February 27, 2013 by Tariq Khan
Edward Said (1935-2003) was a Palestinian-American intellectual and human rights activist best known for his classic 1979 book Orientalism. This is the book in which Edward Said introduces his influential and controversial concept of Orientalism. Orientalism as Said uses the term refers to a system of ideas, a lens, or a framework through which the West, as represented by the great Western colonial powers of the last 200 years — France, Britain, and the United States — understands the Middle East. The word “understand” as I just used it is key in that Said identifies a clear distinction between understanding “for the purposes of coexistence and humanistic enlargement of horizons” and understanding “for the purposes of control and external dominion.” Orientalism has everything to do with the latter.
Beginning with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, Orientalism is a Western construction built within the history of Western colonial domination and imperial expansion; not only territorial expansion, but economic and cultural expansion. While Said specifically deals with Western representations of the Middle East, Arabs, and Islam, broadly speaking Said is attempting to illuminate the cultural component of domination. This book has far-reaching implications and is useful across disciplines, specifically English, sociology, history, anthropology, political science, cultural studies, and conflict resolution.
Said uses examples as varied as Shakespeare, Napoleon, Ernest Renan, Edward William Lane, Karl Marx, and Henry Kissinger among many other culturally and/or politically influential people whose work has, taken together, created a discourse whereby the West understands the East. In this emphasis on the importance of discourse — how discourse sets the boundaries for thought, creating, recreating, and reinforcing structures of power and relationships of inequality — Said draws heavily on the thinking of Foucault. This use of Foucauldian theory is most evident in Said’s use of the concept of “the other” which he puts into operation throughout the book. Said applies this concept to his own notion of Orientalism, arguing that an important part of the formation of Western identity was the construction of a counter-identity, an alter-ego. In order for there to be a superior, righteous, strong Occident, there has to be an inferior, evil, weak Orient.
Said is doing more than merely performing the role of a disinterested scholar — indeed, he does not believe there is such a thing as indifference in scholarship. Yes, he is writing as a scholar, but he is also writing as a human being, a world citizen, who sees man-made constructs such as “the Orient” and “the Occident” as malignant distortions of reality, harmful to the human condition. Rather than simply study and illuminate these concepts, he wants to chip away at them, weaken them, and thereby weaken the pernicious systems of power that rely on them:
“The terrible reductive conflicts that herd people under falsely unifying rubrics like ‘America,’ ‘the west,’ or ‘Islam’ and invent collective identities for large numbers of individuals who are actually quite diverse, cannot remain as potent as they are, and must be opposed, their murderous effectiveness vastly reduced in influence and mobilizing power.”
In this enterprise of consciously directing his scholarship to non-neutral ends, Said follows the advice of Antonio Gramsci who emphasized the importance of “knowing thyself” as the first step in undergoing scholarly, critical analysis. Gramsci stressed that the individual scholar, regardless of whether he or she recognizes it, does not write from a place of detachment but is “a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited…an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory, therefore it is imperative at the outset to compile such an inventory.” Said takes such an inventory, being honest about his interest in this study as an “Oriental” educated and living in the West. His own Western education was saturated with ideas about Arabs that were denigrating to him as an individual and simply did not match up to his own experience with the Arab world. He is fighting, in a sense, for his own dignity and humanity as well as for the dignity and humanity of the Arab world. He is open about the fact that his own personal attachment to these issues is why he focuses on the West’s treatment of the Middle East and not the entirety of the East.
Besides drawing on Gramsci’s advice to “know thyself” (a maxim that actually goes at least as far back as ancient Greece), Said makes effective use of Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. Orientalism, argues Said, is a cultural weapon that the West wields over the East as a means (but not the only means) of control. “The idea derives to a great extent, ” writes Said, “from the impulse not simply to describe [the East], but also to dominate and somehow defend against it.” The more sophisticated an imperialist power, the greater the role of cultural power, of cultural discourse, in that domination.
