Read part one here.
Besides his specific defence of Marx against Said’s accusations, Habib also attacks the way in which,
‘Orientalism’ as a word has thus been so degraded that anyone can use it for anything one disapproves of, even when the disapprover may himself be a dyed in the wool ‘Orientalist’!
The meat of Habib’s criticism is also absolutely to the point:
The essential weakness of Edward Said and those who follow him and speak of ‘Orientalism’ and ‘colonial discourse’ in the same breath lies in the failure to see that colonialism (including imperialism, neocolonialism, etc) does not form the only major influence over Oriental scholarship in the west or in the Orient. There is too easy a readiness on their part to assume that such ideas as those of gender and racial equality, and of nation and democracy, that arose in the West in modern times, and obtained popular acceptance through upheavals like the French Revolution of 1789 and the Soviet Revolution of 1917, have exercised no influence at all on modern studies of Oriental societies. Yet who can read Wellhausen’s Arab Kingdom and its Fall without being convinced that his analysis of the Umayyid Caliphate, as structured on distinct classes based on political and economic dominance and subjugation, is derived from ideas that social democracy had introduced in the Germany of his time. In India D D Kosambi, drawing quite firmly on the Orientalist tradition of scholarship, aimed at reconstructing ancient Indian history through the application of Marxist concepts. Modern democratic, as against colonial, notions have thus created an increasing belief that Oriental societies, like all human societies, are susceptible to the same methods of study—indeed, with the same essential assumptions—as the history of western societies. There has accordingly developed within Oriental learning almost parallel, but ultimately conflicting, trends based respectively on colonial and what may be called universalist approaches.
So, the basic problem with Said’s critique of Orientalism seems to be that, like quite a bit of other post-colonial scholarship, it often produces a mirror-image of colonial discourse and thereby paradoxically ends up validating it to some extent. Towards the end of his article Habib strikes a rather optimistic note, arguing that our expanding knowledge of the human past inevitably leads to a better (more universalist) understanding of human history and the overturning of previous mistaken ideas.
However, he also notes that it has been relatively easy for those who actually provide support for ‘neo-colonialism’ to co-opt scholarship heavily based on Said’s critique of Orientalism. Habib uses as an example the work of the Indian Subaltern group, but another example of such potentially co-optable scholarship might be recent attempts to ‘overcome’ nationalism and nationalist historiography in Korea. The complaint that most Korean historiography is tainted by nationalism or is overly Eurocentric because it attempts to apply Marxist or other theories of European/North American origin to an East Asian society has long been a common one among many of the more conservative US scholars writing on Korean history. The charge of ‘irrational nationalism’ (the echoes of good old-fashioned Orientalism are very strong in this phrase) has also, ironically, been one of the favourite accusations levelled by the Japanese neo-nationalists against Koreans protesting Japan’s revisionist history textbooks.
I’m not making an argument for either nationalist or Orientalist scholarship here, just agreeing with Habib that there can be a tendency to throw out the baby with the bath water and disregard all previous historical scholarship as either Orientalist (written by Western scholars) or nationalist (written by ‘native’ postcolonial scholars). This in turn can form part of a discourse that repudiates past (or perhaps present) anti-colonial struggles themselves as overly nationalist or ‘totalizing’. Thus, the critique of Orientalism and Eurocentrism can turn away from the work of striving for a universalist understanding of human history and come perilously close to Orientalism itself.