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‘Orientalism,’ Then and Now

Jean-Léon Gérôme: The Snake Charmer, 1870

Edward Said’s Orientalism is one of the most influential works of intellectual history of the postwar era. It is also one of the most misunderstood. Perhaps the most common misunderstanding is that it is “about” the Middle East; on the contrary, it is a study of Western representations of the Arab-Islamic world—of what Said called “mind-forg’d manacles,” after William Blake. The book’s conservative critics misread it as a nativist denunciation of Western scholarship, ignoring its praise for Louis Massignon, Jacques Berque, and Clifford Geertz, while some Islamists praised the book on the basis of the same misunderstanding, overlooking Said’s commitment to secular politics.

Since the book’s first publication in 1978, “Orientalism” has become one of those words that shuts down conversation on liberal campuses, where no one wants to be accused of being “Orientalist” any more than they want to be called racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic. That “Orientalist” is now a commonly applied epithet is a tribute to the power of Said’s account, but also to its vulgarization. With Orientalism, Said wanted to open a discussion about the way the Arab-Islamic world had been imagined by the West—not to prevent a clear-eyed reckoning with the region’s problems, of which he was all too painfully aware.        

He was also acutely aware of writing a work of history that was destined, like all such works, to become itself a historical document, refracting the pressures and anxieties of its moment. Orientalism was published nearly forty years ago, at the time of the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt and the Lebanese civil war, just before the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and four years before Ariel Sharon’s invasion of Lebanon and the massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. A member of the Palestine National Council who was also a passionate reader of Foucault, Said intended his book as a history of the present—a present, now past, that is very different from our own.            

Orientalism is a work of intellectual history, based on readings of an enormous range of literary and scholarly texts. But, in essence, its thesis can be distilled to the proposition that Orientalism is, in Said’s words, “a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction between ‘the Orient‘ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident.’” He did not say that Orientalist depictions of the West’s Other were merely fictions. If they were, they would be much easier to deconstruct and dislodge. Quite the reverse, classical Orientalism drew upon elements of positive knowledge and scholarship, work that was often admiring of—at times, even besotted with—its object. The problem with Orientalism was not that it was false in some crudely empirical sense, rather that it was part of a discursive system of “power-knowledge,” a phrase Said borrowed from Foucault. And the aim of Orientalism as a system of representations, sometimes explicit, more often implicit, was to produce an Other, the better to secure the stability and supremacy of the Western self. 

Orientalism, in Said’s description, is a discourse of the powerful about the powerless, an expression of “power-knowledge” that is at the same time an expression of narcissism. The syndrome is very much in evidence today. Orientalism is a foreign ambassador in an Arab city belittling popular concern about Palestine and depicting Arabs as a docile mass who only woke up in 2011, during the Arab revolts, and then reverted to being a disappointment to a benevolent West that merely seeks to be a good tutor. It is a Western “expert” reducing Islamist terrorism in Europe to a psychology of ressentiment, without bothering to explain why European citizens of Muslim origin might feel alienated, then telling an Arab critic of the Westerner’s work that he is being emotional for objecting to a presentation purely based on scientific data, and finally flying into a rage at being misunderstood by this stubborn Oriental. 

So, Orientalism is still with us, a part of the West’s political unconscious. It can be expressed in a variety of ways: sometimes as an explicit bias, sometimes as a subtle inflection, like the tone color in a piece of music; sometimes erupting in the heat of argument, like the revenge of the repressed. But the Orientalism of today, both in its sensibility and in its manner of production, is not quite the same as the Orientalism Said discussed forty years ago.

Orientalism, after all, was very much a product of the Vietnam era, when America’s “best and the brightest” had led the country into an intractable quagmire in the jungles of Southeast Asia. A new generation of Ivy League-educated experts, as Said saw it, were legitimizing America’s deepening confrontation with the Arab world, especially over the question of Palestine. Orientalism is, at its core, a critique of the expert, the producer of knowledge about the Arab-Islamic world, from Flaubert and Montesquieu to Bernard Lewis and Daniel Pipes. The cast—and quality—of characters changes; their aim, however, remains pretty consistent. 

The seemingly unvarying nature of Orientalism provoked a good deal of criticism of Said’s thesis and still does. Said was obviously more interested in explaining continuity than change, because he was trying to establish the existence of an ideological tradition. Still, he understood that Orientalism was a dynamic and supple system of representations, that as a style it had a wide array of expressions, and that it held up a mirror to its time. This ability to shift register depending on political context has been a key to its resilience and vitality. 

