By Najm Jarrah
Middle East analyst
Although Edward Said achieved worldwide renown as a ground-breaking academic
and gifted political commentator, he was also a powerful and increasingly
influential voice for change in his native Palestine and the wider Arab world.
Said spent most of his life in the United States
Particularly in the later years of his life, he was as outspoken in criticising
the ruling elites and home-grown injustices of the Middle East as he was in challenging longstanding Western stereotypes and misrepresentations of the region and the prejudices and policies they spawned.
Some his fiercest attacks were on his own people's leaders and their unsuccessful pursuit of a negotiated
settlement with Israel.
But Said's opposition to
successive US-sponsored "peace processes" stemmed from the same convictions
that emboldened him, two decades earlier, to become one of the first prominent
Palestinians to publicly urge the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) to
seek a peaceful accommodation with Israel.
Difficulties with Arafat
In the highly-charged climate of the
1970s, this placed him firmly in the unfashionable "moderate" camp and made
him a target of "radical" Palestinian and Arab criticism (he himself loathed
such simplistic political labels).
Said's forays into unofficial diplomacy at the time, particularly his
involvement in attempts to start a dialogue between the Palestinians and Washington,
left him frustrated and disillusioned with the decision-making processes of
the PLO and its chairman Yasser Arafat.
Although many shared his misgivings, few
Palestinians expressed them openly, wary of undermining a national movement
that was struggling to make its case heard in the West, especially the US.
He criticised Arafat's style of rule
while championing the PLO's representative status, Mr Said increasingly saw its
diplomatic and organisational failings as part of a paralysing internal malaise
that had to be remedied if the dispossessed and dispersed Palestinians were to
begin reversing their misfortunes.
This underpinned his scepticism about the Madrid peace talks in 1991, and his
opposition to the subsequent Oslo accords.
He charged that by accepting their
terms the leadership was compromising fundamental Palestinian rights and
putting self-preservation above both principle and the practical requirements of a
Negotiations held on that basis would merely reflect the
massive disparity of power between Israel and the Palestinians, and result either
in an unjust settlement or none at all.
Call for reform
Said's stature and eloquence gave added clout and credibility to the
dissident Palestinian viewpoint, and while others expressed it in nationalist or
religious terms, he rooted it in the universal values of human equality, justice
and acceptance of "others" that imbued his scholarship.
He stressed the
centrality of reforming the Palestinian body-politic long before it became, for what
he regarded as all the wrong reasons, an item on the diplomatic agenda.
His appeal also lay in the way he linked the Palestinian predicament to the
wider crisis of misrule in the Arab world as a whole.
Said was dedicated to trying to find a Middle East solution
In newspaper columns,
lectures and interviews in the Palestinian, Lebanese, Egyptian, Gulf and other
Arab media, Said argued that the prerequisites for a successful Palestinian
freedom struggle were the same as those for social and political progress and
genuine independence throughout the region: democracy and the development of civil
society through broad peaceful popular action.
He began losing faith in the two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli
conflict he once fought for, instead favouring a bi-national set-up based on
equality rather than territorial division.
He was under no illusion about the
deep political, cultural and ideological changes that would have to be instilled
on both sides before that could become viable.
Although Mr Said never joined any
Palestinian political party, last year he came out in support of the
Palestinian National Initiative, a movement launched in the West Bank and Gaza Strip
to promote the kind of new political thinking and action on which he believed
the future of the Holy Land depends.