efforts on the part of the Bush administration to make this a coalition, to give it some kind of international, perhaps even the United Nations, legitimacy, is a sign that we’re beginning to understand this, that even with our great power and the distance we are from the rest of the world. we’re not invulnerable, and we suffer as much as — we will and can suffer as much as anyone, and have suffered in the case of this terrible atrocity of September the 11th.

But I think there is no hope, in my opinion, for the human community, unless we rest our faith, I think, in communal organizations, of which the only international — I mean, the only universal one is the United Nations, and that we should be bound by the declarations and resolutions, which in many ways we ourselves have formulated. But, I mean, the behavior of the United States in the United Nations has also been scandalous, the promiscuous use of the veto whenever something goes against our — whenever, for example, Israel is criticized, you know, to use the United Nations as we did in the case of Iraq to enter this long period of just slow genocidal torture of the Iraqi people, in which, you know, half-a-million children have died needlessly.

You know, those show, in the end, I think, a kind of contempt for the rest of the world that ill suits us as a great power with, I think, an extremely compassionate population. I think most Americans are — given the chance, and I think the media has not been good about this, but given a chance, will try to understand what the US means in the world and what has been done in its name abroad, and that most Americans are open to the sufferings and miseries of others.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Saddam Hussein, where this puts Iraq? You have people like Paul Wolfowitz —


AMY GOODMAN: — pushing for the bombing of Iraq. Where do you think Iraq will fit in here? And the vision that you have of what actually is going to happen, since that has not been made very clear at this point, how the US will conduct this so-called war?

EDWARD SAID: Well, I think there’s been a — you know, there’s been a profound misunderstanding of what Iraq represents in the Arab world. I mean, I don’t think there’s much love lost amongst Arabs for Saddam or for his regime, which is known to be cruel and murderous. And I don’t know many people who were in favor of his annexation and invasion of Kuwait in 1990. But, you know, it’s one thing to be opposed to Saddam and another to want to destroy the country even further. I mean, that seems to me to be sadism. And, you know, there was an opportunity, as no one is tired of remembering or repeating, during the war to enter Baghdad. And if that was the goal, you know, to get rid of him, to get rid of him in that way, rather than to starve the Iraqi people.

I think there is a struggle going on inside the administration as to what to do about Iraq, who, to people, I think, like Wolfowitz, seems to be important only because it might be at one point a threat to Israel. I see the — I mean, Iraq, by any standard, is not a threat to anyone now. I mean, Saddam obviously is, but the country has been — you know, its infrastructure is destroyed. Its people are in terrible shape after years of these sanctions. So, I think wanting to destroy Iraq yet again seems to me just gratuitous violence and cruelty for no particular reason. And I doubt that it will occur, but I may be wrong. 

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Said, I want to say thank you very much for being with us, and I hope you are feeling well. Professor Said is institute professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, author of many books, among them, Orientalism and his memoir Out of Place.

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