All knowledge that is about human society, and not about the natural world, is historical knowledge, and therefore rests upon judgment and interpretation. This is not to say that facts or data are nonexistent, but that facts get their importance from what is made of them in interpretation… for interpretations depend very much on who the interpreter is, who he or she is addressing, what his or her purpose is, at what historical moment the interpretation takes place. Edward W. Said
Edward Said’s pivotal book ‘Orientalism’ marked the historical breakdown of a disfigured sociocultural discourse. First published in1978, it sought to rebuild the current academic debate addressing cultural misrepresentations of ‘The Orient’; misrepresentations that have historically emerged via the Western world’s false and biased cultural and sociopolitical assumptions. For this celebrated academic figure in Post-colonial Studies, “Orientalism describes the subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and Culture.” Even today millions of people recall the devastating damage this prejudice has caused to the spirit of this magical land we call the Orient…
Historically, cultural and ethnic considerations have always had advantage and privilege over geographical determinations in human thought. Correspondingly, many differences between the Occident and the Orient were largely perceived to be mainly a result of cultural convictions and not necessarily or strongly of geographical facts. Within this context, politics has played a key role. Relying on its ideological nature, politics has influenced both Eastern and Western cultural perceptions. A distinctive narrative was created and advocated, the binary opposition of superiority/inferiority gained stronger significance in literature and we began to think, perceive and act according to these false fascinations.
In Orientalism, Edward Said’s main concern was to discuss the conceptualized term ‘Orient’ in response to three major inquiries. Firstly: to know of its origin. Secondly: to investigate its many functional aspects. Thirdly: to argue its legitimacy and accuracy. His aim was to question the political, socio-economical, ethical and cultural justifications for devastating imperialist actions. His conclusion was relevant to his obsession with the damaging impact imperialism had on the peoples of the east; that ‘the Orient’ is reflection of a history of ambiguities, contradictions and confrontations.
The term orientalism is academically problematic and controversial. It refers to a series of socio-cultural and ethnolinguistic studies that began to emerge in sixteenth century Europe. Europe of great voyages, growing mercantilism and stronger colonial desires. From the early years of the 16th century to 20th century, Europe needed wealth, power and a moral justification for extreme acts of exploitation. It was a cultural discourse that served this need.
This term began to gain more volatility in the fifties and the sixties of the 20th century. The works of the Egyptian pan-Arabism political scholar Anouar Abdel-Malek, the British -Australian sociologist Bryan Turner and the Jerusalem-born theorist Edward Said among others were integrated into postcolonial literature and argued a different perspective in light of colonialism. The works of these intellectuals were seen as an attempt to challenge an unreasonable pre-colonial and colonial narrative, and more significantly to institutionalize this term in academia.
This institutionalization would itself mark the distinction between two major concepts in postcolonial studies: First is the traditional concept that “continues to be used in a non-pejorative sense to signify an ongoing Western tradition of intellectual inquiries into and an existential engagement with the ideas, practices and values of the East, particularly in the religious field.” This concept has been supported and argued by many Western scholars such as Harry Oldmeadow in his work “The Debate about Orientalism”.
The second concept refers to a view that Edward Said strongly held and advanced; the concept of an ideologically-motivated epistemic construction and a corporate institution.”
Edward Said argued that “history is made by men and women, just as it can also be unmade and rewritten, always with various silence and elisions, always with shapes imposed and disfigurements tolerated.” The way the world of geopolitics operates and functions can serve and justify fundamentalIy the accuracy and the legitimacy of a such concept.
Edward Said’s claims hold true in a variety of situations. The West’s hypocritical response to the recent Arab Spring’s uprisings is an example. The terms chaos, disorder, ambiguity, conflict, anxiety, dispute, clash and civil war depict literally and figuratively a dark repertoire and bear a substantial negativity in the Arabo-Islamic world. Since the early demonstrations in Cairo and Tunisia, tremendous efforts have been made by the United States, European Union, Russia and, less significantly, China to disorientate the directions and the purposes of these uprisings.
The hope the Arab people have held in their hearts, in the last three years, for a life of fairness and justice gradually turned into a nightmare. The climate is uniquely frustrating and the numbers are daunting; thousands either killed or dislocated in Syria, hundreds oppressed and prosecuted in shameful trials in Egypt, others in Yemen and Sudan are still looking for viable options.
The efforts of the Libyan people to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi’s regime—bringing relief to millions of people—has gone awry resulting in unjustified acts of barbarism, cruelty and a series of kidnappings and overthrows. Paradoxically, the hope for an end to the extreme crackdown on civil liberties in these countries has manifested as an era of trouble and loss. Of course, the future is not bright enough to bring relief to this so-called Orient and the price of freedom is likely to be so costly until its people are able and prepared enough to transcend the region’s long and troubled past.
Edited by Sahar Kian
To be continued… From The Islamic World: Religion, Philosophy, Politics and History, a cross-cultural comparative study . This work was inspired by ‘ Al-Sona wa Al-Islah of the great Moroccan historian and philosopher Abdallah Al-Arwi
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial policy
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