Europe and Orientalism by Edward Said Essay

November 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Edward Said begins his book Orientalism by recognizing the fact that Orientalism played an enormous role in defining what the culture of Europe would become. In his own words, Edward claims that, “the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience” (2). He further argues that when the west started colonizing the eastern countries, they found themselves mingling with people from less developed countries. In one way or the other, the Europeans found the eastern culture and civilization appealing and exotic. Eventually, they would establish a faculty of Orientalism, which focused on studying the eastern culture (Said 3).

In his arguments, Edward Said claims that the Europeans categorized the world into two divisions; the Occidents and the Orientals, in other words, they were referring to a world of the civilized and the primitive (Said 4). This however, was not a genuine division of humanity; the division was based neither on facts nor on idealism. It was simply the European asserting their authority in the world.

Everything positive was associated with the Occidents and all the negatives would therefore be for the Orientals (Malek 51). It was from this reasoning that the Europeans would later justify their reasons for colonizing the east. They claimed that it was their responsibility to bring civilization to the primitive (Macfie 106). However, a critical problem arose when the masters started generalizing the traits of the Orientals.

The colonial masters would form generalized beliefs on the character of the eastern people and would use this to depict a bad imagine of them in the wider west and the world at large. This prejudice was so widespread to a point that every report and research done on the Orientals was based on the misconceived notions. The image of the Orientals was totally distorted and as a result, they suffered hitherto from discrimination. Today, the remnants of these misconceived notions are still in existence. For example, majority of the people believe that Islam is a backward religion full of terrorists and cruel people. Similarly, the Hindus and the Arabs are still regarded as primitive (Malek 53).

The Scope of Orientalism

This chapter explains how the study of the east grew and how the occidentals began to view the Orientals as hopeless and lazy people. To the Orientals, the world was divided into two. On one hand was the refined class that the Europeans belonged to and on the other was the backward class that included those from the east. It is this division by the west that would later be used to justify the reasons for colonizing the east. Said argues:

The most important thing about the theory during the first decade of the twentieth century was that it worked, and worked staggeringly well. The argument, when reduced to its simplest form, was dear, it was precise, it was easy to grasp. There are Westerners, and there are Orientals. The former dominate; the latter must be dominated, which usually means having their land occupied, their internal affairs rigidly controlled, their blood and treasure put at the disposal of one or another Western power. (36)

In their justification, the Europeans claimed that they were mandated with a good course to civilize the east. In particular, they claimed that the Orientals could not even manage their local affairs leave alone manage international affairs. In addition, the Europeans believed they had the mandate and responsibility to represent the Orientals in the west (Macfie 117).

As a result of this false belief, the European started to orientionalize the Orientals the best way they felt good. In fact, they dispatched teams to the east to live among the Orientals and keep a record of every aspect of their lives. In so doing, the Europeans started to form opinions on the Orientals depending on the little information they got from their men on the ground. Whatever was done by a single oriental was perceived to be the way of life for the whole community regardless whether it was committed by a person of sound mind or not.

In retrospect, the only purpose that Orientalism served to the Europeans was to negatively legitimize them. Qualities such as lazy, primitive, backwards and ruthless were attributed to the Orientals making the Europeans hardworking, kind, civilized etc. It was therefore necessary for the Orientalists to depict the Orientals in bad light in order to legitimize their colonization of the East. The most critical point was the ability of the colonizers to define a culture to the owners.

For example, the Islamic religion was renamed to Mohammadism from the name Mohammed this was due to the fact that Christ was the founder of Christianity—the Europeans would therefore conclude that the religion of Islam was supposed to be called Mohammadism. It is important to note that the Europeans did not consult the Orientals in any way even when the decisions that would be made affected them directly (Said 12).

Orientalist Structures and Restructures

This chapter dwells on the change in view of the Europeans towards the Orientals. While the Orientalists through literary works and research reports continuously portrayed the Orientals as evil, the western poets were in love with the eastern lands and character. The poets depicted the eastern lands as a serene and pure work of nature. They portrayed the culture of the Orientals as uncontaminated by the evils of the world. In fact, the poets considered visiting these places to purify their souls and have time by themselves to reflect on their work.

