Thursday, September 13, 2018

Bernard Lewis, Edward Said, and why “Orientalism” is Bulls--t

Part 2: What is Orientalism?
By Michael Isenberg.

In Part 1 of this series I introduced Edward Said and his 1978 book Orientalism. I observed that they “have been significant forces in the field of Middle Eastern studies—not for the better” and that “the book was a precursor to today’s ugly politically correct attacks on ‘dead white men,’ and ‘cultural appropriation’—decades before those terms were in common use.”

I did not say much, however, about what Orientalism is, which I’ll address in this part, along with some of the things that Said got right.

Professor Said never explicitly defines Orientalism anywhere in his 300 page magnum opus. The closest he comes is in the Introduction:

Orientalism derives from a particular closeness experienced between Britain and France [and later America] and the Orient…Out of that closeness, whose dynamic is enormously productive even if it always demonstrates the comparatively greater strength of the Occident (British, French, or American), comes the large body of texts I call Orientalist.

Not a lot of help. Nevertheless, read the rest of the book and certain recurring themes emerge:

  1. Orientalism is a discipline for studying the Middle East “systematically.”

  2. Orientalism is a vocabulary, a body of work, and a set of structures.

  3. Orientalism is about power. The relationship between Orient and Occident is one of weak to strong. “Orientalism is the ineradicable distinction between Western superiority and Oriental inferiority.”

  4. Orientalism created the Orient. The distinction between Orient and Occident was made up by Western scholars. “For that is the main intellectual issue raised by Orientalism. Can one divide human reality, as indeed human reality seems to be genuinely divided, into clearly different cultures, histories, traditions, societies, even races, and survive the consequences?”

  5. Orientalism is racist. In creating the Orient, Orientalism imposed negative stereotypes on the Middle East. The Orient of Orientalists is monolithic. “Its sensuality, its tendency to despotism, its aberrant mentality, its habits of inaccuracy, its backwardness” make it “static, frozen, fixed eternally.” The Oriental is passive (and therefore feminine), fatalistic, and sex-obsessed, possessed of “untiring sensuality, unlimited desire.” “Orientalists are neither interested in nor capable of discussing individuals.”

  6. Orientalism is the self-serving handmaiden of Imperialism. The Orient of Orientalists is a constant menace and must be dominated by the West, whose colonial officials then need the services of Orientalists in order to govern their subject peoples. Orientalism creates Imperialism creates Orientalism.

  7. More self-serving: The technical training required to master the field ensured that Orientalists owned Orientalism, and therefore the Orient. “From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the Orient could not do was represent itself.”

  8. Orientalism is theft of Eastern culture. Well before the term “cultural appropriation” was in common use, Professor Said refers to the Description de l'Égypte, the collected findings of the scholars who accompanied Napoleon on his 1798 Egyptian adventure, as “that great collective appropriation of one country by another.” But serious scholars weren't the only thieves. European novelists such as Flaubert and Disraeli appropriated exotic Eastern characters and mythology to titillate their readers.

  9. The collected body of work of Orientalism is a representation or simulacrum of the Orient, not the Orient itself. “It needs to be made clear about cultural discourse and exchange within a culture that what is commonly circulated by it is not ‘truth’ but representations.” Note Said’s ironic quotation marks around the word truth.

  10. Designating the Oriental as an object of study is dehumanizing.

  11. Orientalism is based on the study of classical texts, rather than “modern Oriental realities.” Learning about the modern Middle East by studying the Quran is “anachronistic.”

There are some things that are fair in Professor’s Said’s criticisms.

Nineteenth century writing on the Middle East is chock full of racism. While I don't generally approve of "trigger warnings," I'm going to make an exception in this case and say that the examples in the next two paragraphs are pretty egregious. Read them at your own risk.

Said cites the work of Ernest Renan (1823-1892) as among the worst. Despite considerable contributions to the field of philology, Renan held cringe-worthy opinions of Arabs and Jews: “The Semitic race appears to us to be an incomplete race…like those individuals who possess so little fecundity that, after a gracious childhood, they attain only the most mediocre virility, the Semitic nations experienced their fullest flowering in their first age and have never been able to achieve true maturity.”

Frankly, Said’s examples are mild compared to some of the racism I found in my own research. Alfred von Kremer (1828-1889), for example, laces his The Orient under the Caliphs with loathsome stereotypes about Arabs and money. In discussing the tribesmen who served the Umayyad Dynasty (661-750), he writes, “The Arab passion for gold had no limits,” and “The genuine Semitic character of these people shows itself clearly in money matters; love of gold is one of the most marked features of their national character. It is accordingly undoubted that the troops would scarcely allow any opportunity to escape for the enhancement of their pay. Matters soon went so far that in disputes about succession it was the golden purse that decided.” It was only by diluting the Arab blood in the ranks, Kremer tells us, with soldiers drawn from the conquered peoples, that later rulers were able to afford their militaries.

Said is also correct that Orientalism and Imperialism went hand-in-hand. Napoleon brought along a host of scholars to advise him in his occupation of Egypt. The party included one polymath who is near and dear to the hearts of those of us who have backgrounds in math and science, Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier. A century and change later, on the eve of World War I, Imperialist icons like Lord Balfour and the Earl of Cromer were still extending their patronage to Orientalist scholars, writing learned essays and making speeches in Parliament on the necessity of cultivating Orientalism in order to lubricate the machinery of Empire.

Sadly, what Said got right pales in comparison to what he got wrong and it will take the next two installments in this series, "Polluters of the Brain" and "Damned if you do, damned if you don’t," for me to cover it all.

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on

Photo Credit(s):

No comments:

Post a Comment