Published on September 25th, 2013 |
by Usman Butt
Image © Justin McIntosh 2004
Edward Said’s dangerous idea
The 25th September marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Professor, Writer, Thinker, Intellectual and Human Rights advocate Edward Said. Born during the British Mandate of Palestine in Jerusalem in 1935, Said rose through the ranks of Western Academia, becoming Professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.
A Christian by birth, an Agnostic by belief, Said was a profound believer in humanity and strongly supported human rights. Educated at a British school in Egypt before moving to the United States, Said never lost his strong British accent which had a little American twang to it. He embraced the West fully, he listened to Western classical music and identified with English literature, as well as the political left. He was very proud of his ‘Americaness’ and yet there was something in Said that tied him to the East.
Said, like thousands of Palestinians, lost his ancestral home in 1948 with the creation of the State of Israel; the irony was never lost on him that while he enjoyed the perks of being an American, the same country he called home actively supported the country that dispossessed him of his ancestral land. Said had no plans to ever live in Palestine again, although he felt it his duty to speak up for the millions of Palestinians who were demonized, dispossessed, occupied, and under attacked. Not because he was born in Palestine (he didn’t believe in nationalism) but because of his profound belief in human equality. He did not see himself as a Palestinian spokesperson but as someone with a commitment to Human Rights.
It is this discourse that shaped Said’s ‘dangerous idea’, his critique of Orientalism. He wrote the book entitled ‘Orientalism’ in 1978, but when he wrote it he had no idea of the impact of such a book. Today, Orientalism in taught in universities in China, India, Malaysia, Iran, Egypt, as well as the United States and Europe. Orientalism has become bigger and more famous than the author himself, a fact that shocked him. In 1993, he wrote that he never expected that the book would still be debated, read, and contested so long after its initial publication and in so many different countries. Part of the reason for this is because of events that took place following its publication and the thirty years since: The 1979 Iranian revolution, two Palestinian Intifadas, Gulf Wars One and Two, 9/11, the War on Terror, the ascent of China, the Arab Spring, Muslim communities in the West, and others, have made the book all too painfully relevant.
What is Orientalism?
Said’s book critiques a 19th century European movement of Intellectuals, Scholars, Scientists, Artists, Novelists, Historians and others. They called themselves the ‘Orientalists’ and their function was to ‘create knowledge’ or to ‘understand’ non-European cultures and peoples. Their job was to explain ‘foreign cultures’ and their inherent ‘inferiority’ and cultural backwardness, to demonstrate the superiority of European and Western civilisation and to help imperial Europe understand the people they were going to ‘rule’. However, the knowledge they produced was heavily distorted and was closely tied to the colonial interests of the time. And they also sought to justify European expansion into the non-European world. This movement developed and became more complex, but it continued into the 20th century and is still with us today.
The movement was born in 1798 when Napoleon invaded Egypt. He marched into Egypt not only with soldiers, but with scholars, scientists, and artists. What they found shocked them and these scholars were sent out to study Egypt ‘scientifically’; what was born of this study was Orientalism. The Orient had a different meaning in their time; in today’s geography the Orient refers to Far East Asia, such as Japan or China. But maps, geographic names, and spaces are defined by politics and power. Japan may be the far east from Britain, but is it for Russia? Why do Indians refer to the Middle East as the Middle East, when to them it is West? Shouldn’t it be the Middle West? The acceptance of these terms show that even in developing countries in today’s world the European colonial discourse still has relative dominance.
In the 19th century the term the ‘Orient’ was taken from Latin. The Romans use to refer to all their overseas colonies to the east of them as the ‘Orient’. And all the territories to the west of them became the ‘Occident’ or ‘land where the sun sets’ (Orient has the opposite meaning). The centre was Rome. And it was from this the Orientalists adopted their framework. Said complains that many of our stereotypes about non-European cultures were produced by Orientalists. Orientalist painters gave us the earlier images of harems and belly dancers, as well as, lustful and murderous tribes men of the east. They would later give us the impression of ‘oppressed women’ in the non-Western world. The object of the creation of these stereotypes was to dehumanize and decontextualise these cultures, countries and people.
To dehumanize ‘the other’ meant they could justify invasion, intervention, war, and colonisation. The trouble is that these stereotypical images are either distortions of that culture or at worst completely made-up. Over the last ten years, using Orietnalist stereotypes, we sought to ‘liberate’ the women of Afghanistan. We sought to bring ‘democracy’ to the Middle East. And within our own society, we constantly discuss banning the veil and other things. This does not mean bad things don’t happen in other countries, Said made a point of saying that this is not an excuse for bad behaviour. If Syrian society does something which is bad, then they should fix it.
Today, with the Syrian Civil War, Iranian Nuclear Programme, ascent of China, Turkey wanting to join the EU, and other issues, Said’s works are still as relevant today as they have ever been.
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