Overview of Orientalism by Edward Said

Orientalism as a geo-political and sociological concept has attracted much controversy.  It remains author Edward Said’s definitive work, alongside other titles such a The Question of Palestine and Covering Islam.  Orientalism as a scholarly work is the combined study and analysis of Oriental “philology, linguistics, ethnography, and the interpretation of culture through the discovery, recovery, compilation, and translation of Oriental texts”. (Windschuttle, 1999, p.30)  Having been born into a Palestinian Christian family that later migrated to the United States, Said had the unique advantage of experiencing different perspectives on the issue of Palestine-Israel conflict as well as broader Arabian politics.  His works on the subject of Middle East politics are informed by his first hand experiences at these places, as well as a careful study of preceding scholarship by Western intellectuals.  The primary criticism in his book Orientalism, as also seen in the documentary, is directed toward the stereotyped vision of Arabs in Western media and academia.  This phenomenon, Said notes, is not something new, for its origins could be dated back to the Napoleonic conquest of Egypt in late eighteenth century.

Behind the Western stereotyping of the Orient is the underlying belief that the surveyed geographies and peoples are somewhat backward and unrefined compared to Western civilization.  What is also evident is the process of homogenization, whereby the vast mosaic of Oriental culture, language, social norms and religious beliefs are bracketed and abstracted into a unified whole.  According to Said,

“Orientalism identifies a range of strategies by which 19th and 20th century scholars, writers and artists imposed their authority on the East. The Orient was represented as a theatrical stage affixed to Europe, a place where jaded aristocrats, earnest second sons and tyrannical explorers could discover timeless truths, or perhaps unimagined erotic delights. Stereotypes of eastern wise men and exotic harems removed the colonial world from history altogether, substituting a timeless realm. Orientals are seen not as people but as problems, subjects, races”. (Burrows, 1999, p.50)

But the reality is far from such constructions, as accounts of people who live in different regions of the Orient attest to.  And as Said suggests in the documentary film, this set of illusions about the Middle East is not accidental or due to scholarly oversight.

Said identifies a subtle difference between the stereotyping of the Orient by erstwhile European imperial powers and that done by the United States of America.  In the case of the latter, the contact with the Orient has not been direct, but one derived from the European imperial experience.  Having assumed the position of a global superpower since the end of the Second World War, the United States has a strategic and material stake in the Middle East.  With the Arab world rich in energy resources, the US can afford not to get involved in the politics of this region, so as to create favorable situations for corporate exploitation and political domination.  The creation of Israel in the aftermath of WWII provided the US with an opportunity to get an enduring foothold in the Arab region, which it has established as expected.  While the legitimacy of the state of Israel could be contested and debated, at least on moral grounds there was a need for a place of refuge for Holocaust survivors.  In late 1940s, with the backing of a global wave of sympathy for the decimated Jewish population in Europe, the US was able to expedite the creation of Israel.  But the real agenda is much beyond express humanitarian ones, as subsequent decades of the new country’s existence have shown.  In order to understand why Orientalism as an intellectual construct continues to thrive, one also has to understand the pressing real-realpolitik considerations for US and its allies in the West.

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