2001 Nights

The end of the Orientalist critique


In the aftermath of September 11, Edward Said, one of the country's more elegant intellects, listened carefully to the anguish and anger pouring through the American media, and five days after the murders published a commentary about what he had heard. Writing in Britain's The Observer, the distinguished critic of literature and politics discerned "the vague suggestion that the Middle East and Islam are what 'we' are up against."

Obviously, Prof. Said missed the fact that broadcast and cable news anchors actually curtailed early speculation that the attacks had their origin in the Middle East or in Islam. Why? Because, as ABC's Peter Jennings told his viewers, "We don't want to create a 'mindset' here." Said apparently missed the numerous interviews with ordinary Arab-Americans expressing their own appalled grief at the attacks, appearances that enabled them to represent themselves through the media rather than be misrepresented by them. He seems to have missed the lightning-fast circulation by e-mail of the now-famous letter by Afghan-American Tamin Ansary, which rapidly created sympathy among its millions of recipients for common Afghans.

Said must have missed even the enormous pains taken by elite news outlets and public figures, especially President George W. Bush, to distinguish between the "true" Islam of peace, as they often characterized it, and any variant that could justify and celebrate acts of mass murder. In his address to Congress, Bush actually assumed the role of Islamic theologian, pronouncing any such violent variant to be "blasphemy." Even Ibrahim Hooper, head of the controversial Council on American-Islamic Relations and a tireless critic of the American media's portrayal of Arabs and the Middle East, pronounced himself "surprised," and pleasantly so, at the coverage.

But not Said. Passages of his Observer essay were certainly eloquent and insightful. Not only was he horrified by the carnage, but he was revolted by the perpetrators and by any ideas, religious or political, that might be used to justify such acts. Yet when it came to the American side of his story–what he saw as the vaguely anti-Islamic reaction to the attacks–he slipped back into the familiar litany of the Orientalist critique. That is, he suggested that the media had failed to critique American policy, instead reacting monolithically to "the Middle East and Islam." He implied that the media had portrayed them stereotypically and contentiously. That's not surprising, perhaps, since Said himself established that critique almost 25 years ago. His famous book Orientalism (1978) was a harsh interpretation of the West's attitude toward just these matters, and the critique he established has since dominated the intellectual appraisal of the West's political and cultural relationship to the Muslim world and other peoples of the East.

Yet the critique doesn't fit the aftermath of the attacks at all. Xenophobia remains a significant issue, but if anything, the irenic reaction to the attacks suggests that among American political and media elites, Orientalism has become a dead letter. Indeed, the attack and its aftermath suggest much more. They illustrate that, while the Orientalist critique deserves credit for its earned successes, it deserves to be judged anew for some no less significant sins. Above all, the attack itself reveals the florescence of a cultural phenomenon that has received almost no attention from anyone.

That phenomenon is dangerous, is widespread, and has long been developing beneath the radar and the contempt of the intellectual establishment. It portrays the West falsely and contentiously. It is, as one scholar has termed it, the other side of the Orientalist coin: Occidentalism.

What was Orientalism? Said identified it in his foundational work as the political, cultural, and intellectual system by which the West has for centuries "managed" its relationship with the Islamic world. The central stratagem of this process has been reductionist misrepresentation. In brief, according to Said and the army of intellectual critics and journalists who have come in his wake, Orientalism transforms the East and its people into an alien "Other." That Other–usually a Dark Other–was in every way the inferior of the West: unenlightened, barbarous, cruel, craven, enslaved to its senses, given to despotism, and, in general, contemptible. Having established an Eastern Other in these degrading terms, the West emerged at the center of its self-serving discourse as, by obvious contrast, enlightened and progressive.

The Orientalist critique found supporting evidence for its severe charges in texts from the Crusades to contemporary foreign-policy debates. Shakespeare, in King Lear, expresses Orientalism. Sir Richard Burton's famous translation of the Arabian Nights into a pseudo-archaic language that nobody ever spoke was 16 volumes of Orientalism. British imperial anthropology texts were Orientalist. What else? Old studio paintings of nude odalisques, slave markets, and eunuchs; desert travel literature; novels by Diderot, Montesquieu, Kipling, and H. Rider Haggard; a mass of specialized historiography; Maria Montez movies; the whole world of academic, "authoritative" Orientalist studies; anything having to do with Sinbad the Sailor; and even Henry Kissinger's ideas for resolving the Israeli-Arab impasse.

