The multiple legacies of Edward Said
Edward Said. (Photo: courtesy of Mariam Said.)

The multiple legacies of Edward Said

The impact of Edward Said's work on the fields of literature, law, politics and history was considered by a recent conference of the Center for Near Eastern Studies.

"Covering Islam,” said Wadie Said, is no less relevant today than it was in the early 1980s. One need only change the Iranian hostage crisis and the Lebanese civil war to today's nuclear negotiations with Iran and the Syrian civil war.

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

International Institute, December 9, 2013 — A recent UCLA conference on Edward Said organized by the Center for Near Eastern Studies examined the legacy of the celebrated literary scholar and public intellectual ten years after his passing.

The impact of Said’s work on the fields of literature, law, politics and history was the subject of multiple panels, two of which are briefly summarized here.

“Orientalism” revisited

UCLA Professor of English and Comparative Literature Saree Makdisi considered the critiques of Said’s seminal work, “Orientalism” (Pantheon, 1978).

Conceding that certain elements of Said’s argument in “Orientalism” were incorrect, Makdisi nevertheless found that the author’s central argument — that a structure of binary opposition is used to generate binary forms of power and identity in which “self” is defined against “other” — remained valid with respect to how the West interacts with the Orient.

Contrary to Said’s assumption, said Makdis, an agreed notion of “Western” identity was still in flux at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when processes of colonization and “orientalization” were occurring simultaneously both within and outside of Europe.

“It would have been impossible to absorb London into the Occident at the beginning of the nineteenth century, as it was too caught up in its own constructs of ‘orientalism,” he explained. “It took time for the ‘Occident-Orient’ opposition to emerge, as these identities had to consolidate within themselves first.”

A large component of non-Westerners in the West complicated this process, continued Makdisi. Here he cited Dipesh Chakrabarty’s argument (“Provincializing Europe,” Princeton, 2007) that the West was then marshaling criticism again components of its own population in order to make the West “itself. “

UCLA Professor of English and Comparative Literature Saree Makdisi. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/UCLA.)

As Bernard Porter (“The Absentminded Imperialists,” Oxford, 2005) noted, he said, the term “street Arabs” was used to disparage inhabitants of Britain at the time, with the higher and lower classes in the United Kingdom then framed as members of different ethnicities and backgrounds.

Imperial brutalization and oppression were occurring at home as well as abroad, observed the speaker. And although internal class differences mirrored external imperial differences, “empire” was not a purely external category at the time, remarked Makdisi.

Not only does the central argument of Said’s work hold, it retains its validity today, said the speaker. For example, he pointed out that Raphael Patai’s “The Arab Mind” (originally published in 1973) — an “Orientalist” text he characterized as “openly racist” — was used to train U.S. forces, including the Green Berets, before they were deployed to the Arab world. A redacted version was even included in the handbook for soldiers of certain units deployed in Iraq in 2003.

Said and Swift: A conversation across centuries

Helen Deutsch, UCLA professor of English and vice chair of graduate studies in the English Department, gave a deeply nuanced presentation on Edward Said’s lifelong engagement with the Anglo-Irish writer and pamphleteer Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), an engagement she characterized as “an unfinished conversation.”

Her remarks offered a window into the world of literary scholarship, in which scholars continue to react and speak to writers of the past as if they were speaking to the present —trans-historical exchanges renewed by each generation of writers and scholars.

Noting that Said never finished his planned book on Swift, Deutsch argued that his unfinished work was more exemplary than a finished work because it highlighted Said’s continually evolving encounter with Swift as a writer speaking to the present, not memorialized as an Augustan figure of the past who was “above” history.

Deutsch noted that a similar conversation is now occurring with Said, pointing to a tribute published in Critical Inquiry (Vol. 31, no.2, 2005) in which his friends and longtime collaborators were specifically invited to take up their conversations with Said where they had left off.

“Swift,” said Deustch, “was as unfinished for Said as Said —who was likened to Swift by many of those who knew him best — remains for us.” Her own conversation with Said began, she noted, “when I realized that we shared a love — if love can be the right word to describe an attraction to an author so angry and unappeased — for the great Anglo-Irish satirist and self-confessed misanthropist Jonathan Swift.”

UCLA Professor of English Helen Deutsch. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/UCLA.)

Deutsch described Said’s affinity with Swift as “enlightened enthusiasm,” that is, an enthusiasm tempered by skepticism. “Both Swift and Said,” she said, “exemplify an enlightened spirit of critique in the world, yet estranged from it, that may not preclude, that might even demand, enthusiasm.”

“To identify profoundly with Swift as [did] Said,” she remarked, “is to be of the Enlightenment, yet apart from it, one of many ways in which exile and estrangement are dominant tropes of both Swift's and Said's intellectual careers.”

She pointed out that in his early essays, “Swift’s Tory Anarchy” and “Swift: An Intellectual,” Edward Said perceived Swift as having an extraordinary sense of himself as “a problem for the future,” describing the writer’s literary style as an “interfering and meddling, agitational method” that “induces consciousness and awareness.”

