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Orientalism at 45: Why Edward Said's seminal book still matters

Decades after its release, Orientalism continues to be a valuable resource and provides important lessons
Anonymous Venetian orientalist painting titled The Reception of the Ambassadors in Damascus, 1511, at the Louvre (Public domain)

Forty-five years have passed since the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said published his seminal 1978 book, Orientalism. It was a breakthrough in understanding western representations of an unspecified notion of the "Orient", stretching from Asia to North Africa.

Said presents a framework for identifying and analysing the myths and stereotypes about the East that have long dominated western discourses, media representations, and academic scholarship.

Decades later, there is certainly greater awareness of the harm perpetuated by such constructs, particularly those pitting Islam against the West, which, according to Said, are "perceived as a discourse of power originating in an era of colonialism".

Yet the post-9/11 era, in which racist and Islamophobic narratives were deployed to justify imperialist wars, demonstrates that not much has changed.

The East-West dichotomy

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Orientalism is a critique of European essentialist representations of the "Orient", which tend to describe other cultures as static and monolithic, rather than ever-changing negotiation processes whose fluidity is enhanced by globalisation. It is also an analysis of the ambivalent relationship between knowledge and power, or the institutional orientalist tradition and imperialism, with the first applied in the service of the latter.

It is in the context of explaining how Orientalism provides the ideological foundation for western dominance and authority over the Orient that Said cites Michel Foucault's discourse analysis. According to Said, examining how Orientalism functions as a discourse is crucial to understanding how the West was able to manage the "Orient" in the post-Enlightenment period.

The 'Oriental' is always analysed through the western scholar's 'Occidental' lens and regarded as ontologically unequal

Foucault defines the term "discourse" as a "historically contingent system of thought that produces knowledge and meaning". Discourse is produced by establishing a collective understanding of social facts developed in a particular historical period. These facts are established by systems of power that create rules for truth and legitimacy in knowledge production.

As power shifted westwards in the 17th century, Orientalist discourse premised on cultural "otherness" and "the basic distinction between east and west" spread, reflecting attitudes of European colonialism. The "Oriental" is therefore always analysed through the western scholar's "Occidental" lens and regarded as ontologically unequal. As Said explains, "the essence of Orientalism is the ineradicable distinction between western superiority and Oriental inferiority."

Orientalist discourse is based on binary logic, supported by an imaginative geography: there is an "Us" (the West) and there is a "Them" (the East). It is a static definition of the other that helps in defining ourselves: the "Orient" is everything the West is not.

Constructing a discourse

Between 1815 and 1914, worldwide territories under European colonial rule increased from 30 to 85 percent of the earth's landmess. In the same period, almost 50,000 books on the Near East were published. After Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798, Orientalism entered its modern global phase and even took on a scientific character in Description de l'Egypte, a massive volume published between 1809 and 1828.
Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti, a chronicler of those times, witnessed the Napoleonic invasion and was the first to describe it as an "epistemological conquest, other than military".

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The Armee d'Orient, or the French military force, was in fact accompanied by around 160 Orientalists: explorers and researchers who documented their "objective" observations during the conquest of Egypt. These scholars worked to facilitate the domestication of future colonies while relying on confirmation bias and centuries-old beliefs about the "Orient".

At the time of the Napoleonic invasion, Islam was not observed in itself but in opposition to Christianity - stretching back to the Crusades and the mediaeval period when the Muslim world became a target for European Christian domination. Napoleonic Orientalists were a product of this colonial, hence hegemonic relationship, with produced scholarship being an attempt at "assimilating" an Orient that was marked by a "constitutive otherness".

From that moment onward, the Orientalist tradition triggered a set of discourses that for the next 200 years would be defined by cultural essentialism perpetuating immutable assumptions about a culture that is, in fact, shifting and mutating, and is able to readapt itself to the local traditions of different people around the world.

These discourses would lay the foundation for a twofold approach: on one side, especially from a vaguely left-wing posture, a paternalistic one ("Orientals need our guidance/help"); on the other, a more right-wing, racist attitude ("Orientals are savages").

