Edward Said: Secular Protestant
by Edward W. Said
Harvard Univ. Press, 2001
617 pp.; $35
Edward Said may be the world's most famous English professor, and its most famous Palestinian after Yasir Arafat. In the academy, he is best known for his influential critique of "Orientalism," that is, of those images and judgments by means of which the West has stereotyped and devalued the Arab world over the centuries. Outside the academy, he is best known for his harsh criticism of the state of Israel and, in recent years, of Arafat himself.
Said turned 65 last year, having survived a life-threatening disease of the blood diagnosed nearly a decade ago. It is not surprising, therefore, that his recent publications have taken a retrospective turn, most notably his intriguing memoir of his early life, Out of Place. His latest book, Reflections on Exile—a monumental collection of essays spanning his 35-year career at Columbia University—is another result of his effort to impose thematic unity on his wide-ranging intellectual life.
Not that Said is preparing to go gentle into that good night—far from it. He remains as controversial a figure as ever. Last summer, while visiting Lebanon, he was photographed in the act of tossing a rock at the Israeli border. When the photo appeared in the world press, many were outraged at what they took to be Said's endorsement of political violence. At Columbia, the administration was pressed to investigate the case. When it responded with a ringing endorsement of Said's academic freedom, one bemused reporter decided to toss a rock at Columbia University in the name of free speech, only to be warned off by campus police.
Another mark of Said's intransigence in the face of illness and age is his continuing hostility to religion, at least in its public manifestations. A self-proclaimed secular intellectual, Said loathes all forms of theocratic politics, from Zionism to Islamic fundamentalism to the Christian Right. (Ironically, the Said family home in Jerusalem is now occupied by the International Christian Embassy, a Zionist evangelical organization with 65 employees and an $8 million dollar budget.) More broadly, Said is suspicious of all forms of secularized religion, that is, of all secular entities—races, nations, cultures, texts—that have been invested with quasi-sacred authority.
by William D. Hart
Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000
199 pp.; $19.95 paper
Said's critique of religion is the subject of a recent book by William D. Hart, a self-described "pragmatic religious naturalist." Hart's quarrel is not with Said's secularism, but rather with his assumption that secularism is opposed to religion. In Hart's view, one can be both secular and religious; one can accept the truth of naturalism while continuing to value religion for pragmatic reasons. What Said should be criticizing, says Hart, is not religion, but those things that cause harm—dogmatism, arbitrary power, lies—in both religious and secular forms.
The interesting thing is that Said, despite his official secularism, has maintained his respect for certain religious traditions, such as that of his father-in-law Emile Cortas, former head of the Lebanese Quaker community. In Culture and Imperialism (1993), for example, Said defends the established Protestant churches of the Near East, now threatened with dissolution as their ecumenical patrons in the West pressure them, against their wishes, to rejoin the Orthodox fold. For Said, such pressure is merely a continuation of Western imperialism under the guise of anti-imperialism; one cannot correct a past injustice, he insists, by pretending that it never happened.
Another example of Said's respect for particular religious traditions is his public support for the work of liberation theologians like Naim Ateek, former Canon of St. George's Cathedral in Jerusalem, author of Justice, and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation (Orbis, 1990), and founder of the Sabeel Liberation Theology Center. In 1998, Said was the keynote speaker at the Third International Sabeel Conference in Bethlehem, "The Challenge of Jubilee: What Does God Require?" Confessing himself to be a "lapsed Anglican," Said added that his friend Naim represents "what so often has been left out of Christianity; namely, Christianity."
How are we to understand the apparent discrepancy between Said's intellectual secularism and his emotional attachment to the older Protestant traditions of the Near East? The truth, as we learn from his memoir, is that Said's family and personal history is inseparable from these traditions; they made him who he is, even as he rebelled against them. If Said thinks of himself as a lifelong exile, perpetually "out of place," it is not only because he is a Palestinian living in New York, but also because he was raised a Protestant in a Muslim world.
Said's family tree is a perfect illustration of the small world of Arab Protestantism. Prior to 1948, the Said family belonged to the Anglican community in Jerusalem whose center was St. George's Cathedral. Edward's mother was from Nazareth, the daughter of a Baptist minister. Her mother was the daughter of Lebanon's first native evangelical minister; her cousin married Charles Malik, the famous Lebanese Christian philosopher and statesman, who played an important role in Edward's intellectual and political development.
Edward was born and baptized in Jerusalem in 1935, but he spent his first sixteen years in Cairo, where his father managed a successful branch of the family business. In Cairo the family's religious life centered on All Saints' Cathedral, where Edward was confirmed by an Anglican bishop in 1949. It was from his English catechist, Said admits,
that I learned to love (and have still managed to hold in my memory) both the Book of Common Prayer and the spirited parts of the Gospels, John in particular. … but I always felt the rift between white man and Arab as separating us in the end, maybe because he was in a position of authority and it was his language, not mine.
