Orientalism and the Question of Occidentalism

Orientalism and the Question of Occidentalism
Posted on October 25, 2016 | Yasser Harrak | Written on October 25, 2016
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Author's Note:

Author's Note:

Image credit: Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Snake Charmer, c. 1879, oil on canvas (Sterling Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts)

The study of Orientalism helps understanding how Westerners perceive the Middle East. In this introductory synopsis, I will answer the following questions: What is Orientalism and how did Edward Said define it?  Does Orientalism, in some form, persist in the West? What are some of the implications of modern Orientalism? 

It is common to say that Orientalism is a discipline where Western (and Westernized) scholars in different fields of study depict the culture of the East or the Orient. Eduard Said defines Orientalism as a regularized system of scholarship that contributed to the Western world’s cultural, economic and political domination of the Orient (Stewart 2008, 6). Orientalists, according to Said, stressed the difference between the familiar West and the unknown and perhaps scary East through generalizations and negative stereotypes (Singh, 2004).  Said used his definition to challenge the long accepted assumptions about the Orient in general and the Middle East in particular. Dona Stewart described Said's influence on European and American scholarship to be profound to the level where an entire generation of intellectuals reassessed their attitudes toward previously accepted assumptions on the Orient, after the publication of Orientalism in 1978 (Stewart 2008, 6). One can argue that Said, who was born Palestinian, used his definition of Orientalism in his passionate advocacy of the Palestinian cause, especially when considering his works that followed Orientalism such as the case with the Question of Palestine in 1979. Said used notions like Western dominance, colonialism and the muted and inferior East in the Question of Palestine making Zionism mirror Imperialism. He says, for instance:" In short, all the constitutive energies of Zionism were premised on the excluded presence, that is, the functional absence of the native people in Palestine" (Said 1979, 82). Zionism and Imperialism, thereof, share common premises where the Oriental other is both dominated and excluded.

Douglas Little has written about American Orientalism as another form of Orientalism. In short, American Orientalism was characterized by cultural assumptions and racial stereotypes that reflected in the media, arts and literature, and had a profound impact on the public and on the policy makers. American Orientalism greatly influenced American foreign policy in the Middle East (Little 2008, 10).  I do not totally agree without any reservation with the existence of Orientalism in general, and American Orientalism in particular. The emphasis put on scholars, in the formation of Orientalism, by both Said and Little does not convince me. If Orientalists developed a web of racism and cultural stereotypes that was carried to the Western/ American public by the vehicle of arts, media and scholarship, how can we explain the existence of similar racism and cultural stereotypes about the West in the Middle East? Is there something such as Occidentalism? Who are the Occidentalists and to which dominant power structure do they belong?  In brief, I agree with the existence of Orientalism as well as Occidentalism in which popular culture, myths and stereotypes affect scholars who then re-transmit that popular culture in different creative and professional forms. The systematic creation of stereotypes by scholars as players in a bigger political framework remains, in my opinion, similar to a conspiracy theory. The origin of negative stereotypes is not an educated mind. Genuine ignorance is the most probable origin. The role different power structures play using scholarship tools and others is at the exploitation level, and not at the level of systematic constitution as argued by Said.

Orientalism remains in the West in the same way Occidentalism remains in the East. There are Western scholars, filmmakers, journalists and artists that base their work on negative stereotypes about the Middle East  -sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly. In the Middle East, on the other hand, there are scholars, filmmakers, journalists and artists that base their work on negative stereotypes about the West in the same way. You have the American Fox News irrationally report on Middle Eastern culture while you have Press TV reporting irrationally on the Western culture. Some scholars like Samuel Huntington find this to be a clash of civilizations. Eduard Said finds it to be a clash of ignorance legitimizing my previous questions about an Occidentalism he did not write about.






About The Author

Yasser Harrak's picture

Alma mater: American Public University (MA, Grad Cert), Concordia University (BA). 


  • Member of the West Virginia Iota Chapter of Pi Gamma Mu Social Science Honor Society
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