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Orientalism: what it is, and how it helped to dominate a continent

Orientalism: what it is, and how it helped to dominate a continent

September 17, 2022

Orientalism is the way Western media and scholars have to interpret and describe the eastern world , from a supposedly objective point of view. It is a concept that is associated with the critique of how the West came to create a story about Asia that legitimized its invasion and colonization.

In this article we will see what Orientalism consisted of and in what way it has been the cultural arm with which the West has dominated Asia, especially the Near East and the Middle East, according to theorists like Edward Said, famous for raising awareness of this concept .

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The origins of orientalism as an idea

Authors linked to the Asian continent and Arab culture have actively denounced both the perspective on Asia that is disseminated in the educational centers of the first world and the stereotypes associated with the East transmitted by the media. Edward Said, theoretician and activist, captured these criticisms in his famous essay-works Orientalism Y Culture and imperialism.


According to Said, Western society has learned to refer to the inhabitants of Asia by appealing to a concept of "the other", the unknown, something that establishes a moral and empathic frontier between these people and the direct heirs of European culture . Regrettably, this is the position taken by a large number of European Orientalist academics.

Missionaries, explorers and naturalists who went to the East to examine it did many new works, but they also imposed an external vision on the cultural heterogeneity of Asia. Even those called by curiosity for the strange, made it easier than the boundary between the us and the they turn Eastern societies into an enemy to conquer and conquer , either to protect the West or to save Asians and Arabs from themselves.


The civilizing story

In a way that escapes any reason, since the time of Roman rule, there has been a certain need on the part of the great empires to "civilize" the eastern peoples, to help the barbarians to develop to survive in optimal conditions. The story that has been constructed since the 18th century in the history books regarding orientalism has been, sadly, that of domination.

No matter the author or the intellectual status of the writers or narrators who speak of Asia through orientalism, they all fulfill the same descriptive pattern: to associate everything that is done there with the bad habits of the foreigner, the savage, the infidel, of the underdeveloped ... In short, a simplistic description is made of the people of Asia and their customs, always using the characteristic concepts of Westerners, as well as their scale of values, to talk about cultures that are unknown.


Even if the oriental exoticism is extolled , these peculiarities are spoken of as something that can only be seen from the outside, a phenomenon that is not so much a merit of the Orientals as a trait that has appeared in a way that is not sought after and can only be seen from the outside. In short, Orientalism separates Orientals from what they could be proud of.

It could be said that the binary account of the Western vision of the Eastern world, the "we" and the "others", has been at least negative for the people of Asia, especially if another race is associated with it. The Western point of view, which proclaims itself as the possessor of truth and reason, cancels any possibility of replication by the observed . It is this imaginary strip between the West and Asia imposed by Orientalism that has allowed a distorted view of the strange, of the unknown, so that this simplification makes it easy to conclude that it is an inferior culture.


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The legacy of the orientalist story

For scholars specializing in orientalism such as Edward Said or Stephen Howe, all the analysis, exploration and interpretation that emerged from the Western encyclopedias, especially English and French, supposed a leveling of the land for the legitimation and justification of the colonialism of the time . The expeditions to Egypt, Syria, Palestine or Turkey were used to prepare reports favorable to a potential military political intervention in the area: "we have the duty to govern them for the good of the civilization of the Orientals and the West above all" said Arthur James Balfour in 1910.


This was one of the speeches that represented the role of England in the nineteenth century colonial era, seeing its influence in the Maghreb and the Middle East threatened by the growing local nationalism (Arab, African, Ottoman) and tensions over resources of the area such as the Suez Canal. What was supposed to be a dialogue between the West and the East, it turned out to be a political tool of occupation by the European powers.

Eveling Baring, the so-called "owner of Egypt," crushed the popular nationalist rebellion of Colonel Ahmed al-Urabi (1879-1882) on behalf of the British Empire, and shortly afterwards, gave another discourse of dubious impartiality: "according to the knowledge and Western experiences, tempered by local considerations, we will consider what is best for the subject race. " Once again, it is incurred without any shame or remorse.


The criticism of Edward Said

A fully orientalist debate would not be understood without mentioning the Palestinian scholar and writer Edward W. Said (1929-2003) for his work Orientalism. This essay meticulously describes the topics and stereotypes that have been built over the past centuries on everything Oriental, Arab or even Muslim. The author does not study the history of the East, but uncovers all the propaganda machinery of "ideological clichés" to establish a confrontational relationship between East and West.

Both in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the dichotomy of "we and the others" was coined, the latter being the inferior civilization that needed to be controlled by a central power from Europe. The era of decolonization was a setback for the interests of the historical powers , being orphaned of arguments to perpetuate the interference on the interests of the East.

Consequently, Western conservative propaganda once again confronted two cultures with an unmistakably bellicose term: "the clash of civilizations." This clash responds to the inheritance of orientalism to endorse the geostrategic plans on the part of the superpower of the United States, especially for legitimize the military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq .

According to Said, once again a distorting and simplifying element of a whole set of cultures was set in motion. The value that was given to the perspective of Orientalism was well recognized by their European citizens, who supported any "civilizing" action towards those lands that are so far away. The Italian writer Antonio Gramsci makes another assessment of all this "Western truth" and proceeds to deconstruct his theories. For the transalpine, American anthropology aims to create a homogenizing account of culture, and this has been seen over and over again throughout history.


Postcolonialism: WTF? An Intro to Postcolonial Theory (September 2022).


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