Socialist Worker

Edward Said and Orientalism

The Palestinian scholar Edward Said argued that Western depictions of the East were saturated with racist assumptions. Grace Lally looks at the legacy of his theory and its relevance today

Issue No. 2039

Edward Said

Edward Said

Every anti-war activist is familiar with the frustration of hearing the media and pro-war politicians talk about fighting for “democracy” in Iraq while they whip up hysteria over the alleged threat posed by “Muslim extremists” to “our values”.

The racism is clear. But this sort of language is part of a much deeper tradition in Western culture of how so called “experts” have come to know and understand the people of the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent – what used to be called “the Orient”.

Once upon a time an “Orientalist” was someone who studied “the Orient”. An individual Orientalist might be seen as competent or incompetent, but the respectability of their profession went largely unquestioned.

But in 1978 a Palestinian scholar called Edward Said threw a large spanner in that works. His hugely influential book Orientalism recast this term to be a byword for racism, prejudice and oppression.

Of course Said was not the first person to suggest that a great deal of what had been written on the Orient was misleading, biased or just wrong.

But he showed how there had been a common prejudice across a range of cultural and academic work in the West. This prejudice cast the Orient as the “other” – as somehow fundamentally different to the West and, by implication, inferior.

Said argued that there had never been a neutral scholarship that studied the Orient because those who were doing the studying were located in the West, which exercised colonial power over those being studied.

This unequal power relation created the very object of study – “we” could study “them” because “they” were separate from “us” and subject to “our” rule.

Colonial conquest

Orientalism as an academic discipline only emerged with colonial occupations of the Middle East and India by Western powers, Said argued. This began with France’s conquest of Egypt at the end of the 18th century.

Academic study was an expression of that colonial domination, he argued, and was rooted in a long-standing Western tradition of opposing Christendom to the Islamic world. This opposition justified the colonial project in advance.

Said was a Palestinian working in the US and the main focus of his study was the Middle East and Islam. But his conception of “Orientalism” has been applied to the way all non-Western societies have been represented in the West.

The Orient is seen as a negative mirror image of the West – an imaginary representation of Western desires and fears projected onto others. So the Orient is always “female”, sexualised, and exotic – while we are “male”, rational and normal. They are dangerous, violent, and childlike – we are their natural masters, protectors and leaders.

And crucially we have knowledge of the Orient, which is essentially unchanging and static, because we have history, science and progress. Orientalism therefore works to create not just a false stereotype of the Orient, but also an imagined representation of the West to ourselves.

To see how this works, think of how resistance fighters in Iraq are portrayed as brute unthinking monsters driven by primeval and irrational religious motives. “Our boys”, on the other hand, act in a legal, thoughtful, measured way, driven by the highest motives of courage, honour and universal human ideals.

Little wonder then that 600,000 dead Iraqis need never be named or even counted. Iraqis can even be portrayed as “ungrateful” for not appreciating Western efforts to “help” them.

This kind of interpretation has permeated out of the academy into all areas of Western culture, from novels and films to more overtly political culture.

Rudyard Kipling’s 1899 poem “The White Man’s Burden” describes the colonised as “your new-caught, sullen peoples, half-devil and half-child”. In TV programmes of the 21st century, they are ideologically crazed and high-tech tooled-up terrorists.

Said looked at how even seemingly non-political scholarly work, such as the translation of ancient manuscripts, all worked within this framework.

Western scholars in the 19th century became the owners (often literally) of Oriental books and manuscripts and saw them as a means to interpret the “true” nature of the East.

Trapped in history

In this way contemporary societies in the East were painted as an undifferentiated mass, trapped in their own history, with no development until the arrival of Western modernity.

Orientalist “knowledge” is all the more powerful because it appears to be based on value-neutral science. For its academic practitioners, this was Said’s greatest heresy.

The US historian Bernard Lewis was cited by Said as an example of “Orientalism”. Nearly 30 years on, he is still defending the integrity of his profession today.