After September 11, 2001, the Bush administration reacted with a kind of Orientalist frenzy, heralding the liberation of Muslim women among its reasons for the invasion of Afghanistan, and applying the insights of Raphael Patai, that expert on the so-called Arab mind, to the torture tactics employed at Abu Ghraib. Bernard Lewis was invited to pontificate on the “roots of Muslim rage” in The Atlantic, journalists traveled to the West Bank to investigate the fury of Palestinian suicide bombers, and no subject evoked so much compassionate concern as the need to emancipate Muslim women from their violent, irrational, domineering men, a classical Orientalist trope. The language of Orientalism during the Bush era was not always overtly racist, but it often reflected a racism based on putative differences in culture—differences that, some “experts” argued, justified a military response, as well as civilizational tutelage in the form of “democracy promotion.”

Under President Obama, the grip of Orientalism appeared to relax. Obama made it clear, at first, that he did not intend to dictate to, but to cooperate with the Arab-Islamic world, and he made welcome gestures toward Iran and the ending of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But even the message of his famous Cairo address in 2009 was filtered through an Orientalist prism, albeit a more liberal, multicultural one. Not a few listeners in the region wished that he had addressed them as citizens of their respective countries rather than as Muslims—not only because some of them were Christians or atheists, but because religion is but one marker of identity, and not always the most pertinent one.

An extraordinary demonstration of this came less than two years later in the streets of Tunisia and Egypt. The Arab uprisings raised a great number of demands—democracy, rule of law, equal citizenship, bread and freedom—but religious demands were not among them. 

If the uprisings demolished the Orientalist myth that religion is a uniquely determining force in the Arab-Islamic world, however, they also encouraged and flattered another Orientalist fantasy: namely, that Middle Easterners simply want to be like “us,” that Anglo-American liberalism is the natural telos of human societies and that Middle Eastern “difference” is an aberration that will eventually dissolve, with help from Facebook and Google. 

Then came the so-called Arab winter. Since then, the rise of the Islamic State, or Daesh, and the resurgence of Salafism have helped restore the old prism, the Orientalism of rigid and immutable difference, just as surely as they helped restore the old regimes. Arab and Muslim leaders also contributed to the reconsolidation of this distorting lens. Autocratic regimes like President Sisi’s in Egypt had an obvious interest in promoting the idea that the Arab citizen needed, and indeed preferred, a stern, patriarchal authority, human rights be damned. As for Daesh, it was even more passionately attached than al-Qaeda to Samuel Huntington’s thesis of an inevitable and apocalyptic clash of civilizations, pitting the umma against the infidels. Orientalism has long been a co-production, even though not all its producers have equal power. 

This trend has continued under Trump, but there has also been rupture. As a system of “power-knowledge,” Orientalism has always been based on a desire to know, and not merely to construct, or even vilify, the Other. The expeditionary force that Napoleon Bonaparte sent to Egypt in 1798 included 122 scientists and intellectuals, among them a handful of professional Orientalists. The history of Orientalism is rich in tales of Westerners assuming Oriental masquerade, as if they wanted to become, and not simply to master, the Other. Just think of T.E. Lawrence in his romantic desert gear, or—to take a more extreme example—Isabelle Eberhardt, a Swiss explorer in Algeria who dressed as a man, converted to Islam, and reinvented herself as Si Mahmoud Saadi at the turn of the twentieth century. And in more recent guise is the fictional character of Carrie Anne Mathison, the CIA officer played by Claire Danes in Homeland, covering herself in an abaya as she plunges into the alleys of the souk.

The knowledge collected by Western explorers and spies was hardly disinterested: it underwrote colonization, wars of conquest, and “humanitarian” intervention. Yet this Orientalism preferred to recast the West’s violent conquests as consensual interactions: seductions, not rapes. Politically speaking, it was often liberal, republican, and secular—based, at least in principle, on winning hearts and minds, on assimilating the Other to Western democratic values. In the French empire, as Pierre-Jean Luizard argues in his new book, The Republic and Islam, colonization was “a project led by republican elites opposed to the clerical right, who were much more cautious about colonial expansion.” (This, he adds, is an important reason why Arab and Muslim opponents of French rule came to view liberal secularism with such suspicion.) Even the Orientalism that justified the Iraq invasion had its conciliatory side: in the wake of September 11, George W. Bush was explicit in his rejection of Islamophobia. 

