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Worshipping Edward Said at San Francisco State University

By Cinnamon Stillwell
November 8, 2007

After a contentious two-year campaign waged by the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) and other supporters, a mural dedicated to the late Columbia University English and comparative literature professor Edward Said was unveiled at San Francisco State University (SFSU) last week.

Former SFSU Arabic professor Fayeq Oweis – now teaching the same subject at Santa Clara University – was the lead artist for what's been labeled the "Palestinian Cultural Mural." The mural does include various symbols said to be associated with Palestinian culture, but it is Said's likeness that looms largest.

This is perhaps appropriate for it was Said's hugely influential 1978 book, Orientalism, which set in stone a process of politicization already underway in higher education. The book's influence crossed all academic boundaries, reaching into areas as diverse as women's studies, archaeology, and political science. But it was Middle East studies that truly fell under Said's spell.

Discarding the academic standards brought to American universities by European scholars in Middle East studies – then known as Orientalists – Said sought to devalue all that had come before. Pushing the idea that Middle East studies in the West harbored an ingrained condescension and antagonism towards its subject, Said created the opposite effect: an abiding hostility towards the West. The rhetoric of post-colonialism, the romanticizing of Palestinian "resistance," and the anti-Western sentiment brought to bear by Orientalism can be found in classrooms and academic publications to this day.

For all these reasons and more, the ideological and political significance of SFSU's Said mural cannot be overestimated. Promising further adulation, the mural contains an imagined postage stamp featuring Said's name in Arabic and English. At this rate, I wouldn't be surprised if his adherents tried to affix Said's visage to Mount Rushmore, let alone a postage stamp.

Woe be to higher education in America when such false idols are worshipped.



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