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Orientalism, Muslims and the West

Edward Said’s Orientalism is arguably one of the most significant books to have been written in the 20th century. This book was first published in the year 1977 and received much praise from readers and critics. It is a book that is still referred to in the intellectual circles of literature and politics. Said’s focus in this book was to refer to and explain a narrative which he has called ‘Orientalism’ to elaborate how empires, such as France and Britain, have used it to facilitate them in dominating other cultures, and how it is now being used by America to achieve the same end. Said’s book is highly relevant to this day because it is full of evidences proving the extent to which the West has systematically manipulated the East, and why they particularly hate Islam, the Arabs and the Middle East. It’s scope encompasses texts of religious, historical, social, scientific, rational, philosophical and political relevance that have continued to exploit human understanding of reality. Previously Orientalism was overt but now it operates at a covert level in Western media and Western movies and series. We cannot allow Orientalism to govern our lives any longer, therefore we must first understand what it is, why it is and how to emancipate ourselves from its clutches.

Let us first try to understand what Said means by the terms used in Orientalist texts, namely, Orient, Oriental, Occident, Orientalist and Orientalism. The word Orient is used to refer to countries or continents where the people of the East live. So for example, Africa and Asia were referred to as ‘the Orient’. The word Oriental is used for a particular man or woman or child etc. that originates from the East. However, in some instances the Orient and the Oriental both signify a person of the East. Moving on, the word Occident denotes countries/continents where people of the West lived and also a person belonging to the Western world, who holds all the values, and practices all the beliefs of the Western civilization. An Orientalist is a person who is involved in studying the Orient in order to understand it, paving the way for domination and control. Thus in modern usage, this word has acquired negative connotations. And finally, Orientalism refers to the narrative constructed by the Orientalist to misrepresent the ‘Orient’ so that the Orient/Oriental can be manipulated, dominated, and controlled.

We are all aware that Islamophobic narratives have resurfaced in full fervour ever since the 9/11 attacks. Islamophobes seem to have found an excellent reason to bash Muslims and Islam all around the world once again. The way the Western world has treated Muslims and Islam indicates that a systematic process of either eradicating or reforming Islam began in 2001.

It is in this atmosphere that Said’s book Orientalism can be of great help to Muslims, intellectually and also politically. Muslim leaders as we all know are either highly Westernized, or cannot afford independent thought as our economies are highly dependent upon Western nations. Orientalism brings to light how the West has systematically subjugated the East, and also talks about why the West wanted a slave made out of the East and could not bear to see the East as an equal.

In order to understand Orientalism we must first understand orientalist texts. In Orientalist texts, people and geographies have been classified into two binary opposites, the Orient and the Occident. According to Said, Biblical scholarship has played a major role in defining the aims and objectives of what we call “modern Orientalism” developed by the West. In fact, Said has argued, the ‘Orient’ has been treated like the inferior one since the time of The Ilyad. For example, a famous ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus refers to the Orient in his famous tragedy The Persians in this manner:

“Now all Asia’s land Moans in emptiness”
This line is uttered after the Persian army is defeated by the Greek army, so in a way the Occident has defeated the Orient, and what this entails is that all of Asia suddenly comes to denote a barren land. As if losing one military war against a Western nation destroyed the identity of an Eastern nation in totality, and an emptiness and hollowness followed.