An example of this appears in chapter 34 of Modern Egypt, a two-volume account of the British occupation of Egypt, published in 1908 by the colonial administrator, Evelyn Baring, or Lord Cromer:

"The European is a close reasoner; his statements of fact are devoid of ambiguity; he is a natural logician even though he may not have studied logic; he loves symmetry in all things; he is by nature sceptical and requires proof before he can accept the truth of any proposition; his trained intelligence works like a machine. The mind of the Oriental, on the other hand, like his picturesque streets, is eminently wanting in symmetry. His reasoning is of the most slipshod description. He is often incapable of drawing the most obvious conclusions from simple premises."

As Said writes, during the early 20th century, political figures like Lord Cromer could produce such racial and cultural generalisations because a well-consolidated Orientalist tradition bequeathed them effective words and images.

Orientalism supported the idea of European world domination. The metamorphosis was complete: from an academic discourse aimed at a theoretical appropriation, Orientalism turned into an imperial instrument serving a number of states’ national interests, becoming a tool of colonial appropriation.

War between cultures

Following the end of World War Two, Orientalism entered into crisis. The global order had shifted with the US emerging as one of the foremost military, political and economic powers. Postcolonial national liberation movements emerged, fuelled by autochthonous narratives that dispelled myths about the alleged inherent "passivity" of subjugated people.

Yet in Modern Trends in Islam, published in 1947, British historian HAR Gibb continues the Orientalist tradition of essentialising Arabs and Muslims and regarding Islam with implacable hostility: "The Arab mind, whether in relation to the outer world or in relation to the processes of thought, cannot throw off its intense feeling for the separateness and the individuality of the concrete events... This explains what it is so difficult for the western student to grasp - the aversion of the Muslims from the thought processes of rationalism."
The cultural essentialism displayed here and by many modern Orientalists reached its peak in 1993 with Samuel Huntington's essay "The Clash of Civilisations". The threat vacuum left at the end of the Cold War required a "new enemy", thus reviving old Orientalist notions of an Islamic threat to western civilisation. Huntington’s theories would ultimately shape post-9/11 western discourse and serve as the ideological framework for the global war on terror.

Huntington was influenced by conventional Orientalist views regarding the ontological difference between the Muslim world and "the West", which he argued would lead to an inevitable clash between the two civilisations. Modern Orientalist Bernard Lewis helped promote this cultural dichotomy, which has largely become a self-fulfilled prophecy.

Such arguments ignore contemporary history including the effects of colonialism and globalisation. It is wrong to view cultural differences as dogma, since cultures are constantly mutating and adapting to changing conditions, and regional and international influences, over time.

Even the anti-colonial movements that spread throughout the Muslim world in the second part of the 20th century were labelled by Orientalists as irrational phenomena. Newspapers and popular media continued to propagate the idea of Arabs being potential terrorists, if not individuals whose wealth was the dishonest result of extortion to the detriment of civilised nations. 

Dehumanising attitudes towards the 'Oriental' only intensified as the demand for oil and other resources increased in the West

Dehumanising attitudes towards the "Oriental" only intensified as the demand for oil and other resources increased in the West. After the 1973 oil crisis, western consumers exploiting the majority of the world's resources began to exhibit what Egyptian political scientist Anwar Abdel-Malek identified as a "hegemonism of privileged minorities".

As Said explains, westerners believe they are entitled to a higher standard of living than their counterparts in the "Orient". Similarly, valued social and political systems that promote liberal democracy and individual freedom are seen as normative and integral to the West but dispensable in the Muslim world whose dictators have long been backed by western governments.

Media outlets and politicians regularly invoke Orientalist tropes depicting Arab and Muslim cultures as backwards and incapable of change. Yet when demands for political and social change trigger mass movements in these countries, western governments are quick to call for "stability" and "containment" of so-called fanatical populations.
The repackaging of this concept of "Oriental despotism" was more recently seen in western coverage and analysis of the Arab Spring. It resurrected the idea that "Arabs are not fit for democracy" or that "they were better when ruled by a dictator" while ignoring external interference in the democratisation process.

