By: Ed Caffin
Why is western perspective on the non-Western part of the world distorted? In Edward Saids influential book Orientalism a convincing framework is offered. It is argued that western discourse on the East (Orient) is based on a long Eurocentric tradition of prejudice and misinterpretations. According to Said, this “orientalism” served a political system of imperialism, lasting almost two centuries. But, even in the postcolonial era, orientalism may still shape Western perspective on the East.
Edward Said: a man of controversy
The Palestinian-American literary theorist Edward Said, published the book Orientalism in 1978. Received both with enthusiasm and criticism, the ideas put down in this work became highly influential. They radically changed postcolonial studies of the Middle East in the US and Europe.
After publishing the book, Said became an internationally well known cultural critic strongly advocating Palestinian rights. His pro-Palestinian views and criticism of US foreign policy, made him a controversial figure in the US. In 2003, at the age of 67, Said died of chronic leukemia.
Orientalism: a mirror-image defined as the opposite
According to Said, Western attitudes toward the Middle East were and still are based on false assumptions. The actual study of the Orient was conducted from a biased point of view. This produced a distorted image of the East which then was reproduced by writers, painters and scholars. The emerging cultural construction of the East failed to recognize the large diversity in language, culture and religious life of its inhabitants.
Although it helped the West to define its own identity, this cultural construction of the Orient defied reality. More importantly, it established a Western cultural hegemony. The self-image of the Westerner as enlightened, rational and civilized, needed a mirror image, defined as the opposite. A stereotypical image emerged of the oriental being backward, emotional and uncivilized. Therefore, orientalism is rooted in overly positive notions the West had of itself, projected on ‘the other.’ The idea of an uncivilized and inferior East, legitimated European efforts to colonize and imperialize large parts of the Eastern world.
In a frequently quoted text from Orientalism, Edward Said states this clearly:
“My contention is that Orientalism is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West, which elided the Orient’s difference with its weakness. . . . As a cultural apparatus Orientalism is all aggression, activity, judgment, will-to-truth, and knowledge” (p. 204).
A broader scope of orientalism
While Said mainly focused on the way the West perceives the Middle East and Arabs and Muslims, a broader scope of orientalism can be identified. Not only the perception of the Middle East is based on misinterpretations and false assumptions. Similar misconceptions have lead to a distorted perception of the Far East. In short, there (still) is a strong Western tendency to regard Easterners or Asians in general as underdeveloped, submissive and fundamentally different.
In this way, orientalism can be understood as a cultural construction of biased Western attitudes toward the Eastern world as a whole. Thus, following Saids core definition of orientalism as an “enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage – and even produce – the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively” (p.3).
How orientalism may still shape Western perception of the East
Although colonial and imperial days are over, orientalism still seems to be an effective tool to shape ones perception of the East and even to engage in practices of neo-colonialism. Sociopolitical debate in the Netherlands on multiculturalism and integration, for example, clearly shows that the Eastern and often Muslim values of the immigrant, are systematically contrasted with Western values. People tend to think in dichotomies, in opposing poles, such as ‘good’ versus ‘bad,’ ‘black’ versus ‘white’ and ‘them’ versus ‘us.’ The immediate problem with this becomes apparent when the media and/or the loudest voices, constantly seem to cover one side of the story. In this way orientalism shaped the structure of ‘dialogue’ that we still hear every day.
Also, orientalism can be easily identified in the way politics and media deal with the (so called) war on terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In general, eastern and or Arab presence is lacking in debates on these topics. While knowledge and opinions about these, and other complex realities is being constructed and produced, the other is ignored, cultivating East-West contrasts.
Once more, Said arguments still seem to be of great relevance: “in discussions of the orient, the orient is all absent, whereas one feels the orientalist and what he says as presence … We must not forget the orientalist’s presence is enabled by the orient’s effective absence (p. 208)”.