Foreign Policy

Dropping Insults Over Iraq

He Said, She Said, Edward Said


If the United States overthrows Saddam Hussein, it must not stop at merely changing the regime in Baghdad; it must help rebuild the country even as Iraqis themselves reconceive the very idea of their nation. So argues Kanan Makiya, a leading Iraqi dissident and the author of such works about Iraq as The Republic of Fear and Cruelty and Silence. He has outlined this vision for the next Iraq in London's intellectual monthly, Prospect. Makiya calls for a new Iraq to be built on three principles: a federalism that devolves power from Baghdad to the provinces, the complete separation of religion and state, and, notably, the creation of a "non-Arab" Iraq. In brief, Makiya is calling for an Enlightenment nation-state in which "Iraqiness" is as available to the nation's Kurds, Turkomans, and other ethnic minorities as to its Arabs.

Makiya's ideas are certainly controversial, and they may well be ultimately unworkable. At a minimum, the U.S. is unlikely to have an interest in participating in risky, potentially destabilizing political experiments in any post-Saddam Iraq. Obviously, one can take legitimate issue with Makiya's proposals, and even with the provocative language (why a "non-Arab" Iraq as opposed to a "pluralistic" one?) he chose to use.

But here is how Edward Said, the distinguished and influential scholar and critic, has answered Makiya. Writing in Egypt's Al-Ahram Weekly, Said called Makiya "a man of vanity who has no compassion, no demonstrable awareness of human suffering." Further, he has "no stable principles or values," and "represents the intellectual who serves power unquestioningly." Finally, Makiya "is a man of pretension and superficiality, flattering himself on his reasonableness even as he condemns his own people to more travail and more dislocation."

This extraordinarily vituperative personal attack comes after a cascade of falsehoods (e.g., that Makiya has a desk in the U.S. State Department) and embarrassing errors. Among the latter, that Makiya's well-received recent work of fiction, The Rock, is "an unreadable novel proving somehow that the Dome of the Rock was really built by a Jew." That is not at all what the book suggests.

Why would Said disgrace himself with such hysteria? The two men have been feuding publicly for years over a variety of issues affecting the Mideast, though ultimately their feud is about the role of Arab intellectual discourse in addressing the region's difficulties. Makiya regards this discourse as a failure, one that has come at the expense of Iraq's suffering populace; Said disagrees substantively, and regards Makiya as a hypocrite. In the course of their exchange, Makiya has made numerous telling points, including the significant charge that Said's best-known work, the hugely inflential 1978 book Orientalism, was used by many Mideast thinkers to avoid grappling with the region's own problems.

Apparently, Said is still smarting from some of the criticism Makiya made of him a decade ago, and says as much in his hysterical Al-Ahram attack. Cruelty and Silence, he writes, contains "the vilest things" about him because he, Said, is an Arab nationalist; the book's content is "revolting," and based "on cowardly innuendo and false interpretation." The only reason the book was read is that "it confirmed the view in the West that Arabs were villainous and shabby conformists."

What did Makiya write in that work? Among his various criticisms of Said and others, he wrote something well worth remembering. It came in response to what Said had said of Republic of Fear, Makiya's first book, and one published under a pseudonym. According to Said, that 1989 book revealing the horror that Saddam Hussein was visiting on Iraqis was the work of a "guinea pig witness," a "native informant" who was serving the interests of American policymakers.

"There is more despair and hopelessness buried in such words than there is in a whole library of books devoted to the brutality of Middle Eastern dictatorships," responded Makiya. "To be political, and to want to reclaim the meaning of political action in the Arab world, is to refuse to become a prisoner of this kind of language."

It was a powerful rejoinder, and is likely to become more powerful as the citizens of the Arab world, striving to reclaim their politics, escape Said's language, and Said's thinking.