In 1978, Edward Said, a Palestinian scholar established in the United States, published an immensely controversial book entitled 'Orientalism'. The controversy surrounding this piece of work was extremely vivacious, and its arguments are still, nowadays, at the core of intense academic debate. In this book, Said takes up a very critical and virulent standpoint against Orientalism, understood as the western academic literature that is, in one form or the other, interested in the study of the 'Orient'. The purpose of this essay is to expose and analyse the main arguments made by Said and its followers as well as its counterparts, in order to understand how relevant it is to talk about an 'Orientalism Debate' not only after the publication of the book, but also today, in the light of some empirical events. Therefore, the first two parts of this essay will be focused on the crucial arguments made by Said-and further developed by some scholars like Kabbani writing on Europe's Myths of Orient - followed by the criticisms that have emerged in response to the formulation of Orientalism as a “Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient » . Then, in a final part, we will see in what aspect Said's assumptions seem relevant or irrelevant in today's international context when the Middle East, the so-called Orient, is more than ever under the limelight.
Considering the tremendous reactions Said's book provoked, one can not deny the importance of this piece of work in the realm of political thought, but also, more broadly in the field of Social Sciences, as it has influenced various domains including sociology, anthropology, or, even, history . But what is interesting is that Said was not the first to take such a virulent standpoint against Western scholarship, yet its impact had no precedent. Indeed as Prakash notes “the critique of Western knowledge of the Orient is at least as old as modern Orientalism itself and has been recurrent” . He for instance quotes Abd-al-Rahman al-Jabarti, an Egyptian chronicler who witnessed Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798, and “had no doubt that the expedition was as much an epistemological as a military conquest.” But Orientalism has brought to the field a whole new perspective on Western scholarship following some of the major post-structuralist ideas developed by authors like Foucault. “What accounts for the extraordinary impact of Orientalism is its repeated dissolution of boundaries drawn by colonial and neocolonial Western hegemony” Prakash further argues. Indeed, in Said's mind, Orientalism is not just a set of idea concerned with culture, arts and ideology, it is understood as an actual discourse, “an institutionalized discipline that possessed authority, that involved descriptive and analytical practices, that projected construction of the Orient in imaginative, sociological, military and political terms” , describes Thomas, one of Said's advocate in the field of Anthropology. 'Construction of the Orient in imaginative terms': that is the starting point of Said's analysis of Orientalism. According to him, Western scholars have 'created' the notion of Orient themselves, and this creation is of prime importance because it 'has helped to define Europe as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience' especially during the 19th century when the idea of Europe as a collective notion was emerging. Those creations are then crucial to the West as it is a way of defining itself in contrast with the 'Other': the Oriental. In that sense, Orientalism represents “a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient's special place in European Western experience." But this conception of the 'Other', which is essential to the acquisition of Western identity, relies on imaginary knowledge, what Said calls 'imaginative geography'. “In "our" mind the territory of the "other" can be filled with pure imagination, but never with purely "objective" knowledge. This is the realm of "imaginative geography," a fundamental concept of Orientalism” claims Mussalam. The Orient is then pictured and associated with the 1001 nights, Scheherazade's sensuality and when « The West is social stability; the East ⎨is⎬ pleasure, unrestricted by social dictates » . Furthermore, notions of Orient and Occident have been man-made, Western-man-made and are interdependent, with the former being constructed as a negative image of Western culture. The Orient and the Oriental man are actually what the Occident and the Occidental man, “virtuous and mature” ... are not. The Westerner is then 'rational, peaceful, liberal, logical” while the Oriental man is 'none of these thing” From these concepts, Said, inspired by Michel Foucault's notion of discourse in The Archaeology of Knowledge and in Discipline and Punish as well as Gramsci work on cultural hegemony quickly associates Western knowledge, or constructed knowledge of the 'Orient' as a source of power, politically motivated. “The relationship between the Occident and the Orient is a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony” he claims. Said's intention is then to point out how Orientalism has been transformed by the Western academic community into a doctrine, and even an institution, for exercising its domination on the Orient, because in Said's mind Orientalism and imperialism are « metaphors of each other. Orientalism is a manner of imperialism; imperialism is a manner of Orientalism ». Taking the empirical examples of Lord Balfour and Lord Cromer, the colonial manager of Egypt, he further argues that Orientalism has created a “core of essential knowledge both academic and practical” which they “inherited from a century of modern Western Orientalism and used to control colonial affairs”.
