For the last thirty years, Edward W. Said’s book “Orientalism” has dominated—suffocated would be the less polite word—scholarship on the Arab world. According to his devotees, Said “proved” that the West collectively and systemically fictionalized the Arab world and the third world in general, in order to affirm its own ostensibly superior identity and delegitimize and dehumanize the “Orient.” He coined the term “Orientalism” to describe this phenomenon. With the inception of the Arab Spring (or whatever you want to call it), that term has returned to popular language. Protesters around the Arab world have screamed kifaya (enough!) to dictatorial rule and Orientalism’s tyrannical influence on scholarship and punditry deserves a similarly clamorous denunciation.
As a work of social science, Said’s followers interpret “Orientalism,” with accidental irony and fragile evidence, as an argument that systematically delegitimizes all prior and current Western understandings of the Arab world. As a critique of Western historical scholarship on the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Orientalism has elements of truth. However, in the field of social science, what became known as “Orientalism” simply replaced Orientalism with—if you will allow me—Occidentalism. In rebutting the formation of one generalizing “other,” Said set the ground for the production of a second “other.”
Today, “Orientalism” is a crux for attacking any opinion or presentation of facts that displays skepticism toward anything in the Arab world. An editorial on the Huffington Post is emblematic of this ruse: “A classical orientalist construction would be equating Islam with terrorism…Rather than acknowledge the heterogeneity of thought and behavior among Muslims.” Of course, one can both acknowledge that heterogeneity and attribute some piece of modern terrorism to Islam. But, like Orientalism itself, “Orientalism” creates for its believers a fictional foe in order to affirm their own identities.
The authority of “Orientalism” in the social sciences, in particular those related to Middle Eastern studies, is difficult, if not impossible, to underestimate. Most studies on the modern Middle East, and some in the social sciences in general, begin, and often revolve around, the ideas made famous by Said. This influence reaches far beyond the university gates and extends through media into the very center of narratives on social justice, international relations, and their intersection.
Newspapers, assorted journals, and seemingly every editorial on Al-Jazeera all indicate that Said is more or less the Paul R. Krugman of Middle Eastern studies—you don’t have to agree with him, but you do have to read him.
Fortunately, the impetus for removing Said’s Occidentalism from the heart of Middle Eastern studies can actually be found within Said’s work itself.
Said’s “Orientalism” represents an idealistic rejection of greed and wealth as motivating factors in intellectual pursuit. In “Orientalism” and other works, he chronicled how European artists, scholars, and intellectuals of the nineteenth and early twentieth century created a reality that served their countries’ imperial interests. Excusing for a moment the thickness of the brush Said paints with to prove his point, any thinker should concur with Said on the dangers of a marriage between academia and moneyed interests.
But the pernicious proliferation of Said’s theory demonstrates that academia’s inertia and magnitude can be as influential and debilitative as colonial interests. Ideas follow not only the interests of money, but also the internal interests of scholars who thrive in academia by gratifying and expanding its existing assumptions and theories.
As is often the case in the softest of sciences, when the theory of Orientalism entered the ivory tower to rabid applause and hastily unfurled red carpets, it quickly transmogrified into dogma. When an idea is accepted as a truism, it quickly becomes a platitude that every generation of scholars passes on to the next as a piece of collective identity. Academia may be where great ideas originate, but it is also where bad ideas live far beyond their use or truth. We should reject “Orientalism” for the same reason Said rejected Orientalism—it is a false reality sustained only by self-affirming interests. Like all non-scientific dogma, “Orientalism” is a truth within itself without truth.
I do not intend to make Said’s mistake; I recognize that “academia” is not monolithic and that no system of thought can be truly all encompassing. Of course, scholars produced and continue to produce critiques of “Orientalism,” but, in general, those critiques are undermined while Said’s theory remains relatively unchallenged in comparison. Nor do I intend to imply that stereotypes about Muslims and Arabs are not horribly reprehensible, but they are not unique, either. All cultures identify themselves by collectively dehumanizing others, but Orientalism, the theory, does that far more frequently than any vestigial clusters of Orientalism itself.
One valuable conclusion of Orientalism is that any social theory should be met with fierce skepticism in both its substance and its sources. Said’s acolytes would do well to remember that.
Eric T. Justin ’13, a former Crimson editorial executive, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House. He is spending spring 2012 abroad in Egypt. His column appears on alternate Fridays.