All of it, and a great deal more about literature, politics, food, and fashion, was studied as part of the immense edifice of Orientalist misrepresentation and degradation.

Was the critique valid? Even in its simplest form, it often was. Western treatments of the East regularly portrayed it as merely exotic, primitive, and inferior. The West's encounter with the East was not only imperial or mercantile; it was teleological, imputing to itself the purpose of enlightening and civilizing the East. Of course, citing self-serving imperialist stupidities is not a particularly great achievement nor necessarily relevant, but the Orientalist critique often paid itself off with close readings of contemporary political and cultural texts, arguing that imperialist stupidities had transmuted into postcolonial subtleties no less damaging. Whether these critiques were always correct is not relevant here; the point is that the project began as a constructive and often useful challenge to a family of ingrained cultural tropes. To the degree that Orientalism was banished from American coverage of the September 11 murders, Said and his many followers can claim a certain degree of credit.

On the other hand, the practitioners of the Orientalist critique, having enjoyed an early triumph, have spent the past quarter-century obscuring its original power by marrying it to such fields as Lacanian psychoanalysis (in which, for example, racism becomes fetishism) or else reformulating its original argument on ever more trivial grounds. While Said and many of his early followers approached their subject as public intellectuals seeking to persuade a general audience, later practitioners have pursued the matter as academics, writing in thick postmodern jargon and producing works that sit unread on research library shelves.

Significantly, Said attempted to add more nuance to the thesis in his 1993 work Culture & Imperialism, arguing that a simple, binary East vs. West approach to such complex issues is after all a reworking of the "us vs. them" imperial worldview. Nobody paid much attention to him. The result is a project that appears increasingly ossified, if not something worse.

For example, the curator for a recent traveling exhibit of American Orientalist antiques ("Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures") has closely examined the ways in which early ads for Camel cigarettes, the brief hoochy-coochy fad, and a single souvenir of the 1923 Shriners convention in Washington all express a "cavalier appropriation" of culture (in part because Shriners wear fezzes) and even signal a transfer of world power to the United States. Her argument assigns tendentious meanings to complex activities and signs, then locks them together as if cultural artifacts were so many jigsaw pieces. Another prominent critic claims that she is "othered" by the way Americans categorize what they eat. That is, dishes associated with India are exoticized as "Indian food," whereas American dishes claim the gustatory mainstream by being just "food." Her argument is a pointless misreading of conversational convenience, and ignores the fact that the American diet is the world's most inclusive. Other critics, at the project's extreme, deny that anyone from the West (the "so-called West") has any right at all to address any subject having to do with the ("so-called") East. This Kafkaesque view condemns whole hemispheres of people to guilt, and is no better than the views of Europe's imperial Orientalists at their worst.

There is another problem, however–one more ominous for the project in the long run than triviality. These are the doubts that have surfaced–within the critique–about the ways in which the counter-Orientalist project may have approached much of its evidence. In one collection of portentous essays about Hollywood Orientalism, Visions of the East: Orientalism in Film, it occurs to the editors that while such films may well carry racist, fetishist, patriarchal, and imperial baggage for some audiences, these movies may have "other meanings and appeals for other audiences."

Well, yes. In this case, the anthology's editors cite the legitimacy of gay camp readings of 1940s harem movies. In fact, there are as many ways to receive "Orientalist" movies as there are people to watch them. It would doubtless come as a complete surprise to the admirers of Ray Harryhausen's special-effects epics, such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), or of such classics as the 1940 version of The Thief of Baghdad, that the pleasure they took from such films is a cultural crime. Rather, such films provided them an exit to wonder, and it is doubtful that watching Kevin Matthews battle sword-wielding skeletons in some way exoticized the Arab-Israeli conflict in the minds of any viewers.