Thus, in Said's analysis, the Western academic community, especially in the 19th and 20th century, has created an image of the Orient, based on false and 'prototypical' propositions, in opposition to its own self-perception. This image is based on assumption of weakness on the part of the created 'Oriental man' and has allowed the discourse, which was first interested in artistic and cultural depiction, to develop itself towards a source of power justifying colonialism and imperialism.
Those notion of 'imaginative geography', creation of the 'Other' in order to define itself, false and created perception of the Orient, as well as the intertwined relation between knowledge (a constructed knowledge) and power, and eventually, Orientalism and Imperialism, lie at the core of Said's -and other scholars critical towards Western perception of the Orient- argumentation. Its novelty, notably the references to Foucault's work, has brought up a lot of reactions, and as Thomas has noted “what is conspicuous is not just the amount of comment the book has prompted, but also the polarization of views and the level of vituperation” . We can for instance quote Ryckmans (Simon Leys), who described Said's book as '300 pages of twisted, obscure, incoherent, ill-informed and badly-written diatribe' in his article entitled 'Orientalism and Sinology' . Many criticisms have then emerged, and one of the most famous critics of Said's work is Bernard Lewis, an Orientalist historian. Shortly after the publication of 'Orientalism,' a debate between the two intellectual figures emerged in the New York Review of Books. Lewis main argument was that Said's historical analysis is rather poor and notably forgets that the West has had an interest in the Orient longer before expressing some imperialist views and wills of control. His point of view is that Orientalism does not stem from imperialist concerns but rather from Humanism, and therefore, as a rational academic framework, is not overwhelmed by imperial interest of the rulers. Indeed, as Prakash explains, for many scholars a crucial point 'is the conviction that imperial interests could never possibly be so overwhelming as to vitiate the writings of scholars drawn from different centuries, nations, institutions, academic fields, and cultural sensibilities. The persistence of racist stereotypes and politically-motivated distortions is readily conceded, but not the indictment of the Orientalist tradition as a whole of being complicit with Western power.' By making them complicit of power-seeker rulers, Said is then denying the approach of German Orientalists, for instance, whose work have been very influential without being associated to an imperialist power. Others have also stressed the lack of actual historical analysis, which, in the end, undermines Said's point as it does not provide a clear empirical background. This is the case of Talal Asad, though adhering to Said's argumentation, who regrets he had not "rooted his analysis more firmly in the particular conditions within which this authoritative discourse was historically produced." Besides, some have criticised Said's emphasis on imperialism. According to Windschuttle, 'at most, Said establishes that Orientalism provided the West with a command of Oriental languages and culture, plus a background mindset that convinced it of its cultural and technological advance over Islam. But these are far from sufficient causes of imperial conquest since they explain neither motives, opportunities, nor objectives.' Richardson talks of a 'banal equation with imperialism' without any historical support and Mussalam, if he recognises the existence of political motives driving Western powers, is opposed to too much emphasis on the equation: Orientalism=imperialism, and acknowledges the danger this can bring as 'to speak of imperialism as mature Orientalism gives such importance to Orientalism and Orientalists that it allows for the fiction that by combating Orientalism you are combating imperialism. It may also shut the door effectively against any attempt to salvage anything from Orientalism. To salvage something from Orientalism is possible, and for scholars of the Middle East, especially native scholars, it is an important task.' Finally, a claim that has often been made against Said's argumentation is that “his own conceptualization of 'Orientalists' is as pure an example of 'Orientalism' as one could wish for!” This idea of reciprocity in Said's argument is often advanced as 'his own critique relies on just as much mis-representation of Orientalists as he accuses them of making in their representation of the Orient' . It is the idea that the essentialist character that Said identifies within the Western academia, picturing all Orientals as the same “gullible, devoid of energy and initiatives” individuals can actually be found and levied in his own argument, picturing all Western scholars as the same ductile individuals, complicit of Western hegemonic powers.
As seducing as Said's, Kabbani's, Hourani's and others figures of the critical stance towards Orientalism, arguments are, it seems that they actually lack of historical ground as well as constituency in the methodological construction of the essentialist argument, as it can easily but turned against them. The debate between Humanism and subordination to imperialist ruling powers, in the academic community is also at stake when taking a closer look to the arguments developed by Said.