Thus, although this orientalist attitude existed in the West even before the Middle Ages, it was not until the Middle Ages that it was used so systematically against any competitors, especially against Islam and the Muslims. When the Christian world was confronted by the Islamic world, the Christians behaved in a very aggressive and hostile manner towards Islam and the Prophet (PBUH). Said has mentioned that since Christianity was derived from Christ, therefore they came to conclude that Islam was derived from Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and this is why Muslims were called “Mohammedens” and Islam was called “Mohammedanism”. Muslim invasions were considered a threat to Christianity and the menace was to be addressed in the form of a narrative for the believers of Christianity. Therefore, their purpose was not to represent Islam in itself, or as it is, but to represent it in a certain way for Medieval Europe, that would protect Christians from the Muslims and their religion. This is why Islam has been misrepresented since the Middle Ages. Ever since then the Prophet (PBUH) was referred to as the “imposter” and treated like an Oriental in Christian writings. When we call someone an imposter we mean to say that the said person denotes a mixture of familiar and alien symbols for us. So according to Orientalist Christian narrations, he (PBUH) was someone trying to behave like “Jesus Christ” and thus seemed to be familiar, nevertheless, they believed that he (PBUH) was not what he pretended to be, and so they viewed him (PBUH) as someone alien as well during the Middle Ages. He (PBUH) was also likened to a second-order Arian heretic, and a 20th-century English historian named R. W. Southern mentioned in one of his books that during the Middle Ages in Europe, the Prophet (PBUH) was also linked to a 12th-century religiously heretic group called the “Free Spirits”. And what was particularly horrific about their abusive attitude towards the Holy Prophet (PBUH) was, as Southern mentioned, that they linked horrendous sins like lechery, debauchery, and sodomy to his teachings. It was this approach towards the Prophet of Allah (PBUH) that paved the way for Islamophobia in the West. These slanderous accusations therefore produce moral and epistemological standards of judgement constructed by the Orientalist and consumed as Said has said, by the ‘Western “consumer” of Orientalism.’ So if people decide to trust the Orientalist then they will have to close their eyes to every piece of dissenting information and personal experience that contradicts the misrepresentation of Muslims in orientalist texts, and thus never allow their orientalist perspective to change. Hence, while the Orientalist engages its Western consumer with Orientalism, it tries its best to change the identity of its ‘Orient’ in actuality too, justifying it by suggesting that the Orient needs its assistance to survive in a “changing world”

Evelyn Baring, 1st Earl of Cromer who was a colonial administrator for the British Empire during the 19th century, referred to the Egyptians as “subject races”. He suggested in one of his essays published in Edinburgh Review in 1908, that an empire can be established if we make sure that militarism, commercial egotism, and free institutions of the subject races are kept in check. This means, “their land occupied, their internal affairs rigidly controlled, their blood and treasure put at the disposal of one or another Western power.” Nevertheless, you will see that they will also continue to assert that their actions will be beneficial for their “subject races”. Arthur Balfour, a British statesman, the one responsible for the Balfour Declaration, once irresponsibly and arrogantly commented that “We are in Egypt not merely for the sake of the Egyptians, though we are there for their sake; we are there also for the sake of Europe at large.” The point he was trying to make by saying so was that Egyptians need us, and we are there for them, but they will only be of nominal importance for the West. We are primarily concerned about our own agendas in the East.

In another place “Lord” Cromer misrepresented the “Oriental” and said that the Oriental is a liar, is lethargic, cannot walk on a road or a pavement, and cannot use logic, although the European can use logic without even learning to use it. He said that Arabs are bereft of “energy and initiative”, in need of “fulsome flattery”, given to intrigue, cunning, and unkindness to animals, are suspicious and oppose the Anglo-Saxon race by opposing clarity of thought, directness, and nobility. Another instance that proves that the West’s agenda is essentially to control other nations for the West’s own benefit can be seen in the comment of Lord Salisbury who was once a British statesman and later on served as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He said about encountering the French in the Arab Near East, that “When you have got a… faithful ally who is bent on meddling in a country in which you are deeply interested – you have 3 courses open to you. You may renounce – or monopolize – or share. Renouncing would have been to place the French across our road to India. Monopolizing would have been very near the risk of war. So we resolved to share.” An example of the cunning of the British empire can be understood by taking into account the comment of V.G. Kiernan, who was a British Marxist historian. Said has mentioned Kiernan’s writing in which he wrote that the Britishers ensured that their administrators were sent back home by the age of fifty-five so that no Oriental saw the English colonizers growing old and weak. Seeing them age may have made the colonized people think that the English colonizers are not infallible, and can be challenged. Similarly, Harold W. Glidden who was the Director of the Islamic Department at the Library of Congress, wrote about the Arabs in 1972 that the Arabs treated revenge like a virtue. And their “aberrant” behaviour seems normal to them. They conduct their lives on the pattern of client-patron relationships. And they manage to attract followers because of the “prestige system” that operates in their societies. They consider objectivity of no value and had they given it importance they would have opted for peace. And interestingly it was added that Arabs are success driven to the point that “the end justifies the means”. Ironically all of these accusations can apply to people living in every part of the world, but the Orientalists make it seem like the Arabs and Muslims exclusively possess these negative traits. And how were the Arabs managing their economy according to the Orientalists? They were managing it through “raiding”. On a funny note, most of these traits can actually be attributed to America, Britain, and France much more than they can be attributed to the Arab Muslims and other Muslims in general.

