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Does Orientalism still exist?

By Zynab Al-Bahrani

The East-West relationship has been debated by many intellectual thinkers for centuries. Zynab Al-Bahrani explores where Orientalism originated and how its presence still affects world affairs today. For hundreds of years the debate about Orientalism has caused immense controversy between the Eastern and Western worlds and especially among scholars who study it. Orientalism is defined as the study of the Eastern culture through a Western perspective. The debate was focused upon during the colonialist period when Western empires dominated much of the Eastern world in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Imperialism brought with it a vast range of machineries, traders and government officials from Europe who would travel to these regions and discover a world very different from theirs, with an exotic culture rich in mysticism, art, history and religion. Sometimes this difference was exciting to those travellers but on other occasions it caused a great clash of values and ideologies. This is especially when it came down to observing Islam. Today, Orientalism has taken on a new form in the world we live in today as it is argued that although the term is a taboo to be used, it still has a significant relevance.

Knowledge and Power


Vital to understanding Orientalism is the work on knowledge and power by French philosopher and historian Paul-Michel Foucault. Although Foucault does not talk about Orientalism directly, he focuses on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when knowledge or the truth was increasingly being used to implement power over other people. He believed that humans are always influenced about a certain topic depending on the individual and the topic being discussed. He studied different institutions in Europe and in one study he focused on prisons where he found that when prisons were created it allowed individuals to understand the mind of a criminal and discipline them. This was called discursive formations, which means that systems of knowledge based on institutional practices produced certain truths or knowledge. Therefore, what Foucault suggests relates directly to the question of Orientalism. If an individual is usually inclined to have prejudgments about a culture that is alien to them, then inevitably there is no way out of forming stereotypes that Orientalism creates.

The emergence of neo-colonialism

Edward Said's famous and influential 1979 book

Edward Said who wrote extensively about the topic of Orientalism used Foucaults argument as a model. Said defined Orientalism as a system of knowledge or academia rooted in a Western perspective which was used to control the Orient. He uses the example of Arthur Balfour remarks over British colonialism of Egypt in 1882 in a speech to the House of Commons. Balfour said that Britain was well aware of the history and culture of the Egyptian people, and he repeatedly uses the word our knowledge of Egypt. It is as if to say that simply by surveying the Eastern culture through their perspective they were able to understand that culture from its origins to its prime. In essence Said points out that the mentality of Balfour and others like him was that by knowing about the Orient, the West could own it. The problem that we face here is that not only are civilisations and cultures an ever evolving concept which Balfour has ignored, but also that it is not possible to entirely understand another culture through an outsiders perspective. Although direct colonialism does not exist anymore in the 21stcentury, neo-colonialism has filled in the need for Western powers to indirectly influence the Eastern world. Neo-colonialism is the theory that argues that Western powers use economic organisations such as the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and World Bank to influence and dominate the economic activity of those countries. This is an inevitable outcome as these organisations were established by Western powers after WWII and are built to abide by Western values of conservative capitalism.

The significance of 9/11


A. L. Macfie in his book Orientalism points out that Orientalism, specifically regarding the religion of Islam, has re-emerged in the 21st century due to the rise of fundamentalism and the new form of Western imperialism called neo-colonialism. Macfie suggests that there has been an increased interest in the study of Islam, especially after the attack on the USA on 9/11. What is interesting is that today Islam is being studied and analysed in a similar way as it was during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Although the exact term Orientalism is not used in the media because the term has become a taboo, Said demonstrates in his book Covering Islam that the media and some Western governments intend to present the Islamic world as a violent and aggressive other world that needs to be controlled.

The late Edward Said, a world reknowned writer.

Of course it is fair to say that the rise of fundamentalism within the religion has not led the world to perceive Islam as a peaceful religion, but what Said argues is that the West has focused its attention on terrorists and has misinterpreted the Islamic world once again just as they once did during colonialism. Macfie backs Said to an extent when he suggests that this re-emergence of a new form of Orientalism is because of misconceptions and myths about Islam which have origins from the medieval times. At that time these myths were not corrected by those who travelled to the Islamic world and thus, Macfie argues that at no point was Islam was ever understood by the Western world. However, Macfie challenges Said and Foucaults arguments as he suggests that Western dominance has been challenged on numerous occasions. For example, he points out that Orientalism is contradicted when we study the history of the spread of communism during the 20th century, the Iranian revolution in 1979 or the rise of Egyptian nationalism. What is clear is that in these cases, Western imperialism is undermined by the Eastern world and this can also be seen with the rise of fundamentalism or the challenges Western powers currently face from Iran or Hezbollah for example.

