It is often said that Orientalism changed the way the West views “the Orient,” that this book actually made us aware of, and improved the understanding of the diversity within such a large portion of the world. I would contend that Orientalism has had less impact than is often put forth – or perhaps that its impact is misplaced, for the book could very well have advanced Islamic scholarship in the west greatly – I am merely suggesting that it did not open our eyes to previously unseen problems so much as advocate an alternative to the politically and economically motivated willed ignorance of Islamic society. In other words, the problem lay not with the scholarship so much as with the scholars’ relationship with the imperialist politico-economic machine.
If two cultures are actually different, it then becomes the task of the scholar to identify those differences and maintain their reality instead of insisting on a false homogeneity. Identification of difference is often accompanied by a critique of the systems. But familiarity with the internal logic of one’s own system leads to a more favorable assessment of one’s own culture, as well as potential blindness to the flaws in the too-familiar – the newness and strangeness of the other, coupled with ignorance of the richness and beauty within the other’s system results in less-favorable explanations by scholars, contributing to a legacy of otherizing, of us-them distinctions. Part of the critique of Orientalism (as academic study) lies in the denigration of scholars because they seek to contrast Islamic society with their own, which is a supposedly deplorable way of approaching the content.
I happen to think that human knowledge is based on inclusion or exclusion of content within mental, heuristic categories. Identifying the differences between two objects is a useful mental activity which allows humans to make sense of their environment. Identifying those characteristics which distinguish cultures is necessary for inter-cultural understanding and exchange. This is why Orientalism is a problem of scale and specifics within methodology, rather than an entirely bad academic pursuit.
The first step in understanding and in discovering the nuances within Arab and Islamic culture is identifying large-scale differences – those differences which are immediately obvious. If a scholar begins with the tiny details of Islamic society and compares them to his own society without having first identified structural differences, the resulting comparison will probably be full of errors and will do a disservice to not only academia, but also to any attempts at cultural contact. Only after the big differences are assessed can scholars increase the nuance of their analyses and comparisons. Orientalist studies were not moving forward for political and economic reasons, so the analysis remained at the oversimplified, large-scale level. But this presents a chicken-or-egg dilemma. Did Orientalist studies motivate the political and economic stances, or did the political and economic situation slow the advances of Orientalist scholars?
It seems unlikely to me that academic works set the stage for which types of political and economic exchanges took place between the imperial western powers and the Arabic world. Now, I would suggest that the politico-economic and academic forces eventually were in conversation to their mutual disadvantage. Academic studies were slowed significantly by the political need for a sense of cultural superiority, therefore, any study of the Orient would have been necessarily aimed at creating or maintaining this illusion. Economic advances which could have been mutually beneficial were slowed by the political need for superiority as well as the lack of nuanced academic works detailing the workings of Islamic society, and more specifically within the region of interest. Political policies which were more in-tune with the ways of Islamic society would have allowed the imperial powers to maintain control over the governments and resources of these regions for much longer, having avoided mass revolt (this statement is based only in the self-interested value structure of politics – I don’t believe that it would have been a good thing for the west to have colonized more effectively and for a longer period of time).
There is still much progress that needs to be made – mass ignorance about Arabs and Islam is still a significant obstacle to inter-cultural cooperation promoting global harmony. The relationship between academia and politico-economic forces is being examined much more closely now, but their ties are not easily severed. It may be a long time before an accurate and just picture of Islamic society is realized in scholarship, and, even more importantly, in the minds of all people.