The relationship between Middle East Arabs and Western Europeans during the last one-thousand years more or less recognized each other as existing on opposite ends of the Earth. Since the Crusades there had been little contact between Arabs and Europeans. Several factors have changed that relationship since the beginning of the 19th century. European colonialism, the West’s growing dependence on oil, the creation of the State of Israel and a lopsided technological advantage all contributed to an imbalance resulting in a superior West and an inferior Arab world. Because of these issues a friction has developed.

Edward Said, an Arab by birth, educated in the West realized this imbalance with the total defeat of Arab forces during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Subsequently, he began to think about his roots and the reasons why the West believes itself to be so superior to the Arab states in the Levant and North Africa. His seminal work concerning this issue, Orientalism, outlined one of the major causes for this inequity, the acceptance in the West of a scholarly approach to certain Western academic criticisms of Arab culture and history which Said argues have contributed to the “intellectual authority” of the West over the East. .

Before getting into his arguments Said first defines for the reader what is “Orientalism.” This is rather curious as the intended audience is clearly meant for academia which is already familiar with the term.  Perhaps his definition is there more for himself rather than the reader. Said has trouble relating the word Orientalism to his area of focus, namely the Arab Middle East since the term has for so long been more associated with the Eastern side of Asia and the Island of Japan in America and really representing little more than India for Europeans. But Said is determined to redefine the word to fit an all-encompassing Asiatic continent including the Middle East. He constantly stumbles over arguing this new definition.

 

In the Orient, from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean to Indochina and Malaya, their (England and France) colonial possessions lapped,  often were fought over. But it was in the Near Orient, the lands of the Arab Near East, where Islam was supposed to define the cultural and racial characteristics…

 

Here Said struggles to redefine the word trying to match up the various  names of the area where he focuses his arguments, “New Orient,“ “Arab Near East,” or Middle East, and in a wider dimension, the world of “Islam.” This confusing redefinition requires Said to spend a good deal of time in the beginning of the book convincing his audience that the term is valid.

To paraphrase briefly “…Orientalism (is) a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient’s special place in European Western experience” (1). Three definitions of Orientalism coming from three different directions meeting in the same place, having to do with teaching, use in literature, and the collision of the academic with the imaginative combines to form a romantic vision of the Western Islamic world to European culture. This, Said finds abhorrent for it leads to unrealistic, stereotypical, and prejudicial judgments about the Arab world.

Said argues that the West’s view of the Middle East has taken some wrong forms, or wrong turns throughout history. Beginning sometime around the middle of the eighteenth century certain Western observations have not been fair in Said’s view. The legitimization of these forms led to Western belief that they were indeed superior to Arabs and Arab culture.

Said presents his case through the use of examples that included literary as well as historical scholars. Since his thesis involves the “deepest and most recurring images of the Other,” (1) literature beginning around 1800 is used as a proof along with standard historical works.

 

Thus a very large mass of writers, among whom are poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people customs,” and destiny, and so on.

 

This quote indicates two important aspects of this book. One, although Said’s work is intended for scholars, it is not a standard researched work. He uses examples from many literary forms and disciplines not usually associated in historical research to make his point. And, two, the book is hopelessly longwinded. There are unfortunately many sections of this book like the one above, endlessly laboring to make a point. With this particular argumentative style Said runs the risk of losing support for even the most well founded evidence because readers are inundated in long, and sometimes boring drawn out examples.

However, Said makes no apologies for the methodological format he takes to argue his thesis. Dr. Said is very pleased with the results Orientalism’s influence has had in the field (350-351). For Orientalism made a huge impact in the study of history, so much so, it not only caused “Orientalist” historians to take pause of the discipline, but world historiography was affected as well. Among academics Orientalism is known as a landmark work. Since its first publication in 1978 historians now look differently at how they approach all forms of world history.

Although the Orientalist discipline is well instituted among scholars from every European country, including Russia, Said seems to take particular pleasure in singling out the British and their colonial interests in the Middle East. The French who were at least as complicit in the “ruthlessness” of colonialism seem to get a pass from Said. It is interesting to note that the French colonial involvements are not even mentioned in the book until page forty-one, after Said had spent the previous twenty or thirty pages condemning British policy during their tenure in the Middle East, especially Egypt.

Said’s focus on Britain is mainly on the writings and speeches of two men, Arthur James Balfour and Lord Evelyn Baring Cromer. It is from them that he begins to derive the idea that Western thinking is fixated on “Otherness” and consequently developed a superior outlook toward the people and culture of the Middle East.

 

That Balfour and Cromer, as we shall soon see, could strip humanity down to such ruthless cultural and a racial essence was not at all an indication of their particular viciousness. (p. 26).

He cites several British observations at the turn of the twentieth century to substantiate this view.

 

Balfour nowhere denies British superiority and Egyptian inferiority; he takes them for granted as he describes the consequences of such knowledge (p. 32).

 

And, Said finds Balfour’s Oriental philosophy reprehensively condescending and a bit dishonest.

 

Balfour produces no evidence that Egyptians and ‘the races with whom we deal’ appreciate or even understand the good that is being done them by colonial occupation. It does not occur to Balfour, however, to let the Egyptian speak for himself, since presumably any Egyptian who would speak out is more likely to be ‘the agitator [who] wishes to raise difficulties than the good native who overlooks the difficulties of foreign domination (33).

 

Said fails to prove his thesis because he leaves out several elements that need to be taken in to consideration when making the kinds of accusative assessments he does in this book. For example, the Balfour quote on page 33 when Lord Balfour expresses dismay at the Egyptians who do not realize the good that can come out of British tutelage. Of course today we know that all colonial peoples did not want to be subjected to foreign rule. Colonialism has been a dismal failure because western thinking never took into account the beliefs or feelings of Said’s “Other.” But, Said fails to consider that 19th century Europe could not think any other way at that time. Colonialism’s principles, especially before World War I was guided on trade offs. The home country would extract valuable resources and the indigenous people would benefit from Western medicine, art, music, food, industry, and a host of other forms of technology and culture. The nineteenth century was replete with racial theories of trying to understand the different peoples of the world. When one looks at history it is impossible to imagine it happening any other way. Humanity had to start somewhere to get where we are today. Jared Diamond, William McNeill and others have expressed these ideas most formidably in the last decade of the twentieth century. Even in his “Afterword,” published in 1994, Said refuses to acknowledge this natural sequence of events.

Early on Said spoke of an “unfairness” that needed to be addressed in the history of Orientalism. The “unfairness” is not British doctrine concerning the Middle East. The “unfairness” lies in Said’s refusal to accept history. He stubbornly used twentieth century morality to judge essentially 19th century British policy. It does not serve his thesis well if he does not address the possibility that the British (or any other country’s) colonial actions until at least 1914 were believed to be part of a natural course of history, destined and justified by God in their deeds even if we now accept that they were not.

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Jewish community examiner

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