Hallidays model
One scholar who uses Orientalism to explore the significance it has today is Fred Halliday. In his bookOrientalism and its Critics he argues that western dominance produced a series of corrosive myths that brought about various misconceptions about Islam. Halliday however, presents the limitations that he believes causes no way out of Orientalism, if scholars continue to criticise each other and continue to use the same framework of the eighteenth and nineteenth century to analyse cultures. He establishes a model that includes three factors in which a person can study another culture:

Firstly, he believed that understanding the language of another language is important as it gives you access to the mind of the other person and allows you to understand and interpret them. Secondly, he suggested that studying Islam was the most important factor to understanding the other culture. This can be true as religion plays an important role to shaping the way a culture sets out their norms and values in their community. Thirdly, he mentions understanding their histroy, as history provides us with a context as to why a culture has been shaped in a certain way.

Limitations to Westerners analysis of Islam


Bryan Turner in his book Orientalism, Postmodernism and Globalism provides a more postmodernist theory. He says the reason why Said links knowledge to power is because of the method that Westerners use to analyse Islam. For example, in Saids book Covering Islam he repeatedly argues that Western journalism is the main cause for the discontent felt towards Islam. Western journalists visit Islamic countries for a few days to cover a story and speak to a few taxi drivers and do not research adequately or effectively in order to make sure that they are not bias in their story. This is a major criticism to their work as the media plays an important role in shaping our views today and is the main source of information for much of humanity.

So whose fault is Orientalism?

The negative stereoptype: Muslims crazed by their confused faith

The most convincing argument is presented by Akbar Ahmed who writes in Predicament and Promise that the cause for the West to study Orientalism is because of faults on both the Eastern and Western sides. The Muslims he argues ignored the way the world sees them and uses the modern day examples, such as, the images we frequently see of Muslims in the media death in their eyes, burning books in Bradford or hijacking planes and killing innocent civilians. These images reinforce the negative stereotypes and misconceptions that the West perceives of the Islamic world. It paints the picture of what the writer V.S. Naipaul described perfectly as Muslims crazed by their confused faith. These events and emotions of anger that Muslims have demonstrated about are because of the ignorance that lies among Muslims and the fact that the general Islamic world has failed to explain themselves or condemn certain actions. The important point to make is that it is not surprising that there are vast gaps in understanding between the East and West. Moreover, the West is also to blame for these events as they did not recognise the deep political injustices that drove Muslims to these acts of desperation. Ahmed uses the example of the Arab-Israeli conflict to demonstrate how he believes the Western support and sympathy towards the creation of an Israeli state in 1948 caused the Islamic world to turn against them at a pivotal moment in the 20th century. Ahmed argues that the more the West continues to ignore for example, the question of the Palestinian people, the more the Islamic world will be at rage. Moreover, if Muslims continue to reinforce these images of a terrorised Islamic religion, the more the Oriental image and divisions between the two sides will grow.

So where does this leave us?


What is clear is that today Orientalism still plays a major role in the discussion of Islam especially after the 9/11 attacks on the USA. Colonialism inevitably produced misconceptions of the Islamic world which Foucault believes is impossible to avoid because we tend to have pre-judgements or stereotypes when studying an outsider. What is important to remember is that this knowledge however, resulted in power and control over the Islamic world which in turn caused great hatred towards the West and a feeling of continuous domination on their lives. It is difficult to believe that the West no longer tries to influence the internal situation in Eastern countries as they have proved to achieve this through neo-colonialism. Although the academic world has indulged in trying to understand Islam and the rise of radical fundamentalism, the majority of people tend to believe in ignorant misconceptions. Therefore, although the term Orient is uncommon to hear today, the study of Islam, and the East in general, and the misconceptions that are produced from it are hard to avoid unless as Ahmed suggests, the East and West begin to recognise the differences between them that they have ignored. Bibliography Ahmed Akbar S., Postmodernism and Islam, Predicament and Promise, Routledge 1992 Cutting Gary, The Cambridge Companion to Foucault, Cambridge University Press 2003 Halliday Fred, Orientalism and its Critics, Taylor & Francis Ltd 1993 Macfie A.L., Orientalism, Pearson Education 2002 Said Edward, Orientalism, Vintage Publishing House 1979 Turner Bryan S., Orientalism, Postmodernism and Globalism, Routledge Publishing House 1994.