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Orientalism means the study of the Orient (Asia) by Western scholars, and their evaluation of its social and moral values, and its future prospects. In recent decades scholarship has responded to the arguments of Edward Said (1978), who denounced much of Orientalism as contaminated by the biases of Western imperialism. This has led to a split of academic societies; the Middle East Studies Association tends to follow Said's principles, and a new organization, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, was co-founded by Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami; Lewis was Said's great intellectual opponent. Conservative journals have taken up the fight against Said's view, especially in the fight against radical Islam. [1] For different reasons, Said was criticized by Marxists.

Edward Said and Orientalism

The American-Palestinian scholar Edward Said argued in his highly influential[2] book Orientalism (1978) that western scholars were so contaminated by their European ideas and preconceptions that they could not deal honestly and fairly with Asian topics. Said focused on the discipline of Oriental Studies in Europe, including philology, linguistics, ethnography, and the interpretation of culture through the discovery and translation of Oriental texts. In particular he focused on how western scholars treated the Middle East, his own native region where he was a major political activist. Said concluded that they looked down upon their subjects as inferior to Westerners, and in general backward and in need of European authority and guidance. He repeatedly complained the Orientalists saw the Orient as unchanging and without an internal dynamic; it lacked internal potential for growth, unless it westernized. Said suggested that the repeated image of a static Orient is what made the Orient static with respect to the West.

Said did not comment on whether anyone could deal honestly and fairly with Asia, for he was taking a general postmodern view that complete analysis is never possible, that Orientalism is misguided and uncritically "essentialist' when it assumes there is such as thing as the Orient in the first place. His argument, however, was phrased as an attack on western specialists, especially Bernard Lewis, who in turn tried to pick apart his examples, and challenged his basic postmodern epistemology. Said was not an expert on any aspect of Asian history of culture (he was a specialist in English literature from Britain and America), which weakened his arguments with specialists, and led to the criticism that he was as guilty of sweeping stereotypes as the authors he attacked. As James Clifford noted. Said "sometimes appears to mimic the essentializing discourse it attacks"[3]

In 1995,[4] Gyan Prakash attributed the phenomenal success of Orientalism to its capacity to unsettle "received categories and modes of understanding":

Said's persistent and restless movements between authorial intentions and discursive regimes, scholarly monographs and political tracts, literature and history, philology and travel writings, classical texts and twentieth-century polemics produced a profound uncertainty... in which the established authority of Orientalist scholars and their lines of inquiry came undone. The ambivalent effect of Orientalism invited charges of undisciplined thinking and ideological bad faith, and prompted critics to force its unsettling movement between different positions into an either/or choice which they then targeted for criticism. Significantly, it was precisely such boundary-crossings and stagings of contrary positions that proved to be the most productive and influential maneuvers, inciting further critical studies of the modern West's construction of the Other. Such studies...elaborated and extended its argument, and Said himself went on to produce other studies of the relationship between Western power and knowledge. But Orientalism's authority as a critique of Western knowledge remains unmatched, and continues to derive force from its subversive violation of borders.

Said's critique of Orientalisms provoked a comprehensive review by postcolonial theorists of the bulk of Western knowledge regarding non-Western countries; this time the analysis was done by experts who did know Asian culture. Specialists on colonial South Asia, in particular, have taken off from Said’s work to look in detail at the construction of colonial knowledge, the reification of religious and racial categories, and the administrative practices of British colonial rule. The postcolonialists argued that Orientalist literature buttressed the colonial notion of a civilizing mission. Gender studies plays a major role, as postcolonial feminists such as Gayatri Spivak, Chandra Mohanty, and Rajeswari Rajan analyze and condemn Western feminism's ideological complicity with Orientalist and imperialist ventures.[5]

Early modern Europe

The concept of Oriental despotism allowed early modern Europeans to distinguish themselves from the most powerful and impressive non-European civilizations of the Ottoman Middle East, Persia, India, and China on grounds that were neither fundamentally religious nor linked to sheer scientific and technological progress but were rather political and moral.

The French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778) situated India within a global context of history and cultural exchange. He helped create a recognizable entity, "India," in the Western imagination by studying selected texts and focusing on a romanticized ideal of India as an Oriental paradise. Voltaire's motivation was primarily the Enlightenment attack on the Catholic Church and more specifically Voltaire's claim that many of the most important Christian rituals had their origin in Hindu rituals.[6]

Montesquieu's Lettres persanes (1721).

The Western use of the harem as a metaphor for aspects of Western life appears as early as 1721, in Baron de Montesquieu's widely-read Persian Letters. Lewis (2004) studies historical attitudes toward Ottoman women expressed in 19th century writings by European women as well as the Ottoman women themselves. Lewis tracks the determination by these different women to emancipate Ottoman women. In her book, Lewis shows how the Western woman author was able to successfully print and sell unique accounts of harem women who were forbidden to Western men. In this way, harem literature was monopolized by European and Ottoman women.

