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Orientalism is an idea that the Eastern world and the Western world have opposite ways of thinking in terms of being and knowledge. It is often shown in the superiority of the West and the inferiority of the East. Edward Said was the first person to use the word this way in his 1978 book “Orientalism”. He describes Orientalism as “a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and ‘the Occident’ ”. Before the term Orientalism was used by Said, it had a different meaning. In 1798, after Napoleon invaded Egypt, an era started. During this era, it was easier for European colonial powers to use their economic and political power over much of Asia and Africa. This allowed for more academic study of the East than before. This was called “the Oriental renaissance” in the 19th century. It had a large and broad effect on literature, art, and architecture in Europe.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, the term Orientalism was used to describe the effects of the Orient’s influence on art, literature, and architecture fields. It was also used to label the academic study done by philologists (people who study the history of language) who were focused on the Oriental languages and the understanding of ancient Oriental texts. This knowledge was thought to be enough to understand Oriental civilizations. There was no interest to the day-to-day life of these Oriental communities and their heterogeneous customs and traditions.
During the time of colonial power in the 19th and 20th centuries, the role of the Orientalist academic changed. The knowledge that was learned in this field of study was used to justify European colonialism over the Arab world.
Orientalism in architecture, art, and literatureEdit
Beginning in the 19th century, the "Oriental Renaissance" influenced European culture in many ways. In the architectural field there are many different revivals in Europe. The Indo-Saracenic revival at the end of the 18th century, or the Egyptian revival, recreated buildings with motifs taken from the Indian subcontinent and Egypt.
The “Oriental Renaissance” affected also the Romantic movement. In fact, romantic writers and artists showed a great interest in this Oriental rediscovery. A great example can be found in Flaubert’s (one of the most important French writer of the 19th century) novel Salammbò in 1862, where the Orient is depicted as something opposite of the Occident, eroticized and exoticized. Travelers’ accounts were very popular and contributed to form an imaginary vision of the Orient in the Western societies. Lord Byron, Victor Hugo, Nerval, Chateaubriand are some of the famous writers of the time that evoked exotic scenes and wild adventures by their accounts.
During the 19th century, Orientalist painting movement also developed. The drawings of the French painters Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Eugene Delacroix, or the English painter William Holman Hunt are important examples of this movement. They depicted the East as something different, dangerous, wild, sexual, often because of their imagination and not because of the reality. For example, the French painter Ingres drew images of nude Oriental women using ancient Greek and Roman sculptures rather than real models. It would have been very difficult to persuade a woman in the Arab and Indian world to pose naked.
This was because the main goal was to capture the imagination of the European people. The harem was at the center of European sexual fantasies. Naked and half-naked women in the harem were the subject of many Orientalist paintings, but painters rarely ever got to see an actual harem. Other popular images used by Orientalist painters included mainly concubines and exotic landscapes. The Orient was often eroticized, the Muslim was presented as a violent and sexually perverted person, and the Muslim woman was viewed as oppressed and enslaved by the Muslim male. Travel stories, literary works, and artistic works contributed strongly to create the image of a strange, different, exotic, and dangerous Orient.
Philology as a careerEdit
Starting from the 19th century, the term Orientalism was used to indicate also a scholarly field specialized in Oriental languages and sacred ancient texts. In the late 18th century and early 19th century, studies about Sanskrit, Persian, and Egyptian hieroglyphs started to become very popular. New institutions were established during this period to help developing these studies. In 1795 was established the School of Living Oriental Languages in Paris in 1795, in 1821 the Societe Asiatique, the Royal Asiatic society in London in 1834, the American Oriental society in 1842.
Philology was considered to be the only necessary thing to understand Oriental civilizations. Orient was a wide and vague term. However, it was clear that the Orientalists studied mostly the Islam and Muslims rather than India and China. Over the time the Oriental studies were divided into more specific labels such as “Near Eastern” and “East Asian” departments. Finally, at the beginning of the 20th century the term “Middle East” was invented by the US army.
