To the late Edward Said (1935-2003), the Western world’s approach to the East was one of marked condescension that made an imperative of colonization. “Orientalism,” as conceptualized by Said, is defined as those perceptions that view the regions known commonly in the United States as the Middle East and South Asia (i.e., the Indian subcontinent) through the lens of racial superiority and cultural arrogance. Said was an Arab American whose principle focus was the Middle East, and European imperialism was motivated in no small part by those condescending images of the Arab world. Said’s main thesis was that the Occidental (i.e., Western) mind could never fully comprehend the Oriental (i.e., Eastern) mind no matter how hard it tried, and that most Western scholarship regarding the Arab world was, consequently, invalid. With regard to Said’s notion that orientalism created a divide between East and West, such a conclusion is grounded in the tendency of men to view the world in terms of regions – a tendency with its origins in the earliest periods of recorded history – with the divisions between regions representing both real and imagined distinctions. As the Western perception of the Middle East was born of misguided notions of racial and cultural superiority, it consequently created a divide between East and West that resulted in the militant exploitation of the former by the latter. As he wrote in Orientalism:
“Orientalism can also express the strength of the West and the Orient's weakness—as seen by the West. Such strength and such weakness are as intrinsic to Orientalism as they are to any view that divides the world into large general divisions, entities that coexist in a state of tension produced by what is believed to be radical difference.”
Said questioned whether such arbitrary divisions among humanity accurately represented mankind’s destiny to view racial and cultural distinctions as inherently threatening or as an object of ridicule and disdain. Said didn’t deny the prevalence of “genuinely divided” peoples, noting that historical, cultural, and racial distinctions are a fact of life. He did, however, question whether humanity could “survive the consequences” of such divisions. All things being equal, probably so, one could suggest. Equality, however, is alien, Said argued, to the Occidental mind, as he wrote in the following passage:
“. . .such divisions are generalities whose use historically and actually has been to press the importance of the distinction between some men and some other men, usually towards not especially admirable ends. When one uses categories like Oriental and Western as both the starting and the end points of analysis, research, public policy . . . the result is usually to polarize the distinction—the Oriental becomes more Oriental, the Westerner more Western—and limit the human encounter between different cultures, traditions, and societies. In short, from its earliest modern history to the present, Orientalism as a form of thought for dealing with the foreign has typically shown the altogether regrettable tendency of any knowledge based on such hard-and-fast distinctions as "East" and "West": to channel thought into a West or an East compartment. Because this tendency is right at the center of Orientalist theory, practice, and values found in the West, the sense of Western power over the Orient is taken for granted as having the status of scientific truth.”
Is Said correct in his analysis and conclusions regarding “orientalism?” His essays found a large approving audience throughout American academia and the region of his heritage. And he was correct that notions of racial superiority were an important element in the formulation among Westerners of national policies towards the less-developed world. It would be difficult to argue otherwise given the vast body of literature that grew out of the practice and legacy of imperialism. And it would be hard to ignore the wealth of statements and declarations uttered by prominent Western figures over the span of hundreds of years that clearly illuminate an underlying sense of racial superiority. Where one can logically depart from Said’s analysis – and this is not necessarily related to the question at hand – is in his argument that Westerners can never truly understand the Middle East. Such arguments undermine generations of valid and useful scholarship by Western researchers regarding the Middle East, especially that by those researchers and scholars who became fluent in Arabic (and in at least some of its regional dialects) and deeply knowledgeable about Middle Eastern history and cultures. Similarly, Western scholars have been successful in so deeply immersing themselves in foreign cultures that they have developed a credible sense of how those cultures function. In his argument to the contrary, Said actually was guilty of the same arrogance he condemned in others – a not unusual phenomenon among academics.