Said has also mentioned how ‘descriptive realism’ was used to make the representation of the Orient more believable for the readers of Orientalist texts, as realistic description makes narrations appear more close to reality even if they are furthest away from reality. This was done in order ‘to bring the Orient closer to Europe, thereafter to absorb it entirely and – centrally important – to cancel, or at least subdue and reduce, its strangeness and in the case of Islam, its hostility.’ Verses from the Quran were taken out of context and were used as evidences proving the sensuality of Muslim nature. As if sensuality was not natural or normal to human experience, but exclusive to the Muslim way of life. The West has in fact been so oppressive towards Islam, as it is the only proper threat and alternative to it, that it enthusiastically and shamelessly supports Israeli settlements and its invasion of Palestine, for otherwise they fear the “return of Islam”. Said has also mentioned in his book that the West has a history of abnormal reactions to any anticolonial movements. To tackle with it, whenever an anticolonial wave emerges in any part of the East, the West begins to refer to it as an insult to Western democracies. Very importantly, Said has also said that Orientalism and Orientalists strenuously try to hide the real motives behind their actions through an ‘often pompous scientism and appeals to rationalism.’ This means that the so-called Orient has been degraded by the West with the help of pseudo-science and pseudo-rationality to this day. For instance, John G. Burke in “The Wild Man’s Pedigree: Scientific Method and Racial Anthropology” describes the American as “red, choleric, erect”, the Asiatic as “yellow, melancholy, rigid”, the African as “black, phlegmatic, lax.” By the 18th century the Judeo-Christian terms used to degrade the East were replaced by secular terminology. Ever since then scientific and rational premises and terms have been used to subjugate the East. For example, the word “primitive” was and still is associated with our identity. One of the main points we should keep in mind is that the “Orient” is always represented by the West or the Occident. It can never have its own say in its representation. It can never explain its point of view because within the framework created by the West it has no relevance. Once the Western world started using secular ideas and terms to govern its own life, it started using secular terms to define the “Orient” too. Thus, the Orientalist’s authority over the “Orient” was re-established by this conversion of terminology.

One point that needs to be understood is that the Orientalists tried to give the impression of an inclusive approach to Muslims too. For example, Silvestre de Sacy, who was a French orientalist, showed interest in Arabic poetry, but at the same time let everybody know that it was not qualified for the “taste” of Europe as the Europeans had supposedly achieved “a higher degree of civilization.” Said has mentioned that Sacy wrote in such a manner about the Arabs that he was told by one of his contemporaries that he had reconciled ‘the manner of a scientist with that of a Biblical teacher.’ So although the West had apparently moved on from believing in any “religion”, the tone of Sacy’s writings was admired by one of his contemporaries as they were aiming to achieve the same old goals of Orientalism. Plus, Sacy arrogantly claimed in his writing that only fragments of Arabic poetry will be given importance, and even those fragments were highly annotated so that the meaning of the texts could be properly subdued. Another orientalist by the name of Ernest Renan claimed that, “One sees that in all things the Semitic race appears to us to be an incomplete race, by virtue of its simplicity. This race – if I dare use the analogy – is to the Indo-European family what a pencil sketch is to a painting; it lacks that variety, that amplitude, that abundance of life which is the condition of perfectibility.” William Muir the famous blasphemer who was an orientalist and a colonial administrator, wrote in one of his books that “… the sword of Muhammed and the Koran, are the most stubborn enemies of Civilization, Liberty, and the Truth which the world has yet known.” It is evident here that they fear Muslims on civilizational grounds, and Islam is the alternative that regenerates itself time and again out of the odds. Therefore, Muir is clear when he says that it is their ideology or their holy book and their armed struggle against Western policies that the Westerners really need to fear.

