“Orientalism”



Political Science3835
Fall 2000


The phenomenon that is generally known as Orientalism is just another Western misrepresentations of Islam. Most Muslims living in the West would agree that the majority of this misrepresentation comes from the media: newspapers, magazines or television.


Edward Said, world known Arab scholar and the author of the book that we read, Orientalism, exposes the Orientalist approach in his book and defines "Orientalism" as “ . . . by Orientalism I mean several things, all of them, in my opinion, interdependent. The most readily accepted designation of for Orientalism is an academic one, and indeed, and indeed the label still serves in a number of academic institutions. Anyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient and this applies whether the person is an anthropologist, sociologist, historian, or philologist either in its specific or its general aspects, is an Orientalist, and what he or she does is Orientalism.”(3).


Edward Said\'s assessment and critique of the beliefs known as the Orientalism, forms an important environment for postcolonial studies. Said’s work highlights the inaccuracies of a wide variety of assumptions as it questions various paradigms of thought which are accepted on individual, academic, and political levels. The first “Orientalists” were 19th century scholars who translated the writings of “the Orient” into English, based on the hypothesis that a successful colonial conquest required knowledge of the conquered. This idea of knowledge as power is analyzed throughout Said\'s book. By knowing the Orient, the West came to own it. The Orient became the studied, the seen, the observed, and the object. At the same time “The Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience.”(1).


The most noteworthy creation of Orientalist scholars is that of the Orient itself. Orient is an enormous region, one that spreads across a multitude of cultures and countries. It includes most of Asia as well as the Middle East. An illustration of this single “Orient” which can be studied as a cohesive whole is one of the most powerful accomplishments of Orientalist scholars. This creates a classic image of Oriental as culturally backward, abnormal, and unchanging. The weak Orient awaits the dominance of the West; it is a defenseless and unintelligent whole that exists for, and in terms of, its Western counterpart. The importance of such an image is that it creates a single subject matter that did not exist. Since the Orientalist creates the notion of the Orient, it exists exclusively for him or her. The scholar who gives it life defines its uniqueness.


Said argues that Orientalism can be found in modern Western portrayal of "Arab" cultures. The description of "the Arab" as irrational, threatening, dishonest, and anti-Western, are ideas into which Orientalist study has progressed. These notions are trusted as fundamentals for both principles and policies developed by the Occident. Does a rejection of these notions require a dismissal of generalizations, cultural constructions, and racial and religious prejudices? Would a rejection require a dismissal of the line between “the West” and “the Other”? Said argues that the rejection of Orientalist thinking does not involve a denial of the differences between “the West” and “the Orient”, but rather an evaluation of such differences in a more critical and a more objective fashion. “The Orient” has to be studied in an Orientalist manner, but the scholars are obligated to study more focused and smaller culturally consistent regions.


By analyzing the book one would understand that this whole system of ideas about the Orient was created out of a need in the Western society to portray and characterize this other part of the world. Every society needs the “Other”, and that’s what the Middle East, Chinese, the Japanese, the Indian, and the North African became to the “West”. And although the book is focused only on Islamic part of part of the Orient, the whole idea of the Orient is applied equally to the other “third world nations” and Japan. Said says that in creation of the “Orient” the understanding of it plays a very important role. In creation of the “Orient” the “West” gains the power and control to rule over it. As the “Orient” theory progressed it comes to include every aspect of the human experience, the Oriental character becomes a kind of