Edward Said’s well-known 1978 book Orientalism remains a relevant read to this day, especially considering our post-9/11 obsession with the “Middle East”. Here are some quotes to digest:

My point is that the metamorphosis of a relatively innocuous philological subspecialty [Orientalism] into a capacity for managing political movements, administering colonies, making nearly apocalyptic statements representing the White Man’s difficult civilizing mission – all this is something at work within a purportedly liberal culture, one full of concern for its vaunted norms of catholicity, plurality, and open-mindedness. In fact, what took place was the very opposite of liberal: the hardening of doctrine and meaning, imparted by “science,” into “truth.” For if such truth reserved for itself the right to judge the Orient as immutably Oriental in the ways I have indicated, then liberality was no more than a form of oppression and mentalistic prejudice.

…[W]hereas it is no longer possible to write learned (or even popular) disquisitions on either “the Negro mind” or “the Jewish personality,” it is perfectly possible to engage in such research as “the Islamic mind,” or “the Arab character” …

By Orientalism, Said means “a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between “the Orient” and (most of the time) “the Occident.” ”

We may be more familiar in 2008 with the terms “the West” versus “the Middle East”, or “the Christian world” versus “the Islamic world”. Said is concerned with critiquing this dualism, as well as exploring its scholarly and historical roots.

Much of current “Orientalism” (the dualistic East vs. West worldview) is based on writings preceding and contemporaneous with European colonialism. Said follows how Orientalist scholarship, which purported to be purely academic in nature, actually prepared the way for colonial ambition in the parts of the world we now refer to as the Middle East, and so had latent political purpose. One doesn’t have to think too hard to see how little has changed. Though the occupying forces are now American, and though we now use different terms to refer to the “other” who requires our intervention, the reliance on yesterday’s Orientalism in today’s political landscape is clear. We can see how a rising interest in Islamic and Arabic Studies in education and the military serves America’s national need to know the other, because the other still, as in European colonial times, requires our intervention, our presence in their lands.

We hear politicians and the MSM employing the Orientalist approach, but most forebodingly, we hear military officials talk about the “clash of civilizations.” If they can believe so firmly in these two mutually exclusive, irreconcilable categories, they may feel authorized to commit violent acts, either to neutralize the perceived threat of the other, or to peremptorily protect Western Civilization. As a matter of fact, one could view unquestioning support of Israel, and America’s adventure in Iraq, in this way.

Of course, the problem with this Orientalism is that it’s rigid boundaries ignore so much of reality. The fact that not all Arabs are Muslim, that many Muslims live in the West, and many Christians live in the East, that America is a country of plural religion, not a Christian country, that each individual has their own way of practicing their religion, that the categories of Occident and Orient each contain several countries and cultures, that the East and West share many of the same goals and values, that Western countries far outdo Eastern ones in economic and military might and so really pose more of a threat to the East than the East to the West – all of these facts are trampled over by rigid thinking based on a long tradition of perceiving and reinforcing white superiority over non-white.

If reinforcing superiority were less important, then imaginary boundaries between people would serve no reputable role, and each individual could be regarded as a human being.

(c) idyllicmollusk 11/23/08

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