In some respect, Said’s Orientalism echoes the sentiments of Noam Chomsky, whose influential American Power and the New Mandarins came out a decade earlier. Chomsky harshly criticized American intellectuals for their complicity in the Vietnam War. He charged them with abandoning the role of intellectuals by getting in line with an administration whose logic they knew was full of holes, cowardly providing the intellectual justification for “nation building,” putting their time and talents at the disposal of the military industrial complex, supporting U.S. aggression in Southeast Asia. The role of the intellectual, argued Chomsky, is to tell the truth and expose lies, not to be a yes-man for the state. Similarly Said asks:
“What is the role of the intellectual? Is he there to validate the culture and state of which he is a part? What importance must he give to an independent critical consciousness, an oppositional critical consciousness?”
Said shares Chomsky’s distrust of authority and disappointment with intellectuals who serve the interests of authority. Said warns against “too close a relationship between the scholar and the state.” Good scholarship requires intellectuals who are free to think independently and critically. It also requires, at times, courage to stand in opposition to institutions and even popular attitudes or ways of thinking. Said argues that in the case of Orientalism, because it is already a well-entrenched, dominant narrative, it requires active effort on the part of intellectuals to not perpetuate it. Orientalism is the automatic default mode, easily taking over the scholar who is not consciously on guard against received wisdom. One can see how this line of thinking can apply not only to Orientalism, but to all kinds of “isms” that are deeply entrenched in our cultural landscape. This is one reason why so many academic disciplines find Said’s work relevant.
While ultimately Said wants these socially constructed, unhelpful, artificial categories of “Orient” and “Occident” to disappear, he does not deny that national and cultural differences do exist. He is not one to say that “We Arabs are just like you Americans!” What he does deny is that difference must imply hostility, that it must lead to a relationship of inequality, of submission and domination. He is also not claiming that the West is unique in “othering” different cultures. He recognizes that many cultures have xenophobic tendencies and ideas of their own superiority. However, these attitudes are especially dangerous when the culture indulging them is economically/militarily dominant and expansionist.
To the question of whether or not Said proves his case, absolutely he does. His examples from literature and politics are excellent, valid, and numerous and span the last two hundred years. One need not even read Said to see Orientalism in action today. The mainstream media (and not just FOX News) are full of representations of Arabs and Muslims as terrorists, misogynists, liars, zealots, and amoral followers of strange, foreign ideas. Even liberals perpetuate these stereotypes. When some isolated incident of violence committed by a Muslim makes it into the news, all Muslims are blamed for it. American pundits angrily ask moderate Muslims, “Why aren’t you doing anything to stop this?” as if moderate Muslims are to blame for terrorism. Conversely, if some Islamophobic, white supremacist Christian fundamentalist zealot commits a hate crime against a Muslim, as has happened with regularity since 9/11, it does not even occur to any of these same pundits to ask moderate white Christians why they are not doing anything about the problem. Even today Arabs and Muslims are held to a different standard than the dominant population. For evidence of this, look no further than the “ground zero mosque” controversy which brought out the worst of America’s bigotry and ignorance concerning Islam. Since 9/11, as the U.S. invaded the Middle East for this latest round of imperial domination, there has been an increase in scholarly study of Islam, the Middle East and South Asia. Some of this has been for a kind of positive understanding, but much of it has been understanding for the purpose of more effectively controlling the people of the Middle East and defeating them militarily, economically, and culturally.
There is not an Arab, South Asian, or Muslim in the United States of America who has not personally felt the effects of Orientalism, and worse, any Iraqis or Afghans who have had their town destroyed, their house raided, or their loved one killed, kidnapped, or tortured has felt it. Any refugee of America’s ill-conceived War on Terror has felt it. While Said makes a strong case, and he has been somewhat successful in affecting academia in the way the West studies the Middle East, there is still no shortage of Islamophobic intellectuals who serve the interests of the State Department and the military industrial complex. The “Arab Spring” worked somewhat against this Orientalist perception of the Middle East, as Americans saw thousands upon thousands of seemingly moderate, democratic-minded Arabs nonviolently fight for their own destinies. Nevertheless, hundreds of years of social conditioning does not disappear easily. Said’s Orientalism is just as relevant and timely today as it was when it came out decades ago.