The questions that arise after this realization are that why were Islam, Muslims, and the Arabs particularly feared by the Western conquerors? Why were these three particularly misrepresented? And why has this attitude concerning Islam, and the Arabs and the Muslims persisted to this day? To give you an answer, let me mention Said’s example of Egypt. Egypt was marveled by the Western nations because of its historical significance. Capturing Egypt meant claiming superiority over other Western nations. But there was a hurdle that was difficult to overcome. Napoleon wrote to Volney, who was a French orientalist and politician, that the most difficult challenge before the French colonizers was going against the Muslims. So how did Napolean go about dealing with those Muslims? He cunningly gained their trust by inviting 60 religious scholars to meet him, and praised Islam and Allah’s Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) a lot. The aim of all this was to capture Egypt so that France would be deemed superior to other Western nations. Orientalism has strenuously been trying to reduce the identity of our Prophet (PBUH), a process which leads to reduction in the teachings of Islam. They purposely misrepresent him, and despite the kind of societies the Muslims have developed in the course of history, one Caussin de Perceval went as far as to claim that Islam was always a political movement, for domination assumingly, and never a spiritual one. As digressive and transgressive this last statement is, the fact of the matter is that the West has an agenda against Islam and the Muslims, and therefore one against the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) too. In a horrifying statement the founder of Marxism, Karl Marx, once said, “England has to fulfill a double mission in India; one destructive, the other regenerating – the annihilation of the Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundations of Western society in Asia.” This is why a set of new terminology was constructed by the West during that time. Edward William Lane, another British orientalist, shamelessly wrote about how he managed to fool the Egyptians by making sure there was not “… in strangers any suspicion of being a person who had no right to intrude among them.”

A 19th-century French writer, politician, and diplomat named Francois Chateaubriand commented that the Crusades were not aggression. They were in actuality a just encounter to Omar’s arrival in Europe. Hence, he was justifying the brutality executed upon the Muslims by saying that they were a good response to the conquest of Europe during Hazrat Umar’s rule. Earlier an 18th-century English historian, writer, and parliamentarian had said in his book Decline and Fall that, “In the years of the administration of Omar, the Saracens reduced to his obedience thirty-six thousand cities or castles,… and edified fourteen hundred mosques for the exercise of the religion of Mohammad.” (SAW). Edward Said has said in this book that the fact that Islam had outshone Rome cannot be forgotten by any European. And indeed their racism and delusional belief that the Judeo-Christian civilization was/is superior to the Islamic Civilization must be difficult for them to get rid of because they give them some sort of precedence over us in their own heads. In fact, this attitude has continued to this day. Chateaubriand also claimed that the Crusades were “… more about knowing which would win on the earth, a cult that is civilization’s enemy, systematically favourable to ignorance, to despotism, to slavery, or a cult that had caused to reawaken in modern people the genius of a sage antiquity, and had abolished base servitude?” Obviously, the former cult in this quotation is the Islamic one and the latter the Judeo-Christian one. Chateaubriand’s hatred once again addressed Muslims in this manner: “Of liberty, they know nothing; of propriety, they have none: force is their God. When they go for long periods without seeing conquerors who do heavenly justice, they have the air of soldiers without a leader, citizens without legislators, and a family without a father.” The thing is this applies to every nation. Every nation goes through this phase of heedlessness. But this will exclusively be associated with the East and particularly with Muslims in Orientalist productions. In fact, the West hates us most when we actually begin to take things in our hands by asserting our religious identity.

The question then is, how did they manage to fool us for so long? The answer has been given by the orientalists themselves. T. E. Lawrence a 20th-century British writer talked about it. He said, “All these things are finally all about soliciting in these strange peoples the taste for maintaining contact with our intelligence, even though this taste may in fact come out of their own sense of their national destiny.” Thus Lawrence was hoping most of us would end up developing an inferiority complex regarding our identity and therefore subscribe to the “intelligence” of the colonizers. Another orientalist, the French writer Sylvain Levi said in 1925 about dominating us and dismantling our Islamic values that “These peoples are the inheritors of a long tradition of history, of art, and of religion, the sense of which they have not entirely lost and which they are probably anxious to prolong. We have assumed the responsibility of intervening in their development, sometimes without consulting them, sometimes in answer to their request… We claim, rightly or wrongly, to represent a superior civilization, and because of the right given us by virtue of this superiority, which we regularly affirm with such assurance as makes it seem incontestable to the natives, we have called in question all their native traditions.” Earlier a 19th-century French writer had claimed that it was beneficial that there was scarce hope of something new coming out of the Orient. “This doubt” he had said, “is precisely our guarantee and our European weapon.”