Then, does it mean that Said's argument against Orientalism as 'a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient' is irrelevant and should be abandoned? The answer given here is much more nuanced. Indeed, it is worth looking at today international political and academic stage and see how Said's critique fits into this complex configuration, both at the Middle East and the global level. Said has had an impact, this is not challengeable. First of all, some of his arguments still make a lot of sense today, besides the critics that can have been made. For instance, one could argue that the notion of Western hegemony on culture and knowledge is still accurate as Europe and the US still maintain a sort of domination in terms of culture, knowledge and especially, scholarship. As I have said before, 'To salvage something from Orientalism is possible, and for scholars of the Middle East, especially native scholars, it is an important task' , but the problem faced today, is that, too often, the elites of these countries are still heavily influenced by the US and Europe. In that sense, we can say that Said's argument that 'the Orient participates in its own Orientalising' is still firmly applicable in today's world context, even if things are starting to change slowly. Secondly, if we take a look at today's post 9/11 representation of the Arab-Islamic world on the international stage, especially through the lens of media, a question covered in Said's work Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World first published in 1981, we can say that it still firmly embodies Orientalist issues. Thus, the essentialist argument find its place here, where we can say that media tend to cast Muslim and Arabs as the same, unique, often fundamentalist individuals with a strong resentment against the West. This image, is not, fortunately, shared by all Westerners (and, once again, we ought not to fall in the reverse essentialist argument that would cast all Westerner as the same), but it is currently the most broadcasted one and Islam still seems misunderstood, defined under Crusade terms and distorted. Thus, most of Said's conclusions, especially on the hegemonic appetite of Western governing powers “hardly needs demonstration today, when near Eastern policy at high ranks of United States decision-makers is challenged as being undertaken 'to gain empirical evidence to test an assumption' that 'the Arab-Islamic world is inherently allergic to democracy' “ reminds us Peter Marcuse. Then, apart from claims directly formulated by Said and that are still accurate in today's world context, there are also more indirect influences that can be noted: influences on the theoretical framework, the articulation of ideas of some authors and domains. For instance, some scholars have advocated for his claims to be taken into account in disciplines that have a tradition of ignoring such kind of critical theory work. This is the case of Rotter writing about Diplomatic history, and more especially US diplomatic history and emphasizing that « Said, cited or not, has had some influence on the field, and suggest that there exist opportunities to employ his insights further. There has been, in other words, Saidism without Said, and there may yet be a good deal more » . This influence is shown mainly by a growing recognition that 'realms of culture and politics, attitudes and behaviours, are related in important ways and are at least mutually constitutive' . Finally, we can say that Said's stand on Orientalism has influenced a whole community of scholars interested in dynamics of power and domination. Thus it is often acknowledged that post-colonialist writings find their origin in his work on Orientalism. Bearing this in mind, it is worth noticing Marcuse's theory on the existence of a parallel between Orientalism and Globalism. Marcuse's main argument is that “the richness of Said's approach can be extended quite directly to an analysis of the concept of Globalism, which in this sense is the inheritor of Orientalism's mantle.” In his conception, then, Orientalism has been sort of overridden by Globalism a new form of justification for a new form of imperialism. “As Orientalism paralleled and legitimated colonialism and imperialism and the domination of Western over ''Third World'' countries, so Globalism parallels and legitimates the priority of global capitalism over all forms of social organization, and the domination of capital over labour “ , he further argues. In his mind, Said's argumentation has been of prime importance for highlighting the structure of West/Orient relations in terms of imperialism, colonialism and mainly domination and therefore can easily be transferred to another kind of (socio-economic) hegemonic domination: capitalism over social organization.
This essay has examined the different arguments involved in the 'Orientalism debate'. As a starting point, we looked at Said's three main claims, developed in his book Orientalism. The first one is the idea that the notion of Orient has been created by the European mind in order to construct itself. Then, it is important to remind that Orientalism has tended to cast the Orient and the Oriental man, along false and prototypical lines as a unique and most of all inferior individuals, this is the essentialist critics. Finally, Orientalism's critics such as Said emphasize the political ends involved in this construction of knowledge, when Orientalism is understood as a ground of colonialism and imperialism. Naturally, those criticisms have themselves brought up many criticisms based on historical weaknesses, ideological difference towards the independence of scholars, and most of all on the methodological constituency of the essentialist argument, that can quickly be turned towards Said. But this does not mean that those claims should be totally abandoned and the last part has showed us that they are still extremely relevant to understand the dynamics in the politics between the West and the Middle East. To conclude, we have seen that Orientalism can be taken as a masterpiece in the context for West/East relations of dominations, and its analysis, theoretical framework and conclusions are extremely pertinent and can be shifted for the analysis of other forms of social domination, those implied by Globalism for instance: “in the ongoing conflict between the forces of exploitation and domination, Edward Said's many-facetted contributions have been a potent weapon on the side of social justice and the struggle for a humane world. The struggle against Globalism, exemplified by movements such as those represented in the World Social Forum, is not a replacement but a continuation of the struggle in which Said played such a prominent role.”
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