After his first Communion, Said recalls,
I found myself trying to feel different, but only experienced a feeling of incongruence. My hope that I might gain insight into the nature of things or a better apprehension of the Anglican God proved fanciful. The hot and cloudless Cairo sky,. … the placidly flowing Nile immediately in front of us in its undisturbed immensity as we stood on the cathedral esplanade: all these were as I was, exactly the same.
Having failed to attain the spiritual insight he had hoped for, Edward entered Victoria College (where the head boy was Michel Shalhoub, later known to the world as Omar Sharif). After two rebellious years, however, he was packed off to boarding school at Mount Hermon in Northfield, Massachusetts, founded in 1881 by the evangelist D. L. Moody. It was at Mount Hermon, it seems, that what remained of Edward's inherited faith was lost for good. Recalling his experience there nearly half a century later, Said's contempt is undiminished:
There seemed to be unquestioned assent to [Moody's] incredible importance: it was my first encounter with enthusiastic mass hypnosis by a charlatan, because. … not one teacher or student expressed the slightest doubt that Moody was worthy of our highest admiration. … And so it was with religion—the Sunday service, the Wednesday evening chapel, the Thursday noon sermon—dreadful, pietistic, non-denominational (I disliked that form of vacillation in particular) full of homilies, advice, how-to-live. Ordinary observations were encoded into Moody-esque sturdy Christianity in which words like "service" and "labor" acquired magical (but finally unspecifiable) meaning, to be repeated and intoned as what gave our lives "moral purpose."
It is apparent, too, that Said felt himself the object of subtle discrimination:
While I was at Mount Hermon I was never appointed a floor officer, a table head, a member of the student council, or valedictorian. … although I had the qualifications. And I never knew why. But I soon discovered that I would have to be on my guard against authority and that I needed to develop some mechanism or drive not to be discouraged by what I took to be efforts to silence or deflect me from being who I was rather than becoming who they wanted me to be. In the process I began a lifelong struggle and attempt to demystify the capriciousness and hypocrisy of a power whose authority depended absolutely on its ideological self-image as a moral agent, acting in good faith and with unimpeachable intentions.
Plainly, the hypocritical power Said hates is not merely that of Mount Hermon, but that of America itself.
As previously mentioned, Charles Malik played an important role in Edward's formation. Their families vacationed together in Lebanon, where Malik, who taught philosophy at the American University in Beirut, encouraged Edward's interest in ideas. When Edward was sent away to school in the U.S., Malik, then serving as the Lebanese ambassador in Washington, took his lonely young relative under his wing. From "Uncle Charles," Said recalls,
I learned the attractions of dogma, of the search for unquestioning truth, of irrefutable authority. From him I also learned about the clash of civilizations, the war between East and West, communism and freedom, Christianity and all the other, lesser religions. … During the forties and early fifties Malik's comforting moral certainty and granitic power, his inextinguishable faith in the Eternal, gave us hope.
But Edward's attitude slowly began to change, until Malik came to represent everything he despised most in politics:
He began his public career during the late 1940s as an Arab spokesman for Palestine at the U.N., but concluded it as the anti-Palestinian architect of the Christian alliance with Israel during the Lebanese Civil War. Looking back at Malik's intellectual and political trajectory, with all that it involved for me as his youthful admirer and companion, relative, and frequenter of the same circles, I see it as the great negative intellectual lesson of my life, an example which for the last three decades I have found myself grappling with, living through, analyzing, over and over and over with regret, mystification, and bottomless disappointment.
Indeed, Said's cosmopolitan, secular, leftist ideology is the reverse image of Malik's communal Christian anti-communism.
Thus it would seem that all of Said's adolescent encounters with the representatives of institutional Christianity—his catechist at All Saints' in Cairo, the heirs of D. L. Moody at Mount Hermon, the charismatic Charles Malik—left him feeling "out of place." Yet it was this involuntary feeling of exclusion, he concludes, that enabled him to become a secular intellectual, one who deliberately chooses to be out of place in order to speak the truth to power, preferring the freedom of exile to the bondage of blood, soil, and creed. The paradox is that this, too, is a secularized religious calling—that of the lonely social prophet, crying out against the sins of racism and imperialism. In this sense, Said remains a true Protestant despite himself. May his baptism in St. George's Cathedral prove efficacious; may his long exile end in a homecoming.
Mark Walhout is professor of English at Seattle Pacific University. With Susan VanZanten Gallagher, he is the editor of Literature and the Renewal of the Public Sphere (St. Martin's).
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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