The issue of art's multiple and shifting meanings is sometimes acknowledged, tacitly or openly, in the texts of the Orientalist critique, but it is never allowed to unravel the net of Western guilt. That is because all meanings lead to the supposed power that the consumer of Orientalist culture can experience through any given artifact. Take all those paintings of naked harem women in their baths, for example, or being sold as slaves. According to many of their critics, these paintings are so much soft-core pornography that served to eroticize the Islamic world, thus empowering the male Western gazers of the work. As Rana Kabani wrote in her 1986 work, Imperial Fictions: Europe's Myths of Orient, "Although Westerners claimed to be horrified by the slave-trade, depictions of it were coveted by a genteel bourgeois public. The image of the captive beauty appealed to patriarchal urges of domination, and to imperialistic urges more generally."

But was the expression of European power really the function of these paintings? That would have depended on who bought them and what use they made of them. Art historian Lynne Thornton notes that most of the original buyers of Orientalist paintings, whether of harems or horsemen or markets, appear to have been nouveau riche industrialists. For these consumers, the colorful, Romantic, and erotic images may have been little more than a portrait of intensity executed in a fashionable style, one that provided a contrast to their otherwise dull daily lives. If a subtext of power is supposed to be central to this body of work, then surely it is noteworthy that the Orientalist school of painting becomes completely unfashionable after World War I. In other words, just as European colonialist power in the Middle East reaches its apogee, you couldn't give these paintings away.

As for the vaunted eroticism of the paintings, it's certainly there. It's present in the slave market scenes and the harem portraits, just as the eroticism of the naked Venuses and Eves is present in the paintings of the Renaissance. The Orientalist critique has revealed the "Oriental" erotic by desacralizing the European art that portrays it, only to mystify the art all over again with a discourse of power. (Some critics harp so intensely on the fascination with harems and slaves that it is easy to forget that these were not Western inventions but Eastern institutions.) Yet even Freud admitted that sometimes a cigar was just a cigar, and it is truer yet that a naked woman is sometimes just a painting.

Still, suppose one successfully subtracted imperial consumer fantasies from the discourse of power created by the Orientalist critique. Who then would become the subject of that discourse? Obviously, it would be the practitioners of the critique itself, because their discourse would end up describing not the culture's original consumers, but rather the culture's contemporary interpreters. It would be, in other words, about the critics themselves and what they think they see in these paintings.

Thus, their interpretive narrative would cease to be about consumer power fantasies, and begin to be about critical submission fantasies. This narrative would no longer center on male Eurocentric superiority, as expressed in sexual terms, but instead on the intellectual's fear of insecurity and alienation, also as expressed in sexual terms. In sum, the Orientalist critique would cease to describe a system that, it maintains, the West uses to "manage" its relationship with a despised East, and stand revealed as being a system used by critics to "manage" their relationship with a despised West.

But that's supposing one can subtract the consumer from the Orientalist trade. Sometimes one cannot. The case against the stereotyping of Arab TV characters as either violent or vulgar, for example–best made by Jack Shaheen in a plain-English study titled The TV Arab (1984)–is undeniable, and is an effective indictment of both the producers and the consumers of such stereotypes. But one doesn't require either Said or Lacan to make such a case; Shaheen mentions neither. By contrast, the Orientalist critique has built its imposing edifice on the problematic roles played by the "exotic" and the "erotic" in the West's imagination. To those critics, these are entrances to vicarious power over Islam, and exhibits of guilt. Those who actually consumed works steeped in the exotic and erotic, however, may have regarded them as exits from the ordinary, including the ordinary Middle East. The Orientalist cultural critique may well have begun with the rich narrative of the West's imperial fantasies. It may just as well be continuing with the equally rich fantasies of the academe.

However important the implications of the Orientalist critique of culture, its effect on Western political discourse has become more immediately consequential. We have already acknowledged at least one praiseworthy consequence that can be attributed, in part, to the critique: the banishing of negative stereotyping and tendentious demonizing from coverage and discussion of the mass murders in New York and Washington. But what has taken the place of stereotyping and demonization? Unfortunately, it has not been an understanding of the relationship between the West and the world from which the murderers emerged; it is, rather, a denial of any relationship at all. Indeed, it is a denial that the murderers have emerged from an identifiable world.

