The
second project that Said joined, and for which he became especially famous, was
the Palestinians’ renewed struggle for self-determination. After the shock of
the 1967 war, which initiated Israel’s military rule over large Palestinian
territories, Palestinian activists and leaders sought to make their cause the
center of international attention. They appealed to international institutions
and launched multiple violent attacks on Israel to keep their struggle in the
headlines. While Said had little personal interest in returning to Palestine
(by that point he considered his exile a permanent condition), he joined this
campaign and quickly became its most prominent international figure. He
published fiery essays that compared the Palestinian struggle to other
anti-colonial struggles in Asia and Africa and helped launch organizations that
called for an end to the West’s support for Israel. His eloquence and rare status
as a Palestinian at the center of U.S. letters made him into an icon. Palestinian
politicians and leaders, some of whom he met in person during a prolonged
academic stay in Beirut, sought his advice; in 1974, he helped edit and
translate Yasser Arafat’s historic address to the United Nations, the first by
any Palestinian leader in that forum. Three years later, Said became a member
of the Palestinian National Council, the coordinating organization of the
Palestinian national movement.

Bringing
these two projects together was hardly an obvious undertaking. Post-structuralism’s
philosophical musings, with its notoriously impenetrable jargon, seemed worlds
apart from the blood and sweat of daily Palestinian resistance. Yet in his
monumental Orientalism (1978), Said fused these two projects to provide a
new understanding of Western attitudes toward the Middle East. Drawing on his
own experiences as a beneficiary and victim of colonialism, Said claimed that Europe’s
colonial domination in the Middle East did not rely merely on military or
political might. Rather, it was a vast intellectual project, in which countless scholars
and novelists voluntarily rushed to explore, interpret, and explain why Europe had to dominate the “Orient.” Said further argued that the Orientalist project
was in fact foundational to Europe’s own self-understanding. As Europeans
sought to define themselves as rational, industrious, and self-controlling,
they simultaneously identified the Orient’s people as emotional, lazy, and
pathologically obsessed with sex.

This
claim about colonialism’s centrality to Europe’s identity would have been
enough to make Orientalism an intellectual bombshell. But Said went even
further, using his literary study to explain the aggression of modern American
diplomacy. Said argued that the collapse of formal European empires after World
War II did little to diminish the orientalist mindset. Rather, orientalism continued
to flourish in the U.S., where journalists, artists, and scholars conflated
their country with a “civilization” that they contrasted with the Middle East’s
alleged primitivism and fanaticism. Indeed, Said maintained that U.S. diplomacy
in the region, and especially its unwavering support for Israel, reproduced Europe’s
earlier racism, arrogance, and myopia. U.S. diplomats and their Israeli allies inherited
the view of Arabs as inhuman and thus dismissed their political demands as
emotional and even animalistic outbursts. Said’s most scorching invective was directed
at Middle East specialists like Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis, whom he acidly
described as the intellectual foot soldiers of U.S. imperialism. Their writings
about the Arabs’ supposed fanaticism, he wrote in a related essay, provided “not history, not scholarship,
but direct political violence.”  

Said,
in short, exposed how knowledge and art worked in the service of oppressive power.
And in so doing, he forever transformed the meaning of the word orientalist: Rather
than a term for a scholar of the Middle East, it now became an adjective describing
a racist and paternalist worldview.