There were a few scholars to be well known in the west from the Eastern hemisphere. Edward Said was very influential among them to change the perspective of the western thinking about the East. Perception about the East has changed after the European colonial expansion. West has started to see itself different from the East. Some constructed values, ideas and perceptions were built in the colonial era which still dominate today’s western scholarly world. Said was one of the first critics of this long held prejudices and superstitions created by the West. Said’s revolutionary concept orientalism gained huge debate in academia. And he succeeded to alter the perception of the West about the East.
Who was Edward Said?
Said was one of the prominent scholars in post-colonial studies. He was not only active in scholarly world for the East but also directly connected to the Middle Eastern politics.
He was born in Jerusalem, Palestine in 1935. His father was a successful Christian book merchant. He passed his childhood in Cairo. Said’s family was also forced to move from Palestine in the wake of Jewish settlement in 1948. Said’s father got American citizenship for assisting USA in the World War 2. He was sent to USA where he finished his high school courses in a private boarding school. He also studied in Princeton University. He mainly studied on comparative English literature. He joined in Columbia University as a lecturer. He involved with PLO in 1970s. He sought mutual cooperation instead of means of violation. Once he visited Lebanon and threw stone over an Israel occupied territory. This event labeled him a ‘professor of terror.’ Many western scholars including historian Bernard Lewis criticized him. Jews called him “Nazi.” After all these criticism, he never stopped advocating humanism. He made himself apart from PLO after Oslo accord in 1991. Because he felt that this peace agreement is null and void. Said always demanded Arab world which is not religiously demarcated. This man died in 2003 by suffering from leukemia. He was buried in Lebanon as he demanded it in his lifetime.
What is Orientalism?
The word orientalism has become very volatile over time. There are several meanings which do not sit together easily. Almost five distinct senses of this word have been crystallized over last two centuries. Scholarly study of Indian (all part of Asia either) language, laws and customs, subjective study style of the East, European power superiority and right(justification) of imperialism, European political and economic hegemony over Asia.
After the decolonization in 1960s, the Orientalism got momentum in scholarly world by some revolutionary thinkers who were not happy with traditional explanation of the West about the East. Said’s book “Orientalism” published in 1978 which has been marked as a watershed in the history of orientalism both as a term and as an intellectual tradition and scholarly institution.
Said’s understanding of orientalism can be defined in terms of The classical tradition of studying a region by means of its languages and writings: thus anyone who teaches, researches or writes about the Orient is an orientalist.
“A way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient’s special place in European Western experience.”
An overarching style of thought, with a history going back to antiquity, based on an ontological and epistemological distinction made between “the Orient” and “the Occident.”
A “western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient.”
“A library or archive of information commonly and, in some of its aspects, unanimously held a family of ideas and a unifying set of values. These ideas explained the behavior of Orientals; they supplied the Orientals with a mentality, a genealogy, and an atmosphere; most importantly they allowed Europeans to deal with and even to see Orientals as a phenomenon possessing regular characteristics.”
“A system of representations framed by a whole set of forces that brought the Orient into Western learning, Western consciousness, and later, Western empire.”
The western “corporate institution” responsible for dealing with the Orient: describing it, containing it, controlling it, teaching and learning about it, making statements about it, authorizing views of it and ruling over it by these and other means.
