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Orientalism is the belief that the nations and people of the East are inferior to those in the West. However, it is not so cut and dry. It can take subtly paternalistic forms. Generally speaking, it reinforces imperialistic ideas about the Orient that were first transmitted by Western explorers. Not all of these ideas are necessarily bad, but some critics believe they have come to dominate the West’s public perception of Eastern cultures, to the point of drowning out authentic Eastern voices. In this sense, Orientalism, a term first used in this way by the great critic Edward Said in the 1970s, involves a struggle for power and identity—a struggle that has deepened more and more over the last few years with the rise of globalization and the War on Terror. Orientalism is not simply a critique of the way the East has been portrayed in art and literature produced by Western cultural workers, but also a critique of Eastern politics, economics, and diplomacy. Is it based on fact and research or is it based on an implicit racism? And what is an appropriate response to Orientalism? All of these things I will talk about in my essay.

The first explorers of the Orient brought to the West the first stories and images of the people of the East. In that respect they are responsible for setting the tone of the relationship between the two cultures. These first early images seemed in some way, Said argues, to occasion what came after them—political and administrative control of the East as a vast colony. No effort was made to understand the cultural divide between East and West; this lack of understanding led Westerners to believe their own way of life was simply better and should be taught to Easterners. Indeed, as many Eastern nations became colonies of the West, this idea increased. Edward Said believes that many current Orientalists maintain these views. In a response to Bernard Lewis, who Said believes is one of the worst Orientalists, and who suggested that Palestinians have no inherent identity, Said says:

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We find not history, not scholarship, but direct political violence substituting for reasoned judgement [in Lewis’ work]. To say that Palestinian identity is simply the creation of British colonialism—as if Palestinian history prior to 1920 did not exist—is not only to utter a scandalous falsehood based on a typical Orientalist disregard of mere natives: it is also to propose that resettlement and absorption might be possible if the will of the Palestinian Arab leadership were to be broken.

We see how Orientalist ideas can continue to have their hold on contemporary scholarship. Although for the most part colonialism has ended, the rise of globalization has created a unique system of trade and cultural exchanges, many of which put Eastern countries at a potential disadvantage. The War on Terror has also created a further divide between the East and West. In a way these two solitudes have never known less about one another.

When looking at globalization and the War on Terror In this way Orientalism can be seen as all about power. As Said writes in his book, cultures are constructed by the other. Continuing the critique of Bernard Lewis, the historian and critic of Islam, we can see how he has recently been called "perhaps the most significant intellectual influence behind the invasion of Iraq", who urged regime change in Iraq to provide a jolt that — he argued — would "modernize the Middle East". [40] He believed that something had gone wrong in the Middle East because it did not look like the West. He wrote that many Islamic countries had given up on reform and refused to embrace modernity. This being so, it would be necessary for the West to modernize them either through economics or military overthrow. Obviously, this idea causes a lot of controversy.

Although I agree that there is a power issue at stake in relations between the East and West, I also believe that Lewis has some legitimate arguments against Said. For example, not all Western encounters with the East are by necessity racist and it is a foolish and knee-jerk reaction to say that. There are legitimate things to criticize about Eastern cultures and societies. For Lewis the current state of Orientalism is a result of “intellectual pollution.” He especially cites what he believes to be the illegitimate criticism of V.S. Naipaul:

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Take the case of V.S. Naipaul, author of a recent account of a tour of Muslim countries. Mr. Naipaul is not a professor but a novelist—one of the most gifted of our time. He is not a European, but a West Indian of East Indian origin. His book about modern Islam is not a work of scholarship, and makes no pretense of being such. It is the result of close observation by a professional observer of the human predicament . . . But such compassion is not a quality appreciated or even recognized by the grinders of political or ideological axes. Mr. Naipaul will not toe the line; he will not join in the praise of Islamic radical leaders and the abuse of those whom they oppose. Therefore he is an Orientalist—a term applied to him even by brainwashed university students who ought to know better.

So one must be careful when one is accusing people of being Orientalists or Occidentalists—too often these terms get politicized and it is hard to get to the truth.

The truth, in my opinion, lies somewhere in between. Oriental cultures have been taken over by Western ones too much, but that does not mean everything from the West or from America is bad. We cannot live in the past: it is important to embrace the world.

I also believe that one of the problems with the Arab World, as Najjar states in his readings, is that we talk about the same topics over and over again, but never embrace the change that is happening in the world, much of which is not necessarily cultural. In Islam we are taught that the beauty of Islam is "universal"—that it is supposed to work and survive anywhere and at anytime. That does not mean that it will be ruined by the good kinds of Western influences. For example, in Qatar we have some of the best American universities, such as Cornell, Carnegie Melon, Georgetown, Northwestern. Without globalization we wouldn’t have had this. It is important to remember the words of Ali Ahmad Said:

The truth is that identity is not in itself a barrier to openness and connectedness; to the contrary, it is a prerequisite for them.  The more we maintain identity the larger the scope for openness and connectedness becomes and the more consolidated diversity becomes. In the absence of that, openness becomes capitulation, exchange becomes tutelage, and interaction becomes defeat.

It is important to be vigilant and protect what you cherish, but you cannot be afraid of change or of good ideas from the rest of the world. Really it is a balance. Neither Said nor Lewis are exactly right. Both Islamic countries and the United States, for example, should be more flexible and allow their ideas to be exchanged with one another rather than stereotyping each other in various ways. In the end we are all human and working to build a better planet together regardless of whether we come from the East or from the West.


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