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The Spreading of Orientalism

In his book, Orientalism, Edward Said describes the process by which the West begins to define the East as homogeneously inferior. The author reflects on the contributing factors that helped fueled the Western perception of the East as a substandard civilization. Said senses that as the West began to exercise its military power over Eastern civilizations, the West claimed more than just new territories, but it also started to believe that Europeans held the necessary intellectual tools for running efficient governments. As the West invaded and conquered new lands during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the East lost its independence in the battlefield as it gained a reputation of intellectual inferiority. For instance, Lord Cromer, who served as a British Consul General in Egypt for nearly a quarter of a century, believed that the invasion of Eastern countries was not only important for the expansion of Western imperial power, but also beneficial for the inferior races being conquered. Said writes, “subject races did not have it in them to know what was good for them. Most of them were Orientals, of whose characteristics Cromer was very knowledgeable since he had had experience with them both in India and Egypt” (37). The West exercised its control over the Eastern nations while justifying its brutal force by making claims of benevolence and superior knowledge. Said explains that this particular egotistical mindset rested deep within European culture, as new generations continued to followed the path previously carved out by their ancestors.

The European mindset of superiority that sketched imaginary lines between the East and the West divided the world. The West was the civilized, rational, and sophisticated half; the East consequently became depicted as irrational and uncivilized. In short, by splitting the world, a contrast of strengths and weaknesses reinforced the dualistic European agenda. The generic and derogatory views of the Orient eventually transitioned into potentially milder versions of prejudice, as the West began to romanticize the Eastern landscape as exotic and its literary contribution as valuable. Yet, Said questions the authenticity of this reformed Western outlook of the East that developed during the nineteenth century as he recalls Silvestre de Sacy, a renowned Orientalist of the nineteenth century. Said argues, “Sacy defended the utility and interest of such things as Arabic poetry, but what he was really saying was that Arabic poetry had to be properly transformed by the Orientalist before it could begin to be appreciated” (128).  The reader finds stronger and milder versions of Western prejudice toward the Orient in Said’s work; yet, Europeans remained intellectually and even biologically superior to the East according to the Orientalist perspective, and Darwin’s evolutionary theories validated even further the Western sense of superiority. After all, Europeans were conquering, developing, and controlling both halves of the world simultaneously.

The Orientalist approach of the eighteenth and nineteenth century was revised and reformed in the twentieth century. Said points to Louis Massignon, a French scholar of Islam who often challenged the Orientalist views of the East. Massignon argued that “in a profound sense everything that exists is good in some way, and those poor colonized people do not exists only for our purposes but in and for themselves” (271). Yet, Massignon himself often displayed the inherited Orientalist predisposition of the West throughout his writings.[1]

Said’s Orientalism has been a controversial topic of discussion for many years. His innovative critique of the West combined with extensive arguments describing the dysfunctional process of misrepresenting and stereotyping the East, creates an essential subject of analysis and debate in academic and political fields, in particular as Orientalism spreads in the United States. Orientalism, published over three decades ago, still remains a relevant issue that demands continuous reflection and examination. Said believes that the views generated centuries ago still resonate vividly in our Western communities today. Although the negativity of Orientalism is currently often reserved for the Islam world, preconceived notions of the East continue to reinforce inaccurate interpretations of the East. One just needs to watch the local evening news to discover stereotypical views of the East where Muslims generally become depicted as terrorist Arabs, and the Orient remains a mysterious and misunderstood place.

[1] “The framework in which Massignon’s vision was held also assigned the Islamic Oriental to an essentially ancient time and the West to modernity. Like Robertson Smith, Massignon considered the Oriental to be not a modern man but a Semite; this reductive category had a powerful grip on his thought” (Orientalism, 270).



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