Dangerous Knowledge

In Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents (published in Great Britain as For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies), Robert Irwin consolidates his position as one of Edward Said’s most vociferous critics. Although Said’s Orientalism (1978) was originally published to mixed reviews, it has since attained the status of a classic. Right or wrong, it has challenged the way the West looks at the East and changed the way the East looks at itself in relation to the West. Said defined the term “Orientalism” as a “hegemonic discourse of imperialism” encompassing everything that those in the West might think or say about the East, and especially about the Arab world and the Islamic faith. He argued further that Orientalism has provided an underlying theoretical framework for the forceful Western domination of the Near East and for the establishment of Israel on what had been Arab soil. In Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents, Irwin calls Said’s Orientalism a “work of malignant charlatanry in which it is hard to distinguish honest mistakes from willful misrepresentations.” According to Irwin, accepting the book’s “broad framework as something to work with and then correct would be merely to waste one’s time.” Hence he restricts most of his disagreements with Said (who died in 2003) to a single penultimate chapter, although many of his comments throughout the book are clearly directed at Said’s thesis.

The bulk of Dangerous Knowledge is a survey of the Western study of Asia. Irwin acknowledges in his introduction that there have been a number of “Orientalisms.” These include an eighteenth century French interest in the eastern shores of the Mediterranean as well as a British decorative style from later in the same century. In the early nineteenth century, Orientalists were those who favored ruling the vast new British territory of India within the framework of existing Muslim and Hindu institutions. Later the term “Orientalist” came to be applied more broadly to anyone studying Asian and/or North African history, languages, and cultures.

Irwin dates the appearance of the first Orientalists in the sixteenth century but sets the stage by outlining East-West contacts in ancient, medieval, and Renaissance times. He touches on Greek historians Herodotus (who wrote about the Greco-Persian wars of the fifth century b.c.e.) and Xenophon (who actually served as a mercenary under Persian prince Cyrus the Younger until the latter’s defeat in 401 b.c.e.). Irwin also discusses The Persians (472 b.c.e.) by Greek dramatist Aeschylus, finding in itas well as in the historiesa notable tolerance and open-mindedness about Greece’s eastern rivals. That open-mindedness prevailed into Europe’s Middle Ages, says Irwin, and was characteristic of both Europeans and Asians. In fact it was actually Arab scholars who discovered and translated the works of Greek scientists, making them available in turn to their European counterparts.

The rise of Islam during the seventh century c.e. at first aroused little concern or even interest in the West, with Catholic scholastics dismissing it for some time as a heresy. According to Irwin, the new religion simply “did not feature largely in medieval European thought.” In fact the confessor to Pope Innocent XI viewed Islam as akin to Protestantism. Although the period was characterized by mutual and widespread misunderstanding, Irwin still does not detect a European sense of Eastern backwardness or inferiority. Here again he is at pains to refute Said’s arguments about the West’s “hegemonic discourse.”

This is not to say that Europe was unmindful of Muslim territorial ambitions. Muslim power was at its greatest in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and, for a time, seemed to threaten the survival of the Christian West. The city of Constantinople (Istanbul) fell to the Muslims in 1453, to be followed by Belgrade (in the early twenty-first century the capital of Serbia) in 1521. The Muslims besieged the great European city of Vienna in 1529 and again in 1683. However, they were...

(The entire section is 1757 words.)