Discussing ‘Orientalism’

Orientalism is a political vision of reality which promotes difference b/w the familiar (West) & the strange (East)

Dr Asad Zaman September 17, 2016
The writer is vice-chancellor of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics. He holds a PhD in Economics from Stanford University

Orientalism by Edward Said launched a revolution when it first came out in 1978. He succeeded in discrediting an entire field of study; so much so that scholars no longer call themselves “orientalists”. His book has been enormously influential, with ramifications in many established disciplines, including literary studies, history, anthropology, sociology, area studies, and comparative religion. The thesis of the book is complex and subtle, and we will only attempt to sketch a crude outline in this brief essay.

Said starts by noting the enormous political power of the West: “… in 1800 Western powers … held approximately 35 per cent of the earth’s surface, and that by 1874 the proportion was 67 per cent, a rate of increase of 83,000 square miles per year. By 1914, the annual rate had risen to an astonishing 240,000 square miles [per year], and Europe held a grand total of roughly 85 per cent of the earth as colonies, protectorates, dependencies, dominions, and commonwealths. No other associated set of colonies in history was as large, none so totally dominated, none so unequal in power to the Western metropolis.”

He goes on to state his startling thesis that all knowledge produced about the world dominated by the West is deeply influenced by the gross political fact of conquest. Orientalism is a political vision of reality which promotes the difference between the familiar (Europe, West, “us”) and the strange (the Orient, the East, “them”). Edward Said refers to the awareness of Joseph Conrad that “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing …” This project of conquest is differentiated from the conquests, looting, rapine, pillage and theft of countless savage hordes throughout history only by an idea. This idea has been expressed as the “White Man’s Burden,” or as the “Civilising Mission” and provides the justification for global conquest.

Edward Said analyses the structure of knowledge about the East, Orientalism, as produced in Western academia, literature, arts, and other domains. He shows that all realms of knowledge of East reflect and re-inforce the themes of European superiority and Oriental inferiority, woven together in a rich, complex and colorful tapestry. Whereas all good qualities are attributed to the Europeans, the opposite qualities are given to the “Other”: The ‘Oriental’ is ruthless, despotic and cruel in positions of power, and sly, cunning, devious, and completely untrustworthy in positions of subservience. These themes figure prominently in “governance of subject races,” a subject of central importance to the imperialist powers. This knowledge was imparted to colonial administrators whose high-handed statements about the need to impart the religion of love, self-sacrifice, and to protect oriental women from oppression, were vastly in conflict with the practical imperatives of putting the entire population and natural resources to work to generate colonial revenues.

Edward Said asks how popular Orientalist generalisations like ‘their minds are as crooked as their streets’ and the attribution of ‘logic and reasoning’ as unique to Europeans absent from ‘Orientals’ could possibly be true. He shows that these myths were manufactured and perpetuated due to the political power of the Europeans. Sir John Stuart Mill exempted the Indians from his passionate call for liberty and equality for all, on the convenient pretext that all Indians are children, and require the despotic rule of the English. Orientalism analyses the structure of the European discourse about the Orient, and shows that it ties in perfectly to the demands of imperial power, and bears no relation to the reality and the complexity of the lives of millions of subjects. The subject races are powerless to speak for themselves, and must put up with, and even come to believe, all that is said about them by the master races.



Is this beating a dead horse? In the 21st century, surely we have moved past these ancient myths of white superiority. The enormously racist statements of Trump, and similarly rising fortunes of racist and xenophobic parties in Europe, build upon this tradition of Orientalist knowledge. Millions killed in the Iraq war, carpet bombing of Libya, and murder of thousands of civilians by drones, receive only favourable mentions in the world press, as a necessary part of the civilising mission of the West. However, the killing of a few members of the master races receives global headlines, and is the basis for political policy, mass agitation, and wars to “shock and awe” entire nations into subjugation and submission.

In the foreword to the 2003 edition of Orientalism, Edward Said evaluates his work in retrospect. He writes that generalised labels like “Americans”, “The West”, “Islam”, etc., have been extremely effective in mobilising people for mass murders and wars. Critical thought, and reflection on our shared human experience, is required to counteract the effects of propaganda, which turns human beings into objects of hate. Rather than the manufactured clash of civilisations, we need to concentrate on the slow working together of cultures that overlap, borrow from each other, and live together in far more interesting ways than permitted by the dictates of power. It is a message of cautious hope, and a call for action, tempered by the dark knowledge of “the incredible strength of the opposition to it that comes from the Rumsfelds, Bin Ladens, Sharons and Bushes of this world.”

Published in The Express Tribune, September 18th, 2016.

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Wajid | 5 years ago | Reply Very well written. Thanks tribune for publishing Dr Asad's articles.
Usman | 5 years ago | Reply Truer words have never been spoken. Edward Said was a great scholar and humanitarian. One of the few in the Western world who spoke against the illegal Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the atrocities committed against the Palestinians.
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