The Arab-American political activist and professor of European literature Edward Said (1935–2003) durably redefined the term Orientalism with the publication in 1978 of his book by the same name. Before Said's book, Orientalism had two distinct meanings. Both were politically neutral and marginal to the central concerns of the humanities and social sciences. After Said's Orientalism, these two meanings have been collapsed into one that is highly charged politically and central to contemporary debates in the humanities and social sciences, while at the same time covering a smaller historical span than either of the two earlier meanings of the term.
One of the older meanings was the presence of motifs, themes, subjects, or allusions in the music, art, or literature of the Western world that were borrowed from, or meant to evoke or represent, the Orient. For the purpose of these artistic trends, the Orient meant, effectively, the lands immediately to the East and South of Europe: the Ottoman Empire (which included much of Southeast Europe), North Africa, the Arab lands, Iran, and Islamic Central Asia. While these lands have been in recent centuries the core of the Islamic world, Orientalist artists and writers did not separate the Islamic from the earlier ancient Orient in their imaginative constructions. And their interests could run from the current affairs of their own times to far earlier periods. Hence, Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880) wrote of nineteenth-century Egypt in his travel literature, but set his novel Salammbô in ancient Carthage. Similarly, the painter Eugene Delacroix (1798–1863) could exploit the same imagery to portray current events such as the Greek revolt (like most Romantics, he took the Greek, anti-Turkish, side) or the death of the ancient Assyrian ruler, Sardanapalus.
Oriental elements played several important roles in European creative arts. Musicians from Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) and Charles Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) to Nikolai Andreevich Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908) and Mikhail Mikhaylovich Ipolatov-Ivanov (1859–1935) borrowed instrumentation or characteristic modes. Writers introduced Oriental tales and settings to create exoticism and/or to gain critical distance from European mores and institutions (for example, the work of Voltaire [1694–1778] and Montesquieu [1689–1755]). Painters sought dramatic exotic subjects, different light, and often also the titillation of harem scenes. But such erotic exploitations were also made of classical antiquity.
The second meaning of Orientalism was the scholarly study, in the West, of the Orient. Scholarly Orientalism was based upon the study of ancient languages, other than Greek and Latin and their modern descendents. This meant Hebrew and the other Semitic languages, including Arabic, as well as Ancient Egyptian and Coptic (along with Assyriology) and eventually Persian and Turkish in their various historical manifestations. Methodologically, such Oriental studies were the extension of Classical studies. Philology was the queen of the sciences and the critical edition carried pride of place among scholarly achievements.
As a scholarly endeavor, Orientalism was pursued in a variety of European countries, as well as the United States. While scholars in some countries were naturally drawn to areas of local interest (for example, Spaniards in the Muslim domination of the Iberian peninsula, Italians in the Muslim occupation of Sicily), the most important sources of Orientalist scholarship were Britain, France, and Germany (with an important U.S. role beginning after World War II). Of these countries, Germany was for many years the most important (and of the three, the most influential in the development of American Orientalism), in line with the general leadership role of German scholarship in the West in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
For most of the years preceding Said, the Middle Eastern response to scholarly Orientalism was mixed, but low-key. Archaeologists were considered in most quarters to be treasure hunters, especially as markets in antiquities (black and otherwise) continued to parallel archeological activities. There was also a widespread suspicion, not always misplaced, that Western scholars in the region were spies for their governments. Yet, despite this, Orientalists were always well down on the list of suspicious foreigners, preceded, for example, by missionaries, Zionists, and the more formal actors of military, political, and economic imperialism. There have always been many in the region who have openly collaborated in the Western scholarly enterprise. Middle Eastern scholars even attended European Oriental congresses at the turn of the twentieth century. Some among Middle Eastern educated elites were flattered by Western attention to their culture, some bemused, and most indifferent.
The attitudes of Western scholars to the imperialism that characterized so much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were also mixed. A few supported it, but many opposed it, taking the sides of the peoples they studied. Among cultural Orientalists, many Romantics (and some socialists such as the followers of Comte de Saint-Simon [1760–1825]) sought a strong East whose powerful spirituality could balance what they saw as the overly materialistic West.
