Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
Published On: Mon, Sep 5th, 2016

A Critique of East and West

In 1978, Edward Said released the book that would come to be his best known and most influential; Orientalism. This is a critical review of cultural representations of “the Orient” in literature, art and academic studies.

"Le charmeur de serpents" by the French orientalist painter Jean-Léon Gérôme.

“Le charmeur de serpents” by the French orientalist painter Jean-Léon Gérôme.

The focus for Said was what he referred to as “the West,” and how the representations in question in fact were part of a political project that constructed “the East” as an object of study. According to Said, the reality that is said to be studied only exists in the mind of the orientalist.

The early orientalism, up until the end of the eighteenth century, was dominated by an idea of salvation. The colonial powers and their rulers made a difference between people based on their faith. They were led primarily by a Christian moral imperative and a conviction of salvation through Christ. Therefore, it was the Christian colonialists duty to “lead the heathens right.”

Later orientalism – a common marker is Napoleon’s campaign to Egypt and Syria, starting in 1798 – instead focused on the idea of civilisation, making a difference between people based on time. The European colonial powers were seen as “ahead” in terms of knowledge, and a linear development of civilisation. The colonised people were seen as superstitious, barbarian and uncultivated. In this manner, the idea of “salvation” was carried on, but with a secular twist. It was the educated colonialists duty to “educate and civilise the barbarians.”

A clear example of how this could look is the French encyclopaedia Description de l’Égypte, which described Egyptian daily life as one with “striking contrast to the habits of the European nations.” This constructed an Egyptian identity marker, riddled with likings to barbarism, which could be used to place France as “the height of civilisation.” In this manner, it would almost be an act of charity to colonise Egypt, so that the Europeans could educate Egyptians, and – maybe, possibly, if they are susceptible to the education – teach them how to care for their civilisation and culture themselves.

From Oriental Studies to Area Studies

There was already a shift under way when Said wrote his treatise, as more and more academics wanted to distance themselves from the imperialist mission of Oriental Studies. But it wasn’t until Said’s Orientalism, that the term “orientalism” really got the negative connotations it holds today. The term, today, is not only understood as the academic discipline in which “the Orient” is studied, but also, more generally, the way “the West,” as Said calls it, relates to “the Orient.”

Said’s critique is very important, and it is today impossible to deal with Area Studies – or developmental work, foreign policy, diplomacy, journalism, etc. – without relating to this critique. Said calls upon us to understand our own role in the construction of the object of our work, whether that is as a freelance journalist in Rabat, an ambassador in Cairo, or an academic in Beirut.

10th century manuscript of Ahmad ibn Fadlan, kept at the library of the University of Oslo.

10th century manuscript of Ahmad ibn Fadlan, kept at the University of Oslo.

Unfortunately, this often backfires. All too often, the opposition to neo-orientalist and cultural-imperialist expressions in academia, politics and journalism, inadvertently repeats the same binary constructions that are said to be opposed. “Western politicians” are criticised for their involvement in Yemen. “Western media” is criticised for spreading prejudice about Muslims. “Western activists” are criticised for talking over the heads of those they claim to represent.

Oftentimes, the critique is completely valid, albeit expressed in a generalised manner – is the U.S. always representative of “the West,” including Sweden, and is Sweden then always representative of “the West,” including the U.S.?

Essentialism and dichotomy

“The West,” just like “the East,” is, as such, dependent on essentialism, but this is not the biggest issue. The problem, rather, lies in the orientalist system that the critique constructs. As soon as “the West” is used as a descriptive term, things get complicated, because it implies an “East.”

This is so because “the West” only exists in relation to “the East.” Both terms are part of the dichotomy wherein “the West,” in the orientalist tradition, has come to represent civilisation, culture, and modernity, while “the East” represents primitivity, nature and mythicism.

To flip the script, and oppose the ideals considered “Western” – that is, to oppose what in the orientalist discourse has been considered of value – is not to oppose orientalism itself. It is to play with the same cards.

It is also nothing new. For as long, if not even longer, as European academics have studied “distant” languages, religions and cultural phenomena, the reverse has also happened. Ahmad ibn Fadlan, a tenth century traveler and writer, described how northerners – specifically the Rus people (possibly from Roslagen, where I was born) and vikings – lived unhygienically and without much culture, as opposed to the people in his hometown of Baghdad.

Critique of “Western media,” as such, is not just essentialism, but also a construction in the same manner as “the Orient” or “Eastern media” are constructions. There is no value to the term “the West” as a tool of opposition, since it only strengthens the same dichotomised world-view. Instead, the opposition must be directed towards the dichotomy itself, against this constructed view of the world, in which “East is East and West is West and never shall the twain meet,” as Rudyard Kipling once wrote.

About the Author

- Contributor and co-founder of MENAtidningen.se, and former Director of Studies for Middle Eastern Studies at Stockholm University. Graduate student at the University of Cambridge, researching feminist activism in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Mostly writes about Arab media, gender, politics and popular culture.

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