”Swift spoke to Said,“ she continued, “from within the constraints of an eighteenth-century moment that defined authorship not as a vehicle for aesthetic self-expression, but rather, as failed instrumental intervention into the present."

Citing Said’s own words on Swift, she read: “What endures of Swift, ultimately, is not a personality, nor a body of work, but a presence for those who can simultaneously accept, as he did, waste and power.”

“This italicized ‘for’,” commented Deutsch, “encapsulates Said's intuition of and responsiveness to Swift's demand upon the future, his awareness of Swift's resistance to a static form of canonization that would relegate him to the past.”

Said’s resistance to Swift’s conservatism, reflected the speaker, was transformed by William Butler Yeats’ interpretation of the satirist as “conflicted rather complacent” — someone to be actively wrestled with in the present. Adopting what he called Yeats' “magnanimity,” Deutsch observed that Said followed the poet’s lead and read the eighteenth-century writer with a modernist sensibility.

“Said's sustained engagement with the greatest ironist the English language has ever produced testifies to Swift's powerfully enduring presence in literary history and to the incontrovertible value and trans-historical power of literary experience in our profession today,” remarked Deutsch.

“But,” she cautioned the audience, “we must recognize that this relationship is the product of a form of literary communion that can be understood, however uncomfortable it might make us as scholars, as an enthusiastic discovery of what was already within ourselves.”

The imperative of action: Said on the Palestinian question

Richard Falk devoted his remarks to summarizing Said’s views on the Palestinian question. Falk is the Albert G. Professor of International Law and Practice Emeritus, Princeton University, and Fellow at the Orfalea Center for Global & International Studies, UC Santa Barbara. In 2001, he was appointed a member of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Inquiry Commission for the Palestinian territories. In 2008, he was appointed UN Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967” for a six-year tenure.

The overriding aspect of Edward Said’s approach to the Palestinian issue, said Falk, was his insistence on inclusion as a necessary component of an eventual solution. It is often forgotten, he noted, that Said argued for equality in any kind of adaptation to the Israeli presence in Palestine.

Said addressed but did not resolve the tension between the Israeli law of return and the Palestinian right of return, remarked Falk. “He didn’t necessarily propose a repudiation of either, but rather a willingness of each to encompass the other — that you couldn’t have one without the other in a hope for a peaceful future.”

“That sense of inclusiveness is critical to his vision of justice and why he felt so abandoned by the leadership of the Palestinian movement in accepting a future for the Palestinian people based on separation and fragmentation [i.e., the Oslo Accords],” commented Falk. “That the Oslo Accords did not include the term ‘self-determination’ confirmed for Said that it was not a breakthrough, but a betrayal,” he said, one Falk described as having devolved into a “terrible downward spiral that has included the most overt manifestations of the worst evils of the colonial era.”

Intrinsic to Said’s humanist universalism, said the speaker, was the idea that being Palestinian was not a territorial or geographical notion, that it encompassed a self-defined people. Said could not embrace “land for peace” because it ignored all the non-territorial aspects of the Palestinian ordeal and reality, Falk continued. He considered the creation of separate destinies for the Palestinian and Israeli peoples a delusional nightmare because it ignored the 20 percent of the Israeli population that is Palestinian.

Another major element of Said’s thinking on the Palestinian struggle, said Falk, was his unconditional demand that peace between the two peoples include a formal and genuine acknowledgment of dispossession and dispersion (naqbah¸or catastrophe) of the Palestinian people, including the massacres at the Shabra and Shattila refugee camps in Lebanon.

For Said , he said, a peace conference meant starting by acknowledging these injustices — not from the idea that both sides have made mistakes and committed wrongs, and now it’s time to make a deal based on “facts on the ground.”

As insistent as he was on the need to recognize the Palestinian dispossession, Falk noted that Said was dogmatically opposed to a second dispossession (i.e., of the Israelis). “Part of his universalism and humanism was always to elicit sympathy for the Jewish experience,” said the speaker. Yet his understanding of the consequences of the Holocaust did not, in his mind, validate the dispossession of another people for the creation of Israel.

The need to redress historic grievances without leaving an unjust status quo is frozen in place was, said Falk, a brilliant moral and political perception on Said’s part, a contribution the speaker claimed remained unrecognized.

Richard Falk (left), Albert G. Professor of International Law and Practice Emeritus, Princeton University, and Wadie Said, associate professor of law, University of South Carolina.

Islam and terrorism prosecutions in U.S. courts, post-9/11

Wadie Said, Associate Professor Law at the University of South Carolina and the son of Edward Said, spoke of his father’s influence on his work as an attorney and legal scholar.

His remarks focused on his direct experience of (and research on) prosecutions of people accused of aiding terrorist organizations in U.S. courts after the attacks of September 11, 2001. These cases, he said, address “the so-called pressing issue of terrorists raising money in the guise of humanitarian aid.”