Said conflated the two earlier meanings of Orientalism while associating the new amalgam with Western imperialism in the lands of Islam. For Said, both the cultural Orientalism of artists and writers and the scholarly study of the Middle East were separate facets of the same phenomenon: a hegemonic Western vision of the Islamic world. This vision was not a reflection, however distorted, of a Middle Eastern reality. Instead, it was an entirely Western construct reflecting Western fears and appetites in association with Western imperialism, which it both aided and benefited from. The usefulness of Orientalist knowledge to imperialism was based in its essentials not on the accuracy of practical information but on the notion of Western strength, activity, and superiority contrasted with Oriental weakness and passivity.
The thesis of Orientalism as the handmaiden of imperialism (or the other way around) was reinforced by Said's decision to ignore German scholarship and concentrate instead on British and French and, later, American production. If such a choice does not fit the history of scholarly Orientalism, it fits well the cultural marks that European imperialism left on the Arab world. A knowledge of English or French (and sometimes both) is common among the more Westernized members of the Arab intelligentsia. Many are those (such as Said himself) who received their instruction in French-or English-language schools in the region. German is rarely found outside of Turkey.
The same can be said of Said's choice of epochs. For scholarly Orientalism, the connection with the Ancient Near East was crucial. Arabic and Hebrew were studied together under the intellectual canopy of Comparative Semitics. Not only philologists but also anthropologists thought that studying the Arabs could help them understand the Hebrews of the Bible. In Orientalism as well as subsequent writings, Said concentrated on Western attitudes to the region in its Arab and Islamic periods. This, too, reflects cultural politics on the ground. Popular attitudes as well as the dominant political movements have almost always based their sense of identity on the region as it was remade by the great Arab Islamic military (and only later cultural) expansion of the seventh century. This is as true of the Arab nationalism whose influence is waning at the turn of the twenty-first century as it is of the Islamic revivalism simultaneously in the ascendant.
Interest in the pre-Islamic world has virtually no popular existence and is confined to relatively marginal branches of the Westernized intelligentsia and occasional clumsy manipulation by authoritarian governments. It should be noted that during the heyday of imperialism, local participation in the study of the pre-Islamic East was not always encouraged, although since independence in the mid-twentieth century the situation has been completely reversed.
Focusing on the Arab-Islamic periods and especially on the period of Western imperialism supports the political claims of both Arab nationalists and Islamic revivalists. Attention to the period before the rise of Islam has the opposite effect, and instead could carry grist to the mill of Zionists, since it is on ancient history that the latter base their historical claims.
Said's insistence on the hegemonic implications of intellectual and cultural discourses harks back to Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937). But both the Arab-American professor's focus on discursive practices and their association with power, and his identification of a virtual episteme whose essence remains unchanging while its forms vary superficially, show the influence of Michel Foucault (1926–1984). One difference is that Foucault wrote of the invention of the human sciences while Said treated only a specific application, that of one civilization's vision of another. A second difference would be that in several of his most famous works, Foucault specifically linked intellectual discourses with institutional practices (for example, in medicine and penology). Said, by contrast, leaves the relationship between cultural discourses and specific imperialist practices unarticulated.
As cultural politics, Said's Orientalism brought together Zhdanovism, tiers-mondisme, and American multiculturalism. Zhdanovism, or intellectual Stalinism, is the extreme version of intellectual engagement. It argues that knowledge must be judged according to whether or not it serves the political interests of the forces of historical progress. In the original version, this meant the interests of the proletariat as confounded with those of the Communist movement and the Soviet Union. Said makes no such bald claim, but his assumption that Orientalist knowledge is vitiated by its association with imperialism, along with his complaint that such scholarship did not represent the historical aspirations of the peoples of the Middle East, leads to Zhdanovist conclusions. And this is certainly how his followers have applied Said's work. Tiers-mondisme, as associated for example with the work of Frantz Fanon (1925–1961), substituted the third world for the proletariat of advanced industrial societies as the carrier of historical progress, turning Western imperialism and resistance to it from relatively marginal events to the center of the story of the emancipation of humanity. As an academic practice, American multiculturalism redefines scholarly domains by the ethnic or other identity groups considered the subject of study. At the same time, academic multiculturalism stresses the distinct experiential knowledge of members of the group, implying that they should have a dominant, for some even exclusive, role in the study and teaching of these newly defined subjects. Multiculturalism then intersects with social policy as it blurs the distinction between diversity in the faculty and diversity in the curriculum.
