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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 564

As a Palestinian educated at Princeton and Harvard universities, Edward Said was bound to confront representations by Western scholars of his culture of birth. He read numerous patronizing characterizations of “the Arab mind” and of Islam as a monolithic phenomenon. He read a leading European scholar’s reference to Arabs as people who could not think straight. Von Grunebaum saw in Islamic civilization “anti-humanism” and in Arab nationalism a lack of “a formative ethic.” Said read a report by an American State Department expert, in a 1972 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, asserting that “objectivity is not a value in the Arab system” and that “the art of subterfuge is highly developed in Arab life, as well as in Islam itself.” What troubled Said was not that stereotypes were part of contemporary American popular culture but that there seemed to be a tradition and institutionalization of them in scholarship. The special history of the Palestinian people vis-a-vis the Zionist movement, the establishment of the state of Israel, and the aftermaths of the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973 made Said’s concerns both intellectual and political issues. That Said’s profession became university teaching at Columbia University and literary criticism impelled him to respond to the issues through an investigation of scholarly writing on the subject and combine the fruits of his own research with polemic purpose.

Said’s agenda in Orientalism is essentially political: He is asking that academics, policymakers, and other American intellectuals recognize and redress long-standing and arguably systematic bias against the Arabs. Orientalism derives largely from Said’s sense of injustices perpetrated on the Palestinian people, an awareness so intense that the author has little time to find or discern positive dimensions or sides to Orientalism or even individual Orientalists who do not fit his definition of the biased scholar. Consequently, Orientalism has left few readers unmoved. Reactions have been predictable and varied according to the predispositions of reviewers. For example, the Anglo-Arab Middle East historian Albert Hourani has found in Orientalism a basically sound historical treatment, with its major flaw forgivable exaggeration for the sake of argument. At the other extreme is a Jewish-American view expressed by Leon Wieseltier, who is outraged at Said’s pro-Palestinian perspective and takes the latter to task for advocating a cause whose adherents use oil and murder as weapons. The comparative literature specialist Victor Brombert has a more detached view and consequently assesses the book’s strengths, weaknesses, and relevance beyond issues of Middle Eastern studies and politics. He finds Said occasionally guilty of setting up discredited models to make and prove points and of other polemical excesses. Brombert’s most serious concern with Orientalism is his sense that Said exhibits in it a loss of faith in humanism—in other words, that Said seems not to believe that scholars and other intellectuals can prize disinterested scholarship and love their disciplines more than their own success, power, material comforts, and the society and institutions that support their work.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine even the most negative assessment of Orientalism gainsaying two arguments that constitute almost the warp and weft of Said’s book. First is the groundlessness and perniciousness of the idea of European identity as superior to non-European peoples and cultures. Second is the constant need to question dominative modes of contemplating, discussing, and evaluating cultures other than one’s own.

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Critical Context