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The Roots of Today’s Orientalism

The Roots of Today’s Orientalism


The Roots of Today’s Orientalism

I have received various questions, which have asked that I write more articles, while also asking me for my opinion about Orientalism. I have decided to write in my typical academic writing, for a change, and hope that it satisfies the wishes of those who have requested this sort of content. I have answered an amalgam of questions with this response, but, focused primarily on how Orientalism influences our current discourse and how Orientalism is different to the typical “narrative of Empire.”

The French epic poem, The Song of Roland, accuses the Muslims of worshipping a trinity of Muhammad, Apollo, and Termagant, the latter being the name of the archetypal “pagan god” that the Muslims were continuously associated with. This “unholy trinity,” as it is commonly described, clearly did not factor in any Muslim beliefs save the reference to Muhammad. It would be unfair to utilize the poem alone as evidence illustrating the lack of understanding of Muslims; however, it does highlight the way that the “other” is constructed on a more basic level. The significance of the “other” is commonly described as a way to pinpoint what a particular society sees as foreign or undesirable characteristics, but within the context of Orientalism this process takes on a far more serious role. The various Islamic empires did not simply challenge the European powers, the empires were a critical element towards the development of European life by virtue of their existential threat.
It is difficult to explain to Americans, especially those who grew up unaware of the Cold War, of what a true existential threat constitutes. Americans’ perceptions of threats are blatant constructions of immediate interests, stretching the terminology to the point that it loses its value. However, the existential threat of the “Islamic East” is deeply rooted within the European context, precisely because of the relative proximity between the two. Beyond the political ramifications of an emerging nearby rival, Islam, like Christianity was a proselytizing religion which actively sought to expand its number of adherents. Any polity and society will describe political rivals as barbarians, but the contempt that the West had for Islam is a unique experience precisely because Islam offered an actual alternative cosmology.
Of course, the Muslim empires held views that were not particularly flattering of their European counterparts, but it is important to note that Muslim discourse was markedly different due to several factors. The routine reference to The Qur’an’s pluralism (and the routine refutation by Orientalists) is a common thread, but more importantly and perhaps cynically, Muslim empires had to deal with Christianity because for much of early Muslim history, the Muslims ruled as minorities. As a result, Islam’s place as the “other” for the Europeans served a different purpose: the Muslims saw Europe as political rivals and barbarians who practiced a religion they were familiar with; Islam, on the other hand, provided a blank canvas for European fears. Like the Muslims, Christians saw their counterparts as followers of a perversion, although decidedly different in their characterizations. The incursions of Muslims on Christendom abound in Western history: the Reconquista, the slang word Mammaluccu in Italian, and the Serbian currency (Dinar) are but a few examples of this fact.
The historical record and the political rivalry between the confederation of Muslim and Christian polities allows for an exhaustive and dense amount of resources in order to trace this trajectory. However, as far as Orientalism is concerned, the accuracy of the historiography is of little value in of itself, it is important because it illustrates the self-conscious construction of the Muslim world to be as diminutive as possible. Europeans’ lack of familiarity (deliberate or otherwise) with Islam meant that Muslims provided a blank slate in which to impose upon. As the existential threat to Christendom, the characteristics of the Muslim world and Islam became idealized precisely because of a lack of knowledge. Therefore, Muslims were not represented as cruel caricatures of stereotyped characteristics befitting a rival, they become the embodiment of what the West wanted to resist rather than what Christendom was actually fighting. The discourse of the West on Muslim societies is of stark contrasts, of an imagined “other” that predates the imagined communities that Europeans formulated in order to construct states; this continued despite the heavy cultural exchanges of the Crusades, sustained Islamic rule in Spain, and the Ottoman Empire.
This historical legacy has changed as it has moved into the colonial and modern eras, precisely because of the shift of the power relations between the two parties. The stark contrast between the two still exists, historical references are heavily relied upon, and imagined versions of Muslims still occupy a central place in the Western narrative, the inversion of the power relationship has meant that the contrasts take on more profound significance and that they serve a different purpose. The contrasts vary from long-standing archetypes, for example the war-like essence of the Muslims, to the more contemporary criticism of the lack of a separation between Church and State. Either way, the purpose is clear: this is what they are and this is what we are not: the absence of accurate knowledge of the Orient allowed this to flourish while Orientalism provided the power-based institutional structure to affirm it. The selection of historical fact, while commonplace in any society’s narrative, is particularly apparent within the Orientalist discourse. It becomes clear that as the West emerged as the more powerful of the two forces, Orientalists had to contend with history. The narrative of the West during Muslim supremacy was different than the colonial and modern incarnations; it sought to deny the appeal of this rising force’s narrative. This was a conscious effort to solidify what the West saw as its most praiseworthy traits, the Western historical discourse was designed to conserve itself, which becomes the narrative of its identity.
This mentality of preservation occurs during times of weakness, but persists and then transforms during periods of strength. If the Orient was an imagined “other” in order to affirm itself during weakness, the Orient’s characterization continued to be an imaginary “other” but to serve a dual purpose. As with the older narrative, the Orientalist narrative sought to confirm, identify, and repudiate (with strange fascination) the imagined characteristics of the Orient, as a way to rationalize their ascendency and to explicate, by way of contrast, their natural teleological success. The second element to the identification by way the imagined “other” in Orientalism, especially in the modern period, is to consciously challenge history. Again, [Bernard] Lewis exemplifies this procedure, highlighting the “plight” of women in the Islamic context, while downplaying the tremendous pluralism of Muslim rule. The issue that Orientalism has most recently faced is a product of its claim to objectivity, in that it challenges the identity of the West as it relates to the East.
The latest procedure of identification stems from the liberal model adopted by the West, which it traces, consciously, in a linear fashion from Greece to America. This “pure” lineage of the West is also supposedly the source of its current superior status; therefore it is critical to deny the tremendous influence of the Orient upon the growth and emergence of the West from the Dark Ages. This denial is important for both liberal and conservative forces in the West, because both have a stake in upholding their particular narrative as devoid of Oriental influence. Should the West’s progress be the product of previous work of the Orient, its identity would cease to be epistemologically pure. The lack of rational government, women’s rights, and pluralism has become the cornerstones of Orientalist critiques of the “Islamic way,” which stood in contrast to the unassisted ascendency of the West’s particular paradigms and structures. The West’s identity is based upon this binary, because it has posited its particular brand of objectivity as the solution, predicated on its cultural distillation. Therefore, Orientalism becomes more than just a procedure in which to impose superior power structures upon another, it is unique as Orientalism precisely because it must consciously hide and obscure the roots of its supposed objectivity. Therefore, Orientalism is not just a product of power relations: it is a critical element in protecting it.

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