German scholars

In 1808, Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829) published his Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier (1808). This work distilled his long study of Sanskrit and Indian literature and introduced evidence and hypotheses regarding the affinities between Sanskrit and the languages of Europe, especially Greek, Latin, and German. This kinship had earlier been suggested in the writings of Brisih Sanscrit expert Sir William Jones. Schlegel's work also explored Indian and Oriental philosophies and suggested that these, like the language, had been transmitted to Europe in the remote past. In fact, there was a growing interest in Indian civilization, symbolism, and religion in the Romantic era, and interest also visible in the ideas - often derived from etymological research - of Franz Bopp, Joseph Görres, and Friedrich Creuzer. These writers probed the area of comparative mythology with particular eagerness. Accurate or not in its speculations, German Orientalism was significant in part because it contributed to the ideological formation of a German identity in the l9th century, and not just where the emergence of the anti-Semitic notion of an "Aryan Race" is concerned. In this, the Germans' imaginative explorations were rather distinct from those of the British scholars whose views of India were often gained and conditioned by the colonizing experience. Schlegel modeled his studies on the humanistic project of the Renaissance but predicated on the assumption that all European cultures were united around a Germanic core originally influenced by the Asian East.[7]

British thought: Disraeli

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), a popular novelist and politician (later prime minister), was outspokenly philo-Semitic. He was a romantic who embraced his own Jewishness (although he had become a member of the Church of England as a young teenager) and in culture, habit, and political policy followed a pattern of Orientalist (spiritual, intuitive, and emotional rather than rational and practical) behavior. He clearly believed that Orientalism, rooted in Turkish and Semitic - both Arabian and Jewish - tradition, if supported and protected by the colonial powers, could offer much of value to the Christian West. Fueled by contemporary ethnology and race theories, Disraeli argued that Jews were a superior, "aristocratic" race destined to become the spiritual and intellectual guides for modern Europe. Enabling such claims was Disraeli's skillful manipulation of Orientalist discourse, whereby he routinely reversed its stereotypical privileging of West over East. Following the example of William Makepeace Thackeray's 1847 satiric response to Disraeli in the story "Codlingsby," however, Schweller (2006) argues that Disraeli's "strategy of reversals" ultimately failed because it did not adequately comprehend traditional Western associations and meanings of "aristocracy," a fundamental misunderstanding that, for Disraeli's political enemies and critics, exposed him yet again as a foreigner, an Oriental, and a Jew.[8]

Proudman (2005) presents a detailed critique of Said's representation of Disraeli as the archetypal Orientalist. Far from functioning as a producer of knowledge about the East that undergirded imperialism, Disraeli remained consistently sympathetic to Islam, both in his 1847 novel Tancred and in his political involvement with the Balkan crises of the 1870s. The novel, published one year after the division of the Tory party, was primarily a critique of British liberalism, in which Disraeli used a romanticized vision of the Orient to attack the values of post-Enlightenment Europe. Said, in failing to take into account Disraeli's political environment, committed factual errors that included erroneously holding him responsible for the occupation of Egypt in 1882.[9]


  1. Martin Kramer (Fall 2002), "MESA Culpa", Middle East Quarterly
  2. It was translated into 36 languages.
  3. James Clifford, "On Orientalism" in his The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century ethnography, Literature, and Art. 1988 p 262)
  4. Gyan Prakash, "Orientalism Now" History and Theory (1995)
  5. Md. Mahmudul Hasan, "The Orientalization of Gender." American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences 2005 22(4): 26-56. Issn: 0887-7653
  6. Jyoti Mohan, "La Civilisation la plus Antique: Voltaire's Images of India." Journal of World History 2005 16(2): 173-185. Issn: 1045-6007 Fulltext: in History Cooperative, Project Muse and Ebsco
  7. Chen Tzoref-Ashkenazi, "India and the Identity of Europe: the Case of Friedrich Schlegel," Journal of the History of Ideas 2006 67(4): 713-734. Issn: 0022-5037 Fulltext: [ 1. Project Muse and Ebsco
  8. Ivan Davidson Kalmar, "Benjamin Disraeli, Romantic Orientalist." Comparative Studies in Society and History 2005 47(2): 348-371. Issn: 0010-4175 Fulltext: in Cambridge Journals; Russell Schweller, "'Mosaic Arabs': Jews and Gentlemen in Disraeli's Young England Trilogy." Shofar 2006 24(2): 55-69. Issn: 0882-8539 Fulltext: in Ebsco
  9. Mark F. Proudman, "Disraeli as an 'Orientalist': the Polemical Errors of Edward Said." Journal of the Historical Society 2005 5(4): 547-568. Issn: 1529-921x Fulltext: in Ebsco