Dangerous Knowledge by Robert Irwin
Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and its Discontents
by Robert Irwin
Overlook. 410 pp. $35.00
The British historian Robert Irwin is the sort of scholar who, in times past, would have been proud to call himself an Orientalist.
The traditional Orientalist was someone who mastered difficult languages like Arabic and Persian and then spent years bent over manuscripts in heroic efforts of decipherment and interpretation. In Dangerous Knowledge, Irwin relates that the 19th-century English Arabist Edward William Lane, compiler of the great Arabic-English Lexicon, “used to complain that he had become so used to the cursive calligraphy of his Arabic manuscripts that he found Western print a great strain on his eyes.” Orientalism in its heyday was a branch of knowledge as demanding and rigorous as its near cousin, Egyptology. The first International Congress of Orientalists met in 1873; its name was not changed until a full century later.
But there are no self-declared Orientalists today. The reason is that the late Edward Said turned the word into a pejorative. In his 1978 book Orientalism, the Palestinian-born Said, a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, claimed that an endemic Western prejudice against the East had congealed into a modern ideology of racist supremacy—a kind of anti-Semitism directed against Arabs and Muslims. Throughout Europe’s history, announced Said, “every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.”
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