Special Report: Islam, Orientalism And the West

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An attack on learned ignorance

In an angry, provocative new book called Orientalism (Pantheon; $15), Edward Said, 43, Parr Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, argues that the West has tended to define Islam in terms of the alien categories imposed on it by Orientalist scholars. Professor Said is a member of the Palestine National Council, a broadly based, informal parliament of the Palestine Liberation Organization. He summarized the thesis of Orientalism in this article for TIME.

One of the strangest, least examined and most persistent of human habits is the absolute division made between East and West, Orient and Occident. Almost entirely "Western" in origin, this imaginative geography that splits the world into two unequal, fundamentally opposite spheres has brought forth more myths, more detailed ignorance and more ambitions than any other perception of difference. For centuries Europeans and Americans have spellbound themselves with Oriental mysticism, Oriental passivity, Oriental mentalities. Translated into policy, displayed as knowledge, presented as entertainment in travelers' reports, novels, paintings, music or films, this "Orientalism" has existed virtually unchanged as a kind of daydream that could often justify Western colonial adventures or military conquest. On the "Marvels of the East" (as the Orient was known in the Middle Ages) a fantastic edifice was constructed, invested heavily with Western fear, desire, dreams of power and, of course, a very partial knowledge. And placed in this structure has been "Islam," a great religion and a culture certainly, but also an Occidental myth, part of what Disraeli once called "the great Asiatic mystery."

As represented for Europe by Muhammad and his followers, Islam appeared out of Arabia in the 7th century and rapidly spread in all directions. For almost a millennium Christian Europe felt itself challenged (as indeed it was) by this last monotheistic religion, which claimed to complete its two predecessors. Perplexingly grand and "Oriental," incorporating elements of Judeo-Christianity, Islam never fully submitted to the West's power. Its various states and empires always provided the West with formidable political and cultural contestants—and with opportunities to affirm a "superior" Occidental identity. Thus, for the West, to understand Islam has meant trying to convert its variety into a monolithic undeveloping essence, its originality into a debased copy of Christian culture, its people into fearsome caricatures.

Early Christian polemicists against Islam used the Prophet's human person as their butt, accusing him of whoring, sedition, charlatanry. As writing about Islam and the Orient burgeoned—60,000 books between 1800 and 1950—European powers occupied large swatches of "Islamic" territory, arguing that since Orientals knew nothing about democracy and were essentially passive, it was the "civilizing mission" of the Occident, expressed in the strict programs of despotic modernization, to finally transform the Orient into a nice replica of the West. Even Marx seems to have believed this.

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