From Columbia to Cairo

‘The President’s guilt-inspired attitude towards Islam was set out in his Cairo speech of 2009, with the Muslim Brotherhood in the front row’

Global Governance Manchester Square Middle East

Of all the intellectual influences that helped to shape America’s first post-American president, Barack Obama, few were more significant than the postmodern professor par excellence, Edward Said. It was in 1982, during his first year in New York as a student at Columbia University, that the young Obama encountered Said, who was lecturing on literature. According to Obama’s biographer, David Maraniss, he attended Said’s course for only a term with a friend. The latter’s recollection is that they were not especially impressed by the professor’s over-theoretical approach. Apparently Said cancelled the next term’s class and also handed back the students’ papers late, leading the young Barack to refer to him in a letter as a “flake”. Maraniss plays down the whole episode and concludes that only “conspiracy theorists” could trace a connection between Obama’s later politics and Said’s tutelage. 

But the evidence may actually point the other way. The subjective impressions of a student acquaintance three decades later is rather a slender basis on which to dismiss the possibility that some at least of Said’s ideas made an impression on Obama. We know that Obama was moving sharply to the Left during this period: after leaving Columbia he became a “community organiser” in Chicago — a foot soldier in the movement inspired by the Marxist guru Saul Alinsky and directed by the former terrorist Bill Ayres. Edward Said was, as far as we know, the only academic to whom Obama was exposed at Columbia whose ideological attitudes could have helped to prepare this callow, laid-back youth for the activist milieu that he sought out straight after graduation. We know that, as a rising Democratic politician in the 1990s, Obama would later meet Said (by now an academic celebrity) on several occasions, evidently as political allies and even friends. So it seems improbable that their mutual admiration had no connection with the respect for Said that was doubtless felt by the young Obama already in his Columbia period. 

What, though, might the intellectually curious Obama have learned at Said’s feet? This was a phase in the latter’s career when he was making a name for himself as a contributor to the liberal press, especially the New York Review of Books. A few years earlier, Said had published Orientalism — of all his books the one that has exercised the most profound (if pernicious) effect on academic and intellectual life. Did Obama read Orientalism at Columbia? We do not know, but he would have encountered its leitmotif — the idea that Western attitudes to the East had been driven not by facts but by fantasies about “the Other”, a fake Islamic world that served imperialist purposes.

It was during his Columbia years, Obama would later claim in Dreams of My Father, that he rediscovered his own African (and Muslim) roots, and this rediscovery is there seen very much through Said’s postcolonial prism. However much Obama later doctored, omitted or invented incidents to fit his narrative — and Maraniss, though politically sympathetic to the president, reveals that he did all three — his new political identity owed much to his indignation at the incarceration and torture of his Kenyan Muslim grandfather in a British concentration camp during the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s. The fact that the patriarch of the Obamas seems to have been not a rebel, but an obedient servant of the British imperial regime, makes it all the more revealing that his grandson Barack Hussein Obama Jr chose to rewrite his family history. 

He could not have known it at the time, but according to the Israeli scholar Justus Reid Weiner, Edward Said had done much the same thing: downplaying his privileged upbringing in Egypt and America to depict himself as a Palestinian refugee who had been exiled by the creation of Israel. The thesis of Orientalism is thus its author’s invented personal narrative writ large: a story of vicarious victimhood, in which Western civilisation is not only held responsible for Oriental despotism but is seen as having created the latter in a prodigious feat of false consciousness. 

Ignoring the damning judgment of the Orientalists themselves — Bernard Lewis, their doyen, declared that “Edward Said’s thesis is just plain wrong” — the rest of the academy adopted Said’s ideas. The consequences for American policy in the Middle East under the Obama administration, have been profound. The President’s guilt-inspired attitude towards Islam was set out in his Cairo speech of 2009. It was noted at the time that the Egyptian leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood were seated in the front rows at Al-Azhar University to hear Obama quoting the Koran, praising Islam’s record on “religious tolerance and racial equality”, apologising for colonialism and ending with the Muslim blessing: “God’s peace be upon you.” Islamists everywhere drew the obvious conclusion that they had nothing to fear from America. Three years later, the Brotherhood rules Egypt; its allies are in the ascendant across the Muslim world; the US ambassador to Libya and his staff are murdered by jihadists. Said’s Palestinian compatriots feel so emboldened by Obama’s coolness towards Israel that they have refused to negotiate with the Jewish state. The Iranian theocracy has defiantly pursued nuclear weapons, thus far with impunity. Edward Said has enjoyed a posthumous influence far beyond his dreams; but Barack Obama’s intellectual journey from Columbia to Cairo has led the Middle East to the brink of war.