Among spokesmen for the Palestinian cause in our day, surely none is so articulate, or so well-known, as Edward W. Said. The holder of an endowed chair in English and comparative literature at Columbia University, a prolific author of books and articles both scholarly and popular, a frequent lecturer and commentator on radio and television, a sometime diplomatic intermediary and congressional witness, the subject of countless profiles and interviews in the world media, Said—who was born in Jerusalem in 1935—has earned a reputation not only for polemical brilliance but, when it comes to championing Palestinian Arab rights (and assailing Israel for infringing them), a fierce moral zealotry that will not be assuaged.
The adulation in which Said is held by Palestinians themselves is suggested by a recent ceremony honoring him at the U.S.-based Palestinian Heritage Institute that was attended by 450 Arab diplomats and Arab-Americans, as by the overflow audience of 1,000 that gathered to hear him lecture last year in Bethlehem. But his prestige is no less high among American and European academics and intellectuals, who have extravagantly praised his literary scholarship and admire his uncompromising politics. As for the scholarship, his most famous book, Orientalism (1978), with its bold thesis that the Western study of Islam (and by extension other cultures) is itself a form of “colonialism,” has had as profound and radicalizing an influence on literary studies in colleges and universities as it has had on Islamic self-perceptions. And as for politics, so stringent is Said’s vision of the Middle East that in recent years he has changed from being a supporter of Yasir Arafat to a vociferous opponent, accusing the PLO chairman of having betrayed 50 years of Palestinian aspirations by signing the Oslo agreements with Israel.