Edward Said, who is a Palestinian origined American scholar, is considered as one of the most important and controversial Middle-East specialists in the world and he is known with his famous article and book “Orientalism” which was published in 1978 and totally changed the academic agenda for Middle-Eastern studies. Said who died recently, in his masterpiece by using post-structuralist Foucaldian method of binary oppositions, explained the working of the incredibly complex system of thought possessed by Westerners to describe the Orient. Said claimed that Orientalism is an imaginative system of thought created by Europeans to define the Orient and also themselves, the Occident. Said explains three different meanings of Orientalism; firstly, Orientalism in the academic sense which means studies related to the Orient. “The scientific discipline in the West according to which beginning in the early 19th century one specialized in the study of various Oriental cultures and traditions (Said, “Orientalism Reconsidered, pg 90). Secondly, the style of thought based upon ontological and epistemological differentiation made between the Orient and the Occident. Lastly and most importantly, a style of thought created by Europeans for having authority over the Orient. “The ideological suppositions, images, and fantasies about a currently important and politically urgent region of the world called the Orient” (Said, “Orientalism Reconsidered, pg 90). Said deals with the second and especially third meaning of Orientalism and shows the immense power of Orientalism in the minds of European people.
The main topic of Edward Said’s Orientalism article is Orientalism in the meaning of a style of thought that was created and has been using by Europeans (especially French and British) in order to define the Orient and also themselves. Unfortunately, Orientalism is also used to increase the legitimacy of Western imperialism. In Said’s thinking, Orientalism applies both for real and academic life in the Occident. Moreover, Said believes that Orientalism is so powerful that it affects thoughts of people in the Orient in fact even thoughts that are against Orientalism. “Moreover, so authoritative a position did Orientalism have that I believe no one writing, thinking, or acting on the Orient could do so without taking account of the limitations on thought and action imposed by Orientalism” (Said, “Orientalism”, pg 3). Said’s main concern is not about finding solutions to this problem but rather analyzing the working of Orientalism. The main argument of the article is that Orientalism is a historical product, construction of power relations between Occident and Orient, which was created by Westerners and which has been preventing people to have correct ideas about the East. In other words, Said claims that the Orient was orientalized by Europeans and thus, is not free subject of thoughts (these are constructed conceptions). He says; “the relatively common denominator between these three aspects of Orientalism is the line separating Occident from Orient, and this, I argued, is less a fact of nature than it is a fact of human production, which I have called imaginative geography” (Said, “Orientalism Reconsidered, pg 90). In order to substantiate his argument, Said gives us many examples from Western literature, political science and anthropological theories. Kuchuk Hanem character in Gustave Flaubert’s novel, the approaches of Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill toward India, Montesquieu’s climate theory, the racial superiority theories in anthropology, the use of stereotypes in movies and advertisements or the imperial acts of European empires starting from 19th century are all examples of the immense strength of Orientalist discourse. But how Orientalism had become that widespread?
Said explains it as the benefit of Western countries to carry on Orientalism for having authority over the Orient. Starting from Cicero most of the writers, philosophers, artists of the West have been using East as a mystical, emotional, irrational, underdeveloped symbol that is inferior to West in their works. All these ideas are transmitted from a generation to other and Orientalism continues with gaining more power, more support. Said shows us that all the cornerstones in Western culture carry Orientalist elements and the Occident most of the time defines it by defining the imaginative, exact opposite of itself: the Orient. Edward Said concludes by saying that Orientalism intensifies divisions between East and West and makes things worse. Due to Orientalism, Arab image in the Western culture became a wicked one and the antipathy towards Western countries reached the peak in the East. However, even this antipathy is not a real one because it is highly affected by the Orientalist discourse. Said thinks that first of all, academicians, scholars should try to avoid Orientalism in their works for having unbiased, correct information about Eastern world although it is impossible to be completely objective in social sciences. Orientalism discussion is very significant in Middle Eastern politics because we see that Western media continues to portray the developments in the Middle from an Orientalist perspective.
In the article “Orientalism Reconsidered” Said first redefines Orientalism as “a scientific movement whose analogue in the world of empirical politics was the Orient’s colonial accumulation and acquisition by Europe” (Said, “Orientalism Reconsidered”, pg 93). He later talks about the critics he had received after writing his famous book. He claims that Zionists, nativists, nationalists and Islamic extremists have all attacked his theory from their point of view. Said later turns to explain the reproducers of the Orientalist discourse such as Bernard Lewis and Daniel Pipes. In his book “The Muslim Discovery of Europe” Lewis tried to convince the readers that “Western quest for knowledge about other societies is unique and that is motivated by pure curiosity, and in contrast Muslims were neither able nor interested in getting knowledge about Europe” (Said, pg 96). Daniel Pipes on the other hand, in his book “In the Path of God: Islam and Political Power” talks about the anomie and incapacity for self-representation of Islam and the inferiority complex of Islamic societies and thus, serves to legitimize the aggressiveness and interventionism of USA. “For Pipes, Islam is a volatile and dangerous business, a political movement intervening in and disrupting the West, stirring up insurrection and fanaticism anywhere else” (Said, pg 97). Said does not accept these claims as scientific rather he thinks these are statements of power and claims for relatively absolute authority. Said also talks about the role of the Orientalist discourse in the rise of anti-Semitism and he criticizes Zionists for not seeing this reality. He says; “... hostility to Islam in the modern Christian West has historically gone hand in hand with, has stemmed from the same source, has been nourished at the same stream as anti-Semitism, and that a critique of orthodoxies, dogmas and disciplinary procedures of Orientalism contribute to an enlargement of our understanding of the cultural mechanisms of anti-Semitism” (Said, pg 99). Said also talks about the funny idea of some Arab nationalists who judge his work as a part of an imperialist plot.
According to Edward Said, media plays a very important role in the expansion of the Orientalist discourse. In his view, “production of knowledge, or information, of media images is unevenly distributed” and the media reproduces this discourse by strengthening it (Said, pg 100). Western countries’ global economic and political power is one the major reasons of this unfair distribution. Orientalist discourse does not analyze world history as a total unit but rather puts European modernization (Age of exploration, Renaissance, Reform, Enlightenment and Age of industrialization) to the center and excludes Eastern societies from the history. “The Orient was routinely described as feminine, its riches as fertile, its main symbols the sensual woman, the harem, and the despotic -but curiously attractive- ruler” (Said, pg 103). This contrast image of East helps the West to define itself as democratic, rational and strong.