Imperialism and gender

Another typical Orientalist trait is the invocation of sexual imagery to denote western domination of the "Orient". In European literary works, the "Orient" is often represented as having typically "feminine" traits - seduction, vulnerability, fecundity - as if its conquest metaphorically implies sexual submission to the western male. The relationship between imperialism and gender has been examined and developed further by postcolonial and gender studies scholars.
Literary theorist Gayatri Spivak noted how even European feminist movements, in dealing with non-western women, have reproduced 19th-century colonial representations and adopted their oriental perspective. Examples include the depiction of the hijab as a symbol of Muslim women's subordination, preventing them from achieving independence and self-realisation.

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Such Orientalist views ignore contexts in which the veil is a tool of identity that seeks self-legitimation - used by women fighting for justice in both western and Muslim societies. They also ignore the fact that two prime ministers of Bangladesh have worn the veil - Sheikh Hasina and her predecessor, Khaleda Zia.

The same goes for Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan, the former head of state of Indonesia, Megawati Sukarnoputri, the former prime ministers of Senegal and Mali and other Muslim female politicians around the world.
The western gaze towards veiled women varies within a spectrum that goes from "contempt" - the Muslim woman as a fanatical member of a regressive society - to "compassion" - a veiled woman, regardless of her position in society, needs to be "liberated". Her emancipation is directly tied to the abandonment of her native culture because, as political theorist Wendy Brown reminds us, Orientalist dogma holds that "westerners have a culture, while Muslims are a culture".
In the same vein, Said warns against indulging in what could be described as a "reverse essentialism" - denying the realities of Muslim societies, where oppression, including the mistreatment of women, exists in certain places. It would be intellectually dishonest to whitewash all disturbing elements from these discussions.

In the 1990s, the Jamaat-e-Islami, the main Islamist party in Pakistan, was the only national party that supported the idea of having a female prime minister. The late Sudanese Islamist leader, Hassan al-Turabi, supported the idea of women leading prayers, participating in the political arena, and making the veil optional. In various media accounts on the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in North Africa, almost nothing was said about its feminist wing, which, in Tunisia, for example, bolstered women's participation in parliament.

'Reverse' Orientalism

Even though Said himself explicitly rejected "Occidentalist" discourses, some Muslim intellectuals have misunderstood the message of his book, wrongly hailing it as an attack on the West and a defence of the East. This gave rise to what Syrian philosopher Sadiq Jalal al-Azm termed "Orientalism in reverse", resulting in two different postures starting from the same premise.

'Orientalism is everywhere, in the structures and in the reasoning, permeating institutions and the former colonised countries' intellectual systems'

- Ahsis Nandy

The first is the "intellectual comprador" - an individual born in a Muslim-majority country who seeks appreciation in a West plagued with Orientalist prejudices and ends up internalising them. Former Muslims such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali gain credibility and prestigious professional opportunities from their identities and for promoting harmful stereotypes about the faith and its adherents.

As noted by psychologist Ahsis Nandy, "Orientalism is everywhere, in the structures and in the reasoning, permeating institutions and the former colonised countries' intellectual systems."
The second posture related to "reverse Orientalism" is the fundamentalist who adopts the inverse position of the "Orient" being ontologically inferior to the West. By employing similar essentialising tactics, Muslim theologians such as Abu Ala'a Mawdudi and Sayyid Qutb paint the West as a monolith prone to corruption, materialism and moral degeneration.

The key difference between fundamentalists and Orientalists, as described by Said, lies in the concept of "hegemony": the first adopts these positions as a reaction to centuries of subjugation, the second as a result of centuries of domination.

Decades after its release, Orientalism continues to be a valuable resource and provides important lessons. Ultimately, the study of human beings must be based on history and human experience - in an ever-changing world that is increasingly connected - not on old, pedantic abstractions, obscure laws or arbitrary systems.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Lorenzo Forlani is an Italian freelance journalist based between Italy and Lebanon. He has been reporting for Italian outlets on the MENA region for 15 years, with a particular focus on Orientalist narratives, dynamics of power and political representation, geopolitics of the region, and Shia-majority countries and movements.
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