If French President Jacques Chirac thought he'd burnished his reputation in the Muslim world for having opposed the Bush administration's war in Iraq, he must have been surprised to find himself recently vilified in public squares, mosques, and universities from Cairo to Tehran. The proposed ban on the hijab, or Islamic headscarf, from French state schools has enraged a fair portion of the world's 1 billion Muslims. And yet the ban, which prohibits overtly religious symbols like yarmulkes and "large" crosses, is not so much directed at French Muslims as intended to check France's growing fundamentalist, or Islamist, movement.
When I was in graduate school in English literature during the 1980s, Edward Said was in many ways the exemplary intellectual. He was a serious scholar of literature who'd done much to introduce the heady work of that time's major continental philosophers and theorists -- especially Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida -- to American audiences. Furthermore, Said was that rare academic who was also politically engaged, not just an activist but a real participant in meaningful politics. And in 1978 he'd written a book that brought all these currents together: Orientalism was a study of Western art and literature detailed with 20th-century critical insights that had political resonance in the real world.