He began by asserting that his father’s book, “Covering Islam” (1981; revised 1997, Vintage), is underrated and no less relevant today than it was in the early 1980s. One need only change the Iranian hostage crisis and the Lebanese civil war to today’s nuclear negotiations with Iran and the Syrian civil war, he commented. If you look at contemporary media coverage of these current events, he noted, “you see the same generalization, the same stereotypes, the same biases.”

As his presentation then made clear, misperceptions of Islam — particularly the work of Islamic charitable organizations —plays a large role in U.S. terrorism prosecutions in federal courts.

Noting that the Patriot Act of 2001 greatly expanded the government’s right to conduct surveillance in the United States of people deemed “agents of a foreign power” (including nonstate actors), Said claimed the U.S. government cherry-picks evidence from the thicket of surveillance it collects. Its translations of telephone conversations and documents then become crucial to making it case. Yet he noted that these translations contain all manner of omissions.

For example, U.S. v. Al-Arian (2003), a case in which Said helped defend a Florida academic against charges of being active on behalf of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, involved 27,000 hours of wiretapped phone calls and thousands of faxes. One of those documents was a letter sent to Wadie Said’s client accepting a donation, but the government translation of the document omitted the word “charitable” before the name of the organization.

When Said asked the FBI agents involved in the case if they spoke or read Arabic, they said they did not. Instead, he explained, they relied on translators who were employed as contractors, giving the latter an incentive to please the people who hired them. Moreover, he added, two of these translators were former officers in the ethnic Lebanese Forces militia, which he described as “a Christian fascist group whose specialty during the Lebanese civil war was the massacre and ethnic cleansing of Muslim neighborhoods and Palestinian refugee camps.”

The cases brought by the U.S. government, noted Said, most frequently use a statute passed in the wake of the domestic terrorist bombings in Oklahoma of 1995 (18 USC Sec 299B), which bans the provision of support to a terrorist organization. Since 9/11, he continued, Congress has advocated using this ban to prosecute cases involving the provision of “material aid” to foreign terrorist organizations (FT0s).

The argument, he said, is simple: money is fungible; therefore if one sends money to a “terrorist” organization, even for humanitarian purposes, it frees up money for violence. Moreover, he said, the definition of an FTO is so broad as to make it almost impossible to challenge in court.

Over time the interpretation of “material support” has broadened considerably to include the provision of personnel, expert assistance, speech and “lending legitimacy” to an FTO in the area of its operation, observed Said. “A material support–based prosecution scheme,” contended the speaker, “doesn’t allow for arguments based on justice, based on solidarity, or based on context of any sort.”

He claimed the most critical innovation of the government by far has been de-linking the charge of the provision of material support from an act of major violence, such as the bombing of the World Trade Center Towers in 1993 or of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tunisia in 1998.

In recent cases based on the material support argument, U.S. courts have found the defendants guilty, even if the material support they provided was for an undisputable charitable purpose, observed Said. He argued that these type of cases reflect “a deep level of suspicion of this thing — or phenomenon — called Islam” on the part of the U.S. government; specifically, a deep discomfort with Islamic charities.

Although the majority of people prosecuted in these cases have been Palestinian, Said argued that the U.S. government’s approach went beyond individual identities and causes. Palestinians, he noted, are simply an easy target because they are stateless.

As grounds for conviction, he said, the argument is so adaptable that the government is now trying to apply it in military tribunals and may eventually try to define it as a war crime.


Held on November 20, 2013, “The Right of Return to Edward Said” was sponsored by UCLA’s Center for Near Eastern Studies, which is directed by UCLA historian Gabriel Piterberg. Cosponsors of the conference included UCLA’s English and History Departments, the Critical Race Program of the School of Law and the Dean of Humanities.

Conference Podcasts

Returning to Orientalism

Saree Makdisi, English & Comparative Literature, UCLA

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Problems for the Future: Jonathan Swift, Edward Said, and the Profession of Literature

Helen Deutsch, English, UCLA

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The Failed Peace Process: Edward Said’s Prophetic Legacy of Understanding

Richard Falk, International Law Emeritus, Princeton University, and Orfalea Center of Global Studies, UCSB

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Edward Said’s Legacy in Theory and Practice: Scenes from America’s Terrorism Prosecutions

Wadie Said, Law, University of South Carolina

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Edward Said and the Late Style of Bandung Humanism

Aamir Mufti, Comparative Literature, UCLA

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The Epistemology of Edward Said

Stathis Gourgouris, Comparative Literature, Columbia University

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Southern Questions: Reflections on Said, Gramsci, and the Colonized

Robin D. G. Kelley, History, UCLA

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Theodor Herzl: A Gender Interpretation

Gabriel Piterberg, History, UCLA

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A letter to my friend Edward: The conversation continues

Nubar Hovsepian, Political Science and International Studies, Chapman University

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Water in the middle east and africa: A nexus of cooperation and conflict