Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Refreshing our memories of Edward Said

Apparently, the year that passed since Edward Said died saw a certain revival of the one state solution among Palestinians, among the Fateh Palestinians for example. It seems that even those who preferred, as Said did most of his lifetime, the two-states’ solution for Palestine, felt that the reality on the ground in Israel/Palestine defeated this particular solution. It seems that those who were committed to the Palestinian refugees’ right of return, also realized, as Said did for some time, that a two states structure as such held no hope for any reasonable or feasible solution for this particular problem, which is at the heart of the conflict and may be the key to its settlement. Yet, the two-state, not one-state, solution is or seems to be the only starting point for trade-offs and the only realistic path to Said’s very ideal of a bi-national state in Israel/Palestine in the future. Moreover, Said’s realistic utopia is badly in need of reformulation in unequivocally non-secular terms, if ever it is to become equally attractive for Palestinians and Israelis.


When the Christian intellectuals introduced the idea of secularism into the Middle East they translated wrongly the word secularism into Arabic language. One can only speculate on whether it was naively or demagogically wrong. Resulting Arabic term al’ilmânia, which literally means "the scientific view," was not as such entirely alien to the concept of secularism but nonetheless far away from being identical with it. Some of this local representation has been hanging there for a long time and it even became an integral part of Arabic intellectual equipment. The late and to us so much cherished Edward Said was no exception. The way he used his fetish like word secular never stopped surprising, puzzling, causing general confusion. Indeed, even he called things scientific "secular."

Naturally, the "scientific view" has been specified and thoroughly radicalized in this context. "Secular" in Said’s quite peculiar language use came to designate not only "true intellectualism," anti-dogmatism and critical oppositional practice, but as it were an entire knowledge-theoretical program – worldliness, doubt, outsider view, ironic attitude to truth, anti-essentialism, dissension, systematic suspicion of cultural phenomena, to mention only few aspects. That is not to say that this program needs to be translated, which does occur in Said’s own theorizing, into some fixed political philosophy, whether it be hostility to nationalism, communitarianism and identity politics or advocation for hybridity, cosmopolitanism and liberal individualism. Historical-epistemological "secularism" need not necessarily imply ethical-political secularism.

Judging Said’s posture in the secularism issue need not in the least proceed from this latter’s literary criticism and personal definition of secularity; it should instead proceed from the usual--legal, institutional, constitutional--meaning of secularism. In other words, all that is needed here for an assessment is observing Said’s concrete political activism. That is, one shouldn’t blink the fact of Said’s self-evident internationalism, multiculturalism, (not least Palestinian) identity politics, inter-confessionalism, and postcolonial communitarianism. And if by any chance one is to look here for "inconsistencies" they are surely to be find elsewhere; being "committed to Palestinian nationalism while abhorring by the very notion of nationalism," was simply Said’s way of consistent inter-nationalism-- Ilan Pappe’s recollection power badly deteriorated only a year after Said’s death.


Political theorist Fred Dallmayr (1997, 50-52) once commented on the emerging theme in Said of an exodus or exile from identity, of a diasporic existence beneath or beyond spatial and temporal constraints, and the cultural critic assuming the role of a cosmopolitan wanderer freely moving across time and space. Dallmayr was curious as to the political implications of Said's endorsement of nomadism:

What concrete consequences are entailed, for example, in the present Near East situation? Are Palestinians now asked to abandon their quest for a homeland and remain content with refugee camps--or with a complete dispersal into diasporic existence? Would a similar advice be offered to the Kurds or American Indians? As it seems to me--and Said would probably agree--it is always an awkwardly embarrassing matter to preach poverty to the poor or homelessness to the homeless. The message is particularly embarrassing in the present global situation, a setting dominated (as Said insists) by an imperial identity bent on homogenizing and standardizing the world. Cutting loose from local moorings, in this setting, means precisely to aid and abet this process of homogenization--that is, the production of a global nondistinction or sameness. But, if all people are the same and substitutable, then what difference does it make if the world is governed from a hegemonic center (say America)...?

F. Dallmayr drew the optimistic conclusion that "hybridity" thinking had so far only an insignificant impact on Said’s engagement and resistance to sliding into either parochial exclusivism or global vagrancy. Thus, according to Dallmayr, when it came to it Said resolutely took sides against the complacently vagrant intellectualism:

"It would be the rankest Panglossian dishonesty," Said concedes," to say that the bravura performances of the intellectual exile and the miseries of the displaced person or refugee are the same" or of the same order; for clearly there is a vast difference between "the optimistic mobility, the intellectual liveliness, and the logic of daring" marking the "various theoreticians on whose work I have drawn" and on the other hand "the massive dislocations, waste, misery, and horrors endured in our century's migrations and mutilated lives."

Indeed, discussing at the time "hybridity and Arab identiy" with Stephen Sheehi (Al Jadid magazine, Vol. 4, no. 22, Winter 1998), Said was careful, opposing the involuntary fact of hybridity to its utopian norm:

-- In many of your more recent works and talks, which I have heard, you seem to be stressing the notion of “hybridity” which is really important in responding to claims of authenticity by essentialist nationalists.

"Well, it is not necessarily authenticity only. It’s some notion of purity."

-- Right, essentialism.

"Right. I mean you can be hybrid and authentic at the same time."

-- I guess that is where I am going. I like the notion of hybridity but a facile reading of it offers a sort of Kantian utopianism that erases, say, the violent process of becoming that hybrid. So how does one talk about hybridity without emptying it out of that very process?

