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Orientalism in the Public Sphere

One of the most influential and field-defining texts in the area of Islamic Studies as it exists today is a book titled Orientalism. Written by Edward W. Said in 1978, Orientalism is a general critique of the ways in which, and reasons why, the West historically imposed a monolithic and misguided understanding of the East on the East. Essentially, European scholarship created the idea called the “Orient,” (the opposite of the “Occident”) as a way to talk about the East. This geographical dichotomy is artificial and constructed as a way to distinguish between “us” and “them” from a Western perspective. While there is some amount of legitimacy to creating this distinction from a functional standpoint, the sweeping generalizations and conclusions that resulted from it are inaccurate and need to be understood as such.

The book is not meant to be an exhaustive account of all Orientalism, but focuses mainly on French and British instances of “modern” Orientalism (the father of which Said identifies as Silvestre de Sacy, a French linguist and compiler of texts writing at the beginning of the 19th century) that pertain to near-Eastern countries and adherents to the religion of Islam. The relationship that Said’s subject matter pertains to was characterized by an uneven power dynamic, the “Orient” was largely under European control as a result of imperialism. This is not to say that Orientalism was developed as a means to justify colonial rule after the fact, Said believes that already existing concepts of Orientalism “pre-justified” colonial rule. However, the “modern” Orientalism that persisted openly until recent times was heavily influenced by the fact that the Europeans who encountered and depicted the “Orient” were encountering a conquered society that would have seemed to them, for all intents and purposes, inferior.

This idea developed with a kind of snowball effect, especially within the academic field of Orientalist Studies. When entering the field, the basic concepts one had to work with involved accepting that “Orientals” were irrational, barbaric, exotic, and that they were benefiting from the European presence that represented “civilized” ideals. With these ideas forming the rational base of the field, Oriental Studies developed accordingly, with its goal being to support these claims.

It may seem strange today to consider that there was at one time an academic field called Orientalist Studies that sought to understand all Eastern peoples and practices as an inferior homogenous whole, but until the late 20th century, this field was very much alive and well. The fact that one cannot study and receive a degree in Orientalist Studies today is a testament to the effectiveness of Said’s project within academia. However, the scope of Said’s claim is not limited to academia, the historical effectiveness and influence of Orientalism permeated all of Western culture and has impacted Western conceptions of the East in popular culture as well.

This leads to the question: does Orientalism still exist today? If it was generally considered a legitimate academic pursuit until recently, it seems likely that some remnants of Orientalist influence could persist outside of academia. The idea that scholarly pursuits today recognize the problems of the Orientalist approach to understanding other cultures, does not mean that popular culture has adopted a similar mindset. Orientalist undertones can be seen manipulating political discourse, when politicians discuss events in Middle-Eastern countries, such as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Inherent in the idea that American action to remove oppressive regimes and bring democracy to Middle-Eastern countries is the concept that what America has to offer is superior to what exists. Orientalism can also be seen to rear its ugly head in films, with “Orientals” more often than not being portrayed as either evil or exotic. A strikingly clear instance of Orientalism could be seen in the media coverage immediately following the infamous attacks on New York and Washington D.C. by an extremist Muslim sect on September 11, 2001. The entire religion of Islam was blamed by the media for the actions of a very small group of Muslims to such an extent that many Americans had reason to fear for their lives if they so much as “looked” Muslim. For instance, a Sikh man in Mesa, Arizona was shot to death four days after the attacks outside his gas station simply because he was wearing a turban.

The impacts of Edward Said’s Orientalism were unquestionably felt in the world of academia, but it will probably be quite some time before the tendencies that developed out of historical Orientalist Studies and depictions cease to exist.

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