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Response to Review no. 939

In my response to Professor Marchand, I’m replying primarily to the points I disagree with. Naturally, this is no way diminishes my gratitude for her intelligent and informed review of my work.

These points are three in number.

1) Some of the remarks made by Europeans about the Muslim world, according to Suzanne Marchand, should be qualified by the fact that those thinkers ‘thought some parts of the European world “every bit as degenerate and bigoted” as the Ottoman Empire’. I also see this as partially true – some of the more shocking moments of Nietzsche’s anti-semitism simply cannot be read without bearing in mind the equally shocking treatment he dealt out to Germans and Germanness. However, I think there are serious limitations to this ‘Europeans criticized Europe, too’ kind of argument. Marx’s own descriptions of lazy, ignorant Arabs certainly have to be qualified by the fact he could describe German peasants as ‘mired in the idiocy of rural life’; there is still a difference, however, between a thinker’s criticism of an entity s/he belongs to or is intimately acquainted with, and a defamation of a culture or people s/he is wholly unfamiliar towards. What has to be stressed here is the modality of the remark, the different register of the defamation, even if the charge (i.e. stupidity or backwardness) is identical. There is a significant difference between a Prussian’s contempt for ignorance in his own society and the contempt he might feel for ignorance in that of the Turks. The absence of familiarity allows the negative characteristic to become the primary and determining quality of the foreign culture in question, to a degree which would never be true for Marx’s German peasants. This is why, for example, the European trope of Oriental despotism cannot wholly be justified by pointing out how these same Europeans criticized European despotism too – the motivations and semantic consequences were substantially different. Even today, I would argue that the way newspapers such as the New York Times reports domestic violence or corruption in Western and non-Western countries are radically different both in their form and their implications.

2) Professor Marchand, in her generous review, says that at times in the book it seemed I ‘would rather not mention that in the Ottoman lands, there were also periodic stabbings in the seraglio, sultans with multiple wives, massacres of Christians, financial chaos’. I concede that I felt very little desire to re-enact a whole discussion on the merits and drawbacks of the Ottoman Empire, which takes place often enough as it is. Nor did I did try to romanticize or idealise Muslims as ‘innocent victims’ or misunderstood. As I say in the book, for me the main point was the recognition of the complexity of a culture. Arguing about whether Turks really were ‘tolerant’ or ‘intolerant’, or who was ‘right’ and who was ‘wrong’ in the Russo-Turkish wars, or whether Goethe was justified or not to be so anti-Ottoman, seems to me to lead to an endless series of subjective discussions. One of the few objective things we can evaluate in European views of foreign cultures, however, is the extent to which those Europeans acknowledged the complexity of the Other they were observing. This seemed to me to be one of the few qualities a scholar could reliably gauge. It was less important for me that Goethe, Schlegel or Hegel had negative things to say about the Turks, than the way they expressed this negativity in ways which seemed to contradict the sources they were reading at the time.

3) Professor Marchand speaks of the ‘critiques of the Saidian paradigm now make it virtually impossible to uphold’. In some ways, again, this is true: the chorus of voices which, over the years, have lamented Said’s overlooking of German orientalism in his Foucauldian – and exclusively Anglo-French – analysis of the discipline is now legion. If my book belongs to those voices, however, I see it as critiquing the letter of Said’s work, not its spirit. I agree with Suzanne Marchand that there are some serious problems with a number of facets in Said’s approach. Personally, I recall whilst researching general histories from the period how surprised I was at the relatively benign and even sophisticated treatment of the Ottomans in historians such as von Muller, Remer and Krause, or in papers such as the Bamberger Zeitung. Even in the English authors Said criticizes, such as Gibbon, I was surprised to find some quite positive remarks about the Turks. Whether an emerging panoply of exceptions should invalidate the general rule Said was struggling to make – about this I am less sure. When it comes to the collective European response to the Muslim world, in both high and low culture, for both Orientalists and non-Orientalists, a series of near-ubiquitious reflexes still seems to have been in circulation. That the complexities and contradictions underlying the apparatus of European Orientalism are greater than anyone suspected is becoming more and more evident; for me, this still does not detract from the central role imperialism played in the construction and development of this apparatus.

I’d like to thank Professor Marchand again for taking the time to review my work. If I had been able to read her recent book German Orientalism in the Age of Empire (1) – it was unavailable at the time I was writing the book – I’m sure it would have augmented my own research significantly.

  1. Suzanne Marchand, German Orientalism in the Age of Empire: Religion, Race, and Scholarship (Cambridge, 2009).Back to (1)