Orientalisms and Occidentalisms

There is plenty of material on Orientalism. Edward Said, a left-wing, secular humanist, is cited approvingly by many 'orientals' he spent his scholarly life defending (i.e. Muslims and Arabs). He helped uncover the prejudices that have shaped views on Muslim peoples in European — and American — scholarship, literature and popular culture (for examples relating to law see these posts by Mohammad Fadel: 1, 2). This is not withstanding the lazy attitude some Muslims take when criticising Orientalism. Not all Orientalists were anti-Muslim, as even Said acknowledged (although even this ‘positive Orientalism’ could be subversive). Some Orientalists were quite sympathetic to Muslim cultures (pdf link), and some even converted to Islam. (How do you think a man with the name Marmaduke Pickthall was able to learn about Islam?)

But there has been a lot less work done to understand 'Occidentalist' views, and those done are by the very people who would be the subject of 'occidentalist' attitudes (e.g. Ian Buruma). This is understandable to a large degree; it is only recently that many countries have freed themselves from colonialism and so only recently have they been able to establish credible institutions with mechanisms to fund studies. Many countries still struggle for true sovereignty in the international political and economic order.

Nonetheless, it is crucial to understand that references to "the West" were important for the self-understanding of many people in the 20th-century. Just as Westerners "created the Orient", so many people "created the West" and then put themselves in opposition to this creation. In the case of Muslims, low-brow anti-Western polemics have become fairly standard. Harun Yahya's polemics are greased with the sort of lazy anti-Western rhetoric that passes for an understanding of Western traditions amongst some Muslims. Whilst we demand others approach our traditions and texts with respect, our general understanding of Christian traditions is nothing short of comical (although an 'oriental' religion in origin and now growing outside of Europe, its major traditions are firmly linked to the self-told story of "the West"). How many Muslims hold Dietrich Bonhoeffer to be the example of a true Christian, rather than Jimmy Swaggart or George Bush? Yet, we'll (rigthfully) get offended when bin Laden is seen as the voice of Islam. I can't count the number of time times I have heard or read about "the Western gutter" and the decadence of "the West"? But of course, there are no dirty gutters in Muslim heartlands and there is no decadence amongst Muslim peoples. (And charges of "decadence" and "loose sexual mores" are slightly ironic given the European stereotype of the Muslim, in the form of an Arab or a Turk, was of a sexually active male, who was often a pederast.)

Some will bring up the power differential. Orientalism is definitive because those doing the defining have power. But my point is not to 'equate' orientalism with occidentalism, even while I can note that those with the "power" to shape individual views in Saudi, Pakistan and Iran are not "Western". My point is to suggest that it is not only those in power who have viewpoints that should be studied and understood. That just as those with the power force descriptions and ideas onto people, that those people also develop self-told stories, narratives, histories and so on which should be examined. And just as criticism of Orientalism was developed and first led by Westerners, in the form of secular academia and left-wing political activism, critiques of Occidentalist viewpoints should be developed by Muslim peoples. Muslims should also understand if they want to be understood. Especially, if we consider the claim that Islam is meant, as a faith, to transcend particularist cultures and histories.

I close with an ancillary, but very important, point. Some critics will suggest that works like Said's Orientalism are laced with "anti-Western" view points. But such comments are only made by people who are wholly ignorant of such works and of Western histories. Post-colonial and post-modern criticisms are themselves rooted in Western traditions (indeed, this is a criticism some have of such methods and discourses). That is, such works are an attempt at an internal critique of "the West", and not those belonging to an aggressive, external, coloniser.


1 Response to “Orientalisms and Occidentalisms”

  1. 1 commonplacer April 4, 2007 at 4:40 am

    The construct of “The West” is so entrenched in the thinking and discourse of Muslims that to begin to address it would entail someone actually publishing a tome entitled Occidentalism in the manner of Said’s work. (You?) Growing up, it seems all I did was attend one conference after another with dichotomous titles like “Muslims in the WEST” or “Islam and the WEST” – which sort of ends up being a way for us to tell ourselves we don’t really belong here. Though I now like to think I’ve shaken off that kind of thinking (or at least mid-way through doing so?), I’m sure I can go through my recent writings and still find glaring examples where I succumb to “the sort of lazy anti-Western rhetoric that passes for an understanding of Western traditions amongst some Muslims”.
    Great post, thanks.

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