In actual sense, it was this peaceful nature of the Orientals that made the Europeans want to rule over them. They believed that the Orientals were too naïve and too peaceful a people to rule themselves. There were those who also claimed that the Orientals were far too naïve to survive the cruel world and that Europeans were only playing a fatherly role (Malek 56).

Another false justification the colonizers gave was that they had developed faster that the Orientals and this alone made them superior human beings. The Europeans also invoked Darwin’s theories in a bid to totally absolve themselves from any reproach. They claimed that indeed they were the ones who discovered the Orientals first and according to Darwin’s theory, they had all the right to rule them (Said 21).

In this same phase, Edward Said brings the attention of renowned Orientalists who made huge contributions to this study. In particular, there are two famous Orientalists from the last century, this are; Silvestre and Renan. In his remarks, Edward Said compliments de Sacy for his huge efforts to organize the information gathered from the Orientals into a form that is usable by future generations. Secondly, Edward Said recognizes de Sacy’s nature to steer clear from prejudice as his predecessors had been. On the other hand, Renan, who clearly replicated Sacy’s works, was prejudicial as his predecessors. He was of the belief that the study of philology and Orientalism had a real correlation. Indeed, his thoughts would dominate many discussions and forums after he was long gone (Said 24).

Orientalism Now

Chapter 3 of the book by said begins by informing us how the map of the world was determined by the colonization of the world by Europeans. Anywhere the Europeans went they would demarcated their territory using modern techniques. Indeed, the great urge to know the geography of the world formed the foundation of Orientalism (Said 25).

In his successive arguments, Edward Said discusses of the dynamic nature of world politics and how Orientalism metamophosized in the 20th century. Old Orientalists were not used to interacting with the Orientals; however, this did change for the new orients to the extent of living with the Orientals. Nonetheless, it should be noted that this new Orientalists did not interact with Orientals for pleasure; their aim was to learn them so that they could be able to rule them without much trouble (Macfie 57).

Edward Said goes further to describe two of the last Orientalists namely Massignon and Gibb. On one hand, Massingnon appeared to be an advocate of the Orientals but on the other hand his works depicted a story of a man who was totally biased (Said 26).

With the advent of the first world war, Orientalism took a completely new dimension. Most Orientalists softened their stand of discrimination towards the Orientals. However, this respite was not extended to the Muslim faithful. Islam continued to be regarded as an inferior religion mixed with many confused thoughts and beliefs. In fact, one of the most renowned Islam Orientalists is Gibb (Said 30).

Immediately after the culmination of World War 2, the administrative offices for Orientalism were transferred to the United States of America. During this period, the relation of Orientalism to philology was completely done away with. From this time onwards, Orientalists identified Orientalism as a social science. They were required to continue studying the Orientals in a bid to contain them under their rule. However, after the World War 2, all the European colonies were lost.

It was highly anticipated that the biases towards the Orientals would come to a halt however; this did not see the light of the day. The West continued to discriminate the Orientals both explicitly and implicitly. Arabs to this day are still regarded as highly irritable and violent. Muslims on the other hand are labeled terrorists. In most cases, prejudice has resulted in discrimination. The Muslim world with certainty is the most affected lot with harassment and extra-judicial killings happening each day (Said 31).

In his closing remarks, Edward Said denies that his is a call unto the west to stop generalizing the Orientals but it is a call to the Orientalists to also include the view of the Orientals. They should not give a one sided account of a community without listening to its view (Said 32).

Works Cited

Macfie, Alexander L. Orientalism: A Reader, New York, NY: NYU Press, 2000. Print.

Malek, Anouar A. Orientalism in Crisis, New, York, NY: Penguin Publishers, 1963. Print.

Said, Edward. Orientalism, New York, NY: Vintage books, 1979. Print.

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