ONE OF the most celebrated and controversial cultural critic in the US and the rest of the world, Edward Said, died at the age of 68 in New York City in September 25, 2003. His death came as a surprise to many, despite his prolonged suffering from leukemia. He was recognized by both his friends and foes as a prominent scholar and vibrant intellectual. One of the few intellectuals with an international circulation and moral recognition, Said meant not only a lot but also quite different things to different audiences. For his audiences were multiplied across national, cultural and linguistic divides. For many he represented the voice of the East in the West. For others he was yet another metropolitan western thinker with a more sensitive critical perspective. He was Christian by birth, secular by choice. He fought misrepresentations of Islam and Muslims throughout his life. No doubt, were he a Muslim, he would be blamed of Islamism by his critics. In an extremely hostile environment he carved his own intellectual space, a niche for his own narrative. He became a giant intellectual figure in the western public sphere with a global audience. Who was Edward Said? Was he an exclusive product of any cultural, ethnic or religious tradition? How could so many traditions claim him as theirs? And how could he be nobody’s at the same time when he was claimed by so many?
Said, first and foremost, was an intellectual as well as an activist. He was advocate of Palestinian people’s right to self-determination. His intellectual meticulousness carefully distinguished between Zionism and Israeli society and Jewish religion. He opposed the enslaving mentality of nationalism and its products in its all forms. If anything he was preoccupied with the idea of “justice” more than anything else. Issues of social, economic or cultural justice were all parts and parcels of his intellectual project.
He was the intellectual father of a new body of literature, one that was exploring a hitherto hidden inequality. His intervention exposed yet another operation of power in the form of cultural domination. Needless to say, the operation of power takes place in multitude of forms and has historically been challenged by various social movements. Earlier generations of social justice movements included working class movements and civil rights movements within nations. Societies faced the challenge of inequality between sexes. Feminism came into the scene as a new agent of social change. Issues of environmentalism followed suit. Political and territorial decolonization promised liberation and independence to many non-western societies in the aftermath of World War II. Yet, inequalities never ceased to shape the lives of people in and outside western societies.
The inequality between power holding Western societies and victims of that power came under intellectual attention thanks to Edward Said’s ground-breaking, paradigm-shifting study, Orientalism (1978). It shed a great deal of critical light on the power relations between imperialism of Europeans and the victims of their colonization. Orientalism excavated the inscription of power in cultural texts and representations. It challenged the essentialist and oppressive instrumental divide articulated by European colonial power. It explored the intricate link between “knowledge” and “power”. Introducing Michel Foucault to larger intellectual audiences, Orientalism, drew on extremely critical theoretical repertoires.
Said fought misrepresentations of Muslims and Islam in the West. Written in the aftermath of famous “Iran hostage crisis,” his book, Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (1981), became a pioneering study exploring the way in which American media treat Islam and Muslim societies as objects of journalistic reporting. For many Muslims, Said is arguably the most important intellectual in the western public sphere who incurred the task of “defending Islam” against racist and colonizing attacks. His unique position and contribution shall be remembered by Muslims throughout the globe. As an Arab Christian with a secular world view and as the most articulate critic of western misrepresentations of Islam in the west, Said at the same time did not hesitate to call himself “the last Jewish intellectual.” In an interview to Israeli daily Ha’aretz (Ha’aretz, August 18, 2000), he located himself within an intellectual tradition mostly populated by Jewish intellectuals. His close relationship with Frankfurt School and the tradition of Critical Theory surfaces frequently through his generous references to intellectual like Adorno. But why would Said call himself “the last Jewish intellectual”? The answer to this question has the potential to reveal the nature of the intellectual project of Edward Said.
His academic career as a professor of comparative literature constituted only one aspect of his powerful multifaceted biography. For many of my academic generation, Edward Said represents the ideal type for “the intellectual.” He stands as the role model for academics. He is the father of postcolonial theory. He is the architect of the space that allows retrieving suppressed, colonized voices. He is the cultivator of consciousness and conscience that is not yet colonized by power. Throughout his life he was a translator and an interpreter within and between cultures. He always preferred to be on the “borders”. Abdul JanMuhammad, for example, called him a “border intellectual.” His adversaries attempted to depict him as a militant throwing stones at the Lebanese border. He never sought the comfort of being “insider” to a particular culture, religion or ethnicity. He was forced initially to “exile” with his family but later on he deliberately chose “exile” as his home. His unsettling ideas and uncompromising intellectual inquiry made him the advocate of the oppressed and the marginalized. He looked for the antithetical knowledge and ‘contrapuntal’ ideas. He considered subversion of what is taken for granted as the core of intellectual life and creativity. He was never an academic only. Despite the rootedness of his academic background in American academia, he resisted being an academic worker. He attributed an elevated function to knowledge production and posited it in contradistinction to power and its operation.
Representations of Intellectual (1994) is an important work on the idea of intellectual where Said lays out his project. For him the task of the intellectual is to “tell the truth to power.” Said never worked for “think-tanks” and/or governments where he believed knowledge was subjugated to the interests of power. He endeavored to maintain the autonomy of intellectual sphere from intrusion of hegemonic control of state power. Together with Noam Chomsky, his long time friend, he remained a strong critic of American foreign policy.
Edward Said followed the footsteps of many of his Jewish intellectual predecessors who functioned as a “conscience” in the western public sphere. What Said alludes to in his remarks that he is ‘the last Jewish intellectual’ is an interesting hint towards understanding the role Said attributed to the intellectual. Today what is at stake is the disappearance of Jewish intellectual figure in the Western public sphere as the conscience of society. Establishment of the state of Israel and growing incorporation of Jewish identity to the upper classes and political interests in Western societies have arguably eroded historical minortarian sensitivities of Jewish intellectual tradition. It is that very function that Edward Said considered himself representing.
Said left us a rich intellectual legacy and a spectacular intellectual success story upon which to draw. Despite the counter-attacks of the neo-orientalists who joyfully exploit the fears disseminated by September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Said’s intellectual work continue to shape the thoughts of generations of young academics. The influence of his ideas has already paved the way for new voices in the postcolonial global public sphere. Edward Said represents the hope for people like us, those who have been silenced for long time, people who seek social justice and equality not only within but also between cultures and nations.
I met Edward Said two months before his death. That was my first and the last face-to-face encounter with him. We will miss his passionate voice and powerful presence but his intellectual legacy does continue to illuminate our paths and critical engagements with the world.