Most reviewers of Orientalism found the work to be seriously damaged by errors that showed its general ignorance of the Middle East and scholarship on it. This was even true of reviewers who sympathized with Said's political positions on the Middle East. Many also called attention to his tendentious arguments and highly debatable interpretive leaps. Yet despite these reviews, Said's extraordinarily dense prose, and his thinly stretched reasonings, Orientalism was an international bestseller. It has been translated into numerous languages and made of Said the best-known professor of English in the United States and one of the most influential academics on the world scene. In the field of Middle East studies, his impact was dramatic. Never, it would appear, has a long-established episteme been so swiftly overthrown, or at least never have so many run away from it so quickly. Orientalism became a dirty word. The international Orientalist congress even changed its name.
When Said's book appeared in 1978, Middle East studies in the United States, and to a lesser degree in Europe, was already at a turning point. The old philologically based Orientalism was ceding leadership to the new area studies paradigm supported by massive U.S. government post-Sputnik Cold War expenditures. If the old Orientalism favored ancient and medieval civilizations with their classical languages, the new area studies favored the imperial and post-imperial world while deemphasizing language knowledge. Institutionally, the rivalry was reflected in competition between the American Oriental Society, for the old school, and the Middle East Studies Association, for the new. In this environment, it was relatively easy for the area studies specialists to claim distinction from the Orientalists. And this despite the fact that Said was careful to include the new area studies in his condemnation.
The triumph of anti-Orientalist sentiment operated dialectically with other trends. The European-trained immigrants who founded American Orientalism after World War II largely failed to reproduce themselves. Some circles in the old Orientalism discouraged the participation of natives of the region. New waves of professors came less and less from the old classical languages mode. Increasingly, they were immigrants from the Middle East, aided by the contemporary cult of native-speaker language teachers. Or these professors were Peace Corps veterans who had fallen in love with their country of assignment (especially with Iran), and often with one of its citizens. Such experts were naturally more sympathetic to the political interests of the region they studied. In this, they reflected most area studies in which, with the pointed exception of Communist Eastern Europe, practitioners identified with the causes of chosen regions and were often sharply critical of U.S. government policy. Just as French tiers-mondisme was in many ways a reflection of the brutal and divisive Algerian War, American anti-Orientalism was nourished by the sequels of the Vietnam trauma. American elites after the civil rights movement were justifiably sensitive to any charge of racism, and anti-racism became a leading value in American academic circles. This is one of the reasons why anti-Orientalism has had a deeper impact on American scholarly production than that in Europe, despite the latter continent's history of direct imperial administration of the Middle East.
Said's public, and courageous, political assumption of his Palestinian identity and his outspoken defense of the Palestinian cause also strengthened the reception of his ideas. Few knew in those early years that Said grew up in comfortable circumstances in Alexandria, Egypt, studied in English language schools such as the prestigious Victoria College, and was not at home in the language of his ancestors. The 1980s and 1990s also saw intellectual and academic sentiment in the United States, originally sympathetic to Israel, become increasingly critical of the Jewish state and concerned with the plight of the Palestinians.
Said's intellectual influence was apparent among graduate students in the early 1980s. Those who taught in those years remember the earnest objections to any comments or materials that seemed to cast the Middle East or its peoples in an unflattering light. A number of ideas, based upon Said, became common currency among students who later became professors. Generalizations about the region were vulnerable to opposite critiques. Applying a Western model to the Middle East was Europocentric. Creating a distinct model for the region was censured as the fabrication of an Oriental essence. Critics who were ignorant of the history of their field of study, or who doubted the cultural and economic reality of the Islamic Middle East, argued that Orientalism (or Middle East studies) was the only field that had created its own object of research before describing it. Charges of reification and reductionism fell like rain.
The intellectual fracas around Orientalism played to predilections in the American academic market, especially the national reluctance to learn foreign languages. A movement dedicated to fighting Western arrogance has had the paradoxical effect of restricting knowledge. The Orientalists were language buffs and commonly worked in more than one Near Eastern language and half a dozen European ones. Their successors do not often have a command of more than one Near Eastern language, and regular use of more than one European language (other than English) is rare. At the same time, the scholarly study of the Western image of the Orient has blossomed from a minor subfield of English or French literary studies into a central area of inquiry, even among scholars of Middle East studies for whom such topics are politically safer and linguistically easier. The unflattering examination of images of the Arabs and the Middle East in American popular culture also flourished. Paradoxically, the Orientalism controversy has shifted relative attention from the region and back to an American society obsessed with identity politics.