One of Lewis’s supporters remarked during his 90th birthday celebrations last year, “He is always objective, thoroughly candid, and completely independent. These, combined in the depth of his knowledge and the great discipline of his mind, make Bernard the very ideal of the wise man.”

That supporter was the US vice president Dick Cheney, who went on to describe how Lewis’s great knowledge of the Middle East has made events there explicable: “In the 1970s he studied the writings of an obscure cleric named Khomeini, and saw the seeds of a movement that would deliver theocratic despotism. In 1990 he wrote ‘The Roots of Muslim Rage’ which anticipated the terrorism of that decade.”

It is very convenient for the US establishment that there continue to be Orientalists such as Lewis. They can explain that the problems of the Middle East are rooted in the endemic backwardness of its people, or due to an inevitable “clash of civilisations”.

So the illusion that the study of the Orient is a disinterested neutral science continues to be important for the workings of imperialism today. But is everyone taken in by this illusion?

There are millions around the world fighting against imperialism – and they are rightly sceptical of the racism and lies used to justify the war.

This widespread challenge to Orientalist stereotypes – in the West and beyond – raises an important criticism of some of the presumptions underlying Said’s work.

Said tended to see Orientalism as an all encompassing and all powerful system of knowledge that prevented any genuine alternative from breaking through. He tended, for instance, to view all resistance to imperialism in the Middle East as being inevitably constrained by the limitations of Arab nationalist or Islamist politics.

These political movements had simply internalised and reversed Orientalism by promoting their own version of a “true” and unchanging Orient, he argued.

Said similarly criticised Western left wing writers, accusing even Karl Marx of falling prey to Orientalism. He pointedly disregarded Marx’s conscious political aims in his writings about British colonies, because for Said, Orientalism worked by unconsciously directing the language that all Western writers used.

Part of the problem was that Said was criticising Western academia from within Western academia. By focusing on scholarly writing, he failed to appreciate the role of struggle in creating genuinely oppositional movements and ideas.

Unfortunate effects

This had two unfortunate effects. On the one hand, he drew quite depressing conclusions about the possibilities for alternatives from below.

But on the other hand, he could be quite uncritical of institutions such as the United Nations (UN). He suggested that the 2002 UN World Summit in Johannesburg might herald “the welcome emergence of a new collective constituency”. In fact the UN epitomises the way in which ideas of universal human rights are made to chime with the interests of Western elites.

At other times, however, Said more usefully described Orientalism as a form of “hegemony”, an ideology promoted by the ruling class to further their interests, using their existing wealth and power over production.

This conception is closer to a Marxist understanding of ideology – it acknowledges that ruling class ideas are accepted by many people across all sections of society. But it also notes that people are continuously open to the challenge of different ideas.

These opposing ideas can take hold whenever people start to resist the interests of elites and struggle for their own interests.

That is why there is always the potential that the working class in the West and all those oppressed by imperialist domination can find a common language and a common cause in their different struggles.

The recent global movements against imperialist war and neoliberal globalisation, for instance, have actively challenged any notion that the world is permanently divided into “the West and the Rest”.

Towards the end of his life Said became more radical and more politically active. He forcefully rejected the Oslo Accords signed by the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Israel in 1993, viewing them as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause.

In 2000 on a visit to Lebanon, he threw a stone across the border at an Israeli watchtower – a symbolic act that enraged the Zionist right.

Said helped bring to light the mechanics of how knowledge interacts with power – and he had a particular lasting influence on what is now said and written about the “post-colonial” world.

His critique of Orientalism is broadly accepted in academia today – though the right has never ceased from attacking his work or smearing his reputation.

Yet at the same time, Orientalism as a potent system of racist ideas in society is as prevalent as ever, informing and structuring the daily onslaught of Islamophobic rhetoric in the media.

Perhaps more than anything else, this testifies to the fact that the battle of ideas must in the end be brought back to battles between them – the rich and powerful – and us, the oppressed and exploited majority across the world.

Edward Said’s Orientalism is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

Read Alex Callinicos’s obituary of Edward Said from October 2003

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Sat 24 Feb 2007, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 2039
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