"I don’t think you can. There are people who do, like Homi Bhabha in a completely theoretical way. I don’t. The various historical processes which include imperialism, that would include crossing boundaries, migration, genocide, all of these collective experiences of involuntary or forced uprooting and dislocation, contribute to this, not some utopian idyllic state. I just don’t believe that. I am very profoundly historical in that respect. So I try to talk about it very rarely and I use it to refute those that say ‘let us return to original whatever’, original Islam, original Swedishness."

Proponents of secularism, "hybridity" and the like should be reminded here of Said’s outlook in the Kosovo issue for example (Protecting the Kosovars, The Treason of the Intellectuals)--and for that matter even of Noam Chomsky’s and Pierre Bourdieu’s. Said, while by no means sparing NATO/US bombings of Serbia, actually supported the self-determination demand of Kosovo Albanians and nothing less than that. To him,

it was imperative that the NATO bombing should stop, and a multiparty conference of all the peoples of former Yugoslavia be called to settle differences between them on the basis of self-determination for all, not just for some, or for some at the expense of others.


Said has always waved aside the idea of a unitary secular state in Israel/Palestine as a solution to conflict in the Middle East. He is counted among the first prominent Palestinians who adopted the idea of two-state solution and who, since the seventies in his case, argued for recognition of Israel—the PLO took formally position for first in the meeting of the Palestinian National Council, 1988. In the article The One-State Solution, 1999, he started advocating for a non-territorial ethnic-confessional federalism; for one only state for Israelis and Palestinians. This bi-national, non secular, federal state was to transform rivals into partners and allow each side to express its national identity without excluding or oppressing the other:

The beginning is to develop something entirely missing from both Israeli and Palestinian realities today: the idea and practice of citizenship, not of ethnic or racial community, as the main vehicle for coexistence. In a modern state, all its members are citizens by virtue of their presence and the sharing of rights and responsibilities. Citizenship therefore entitles an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Arab to the same privileges and resources. A constitution and a bill of rights thus become necessary for getting beyond Square 1 of the conflict because each group would have the same right to self-determination; that is, the right to practice communal life in its own (Jewish or Palestinian) way, perhaps in federated cantons, with a joint capital in Jerusalem, equal access to land and inalienable secular and juridical rights. Neither side should be held hostage to religious extremists.

Notice only that he then wrongly called common, minimal, federal citizen rights "secular" rights; that is, wrongly when one is, as he has been, speaking of consociational democracies—a legal theoretician like John Rawls would have never spoken that way.

Interviewed by Mark Levine the same year, Said appealed to multiculturalism:

I'm very pleased to register myself under the banner of multiculturalism, not as a pastime or academic slogan, but rather as a way to work with others who are jammed together with me on a tiny territory—to bring it now to Palestine and Israel—and who so far have managed to survive by denying the full historical and political existence of the other. So I think multiculturalism can be consonant with ideals of emancipation and enlightenment if it's applied to concrete situations in which people of different cultures have not been able to live together peacefully, but in my opinion can.


In an interview to Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, My right of return (18 august, 2000), Said made it still more plain how much he disliked talk of secular states in Palestine/Israel.

--Two years ago you wrote an article in The New York Times endorsing a one-state solution. It seems you've come full-circle - from espousing a one secular-democratic state solution in the '70s, to accepting the two-state solution in the '80s, back to the secular-democratic idea.

"I would not necessarily call it secular-democratic. I would call it a bi-national state. I want to preserve for the Palestinians and the Israeli Jews a mechanism or structure that would allow them to express their national identity. I understand that in the case of Palestine-Israel, a bi-national solution would have to address the difference between the two collectives."

In the same interview Said referred back to the ottoman millet model as an alternative to Western secularism:

--So what you envision is a totally new situation in which a Jewish minority would live peacefully within an Arab context?

"Yes. I believe it is viable. A Jewish minority can survive the way other minorities in the Arab world survived. I hate to say it but, in a funny sort of way, it worked rather well under the Ottoman Empire, with its millet system. What they had then seems a lot more humane than what we have now."

--So as you see it, the Jews would eventually have a cultural autonomy within a pan-Arab structure?

"Pan-Arab or Mediterranean. Why should it not include Cyprus? What I would like is a kind of integration of Jews into the fabric of the larger society, which has an extraordinary staying power in spite mutilation by the nation-state. I think it can be done. There is every reason to go for the larger unit. The social organization that would be required is something I haven't really pondered, but it would be easier to organize than the separation that Mr. Barak and his advisors dream of. The genius of Arab culture was catholicism. My definition of pan-Arabism would comprise the other communities within an Arab-Islamic framework. Including the Jews."


Finally, in an interview with the Cairo paper Al-Ahram, only 15 months before his death, Said suggested that it was

now up to us (Palestinians) to project the idea of coexistence in two states that have natural relations with each other on the basis of sovereignty and equality.

With that he implicitly acknowledged the accords signed in Geneva only a short time after his death. With that he also rejoined Noam Chomsky’s posture. With that he made it finally clear that the two-state solution was the only serious start and realistic path to the ideal of a bi-national state.


Thus, our memories would be entirely untrustworthy if persisting in a fancy that Edward Said’s struggle was about some world secularization. President Bush and his "War on Terror" have proved best at that business--Christopher Hitchens, among those applauding Bush's Secular Triumph, already made this point. Said’s struggle throughout his life was about self-determination for all peoples of the world, including naturally the Palestinian people. In any case, this particular political legacy of Said’s was his obvious and manifest one to the postcolonial world.


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