Every Orientalist assumption about the East starts with the premise that the Europeans were the modern colonizers, and the Orientals were the backward subjects. “Belonging to a country with definite interests in the Orient” has surely influenced the point of view of these scholars about the East. According to the Orientalist vision, the Orient and Orientals were objects of study, and the Europeans were the subjects. Orientalism was based upon the belief in a basic difference between the East and the West, and deeply influenced by the Essentialism. According to this current of thought, human history is divided into civilizations with their own unique and unchangeable essences. The people and their characteristics could be understood by studying these unchanging cultural essences in the ancient and authoritative texts of the classical period (the Golden age in Islam is a period that goes from the 8th to the 14th century). The interest in the present conditions of the Muslims and their current thoughts were not important for a good comprehension. That is why the Oriental scholar was typically a philologist. From this ideology originated the abstract concept of the homo Islamicus, or Arabicus. This homo Islamicus was a specific type of human being, had a fixed mindset, and was clearly opposed to the Western mindset. In fact, the Islamic civilization was considered, in these essentialist terms, a coherent civilization that remained the same in all times and places, from the rise of Islam until today. Islam was considered the opposite of Western civilization, rigid, inflexible, tyrannical, in decline, hostile to outside influences, inferior, and these characteristics were considered part of the essence of the Islamic civilization. Instead, the Western civilization was considered modern, rational, liberal, advanced, and the top of the human hierarchy. “The West”, by defining “the Orient”, was defining itself. Orientalists believed that Islamic civilization reached its prime under the Abbasid dynasty during the 8th/10th century, and then gradually lost its energy and vigor. A clear example of this way of thinking can be found in the lecture “Islam and science” that Ernest Renan (France’s most important philologist and scholar of religion) gave at University of Sorbonne of Paris in 1883. Islam was considered inferior, not rational, opposed to the science, and the Muslim was fanatical. Renan affirmed that the period of splendor during the Abbasid dynasty was due only to the scientific tradition of Greek antiquity that was been preserved until that moment. This kind of discourse supported the idea of Western superiority and legitimized European colonialism.
Persistence of Orientalist assumptions through the 20th centuryEdit
Similar views were still present in the 20th century and can be traced in many important academic works such as The Decline of the West (1918) by Oswald Spengler, or A study of history by Arnold Toynbee (1934-61); both works present Orientalist concepts. Another important book, The government of the Ottoman Empire in the time of Suleiman the Magnificient was written by Albert Howe Lybyer in 1913. Lybyer was not able to read the Turkish Ottoman language, but several generations of scholars accepted his argumentations until the 50s and 60s. He argued that the period of maximum splendor of the Ottoman empire, in the 15th/16th century under the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, occurred because Christian subjects from the Balkans and Caucasus ruled the institutions of the Empire. Once the Islam played a central role in the government, the Ottoman empire became ineffective and decadent.
Hamilton Gibb and Harold Bowen published Islamic society and the West in 1950-57. Gibb was one of the most famous Orientalist of his day. In this book, they affirm that until the 19th century the Islamic society was not influenced by the Western civilization. Islam was an expression of a fixed and unchangeable set of beliefs valid to every place and time. Problems that Muslims were facing during the 20th century could be understood through the medieval Islamic thought. Bowen and Gibbs portrayed an Islamic civilization that remained the same during the centuries, characterized by of despotism and lack of cohesion. They ignored the different forms of Islam practiced in the world. From Morocco to Indonesia, all was considered the same static and rigid Islamic society.
Orientalist knowledge and colonial powerEdit
The Orientalist scholarship was in part used by colonial powers to justify colonialism. Silvestre de Sacy, the most important Orientalist scholar of his period, advised the French government during the invasion of Algeria in 1830. In the early 20th century, the Orientalist scholar Snouck Hurgonje helped the Dutch government in the formulation of the policies during the colonization of Indonesia. Thomas Edward Lawrence, famous for his nickname “Lawrence of Arabia”, was an Orientalist scholar and student of the Oxford Orientalist and archeologist D.G. Hogarth. Lawrence was sent by the British government to Arabia to join the Arab rebel forces in the “Arab revolt” during the First World War. Lord Cromer is a great example to see how colonial power and Orientalist knowledge were connected. Cromer was general counsel of the British protectorate of Egypt from 1883 to 1907, and was considered an authoritative figure on Egypt and the Orient. In 1908 published ‘Modern Egypt’. He gave an account of his permanence in Egypt. In his narrative, we find all the characteristic elements of Orientalism. In fact, he placed a clear distinction between the rational and advanced West, and the irrational and submissive East. Muslim women were seen as enslaved, and Islam as an unchanging, backward, and oppressive religion. He affirms that the Egyptians are incapable of governing themselves, highlighting instead the civilizing mission of the British colonists.