Under Trump, the human face of Orientalism has all but vanished. This might sound like a good thing, insofar as it is a defeat for hypocrisy. But it’s also something else, something much darker. Back in 2008, I wrote a piece for the London Review of Books about a documentary called Obsession, which had been sent in DVD form to 28 million Americans as an advertising supplement to seventy-four newspapers. Obsession, which first appeared on Fox News and had been funded by the US real estate magnate and Likud supporter Sheldon Adelson, was a sixty-minute screed whose chief claim was that 2008 was like 1938, only worse—since there are more Muslims than Germans in the world and they’re more geographically dispersed, an enemy within as well as a hostile foreign power: “They’re not outside our borders, they are here.” The tone of my piece was caustic yet bemused because I didn’t take Obsession seriously: it seemed so obviously lurid and marginal.

In retrospect, I was naive. Obsession, if anything, prefigured the kind of fear and hatred of Islam and Muslims that Trump has made mainstream and effectively turned into policy, the Muslim travel ban being only the most flagrant example. Orientalism in the age of Trump has no interest in promoting democracy or other “Western values” because these values are no longer believed, or they’re regarded as an inconvenient obstacle to the exercise of power. This new Orientalism speaks in the language of deals and, more often, that of force and repression. It keeps Arab despots in power and angry young men of Arab origin in prison. 

Unlike the Orientalism that Said analyzed, it does not require experts like Bernard Lewis and the late Fouad Ajami, a Lebanese scholar who became Dick Cheney’s favorite “native informant.” Say what you will about Ajami and Lewis, they were writers and intellectuals. Today’s Orientalist is more likely to be a number-cruncher who studies police reports on terrorist suspects and calculates degrees of radicalization.

The older style of Orientalism—though it has not entirely died out—is less useful to those in power because it is based on deep historical and literary learning of a kind that is anathema to an American president who does not have the patience for books and who is ruled by his impulses. The Internet and social media have stripped those once regarded as experts of much of their authority, and has in turn empowered non-experts, those who parade anti-intellectualism as a virtue and even as a strength. The consequences of this critique of expertise have proved to be at best ambiguous, since it can lend itself to ignorance, intolerance, and irrationality, rather than provide a basis for the counter-hegemonic knowledge that Said envisioned.

The Orientalism of today, the Orientalism of Fox News, Bat Ye’or’s “Eurabia,” and Steve Bannon, is an Orientalism based not on tendentious scholarship but on an absence of scholarship. Its Eurocentrism, which feeds off the idea that Europe is under threat from Muslim societies and other shit-hole countries, is an undisguised conspiracy theory. It has spread not by way of bookshops and libraries but Twitter, Facebook, and the Dark Web. And under Trump, the remodeling of American foreign policy along the lines of Israeli strategy—which is to say, an increasing reliance on military force in its dealings with Arabs and Muslims—has been consummated, with support from conservative Jews and even greater support from Evangelicals. 

Trump’s anti-Muslim racism is unprecedented for an American president, but it is hardly unique elsewhere. You find similar iterations of it in France, where an older, colonial discourse with roots in Algérie française has been deployed against second- and third-generation citizens of Muslim origin who are still described as immigrants, and still seen as ill-equipped for “integration” and “assimilation” to the French republican values of laîcité. You also hear it in Scandinavia, in Hungary, in Italy, and in Germany—really, throughout the countries where the idea of a “fortress Europe” has taken hold.

This is the Orientalism of an era in which Western liberalism has plunged into deep crisis, exacerbated by anxieties over Syrian refugees, borders, terrorism and, of course, economic decline. It is an Orientalism in crisis, incurious, vindictive, and often cruel, driven by hatred rather than fascination, an Orientalism of walls rather than border-crossing. The anti-integrationist, Islamophobic form of contemporary Orientalism is enough to make one nostalgic for the lyrical, romantic Orientalism that Mathias Énard elegizes, somewhat wishfully, as a bridge between East and West in his 2015 Goncourt Prize-winning novel, Compass

If Orientalism has assumed an increasingly hostile, Muslim-hating tone, this is because the “East” is increasingly inside the “West.” This is a clash not of civilizations, but rather a collision of two overlapping phenomena: the crisis of Western neoliberal capitalism, which has aggravated tensions over identity and citizenship, and the collapse of the Middle Eastern state in war, which has fed the refugee crisis. As a result, two forms of identity politics, both of which reflect a caricatured, Orientalist vision of the Muslim East, are feeding off each other: right-wing populism on the one hand, and jihadist Islamism on the other.

