I very much enjoyed my read of Edward Said’s Orientalism. It is an important book, and it has helped me to form my thoughts on quite a number of subjects. In my series of responses, I have appropriated his central concept broadly, but it is important to note that Said’s focus throughout is with reference to the Orient as Egypt and the Levant, and with special attention to Islam. No negotiation of his book is complete without some coming to terms with his thoughts on Islam. This final reflection on Orientalism will attempt to do just that. I’ve got four things to say.
1) The Orient, for Said, is the Islamic world. I noted this a moment ago, but it is worth stressing. As an historical fact, the Orient, when the concept of the Orient was invented, and Orientalism, when that concept was emerging in Western usage, both had for their initial reference points the Islamic East. Historically, we here refer to Napoleon’s conquering of Egypt, and of England’s presence in Palestine and the Levant. We also note that the original journey of the Orient Express was from Paris to Constantinople—i.e., the Orient. Said, of course, as a Palestinian author, is keenly aware of this history in a personal sense, and that awareness colours the whole of the book.
2) If Orientalism is true, then it follows that Islam has been injuriously misread by the West. Orientalism, I have stated numerous times in various ways, is an intersection of knowledge and power where the gaze of the West has fallen on the other in such a way that the other loses agency, is flattened, and is fetishized (among other things). Each of these has clearly been in effect when the West has encountered Islam. Islam has been othered. It is viewed, first, as an outsider element, one which reflexively gives fresh self-definition to the Western eye. In that process, the West has held the power of definition in discourse—the conversation has been dominated by Western categories of what constitutes Islam, and Islam is made to answer to those Western categories. Consequently, Islam has been flattened—both ideologically and individually. Ideologically, textures and complexities in Islamic belief are treated reductionistically (they all want Jihad and nothing else), and individually each Islamic individual is viewed as a carbon-copy of a radicalized caricature (they all want Jihad and nothing else). Said stresses this clearly,
The point I want to conclude with now is to insist that the terrible reductive conflicts that herd people under falsely unifying rubrics like ‘America,’ ‘The West’ or ‘Islam’ and invent collective identities for large numbers of individuals who are actually quite diverse, cannot remain as potent as they are, and must be opposed, their murderous effectiveness vastly reduced in influence and mobilizing power. (Orientalism, xxii)
In addition to this, Islam has been subjected to a number of fetishizations—historically, sexual ones (Said notes these), but lately subjected to a fetishization of violence and bestiality. The West is able to imagine, again for its own benefit, all manner of violences and evil perpetuated by an Islamic world.
Once again, if Orientalism is true (and I believe it is)—that is, if Orientalism accurately describes a mental process by which the West has ‘come to terms’ with the non-West in Islam—then this is cause for a serious re-evaluation of how the West and Islam interact. Wrongs have been done, and are being done, which inhibit fruitful communication, and which perpetuate worldviews of dehumanization which fall well beneath the values of the West. We can, and must, do better.
3) And yet, it seems to me that Said overplays the innocence of Islam in his book. Repeatedly, Said hammers the West for its treatment of Islam. Doubtless many of his assertions are correct. Doubtless also, he is sounding a corrective note against historic abuses. In charity we can certainly read the book with those considerations in mind and account for what we might consider to be his excesses. And yet, it is also historically the case that not all Western encounters with Islam are based on Orientalism. For example, when Islam emerged in the 8th century, no such thing as “the West”—as a modern concept—yet existed. And Islam’s emergence on the Arabian peninsula meant that it’s first encounters with Christianity were in the Christian East—in places such as Constantinople, which is, by definition, the Orient. Those first encounters, then, were not encounters where knowledge and power othered the foreigner, but rather battles where truth claims were examined. Chief among them was this: is Jesus God–in-the-flesh, or was he merely another prophet on the way to Mohammed? (It is worth observing that, on some accounts, Islam looks a great deal like a kind of radical Arianism—a rejection of Christ’s divinity and preservation of the holiness of the Father-God.)
In addition to this, Islam—beginning with Mohammed as its leader—from the very first engaged in a war of conquest with the Christian world (note: neither East nor West, but entire). That period of conquest involved aggressive violence, invasion, and a real threat to the Christian way of life. All that to say that when the West considers Islam, while certain intellectual abuses are undoubtedly at play, there is also a deeper history which informs their engagement. That history cannot be reduced, or explained away, by means of Orientalism.
4) Orientalism, then, is both a blessing and a liability. It is a blessing because of the attention it calls us to pay to the history of knowledge where that knowledge intersects with power. It is a blessing because it places a beneficial hesitation on Western claims about the non-West. It is a blessing because it seeks to restore agency to non-Western persons. And yet the liability of Orientalism is that as a compelling theory of understanding it oversimplifies—or even simply underplays—valid truth claims and vital historical incidents. The label, as always, does not an argument make (see the previous post on Bulverism).
In each of these posts I’ve tied these thoughts into the mission of the Church. As I close these reflections on Orientalism, the note I want to highlight is that of listening. It seems to me that these kinds of discussions often get scuttled by debate. Facts get thrown back and forth, names and labels get applied, and little progress is made except in the growth of contempt. Sometimes I feel that my fellow Christians fear that to practice listening will mean having to give up on truth. But this isn’t the case. To listen well doesn’t mean to give up, it means to try to hear a matter from the other’s perspective as clearly as possible. Listening makes us smarter, and more empathetic, and when we listen well we become better at articulating those points which we feel are truly salient to a discussion. For Christianity to listen to the Islamic world does not mean the same thing as for Christianity to capitulate with it. It is just such listening, I believe, that we most need—on both sides of the divide.