Western view of the East
When colonial expansion started from Europe to elsewhere, West not only conquered colonies through military but also literary justification. How first comers (visitors, priests) to the colonial East framed and captured the East have remained as intact source to the center. Their descriptive portrayal was almost full of prejudice and superstitions. West has always portrayed the East as exotic, fanatic and curious, belly dance, snake charms, sensual. This portrayal was also motivated by perpetuating Western domination over the East. Even after the decolonization in the 20th century, western laws, customs, official norms still dominate the Eastern world. Far before then, the mandate system of the League of Nations can be exemplified in this regard. Western countries played the role of guardians after the First World War. They excused that the Middle Eastern countries were not unable to rule themselves. How childish justification of power politics! Europeans hid the history that even some centuries earlier they (Europeans) were dominated by the Middle Eastern (Arabs, later Turks). Even in today’s world what west does is scientific and objective analysis based while the East is totally unscientific and subjective. West is the source of civilization and the East has been portrayed as full of barbarism. West created division calling them “us” and others as “them”, “rational vs. irrational.” Said hated most is the clash of civilization theory given by Samuel Huntington. Edward Said thought that this theory is totally artificial creation of the West to perpetuate their domination over the East. Religious superiority cannot be justified to make others (Orient) inferior. Non-westerns have been labeled in a poor picture. Africans have been defined as corrupted, despotic, starving victims while Latin Americans have been labeled as drug lords, football players, dictators. Arabs have been defined as terrorist, misogyny while Indians are framed as software engineers, mathematicians, and religious fanatics. Said found an intended aim of the West to portray its cultural superiority at the same time expanding its territorial occupation (through the means of capturing market) in the name of salvation. Western scholars actively promote the orient as an inferior female subject to the dominant West. West tries to portray itself a strong masculine figure.
A counter lens to see the West
Edward Said proposed a different lens called Occidentalism to see the West. Occidentalism is a counter-field of research which can be developed in the Orient in order to study the West from a non-Western World point of view. Orientalism drew many images for the Orient. These included Blacks, Yellows, Oriental Despotism, primitive mentality, savage thought, Semite mind, Arab mind, Violence, fanaticism, underdevelopment, dependence, sectarianism, traditionalism and conservatism. Once the East (Other) is caricatured, it is easy to deal with him, justifying any action of the West (Self). The image made the East a target of the West. Besides, the Self promotes self-made images to sharpen itself, such as: whites, Western, democracy, logical mentality, civilization, Arianism, peace, tolerance, development and even over development, independence, secularism, modernism, progress. By the power of mass media and its vast control by the West, the perpetuation and the repetition of this double image was made by the self to disarm the Other (Orient) and to arm the Self (occident), to create a permanent relation of superiority-inferiority complex between the Occident and the Orient, and a relationship of inferiority-superiority complex between the Orient and the Occident. For saying, Iran’s nuclear aspiration has been defined as act of aggression against humanity while U.S and Western super powers’ possession of excessive nuclear weapons justified prudent, safeguard of humanity by the Western media. Said saw western media as a corporate world which works for its calculated interest. Ever you seen that bombing of U.S fighters on Kabul, Damascus, Raqqa were shown seriously with condemnation in western media? But think about Paris attack 2015 or Florida gunshots. These events were shown in CNN, BBC as a crisis of humanity. This is Islam which should be blamed. Western media give higher value of a death American or French man while reject least respect to the Syrian or Iraqi death bodies as if these men and women were worthless. Occidentalism will correct the false perceptions and prides of the West. Western values, culture, customs are all not innocent and morally sound. They fought religious war as children for many years. Occidentalism also tries to show that historically the East is far more enrich from the west. Knowledge is not solely a product of European shops rather Eastern arsenal of the knowledge is more deep rooted in the history. Through this process, Occidentalism wants to criticize both scholars of the orient who see the west as superior and scholars of the West who perpetuate Western domination.
Edward Said wanted to make a mutual cooperation among humanities. He thought that orientalism and Occidentalism are both dead ends. There can be no world culture rather there are a lot of cultural differences among societies. Every culture has its inner rationality and justification. Said argued that there can be cultural collaboration, but not depletion by big one. It is very true that in the name of multiculturalism, west is engulfing many native cultures. Bangladesh can learn from Said’s insight. Not only the West, but there are some big brothers within the East who want to dominate least peripheral parts of the East. For instance, India acts as a cultural hegemony in the South East Asia where cultures like Bengali are shown as inappropriate, unfit. Said also thought that outsiders cannot understand a culture correctly unless they see it from inside. Language is one of the barriers to understand others. Said warned scholars to think twice before making a comment about whom they are not deeply familiar.
Imran Nazir is studying International Relations at the University of Dhaka.