The Orientalism that Said described was an affair of geopolitics, the “knowledge” that the West needed in the age of empires and colonialism. The hard edge of today’s Orientalism targets the fragile fabric of domestic politics, the very possibility of coexistence, particularly in Europe and the US. The Western self, produced by this contemporary Orientalism, is not a liberal who measures his or her freedom or reason by the absence, or weakness, of those concepts in the East. Instead, he is an aggrieved, besieged white man standing his ground, with his finger on the trigger, against the barbarians who have made it through the gates. He is not Lawrence of Arabia, or even the Quiet American; he is Dirty Harry.

The contemporary landscape is bleak, and there is no getting around it. But there is also considerable resistance to Orientalism and its progeny. We see it in the citizens’ uprisings in Algeria and Sudan, which have demonstrated the enduring power of democratic values in a period of authoritarian regression; and in the emergence of a growing movement to oppose the Israeli occupation, grounded in the same ideals of racial justice that shaped the black American freedom struggle. In the cultural sphere, we hear it in the music of the Tunisian oud master Anouar Brahem, who has produced remarkable work with jazz and Western classical musicians, and in the Free Palestine Quartet of the New York composer John King, each of whose movements is based on Arabic melodic modes and rhythmic units, and is dedicated to a village destroyed in 1948.

Énard’s novel Compass is perhaps the most ambitious effort in contemporary fiction to transcend the oppressive heritage of Orientalism, via, paradoxically, the Orientalist tradition itself. And yet, it does not quite succeed because it tends to gloss over the hierarchies and inequalities that marked even the most advanced and enlightened forms of Orientalist scholarship, and also, crucially, because it ignores the central chapter in France’s Orientalist history, the colonization of Algeria, a strange and telling silence. Compass remains, in spite of Enard’s intentions, a story of the West, rather than a genuine dialectic, a limitation that also bedevils much of the recent European cinema on its internal Others. 

In the Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke’s Happy End (2017), the refugees of Calais appear on screen briefly as disquieting reminders of Western privilege and hypocrisy, but are never given names; they are little more than devices, much like Albert Camus’s nameless Arab in The Stranger. The drama in The Unknown Girl (2016), by the Dardenne Brothers, turns on the crisis of conscience experienced by a young Belgian doctor confronted by the death of a young African prostitute. Once again, the figure of the African, of the Muslim, is passive, a victim without agency, an object of pity or contempt.

A notable exception to this rule is Aki Kaurismäki’s extraordinary 2017 film, The Other Side of Hope, about a young Syrian refugee in Finland, Khaled, who is leading a clandestine life, evading capture by the authorities with the help of a group of Finns acting in solidarity, not out of charity. At the same time, he is stalked by a neo-fascist gang. Khaled is determined to be the hero of his own story, accepting assistance from his Finnish friends, but only on terms of equality; struggling by his wits to make a life for himself and his sister in the new old world of Europe. Kaurismäki is too honest a filmmaker to reward his protagonist with the “happy end” that Haneke’s title mocks, but, unlike Haneke, he aligns himself with the perspective of Europe’s Muslim Other, and allows us to glimpse, for a moment, what a world beyond Orientalism might look like. 

Said’s Orientalism was not the last word on its subject, nor was it intended to be. Angela Merkel’s decision to resettle a million Syrian refugees, and Putin’s alliance with the Assad regime underscore Said’s failure to say anything about German or Russian Orientalism—one of the more persuasive criticisms raised at the time. But Said’s warning about the “seductive degradation of knowledge” has otherwise preserved its chastening power. In recent weeks, as the Trump administration escalated its campaign of financial intimidation and military threat against the Islamic Republic of Iran, we have been reminded that “discourses of power… are all too easily made, applied, and guarded.” While Trump may lack John Bolton’s appetite for battle with Tehran, he has also threatened to “end” Iran on Twitter. War will remain a temptation so long as the United States sees the Arab-Muslim world not as a complex fabric of diverse human societies, but as a “bad neighborhood” ruled by Iranian mullahs and Arab dictators, Palestinian terrorists and Daesh jihadis.

As Said argued, Orientalism’s failure was “a human as much as an intellectual one; for in having to take up a position of irreducible opposition to a region of the world it considered alien to its own, Orientalism failed to identify with human experience, failed also to see it as human experience.” If the “global war on terror” has taught us anything over the last seventeen years and more, it is that the road to barbarism begins with this failure.


Adapted from a lecture given at the panel “Media and Cultural Representations: Covering Islam and the Global War on Terror,” on May 3, 2019, at a conference organized by Karim Emile Bitar of The Institute of Political Science of the Saint Joseph University of Beirut and Gregor Jaecke of Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.

An earlier version of this essay misidentified the filmmaker Michael Haneke’s nationality as German; he is Austrian. The article has been updated.