What are the main arguments involved in the Orientalism debate?

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"Orientalism" was a neutral term referring to the study of the Middle East and Asia by Western scholars, until Edward W. Said published his book, Orientalism , in 1978. This single work turned "Orientalism" into a pejorative word in academic circles, since Said argued that Western depictions of...

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"Orientalism" was a neutral term referring to the study of the Middle East and Asia by Western scholars, until Edward W. Said published his book, Orientalism, in 1978. This single work turned "Orientalism" into a pejorative word in academic circles, since Said argued that Western depictions of "the East" (his principal focus is on the Islamic Middle East) have typically been condescending, ignorant, and focused on a notion of "the exotic" and "the other," which defines Middle Eastern culture only in Western terms. This was true even of authors generally considered liberal or progressive, such as George Orwell, who produced work in which only Western characters were permitted to be complex, while those from the East were relegated to the status of comic sidekicks or pasteboard villains.

Said's book attracted great controversy as soon as it was released. Early critics included Bernard Lewis and Albert Hourani. Lewis accused Said of combing the work of serious scholars for a few discreditable sentences while ignoring their life's work. He cites the case of Edward Lane, whose multi-volume Arabic English lexicon is completely ignored, while comments from minor works on Egypt are cited. The most common allegation by Said's critics is that of cherry-picking his evidence to find expressions of prejudice or contempt here and there in the work of writers and scholars who spent their lives in serious studies of Middle Eastern culture, in some cases culturally assimilating and converting to Islam in the process.

More recently, Ibn Warraq's Defending the West (2007) offers a book-length critique of Said's thesis. The book accuses Said of using meaningless and pretentious Postmodernist jargon to mount a self-pitying attack on Western values. Everyone, Ibn Warraq argues, writes from within a particular culture, and Said's complaints about Western writers having Western values are merely naive. He also points to various historical inaccuracies in Orientalism and accuses Said of dishonestly interpreting many of the texts he quotes.

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Since the publication of Edward Said's book in 1978, "Orientalism" has come to mean a series of largely prejudicial attitudes and judgments by Western writers and commentators about the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia as a whole. Said viewed these attitudes as distorted, condescending, and as a kind of projection of Western imperialism and the legacy of Europe's attempts to dominate "Eastern" cultures and societies.

Obviously, the arguments or controversies about Orientalism relate to the accuracy of Said's own perceptions of Western intellectuals' views of the "East." Is Said correct that Europeans have created a mythical, distorted, and unfair depiction of Asia and North Africa? Or, as some scholars such as Bernard Lewis have suggested, is it Said's own view that is distorted and incorrect?

In my opinion, much European and American fiction does present a somewhat romanticized and mythologized picture of the regions in question, as Said indicates. It is somewhat analogous, in a milder way, to the false manner in which both Native Americans and the sub-Saharan African peoples have often been depicted in Western lore as people living essentially in a state of "savagery" until the arrival of the white man. The attitude is a reflexive rationalization of imperialism and colonization. Even in the fiction of a progressive writer such as George Orwell, for instance, Asian people are sometimes depicted in a distorted and condescending way. This occurs despite Orwell's main point of the injustice of European colonialism throughout such works as Burmese Days, "Shooting an Elephant," and "A Hanging." Even after Orwell's time, we can see a patronizing view of the "natives" of the "East"; for example, in the 1960s films Lawrence of Arabia and Khartoum.

That said, some argue that Said overstates his case. Some commentators assert that Said views the "West" unobjectively, just as Europeans do the "East." Much of his position, however, is unassailable, as prejudice and exploitation have been all too common in history.

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I assume that you are asking about arguments in the debate over Said's book Orientalism.

Said's major argument is that the West has defined the East in terms that serve to justify the West's domination of the East.  He argues that the West has defined the East as effeminate and inferior.

There have been many strands of criticism of Said's work.  The best summary of these critiques can be found in the topic/Orientalism link below.  The major criticism, in my mind, is that Said's argument is as simplistic as the scholarship that he criticizes.  He, for example, criticizes the West for seeing the East as a homogeneous mass but he himself does not differentiate between Western views of the Middle East and the Far East.  He lumps those (very different views) together and calls them all "orientalism."

Another telling argument is that what Said criticizes is not really a Western fault.  Instead, it is a fault of all cultures.  All cultures tend to stereotype one another rather than to see each other's complexities.  The Arab world, one can argue, stereotypes the West just as much as the West stereotypes the East.

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