Eastern block. Edward Said got many things wrong, but his central argument was basically right. The west's denigration of the east has always gone with imperialist incursions into its terrain. By Terry Eagleton

For Lust of Knowing: the orientalists and their enemies

Robert Irwin <em>Allen Lane, the Penguin P

''A work of malignant charlatanry" is how Robert Irwin describes Edward Said's Orientalism in this book-length response to that flawed classic. As negative comments on Said go, this is pretty mild stuff. A man whose New York office was once firebombed by Zionists, and whose books were banned in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by Yasser Arafat, was no stranger to waspish, vindictive assaults. In fact, what is striking about For Lust of Knowing is how unspiteful it is. The book is refreshingly free of the suave malice of the senior common room. Instead Irwin comes across as a genial, rather unworldly, upper-class English scholar, struggling to preserve his public-school values of fairness and decency in the face of what he sees as Said's barbarous slur on oriental studies.

Irwin is not the kind of commentator to dismiss Said as "a dandy and a Manhattan bon viveur", as the pompously self-opinionated Ernest Gellner once did. On the contrary, he praises him with an agreeable old-school courtesy wherever praise seems due. He shares Said's belief, for example, that US media coverage of Palestinian affairs has been "biased, ignorant and abusive", and acknowledges his unswerving rejection of terrorist violence. Incredulous though he is at the idea that orientalism is in cahoots with western imperialism, he is quick to register the odd spot of anti-Islamic prejudice in Middle Eastern scholarship. He also jovially admits that the 16th-century Frenchman Guillaume Postel was not only the first true orientalist but a complete lunatic.

It would be hard to imagine any such generosity of spirit from the smug US Middle Eastern observer Thomas Friedman, who, despite writing a column for the New York Times, has about as much a sense of literary style as a rhino. Or, indeed, from a right-wing orientalist scholar such as Bernard Lewis, who has written that the destruction of the World Trade Center was one of the most wicked acts in human history. Why such coy understatement? Why not just confess straight out that the joint crimes of Stalin, Mao and Hitler, not to speak of Hiroshima and Attila the Hun, are utterly eclipsed by it?

Even so, Irwin packs a considerable punch. He is a formidably erudite orientalist, and one still determined to describe himself as such. In these PC days, when "orient" is taboo, this is a bit like calling oneself a fatso. There is no doubt that he pinpoints a good deal of slipshod scholarship and factual error in Said's revered text. It is also true that this would come rather more convincingly from someone who could produce an accurate factual account of Gramsci and post-structuralism, rather than the grotesque travesty of them to be found here. But there is a sense in which it does not matter all that much, since Irwin and Said are for the most part simply talking past each other.

For Said, orientalism signifies a whole cultural discourse, one that habitually represents the east as indolent, treacherous, passive, inscrutable, devious, feminised and inferior. He is speaking of an ideological formation pervasive throughout western history. Irwin, by contrast, believes in his gentle, ivory-tower way that orientalism "is mostly a story of individual scholars". He gives the impression that he could recognise an ideological formation about as readily as he could identify Green Day's greatest hits. He thus dooms his study to partial irrelevance from the outset. It is like trying to refute the charge that Christianity has been a hugely destructive force for social evil by producing an admiring study of St Thomas Aquinas.

Astonishingly, there is scarcely a single reference to the stereotypical features of so-called orientals in all of Irwin's 400-odd pages. The book makes not one concession to the central truth of Said's account - that demeaning images of the east and imperialist incursions into its terrain have historically gone hand in hand. Instead, For Lust of Knowing sets out to give us a potted history of western orientalism, one that occasionally remembers it is supposed to be a critique of Edward Said and then promptly forgets it again. (It was, one imagines, the idea of a smack at Said that attracted a mass-market publisher such as Penguin to this book, rather than the Cook's tour of obscure German philologists it has been landed with.)

Perhaps Irwin's intention is to demonstrate how splendidly disinterested oriental studies have been, despite Said's rancorous charges to the contrary. What he actually succeeds in showing is just how closely such scholarship has been entwined with that branch of ideology known as religion. In fact, one Christian orientalist after another boned up on the Koran only to learn how to discredit it. If the whole discipline is as innocent of politics as Irwin would have us believe, why did one Jewish scholar spend seven years researching Said's background in order to query his credentials on Palestine?

The political problems of the Middle East, Irwin believes, were in Said's view "ultimately textual ones that could be solved by critical reading skills". Anyone who reads Orientalism with as few critical skills as this has about as much title to speak of factual inaccuracies as Jeffrey Archer. It is hard to see quite what such a dreamer was doing sitting on the Palestinian National Council from 1977 to 1991. In fact, the usual charge against post-structuralists - that they hold there is nothing outside the text - applies with a far greater force to Irwin himself. For this is an author who has much to say of minor medieval scholars but exceedingly little of the crusades. Scholars, he remarks, tend not to go on crusades, a comment that the briefest of visits to many an oriental studies or political science department in the United States would rebut. His book has no more than a few pages on western imperialism, and is silent on the current debacle in Iraq. Given the way that this has rekindled a rabid Islamophobia in the west, all Irwin needs to do to recognise the broad truth of Said's thesis is turn on the television set.

Writing about history tends to proceed in three stages. First, a particular truth is generally accepted - say, that the west has by and large treated the east pretty shabbily, or that the inhabitants of Scunthorpe have behaved brutally to the citizens of Grimsby. After a while stage two sets in, as revisionists spring up to challenge this received wisdom. In doing so, they almost invariably engage in the same set of moves. First, they produce evidence that not all Scunthorpians have been cruel to Grimsbyites. Second, they show that some Grimsbyites have regularly brutalised people from Scunthorpe. Third, they point out that in some respects the population of Grimsby had it coming. Fourth, they remind us not to judge these ancient animosities by our own modern-day liberal standards. Finally, they insist that the whole affair has been grossly exaggerated, and that it is time to draw a line under these events, turn our faces to the future and move on.

Almost every one of these strategies is deployed in For Lust of Knowing to defend orientalism from the charge of complicity with imperial power. Yet it is impossible to avert the arrival of stage three: the realisation that, when every due reservation has been made, every factual error corrected and every exception noted, stage one was pretty much true all along.

Terry Eagleton's most recent book is Holy Terror (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Iran: the next war