“Orientalism” then and now

The Snake Charmer, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1870.
Orientalism failed to identify with human experience. If the “global war on terror” has taught us anything, it is that the road to barbarism begins with this failure.

By Adam Shatz | The New York Review of Books | Jun 20, 2019

Orientalism is a foreign ambassador in an Arab city belittling popular concern about Palestine and depicting Arabs as a docile mass who only woke up in 2011, during the Arab revolts, and then reverted to being a disappointment to a benevolent West that merely seeks to be a good tutor. It is a Western ‘expert’ reducing Islamist terrorism in Europe to a psychology of ressentiment, without bothering to explain why European citizens of Muslim origin might feel alienated, then telling an Arab critic of the Westerner’s work that he is being emotional for objecting to a presentation purely based on scientific data, and finally flying into a rage at being misunderstood by this stubborn Oriental.

Edward Said’s Orientalism is one of the most influential works of intellectual history of the postwar era. It is also one of the most misunderstood. Perhaps the most common misunderstanding is that it is “about” the Middle East; on the contrary, it is a study of Western representations of the Arab-Islamic world — of what Said called “mind-forg’d manacles,” after William Blake. The book’s conservative critics misread it as a nativist denunciation of Western scholarship, ignoring its praise for Louis Massignon, Jacques Berque, and Clifford Geertz, while some Islamists praised the book on the basis of the same misunderstanding, overlooking Said’s commitment to secular politics.

Since the book’s first publication in 1978, “Orientalism” has become one of those words that shuts down conversation on liberal campuses, where no one wants to be accused of being “Orientalist” any more than they want to be called racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic. That “Orientalist” is now a commonly applied epithet is a tribute to the power of Said’s account, but also to its vulgarization. With Orientalism, Said wanted to open a discussion about the way the Arab-Islamic world had been imagined by the West — not to prevent a clear-eyed reckoning with the region’s problems, of which he was all too painfully aware.

He was also acutely aware of writing a work of history that was destined, like all such works, to become itself a historical document, refracting the pressures and anxieties of its moment. Orientalism was published nearly forty years ago, at the time of the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt and the Lebanese civil war, just before the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and four years before Ariel Sharon’s invasion of Lebanon and the massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. A member of the Palestine National Council who was also a passionate reader of Foucault, Said intended his book as a history of the present — a present, now past, that is very different from our own.

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