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The late Edward Said (1935-2003) held in complete and total disdain Western scholarship of the region known as “the Middle East” and “the Near East,” basically, the vast expanse of territory stretching from the northwest coast of Africa to the Arabian (or Persian) Gulf to the east. Said is credited with originating the term “orientalism” to describe the Western academic perception of Arabs and Arabia born of a condescending prejudiced view of people who happen to reflect a different history and culture. Orientalism, to Said, encompassed Western colonization of the Middle East, as the dehumanizing perception of Arabs held by Western scholars and politicians and the natural wealth the region held were coveted and seen as legitimate targets of European imperialism. In his seminal 1978 text on the subject, Orientalism, Said expanded upon the concept of “orientalism” to encapsulate the totality of European studies of policies towards the Middle East, describing it “a style of thought based upon ontological and epistemological distinction between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident’.”
While highly critical of the Western approach to Middle Eastern studies, Said did not see that phenomenon as surviving in perpetuity. Decolonization, he argued, fundamentally undermined the orientalist notion of the Arab as a backwards, pliable, almost pathetic wimp ripe for subjugation. As he wrote in his 1980 essay The Crisis of Orientalism, describing the colonial-era perception among Europeans, “[t]he West is the actor, the Orient a passive reactor.” The post-World War II proliferation of “national liberation movements,” however, and growing pressure from within these “passive” arenas for release from the yoke of Western imperialism seriously contravened previously held notions of Arab passivity. Expanding on the condescending attitudes among Westerners towards the Middle East and the revolutionary movements that swept colonialism aside, Said wrote:
“As anticolonialism sweeps and indeed unifies the entire Oriental world, the Orientalist damns the whole business not only as a nuisance but as an insult to the Western democracies. As momentous, generally important issues face the world -- issues involving nuclear destruction, catastrophically scarce resources, unprecedented human demands for equality, justice, and economic parity -- popular caricatures of the Orient are exploited by politicians whose source of ideological supply is not only the half-literate technocrat but the superliterate Orientalist. The legendary Arabists in the State Department warn of Arab plans to take over the world. The perfidious Chinese, half-naked Indians, and passive Muslims are described as vultures for 'our' largesse and are damned when 'we lose them' to communism, or to their unregenerate Oriental instincts: the difference is scarcely significant.”
To Said, “[t]he present crisis dramatizes the disparity between texts and reality.” In other words the misconceptions that heavily influenced Western attitudes and policies towards the Middle East were invalidated by the decolonization of the region and the emergence of independent political self-governing entities. That, to Said, was the “crisis in orientalism.” A centuries-old academic approach to the Middle East was completely delegitimized by the facts on the ground. Arab history and culture, and its contributions to the sciences, mathematics, religious and political thought all stood the test of time and were influential in the development of Western approaches to each of those subjects. The ancient, in other words, was not intellectually or culturally inferior to the occidental. The crisis was the intellectual collapse of a school of thought called orientalism.
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