Orientalism by Edward SaidEdit
Orientalism is a theory put forward by Edward Said in his book, "Orientalism" (1978).
Edward Said was born in Jerusalem in 1935, but he mostly grew up in Cairo, Egypt. Said completed his education in the United States. He graduated from Princeton university, and earned his doctorate at Harvard university in English literature. He then became a famous professor at Columbia university. Edward Said wrote about the situation between Israel and Palestine. His statements were shared by the PLO, (the Palestine Liberation Organization is the most important Palestinian political organization, founded in the 1964). In 1977, Edward Said was elected as an independent to the PLO's parliament, the Palestine National Council. Said started to criticize the way in which Arabs and Muslims were portrayed as different and inferior by the West. In 1978 his book 'Orientalism' was published. The book had a huge impact, it quickly gained popularity, and was translated in more than 35 languages. The book explores how the West depicts the East. The West depicted the East as 'Other' and essentially inferior. This 'Otherness' helped the West to justify the colonisation of the East. Edward Said defines Orientalism as: ''a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient's special place in European Western experience.'' Said also states that the West has portrayed itself as the contrary of the Orient. He shows this with an example, a quote from Sir Alfred Lyall (English philosopher, editor, clergyman and traveller) to illustrate the way of thinking of 17th-century Europeans: ''On the one hand there are Westerners, and on the other there are Arab-Orientals; the former are (in no particular order) rational, peaceful, liberal, logical, capable of holding real values, without natural suspicion; the latter are none of these things.'' The relationship between the Orient and Occident goes way back, European powers like France and Britain have a long history in the Orient, influencing it, imperialising and colonising it. This domination was imposed especially as of 1798, after Napoleon's expedition in Egypt. Said states that the relationship between the Orient and Occident is one of power. The Orient, seen as a place of sensuality, immorality, exoticism. and authoritarianism, is compared to the West, defined as being rational, liberal, moral, diametrically the opposite. In this way, the Orient has been made oriental by the West. Said states that we should not think that Orientalism was only an idea, but something more pervasive, that has been influencing our ideas, culture, clothing, and so on. These ideas keep Orientalism alive still today.
To define the concept of Orientalism, Said was deeply influenced by the French thinker Michel Foucault and his theory of power and knowledge. A second important figure for Edward Said was the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci, known for his theories about the cultural hegemony. Gramsci states that rulers do not obtain their power by being violent; instead, through the ideology, they induce the people to accept their power. Using a similar logic, Said stated that the West had legitimated its hegemony over the Orient by promoting certain ways of thinking.
Examples of Orientalism can be found even nowadays in the media culture.
The Disney Company was criticized for only producing movies featuring white characters. In response to this, from the 1980s, Disney started producing movies such as Pocahontas, Mulan and Aladdin, featuring non-white characters. Aladdin was Disney's first movie taking place in the Middle East, with a non-white princess. Nevertheless, the movie received a lot of criticism because of how the Middle Eastern people, places, and cultures were shown. Many people protested to change the lyric of the song at the beginning of the film: “''Where they cut off your ear If they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.', since it described the Middle East as a violent, scary, and barbaric place. The women were portrayed as integrally veiled, dressed in belly dancing-outfits, playing with Bengal tigers. They were exoticized, and not in line with the reality. Jasmine and Aladdin, the main characters, speak with an American accent and have lighter skins than the villain Jafar, who has an Anglo-Arab accent.
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