But the impact of Professor Said and the Orientalism paradigm has gone far beyond Middle Eastern or other Oriental studies. Among scholars of English—and to a lesser degree of other European—literatures, Said was a major if not the most important force behind a shift in emphasis in literary studies. To his supporters, this was a salutary move from formal literary-textual properties to historical situations of creation and reception, from aesthetic interests to political ones. To its critics, this trend represents a license for writing on history and politics by scholars who have neither the background, training, nor methodological awareness provided by the disciplines of history and political science.
Knocking Orientalism off its academic pedestal also led to the creation of a self-consciously new academic subfield: postcolonial studies. Though some historians and anthropologists have adopted this model, its major intellectual home remains departments of English and, to a lesser extent, those newly created departments and programs of Cultural Studies. The area treated by postcolonial studies is for the most part coterminous with the domain previously assigned to Third-World Studies. The greatest novelty of postcolonial studies is a relative shift of emphasis. On the one hand, by constantly referring to the post-colony, this approach deemphasizes both the earlier precolonial history of the societies in question and the differences in the nature of the imperial impact on different cultures. Postcolonialism emphasizes relations between the colony and the metropole, making imperialism the most important factor in the history of non-Western peoples, just as the term colony expresses the greatest degree of imperial subjugation. At the same time, postcolonial studies have highlighted the increasing interpenetration of Third World and First World societies associated with globalization. Said is generally credited as the godfather of postcolonial studies.
Events of September 2001 inaugurated a new phase in the evolution of Middle Eastern studies in the United States and at the same time in the debate over Orientalism. These 2001 phenomena have done so by accelerating trends already present. The better-known event was the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001, carried out in the name of Islam. But only a few days before, an international conference against racism that took place in Durban, South Africa, inaugurated a new member into the club of social evils: Islam-ophobia. As an irrational fear of Islam, or even just a fear of Islam, Islamophobia is the progeny of Said's Orientalism.
But the attacks of September 11 were also the most violent expression of larger trends in the Middle East. The popularity of Said and of his works among the relatively secularized branches of the Middle East intelligentsia has masked the fact that the positions championed by Said—cultural openness and progressive politics combined with vigorous anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism—have lost ground to a frequently reactionary Islamic revival in religion and politics. Middle East experts did pay some attention to this trend, but they tended to underestimate its importance, its reactionary nature, and its capacity for violence. Ironically, this underestimation was at least partly caused by the effects of the Orientalism controversy. On the one hand, scholars were reluctant to broadcast bad news from the region. On the other hand, the attack on the Orientalists discredited, by association, everything they stood for. This included knowledge of the more classical forms of Arabic. Said's work accelerated the trend, already present in area studies, to shift Arabic instruction in American and European universities from the more classical to the more modern versions of the language, sometimes going so far as to seek to replace the modern literary idiom (which is universal for the region) with instruction in the local spoken dialects.
And yet the classical form of Arabic has been the preferred medium, in some ways the cultural signature, of the Islamic revival. The twenty-first century's Islamists and Jihadists use classical formulations and quote medieval sources and examples with great frequency. This goes well beyond the citation of the Koran and hadiths (the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad) to include medieval theologians, commentators, and historians. Academic Middle Eastern studies in the West was moving away from the classical idiom at the precise moment when the Arabs were returning to it.
The September 11 attacks reversed this trend by creating a new model for Middle Eastern studies, the institute or department of Islamic Studies. Increased public demand for knowledge on this now apparently important subject has been met with increased supply as both Muslim governments and Islamic groups in the United States have combined to support new university positions. This trend, when added to the slightly earlier expansion of Jewish studies, has further strengthened the identity-based nature of American university scholarship on the Middle East.
In the wake of September 11, American media, both popular and elite, are engaged in a debate about the nature of Islam and its role in the modern world. Is Islam a religion of peace? Or one that advocates holy war? Did the terrorists hijack a religion or merely express one of its options? Are those who criticize Islamic movements, institutions, or leadership echoing a long-held Western prejudice based on ignorance? Are fears of Muslims as potential terrorists in the United States prudence or prejudice? Would airport profiling or selective immigration rules be part of American racism? Are Arabs in America subject to discrimination as people of color? All these debates come back to the fundamental issue of Orientalism, as redefined by Said—a deeply held Western prejudice against the East, serving imperialist causes. In this way, the controversy over Orientalism continues, though the word itself has almost disappeared, victim of the political success of its critics.