‘Orientalism’ is a strong tradition with a vast literature that has had a great impact on the mentality of countless people. These paradigms determine the relations between former colonizers and the descendants of the formerly oppressed nations.
This lecture ishighly relevant and vital today since we are currently living in a period in which nationalist movements (or movements that make racial/national/essentialist references) are on the rise. People are angry and divided on many issues and many don’t feel the need to try to understand the ‘other’. We are in a period in which we need dialogue and understanding more than ever, and Edward Said’s work can give us some vital insights. What we must do always as humans is to learn from our past mistakes and try not to repeat them. These insights (as it is furtherly elaborated in the last paragraph, they should not be interpreted as written in favour of a specific group of people while attacking/blaming another group) can help us a great deal in building a world in which we can all live together peacefully, a world in which there’s no place for antagonization, limiting vague terms , symbols and concepts. As history shows us clearly, these attitudes caused great atrocities and pain to humanity and we can all agree that it is our duty to do our best to prevent their reoccurrence. Principally, what we must do is to challenge these paradigms that are remnants of past relations, avoid dehumanization, promote dialogue between different parties and sincere discussion without arrogance or one party trying to establish moral superiority and acknowledge the existence of different human experiences and do our best to understand them.
Edward W. Said was born in 1935 in Palestine, then under British rule, to a Palestinian Arab Christian father and a Lebanese Greek Orthodox mother. He lived in Palestine and Egypt until he was 12 and then he was sent to the US by his family. After getting his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Princeton, he earned a Doctor of Philosophy degree in English Literature from Harvard University. In 1963, he joined Columbia University’s Comparative Literature faculty and taught there until his death in 2003. He also worked as a visiting scholar at Yale University and John Hopkins University.
With his book Orientalism, which was published in 1978 and which is regarded as the seminal text for postcolonial theory, Said became an established cultural critic and this work influenced many fields in social sciences and humanities significantly (postcolonial theory, historiography, Middle East studies, Arab studies and many more) as well as changing the meaning of the word ‘Orientalist’ in daily language.
So, what does ‘Orientalism’ mean? Orientalism, in Western Europe, traditionally refers to the field of study which studies the languages, the history and the cultures, and every other aspect about the peoples and the lands of the ‘Orient’, starting from Morocco to all the way to Japan in its broadest meaning. Thus, people who are specialized in this field are/were called ‘Orientalists’. Edward Said considers Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt (1798) as the beginning of modern Orientalism. He points out that Napoleon did not go to Egypt with his soldiers only, he also took linguists, historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and scientists with him.
Orientalism and the study of the orient and the interest essentially began with the study of the holy texts of Christianity and the study of the language in the holy books (Hebrew principally), with the Church of Rome making the first attempt in studying Oriental languages with the establishment of Studia Linguarum to help the Dominicans liberate Christian captives in Islamic lands. The first school was founded in Tunis by Raymond Penaforte in the 12th century, and in 1311, the Council of Vienne took a decision to create schools for the study of oriental languages in the universities of Paris, Bologna, Oxford, Salamanca, and Rome, which are the oldest universities in Western Europe.
In the 19th and the 20th centuries the first attempt to understand Islam as a topic of modern scholarship (as opposed to a Christological heresy) was within the context of 19th-century Christian European Oriental studies. Orientalism became increasingly institutionalized, and had strong connections with the imperial Great Powers and colonial administrations. As Said points out, unlike the Americans, the French, the British and the Germans, countries lacking a significant colonial past did not have such a vast Orientalist literature and traditions. Many chairs at universities, schools, research centers and associations were established in Western Europe (more so in Britain and France) in the 19th century in order to study the ‘Orient’, such as the SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), the Royal Asiatic Society in Britain, Societe Asiatique and Journal Asiatique in France, the Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft in Germany, and the American Oriental Society in the United States.
Interestingly, this academic field encompasses the studying of a very large geographical area throughout all history (no limitation of time) that is far from being homogenous with countless ethno-religious communities with diverse backgrounds, histories, and attitudes. Therefore, a professor of the Chinese language, a professor of Arab History and a professor of Hinduism are all called Orientalists.
‘’The East is a career.’’ Benjamin Disraeli, Tancred
After Edward Said’s book, the term Orientalism came to mean a specific patronizing Western European (and American) attitude towards Middle Eastern, Asian, and North African societies, thus having a negative connotation. According to Said, the ‘West’ essentializes these cultures and peoples as static and undeveloped (like how Renan viewed Semitic languages as dead and Indo-European languages as organic) manufacturing the view that the Orient and its peoples can be studied, depicted, and reproduced. He states that this implicitly implies the idea that Western society is developed, rational, flexible, and superior.
