Edward Said: American Intellectual, Palestinian Patriot, Breaker of Dogmas | Opinion

Edward Said, who died 17 years ago today, has been called many things. A literary critic and an exile, an unyielding voice for Palestinian self-determination, an educator, a trailblazer, a "normalizer"—and even "a prophet of the political violence" unfolding in the United States today, almost two decades after he took his final breath.

During a lifetime that spanned nearly sixty-eight years and witnessed definitive geopolitical currents and shifts, Said stood apart as one of the world's most incisive public intellectuals. A Palestinian by birth and an American by choice, Said took on this role in the early 1980's, following the publication of Orientalism, a text that dismantled European misrepresentations of Islam in its annals of literature.

This moment converged with the aftermath of the Iranian hostage crisis and ascendance of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which reoriented the whole of Islam as the "enemy of the West." And, in turn, propelled Said and his work onto the center of the public stage.

There, seated in front of cameras and alongside intellectual contemporaries and adversaries, is where Said thrived. Debating and dissecting the day's political turbulences in corridors of power long monopolized by white men, is where Said – an exile who embodied the very marrow of the term—also revealed his genuine identity: A public intellectual of the highest order, fiercely loyal to ideas and ideas alone. Untethered to governments or organizations, professional entities or political parties that would disrupt that fidelity to his truth.

Said paralleled his life as an intellectual with an unbending commitment to advocacy. While an upstart professor at Columbia University in New York City in the late 1970's, he served as a member of the Palestinian National Council (PNC), an aberration from his refusal to enlist in organizations and bind himself to ideology. He remained a member of the Council until 1991, two years before Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) signed the Oslo Accords, a measure he emphatically denounced and moment he famously called the "Palestinian Versailles"; not because he did not believe in peace or in dialogue, but because he thought Arafat had signed away virtually all key Palestinian demands and got precious little for Palestinians in return.

On the domestic front, Said was a staple voice for the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the largest Arab American civil rights organization, which provided him with a platform to analyze the civil liberties' crackdowns on Arabs and Muslims that swelled in the 1990s and proliferated horrifically after 9/11.

In May of 2001, several months before the 9/11 terror attacks, Said debated noted contrarian Christopher Hitchens on the matter of Palestine. During the first third of their exchange, Said discussed his chance meeting with Israeli pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim in a London hotel in 1994. In the lobby of that hotel, a Palestinian scholar readying to deliver a series of lectures for the BBC crossed paths with an Israeli musician preparing for his concert.

A breaker of boundaries, an anti-dogmatic

Said, an amateur musician himself, saw Barenboim for who he was instead of what the political order narrowly cast him to be.

There, in that London hotel lobby, a crossroads where a Palestinian "firebrand" and an Israeli national were expected to continue past one another or even collide, is where "a great friendship" blossomed.

The two men spent the weekend together in London grappling with their differences through a shared love of music. And five years later, Said organized a concert for Barenboim at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. It was one of the first times that an Israeli musician performed in the Palestinian territories.

Five hundred people jammed into the University's Kamal Nasir Hall that evening on January 29, 1999. And for two hours, the oppressive shadow of warring peoples and the shrill perils it sounded were drowned out by the majesty of music.

This was orchestrated by Edward Said. An intellectual auteur whose unbending commitment to principle, most notably humanism and its staunch opposition to dogmas religious and secular, moved him to form iconoclastic bonds with mercurial minds like Hitchens; engage in tempered exchanges with Orientalists like Bernard Lewis; and pursue transformative friendships with Israeli musicians like Barenboim.

An exile in every measure, Said defied the comfortable landings of political dogma for the roaming freedom of complexity. He refused to be constrained by any one of his many identities, and furiously rebelled against any and all intellectual confines.

Said did so by remaining steadfastly committed to principle, and indeed, the matters that formed the core of his intellectual concerns: Palestinian self-determination, uncovering Islam beyond its Orientalist bind, and the humanism that ties the two.

Dogma on the Left all too often seems to stake a claim over a narrow plot of moral rectitude, at times appearing only to punish those who explore past it. The Right does precisely the same, albeit, of course, with much more political weight and resources behind it: the hysteria around such terms as "critical theory" is designed to intimidate, not persuade.

Against this bleak, Flanders Fields-like landscape of entrenched and fortified positions, Said, a Palestinian American intellectual who defied binaries and extremes of all orders, still matters today.

Indeed, the irony of recent commentaries that peg Said as a "violent prophet" of unfolding movements reveals an ignorance of who he was, and what his work remains to instruct us. Not only would Said reject the anti-intellectualism that flings an arrogant hand at free exchange and academic freedom, he would rebel against it and fight to preserve these ideas.

Today, with few exceptions, pundits on the left and right engage in that ongoing vicious and vapid exchange of personal attacks. Attacks flare across a widening political divide, almost never meeting in between to debate.

Doing what Said did today would be "platforming" an "enemy," to use a particular activist parlance. It's hard to imagine something like the debates between Said and Hitchens, who eventually and infamously became an advocate of the illegal War in Iraq, the War on Terror and the "clash of civilizations" that undergirds it. And the Manichean intellectual split prevalent in too many arenas would abort the possibility of the Palestinian Said facilitating the Israeli Barenboim's musical performance in the West Bank, and the many conversations that followed. It would lobby against it, and question the very friendship that spawned its coming into fruition as disloyal or subversive.

In the process, this divide would have robbed an oppressed people of that elusive freedom inspired by music. This might seem trivial and fanciful against the backdrop of the very real evils activists are fighting today. But music, culture, and intellectual engagement have a way of transforming reality that transcends and belies even the harshest material obstacles. Music roams beyond manmade boundaries drawn along disputed territories, and ideological boundaries drawn even more deeply in the minds; it allows connections and alliances to be made where even the most inspired polemical exchange can forge none.

Nothing of this is meant to suggest that Said wouldn't support the struggle for Black lives today in the U.S. Of course, he would, and would do so in strong terms. But reconstructing Edward Said as a totem of anti-intellectual violence commits the very act of historical revisionism he so masterfully disarmed with his pen. And even more persuasively, with his personal walk of life.

Said roved independently atop the widening schisms of dogma that, in 2020, quiet the symphonies of free exchange and swallow up those that dare to walk across that middle expanse, the territory that trenchant American thinker Sarah Kendzior called the intellectual "flyover country," where nuance is neglected and complexity is given flesh, bone and voice.

Like music, Said—the exile that only found permanence in sanctuaries of principle and the public squares of intellectual engagement and exchange—roamed rebelliously in the face of the flat-headed flag-waving that entraps us today. His voice and his leadership were seldom more sorely missed.

Khaled A. Beydoun is a law professor at Wayne State University and author of the critically acclaimed American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear. He teaches at Wayne State University in Detroit, and serves on the U.S. Commission for Civil Rights.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.