So if this is how the French and British empires have behaved, then how did America come into the picture? An American Oriental Society was established in 1842 and its first meeting was held in 1843 and the president of the society made it clear that ‘…America proposed for itself the study of the Orient in order to follow the example of the imperial European powers.’ Moreover, the president of this society emphasized upon how easily the Orient could be accessed this way. Said has said in his book that ‘Cairo, Tehran, and North Africa were important areas of war, and in that setting, with the exploitation of its oil, strategic, and human resources pioneered by Britain and France, the United States prepared for its new postwar imperial role.’ Said added that not the least bit of this grand plan and strategy was related to “cultural relations policy”. It involved acquiring “every significant publication in every Near Eastern language published since 1900”, an attempt it was said “which our Congress ought to recognize as a measure of our national security.” This was because there was an immense need for “much better American understanding of the forces which are contending with the American idea for acceptance by the Near East. The principal of these are, of course, Communism and Islam.” And as far as the manner in which the West has behaved with the Muslim world after the 9/11 attacks is concerned, that is evident before everyone. The manner in which they came out against the teachings of Islam, and the manner in which they influence our politicians, and our country’s internal affairs shows the pattern that America is following, and other Western nations are imitating. Said even goes on to mention that democracy, modernity, and enlightenment are not concepts that are agreed upon by everyone, yet Muslim societies are judged on their basis. According to Said, the White House and Pentagon both use the ‘same cliches, the same degrading stereotypes, the same justifications of power and violence.’

To this day we have no substantial evidence to prove that the 9/11 attacks were in fact executed by a group of Muslims. Yet 780 Muslims from all around the world were detained in Guantanamo alone, without any charge or trial. Out of those 780 detainees, 40 still remain in the USA’s custody in Guantanamo, Cuba. The 740 that the USA has released since 2002 were allowed to leave after being subjected to unimaginable torture and were released because there was no solid charge against them. The 40 that remain are also detained without any arguable charge.

Said’s book is therefore an enlightening read. It greatly helps us in understanding and explaining the approach the West has had towards us, for centuries. The hostility and brutality with which the West has been treating us has a context and Said’s book helps us understand that.

We can agree with his take that ‘neither the term Orient nor the concept of the West has any ontological stability’, but what is problematic is that he does not provide the readers with any alternative set of terms to describe reality. He also said that he is against the concept of a clash of civilizations, as the concept is a construct. However, differences of opinion have always led to arguments between civilizations. So differences aren’t the problem. The problem is that the West has closed all doors for proper dialogue to take place between the Western and Islamic civilization leading to a rise in slave mentality amongst the subjugated people or in a few cases misguided militancy amongst Muslims. While in the preface of his book, he said that he hopes Arabs will be able to have a say of their own in their internal affairs, he also goes as far as to say that rubrics like ‘America’, ‘the West’, and even ‘Islam’ need to be discouraged and dismantled which are used to unify people, so that the effectiveness of these terms is highly reduced. Hence, as such Said is not vouching for any moral standard to explain the reality, and his book also falls short of providing any alternative set of terms to name the social and political reality of the world for the future. There are no oppressors and no oppressed. Thus his advocacy for humanism is just a hollow suggestion.

Hence, now that we know that Orientalist discourse exists and has played a big role in shaping perceptions of reality around the world, the question is, what should we do with Orientalist discourse? Preserve it? Discard it, as a conspiracy against the East and Islam in particular? Said suggests we preserve Orientalist texts because they are a good example of European-Atlantic power over the Orient. Again the point we must make here is that Said’s book was published in 1977 and since then nothing has been done against Darwinism, Historicism, Freudianism, Marxism, Spenglerism etc, on an academic level, all of which strived to serve some political agenda of the West, to represent the so-called Orient and Oriental in a negative and demeaning way. So do we allow Orientalism to govern our lives forever? The first step we must take towards getting rid of Western hegemony is that we must spread factual details like the ones mentioned in this book amongst the people of our country. This should include the common people, as well as the politicians and the establishment. This is necessary because we as an Ummah need to get rid of the inferiority complex we feel in front of the Western world. This would involve spreading information on media, social media, and also at an academic level. To achieve this we must form courses specifically designed to help students see Orientalism as a narrative that needs to be refuted because its purpose is merely domination of other nations in every way possible. So though it claims to be seeking knowledge and providing knowledge, it is actually looking for ways to intervene in the affairs of other nations just so they can be subdued and used to achieve the interests of Western nations. We cannot allow this to happen to us anymore. We must be aware of Orientalism and must provide a critique of it on every level. Edward Said’s Orientalism is one of those books which can help our people in this journey along the way.

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