As it can be understood from the name of this field (Orientalism), this view of the world implies that the world consists of different civilizations divided by definitive, absolute lines, much like Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’, which can be regarded as the continuation of the orientalist literature and tradition in the 20th century. There is a ‘West’ and an ‘East’. However, in his work, Edward Said states that the orient is a constructed concept, and the claim, based on the geographical area and the religions, cultures, and the racial qualities specific and unique to this area, that that part of the world has native and by nature ‘different and alien’ inhabitants can be questioned, immediately adding that he doesn’t agree with the idea that ‘We know about ourselves the best.’ either.
Starting from Sophocles’ representation of the Persians in Ancient Greece, Said traces the history of the representations of the Orient and the Orientals and gives us the following essential insights.
Orientalism took a part of the world as completely ‘alien’ to itself, constructed unchangeable, permanent statements (and prejudices) about it, these statements were quoted and transferred in the Orientalist literature throughout generations. Orientalism, rather than trying to really understand these human experiences of others, didn’t consider it a human experience, and thus took all the peoples of the Orient like objects to study and in an oversimplifying and reductive manner. Broad geographical areas, countless ethno-religious groups, many different communities were reduced into dead, static categories, seen as homogenous and static throughout ages and studied in some rooms and offices in Western European capitals. While the main goal of this field should have been to understand these human experiences, studying of the Orient mainly relied on old texts as central sources. Should one read the Quran first to understand a Modern Egyptian? It is striking that even in the late 20th century it was possible to speak about the ‘Arab mind’ (interesting, how absurd it would sound to many if one wanted to talk about the ‘American mind’ or the ‘British mind’) and write articles and books about how the Arabic language doesn’t let the Arabs think rationally and clearly. (The Influence of the Arabic Language on the Psychology of the Arabs by Shouby). Thus, peoples of the Orient ceased to be individuals, little communities were disregarded, and everyone was put under some broad category such as ‘Oriental’ or ‘Muslim’ which have vague meanings.
On the other hand, Orientalism was used to justify colonialism and domination over those lands (White Man’s Burden, ‘’La Mission Civilisatrice’’, and the concept that Europeans are a superior race, colonialism was in the benefit of the colonized and Europeans had the duty to civilize other peoples) and facilitate colonial administration. Like Said states, we cannot understand the Orientalist literature without considering the close relations between some important Orientalists and imperial states and their institutions.
On most of the encounters between the ‘Westerner’ and the ‘Oriental’, the ‘Westerner’ had been in a superior position, a kind of an administrator or in a somewhat privileged position (Foucault’s power relations), and these power relations were naturally very influential on the representations of the ‘East’. ‘Westerners’ examined, observed, studied, represented and spoke on behalf of the ‘East’ (The Indian characters in Kipling’s novels could be an example)
While Said takes us on a journey in Orientalist literature and mentality starting from the representations of Persians in Ancient Greece, to the representations of Saracens/Muslims in Medieval Europe, to Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt, to the image of Arabs in American popular culture, he criticizes some more general attitudes. The view he defends, is that the world does not consist of different civilizations that are different by nature and divided in absolute terms. He states that every part of the world had contacts with other parts of the world and limiting definitive terms such as the ‘Orient’, ‘East’, ‘West’, ‘Islam’ and ‘Arab’ have vague meanings and these attitudes have dire consequences on humanity. These prejudiced attitudes construct antagonists and an image of history and the world that is far from reality in people’s minds.
In the preface to the 1995 edition of the book, Said talks about how the book was received in different parts of the world by different groups. While some American and British professors, especially Bernard Lewis, called the work ‘Anti-western’, in the Arab world it was perceived as a book written in defense of Arabs against the ‘West’, so both missing the point of the work. Said states in the preface to the 1995 edition that he doesn’t know how to respond to all these criticisms to a book that carefully doesn’t try to neither defend or discuss the ‘Orient’ or ‘Islam’, by an author who is obviously against essentialism, skeptical towards all categorical labels such as the ‘Orient’ and the ‘West’. ‘’Orientalism’’ was perceived as a systematic defense of the Arabs and Islam in the Arab world, the reviews that were written reflect this perception, however in the book he states that he is not interested to show what Islam or the Orient really is, and clearly states that he doesn’t have the capacity to do it as well.
Orientalism, by E.W. Said. Penguin Classics. Buy on Amazon.