On Orientalism

The name Edward Said had been mentioned in a number of my sociology classes and I was rather interested to find out more about his renowned writing on "Orientalism". I thought that it could be an interesting link to Lecture 10's topic of ethnography and problem of representation. I refer to a set of videos produced by Media Education Foundation, which conducted an interview with the Palestinian-American literary theorist to discuss the topic of Orientalism, and summarize the ideas behind it.

Orientalism is word coined by Said, which refers "a constellation of false assumptions underlying Western attitudes toward the Middle East", with its discourses having a "subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arab-Islamic peoples and their culture" (Wikipedia). His theory was derived from the fact that there were discrepancies between his own experiences as a child growing up in an Arab nation and the art and texts of the Middle East by Western scholars he read about. He noticed that there was constant reiteration of particular images of the East, one that seems to be exotic, mysterious and threatening.

In the later half of the 20th century, when the West, such as the British and the French, colonized many countries, there was an enormous amount of organized literature about the East. When Napoleon conquered Egypt, he sent French scientists, biologists, architects, etc., to “record Egypt in every conceivable way”. Through such structured documentation of a strange new land, the Western conquerors imposed stereotypes and classified the people of the Middle East into reduced demographics, which justified the former’s dominance in the foreign lands. Orientalism is a “lens” that twisted the reality of the people and places in the Middle East. It is evident here that there was a misrepresentation of the Eastern World, which allowed the West to appropriate such potent images of the Middle East to gain power over them. While there is a body of respected scholarly writings, these ideologically shaped texts created “an image [of the East, which was] out of history”, “plastic and eternal”.

The main issue that Orientalism addresses is "how we come to understand" strangers "by virtue of the colour of their skin". It shows that people have preconceived notions of strangers and the ideas about them are not innocently shaped but are in fact “highly motivated”. When we come to understand the power relations between two opposing groups of people, we are able to discover group interests and perspectives.

In this set of videos, Said also talked about “American Orientalism”, which is different to that of Britain’s and France’s. This is because the United States did not have “direct colonial experience” and any “occupation of the Middle East”, unlike Britain and France who ruled over some countries for hundreds of years. Said explained that American Orientalism is more “indirect” and “based on abstractions”. Another important point about American Orientalism is that it is highly “politicized” because of the United States relationship with Israel. The Jewish nation has “greater coincidence of interests” with America because it is a declared Jewish state (within a Muslim region) and has cultural links to that of Europe. Thus, there is assumed alliance with the US in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Gaza and West Bank. Here, Sai introduces the “Other” factor, the concept which alienates Israel from its surrounding Muslim neighbours. This ideology is then “imported in to American Orientalism”. It highlights the dialogue of threats faced by Israel from extremist groups and sweeps the actual damage to the Palestinian civilians under the carpet. Orientalism can be such a powerful political tool that can misdirect people from reality, form diverted conflicts and in turn cause greater damages instead.

American Orientalism has also been translated to the “demonization of Islam” in the Western media and popular culture. The “popular view” in the United States of Islam is vastly generalized. It has been exaggerated and misinterpreted by the media, giving Islam the “utmost negative” reputation among the mainstream culture. There has been a “conflation” of the teaching of Islam and terrorism. This creates fear among the common people, who are consuming such media as they come and who may not adequately digest these information. There have been Hollywood movies and television shows that portray Muslim people negatively and once again, created strong images in the minds of the people. The conflict between the Middle Eastern countries and the United States were derived out of deeper issues and misunderstandings that could be traced back to the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. However, the media has greatly simplified the equation. The media, which are driven by profits or political ideas, serve to connect with consumers at the most basic level and influence people to take stands. We do not deny that there is credible journalism out there, but the direction of the majority of media sources have blew the actual situation out of proportion and produced an integrally dissimilar problem from the original.

Beliefs and ideas, which are purely abstract and intangible, are able to provoke strong reactions to particular issues and give people the motivation to act for or against a cause. Orientalism is probably a strong example of how the misrepresentation of a people can result in deep-setting problems and may very well last a long time. As a take away lesson, I feel that it is important to be responsible and as far as possible objective in studying a group that is different than your own, and at the same time, taking effort to accepting the differences. Moreover, it is dangerous to assume the superiority of your social context as well.

Resources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orientalism_(book)#cite_note-newcriterion.com-0

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