The late Edward Said was a well known Palestinian-American scholar, Arab activist, and university professor.
The Palestine Monitor website’s official biography of Said states that he “was born in 1935 in Jerusalem, Palestine,” and that “[i]n the 1947 partition of Palestine, he and his family became refugees and moved to Cairo [Egypt] where they lived with relatives.” But in actuality, Said was both born and raised in Cairo.
Said’s mother hailed from Nazareth, and his father, an American of Palestinian lineage, was a businessman who worked in Cairo. Both parents were of Protestant faiths, and Said accordingly described himself as having been raised as a “Christian wrapped in a Muslim culture.”
Said earned a B.A. from Princeton University in 1957 before doing postgraduate work at Harvard, where he received an M.A. in 1960 and a Ph.D. in 1964. After his schooling was complete, he took a position as a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University. In 1992 he achieved the title of University Professor, Columbia’s highest-ranking professional status.
Said also spent time as a visiting professor at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Yale Universities.
Said is best known for his extremely influential 1979 book Orientalism, which holds that it is impossible for Westerners to write valid accounts of Middle Eastern affairs because their ideas are tainted by cultural biases and arrogance. In The Weekly Standard, Stanley Kurtz explains:
“The founding text of postcolonial studies, Orientalism effectively de-legitimated all previous scholarship on the Middle East by branding it as racist. Said drew no distinction between the most ignorant and bigoted remarks of nineteenth-century colonialists and the most accomplished pronouncements of contemporary Western scholars: All Western knowledge of the East was intrinsically tainted with imperialism.”
Said considered Israel to be an illegitimate, colonialist state that preyed aggressively upon blameless Palestinians. He was a member of the PLO’s Palestinian National Council throughout the 1970s and 80s, though he stepped away from that post in 1991 — in protest to the Oslo peace accords and to what he deemed Yasser Arafat’s unduly moderate stance toward Israel.
Said occasionally joined with Islamic activists in publicly protesting against alleged Israeli transgressions. In a famous photo from July 2000, he can be seen hurling a rock at Israeli Defense Force soldiers. When he subsequently was asked about his action, Said explained that it was “a symbolic gesture of joy.”
In the 1990s, Said spoke out against the sanctions that the United Nations had imposed on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The professor was joined in this criticism by such academic luminaries as Noam Chomsky, Robert Jensen, and and Howard Zinn. The four collaborated to issue a January 1999 statement condemning the situation in Iraq as “sanctioned mass-murder that is nearing holocaust proportions.”
Eight days after the 9/11 attacks, Said lent his name to a statement titled “Justice not Vengeance,” which said that “a military response [by the U.S.] would not end the terror” but rather “would spark a cycle of escalating violence.” Bringing the perpetrators “to justice under the rule of law — not military action — is the way to end the violence,” the statement elaborated. Other notable signatories of this document included Harry Belafonte, Medea Benjamin, John Cavanagh, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Barbara Ehrenreich, Mike Farrell, Margaret Gage, Danny Glover, Randy Hayes, Michael Klare, Michael Lerner, Bonnie Raitt, Michael Ratner, Martin Sheen, Gloria Steinem, and Cora Weiss.
Condemning the U.S. for what he called the “Israelization” of its foreign policy, Said characterized America’s post-9/11 war on terror not as a just cause, but as a campaign of unwarranted aggression “against something unilaterally labeled as terrorism by Bush and his advisors.” In Said’s view, the major challenge facing the world was not how nations should respond to acts of the sort that had struck on 9/11, but rather “how to deal with the unparalleled and unprecedented power of the United States,” which he said had “decided to unleash an unjust war against the entire Muslim world.” Said depicted the Bush administration as an “American Taliban” intent on branding as guilty anyone it suspected of engaging in anti-American behavior.
In November 2001 Said criticized Americans generally for being oblivious to the transgressions by which their nation had alienated foreign populations around the world:
“Most people in the Arab world are convinced — because it is patently true — that America has simply allowed Israel to kill Palestinians at will with U.S. weapons and unconditional political support in the UN and elsewhere…. I would go so far as saying that today almost the least likely argument to be listened to in the United States in the public domain is one that suggests that there are historical reasons why America, as a major world actor, has drawn such animosity to itself by virtue of what it has done; this is considered simply to be an attempt to justify the existence and actions of Bin Laden, who has become a vast, over-determined symbol of everything America hates and fears.”
In March 2002, Said wrote the following about the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East:
“Palestinian hospitals, schools, refugee camps and civilian residences have been at the receiving end of a merciless, criminal assault by Israeli troops…. and still the poorly armed resistance fighters take on this preposterously more powerful force … turning all its great power against a stateless, repeatedly refugeed, and dispossessed people, bereft of arms and real leadership…. Israel is now waging a war against civilians, pure and simple, although you will never hear it put that way in the U.S. This is a racist war, and in its strategy and tactics, a colonial one as well. People are being killed and made to suffer disproportionately because they are not Jews. What an irony!”
Notwithstanding his contempt for Israel, Said criticized Islamic terrorist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. As he explained in Power, Politics, and Culture: “First, I am secular; second, I do not trust religious movements; and third, I disagree with these movements’ methods, means, analyses, values, and visions.”
In 2002 Said was a signatory to the “Statement of Conscience” crafted by Not In Our Name, a project of C. Clark Kissinger’s Revolutionary Communist Party. This document condemned not only the Bush administration’s “stark new measures of repression,” but also its “unjust, immoral, illegitimate, [and] openly imperial policy towards the world.”
Apart from his teaching duties, Said was an Advisory Committee member of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. He also served — along with Noam Chomsky, Ramsey Clark, Angela Davis, and Pete Seeger — on the Advisory Board of the Middle East Children’s Alliance. And he sat on the Board of Trustees of the Jerusalem-based non-governmental organization MIFTAH, next to such notables as Mustafa Bargouthi, Khalil Jahshan, and Rashid Khalidi.
Said was also an Advisory Committee member of the “Campaign to Free Marwan Barghouti & All Prisoners,” which fought for the release of convicted terrorist and murderer Marwan Barghouti, founder of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades. Characterizing itself as “part of the wider struggle for Palestinian independence and self-determination,” this Campaign declared that “the plights of Marwan Barghouti and other prisoners cannot be separated from the wider issue of the constant violations of international agreements and of Palestinians’ human rights perpetrated by the Israeli state.” Other Advisory Committe members included Hanan Ashrawi, Noam Chomsky, and Nelson Mandela.
Said was a friend of Barack Obama when the latter was an Illinois state senator. In 1998 Obama attended a speech by Said, in which the scholar called for a nonviolent campaign “against settlements, against Israeli apartheid.” In a well-publicized photo, Obama and Said can be seen talking over dinner at this pro-Arab event.
In addition to Orientalism, Said was also the author of such books as: The Question of Palestine (1980); Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (1981); Culture and Imperialism (1993); The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination, 1969-1994 (1994); Peace and Its Discontents: Essays on Palestine in the Middle East Peace Process (1996); The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After (2000); Power, Politics, and Culture (2002); Culture and Resistance (2003); Humanism and Democratic Criticism (2004); and From Oslo to Iraq and the Roadmap (2004).
Said’s works and ideas have heavily influenced many Mideast scholars and historians, including Lenni Brenner, Hamid Dabashi, John Esposito, Grant Farred, Rashid Khalidi, Tanya Reinhart, and Andrew Rubin.
Edward Said died of leukemia on September 25, 2003.