The murderers have regularly been portrayed by media and political figures as isolated fanatics whose actions and motives are at odds with mainstream Islam, which is invariably praised in fulsome terms. There is certainly no denying the many striking aspects of Islam, which in its 14 centuries has generated and nurtured a particularly appealing mystical tradition (Sufism), an enormous and often breathtaking body of poetry, and a history of tolerance that, despite some notorious exceptions, is nonetheless a good deal more impressive than was Christendom's record prior to the secularization of Western societies.

But locating Islam's contemporary mainstream is not a simple task, and cannot be accomplished in the subordinate clause of a Times op-ed piece. That mainstream is a matter of continuing contention within the Islamic community, itself divided into major sects and riven by competing teachings. Indeed, the history of Islam, like the history of Christianity, can be read as a struggle over orthodoxy. Early in Islam's history, for example, orthodoxy was strongly influenced by the Greek rationalist texts being translated by Islamic scholars. Caliphs adhering to this rationalist Mu'tazilite tradition actually subjected fundamentalist theologians to an inquisition in an attempt to wipe them out. Today, a major contender for orthodoxy is the 250-year-old Wahhabi movement, a puritanical and confrontationist interpretation whose spread through the Islamic community, in the United States and elsewhere, is being underwritten by the wealth of the Saudi regime.

In any event, it is futile for the president, the attorney general, or The Washington Post to pronounce on Islam's mainstream; that is a pressing issue that Muslims themselves must now confront and determine. (Deciding for Muslims what the Koran means is in fact an aspect of true Orientalism.) Worse, the attempt by Western elites to define Islam actually obscures the situation in which the United States and the West find themselves. That is because one of the major factions contending for that mainstream has been the "Islamist" movement. This movement rejects secularism and conceives of Islam as a political ideology as well as a source of faith. An attempt to grapple with modernity, the movement dates back to the 1940s, and has achieved power in Iran and elsewhere. In recent decades, adherents in Algeria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia have adopted violent means to destabilize the current regimes and bring themselves to power. Their intent is to effect a utopian revolution in social values. The primary enemy of many Islamists is the United States, not only for its alliance with Israel, but because America's seductive and pervasive secular culture undermines their revolutionary goals.

Islamism is not a simple phenomenon; it takes many forms. But those who perpetrated the murders of September 11 are adherents, as are many of those who welcomed the news of so many American deaths, whether in open celebration or in a private sense of solidarity with the attackers. It is obviously vital for Americans–emphatically including American Muslims, hundreds of whom were killed in New York–to confront that form of Islamism that is not merely opposed to aspects of American policy, but has so utterly dehumanized the citizens of the West.

That is where the Orientalist political critique becomes significant. Its practitioners have spent a quarter-century sifting through the sins committed by the West against the East, a rich and often ugly lode. But the critique's point has never been to clarify and improve relations and mutual perceptions. For many critics, the point has been to condemn the West, often by dissecting its imagination. As for examining the East's imagination, to see if it too was cluttered with stereotypes, misconceptions, or other detrimental concepts, that simply was never a sustained part of the critique. Worse, if other scholars did inquire into the dehumanizing trends that may have been present in the East, those scholars were likely to be labeled "Orientalists," an epithet that eventually became tantamount to "racist," and which served to marginalize them in the world of respectable scholarship.

This has turned out to be an agenda with consequences. What makes those consequences worth pondering is what made the critique both pressing and valuable to begin with. That is, Orientalist issues were worth addressing not only for their own sake, but because the East-West encounter has been increasingly problematic for the United States and the nations of the East, with explosive political, military, economic, and cultural dimensions for them all.

If the critique could have provided a better conceptual framework for addressing those issues, it would have been the right critique at the right time. But if the critique merely devised a one-sided apologia about Western sins and sinners without addressing similar issues in the East, then it would have proved merely another adventure in failed left-intellectual rationalization. Worse, if the critique ended up marginalizing or even delegitimizing others who did attempt to address the East's potential problems, it would have left its subject in a poorer state than it found it. It would have helped shape a West debilitated by guilt about its past, yet with no useful framework for understanding those who hate Westerners enough to murder them en masse. Given acts of mass murder by persons whom Reuters News Service refuses to term "terrorists," given a president who seeks inclusiveness while surrounding himself with various controversial Muslim spokesmen, given an intellectual class here and abroad that has been suggesting empathy with mass murderers, the West's conceptual approach to this crisis is at least open to question.

Of course, there are outspoken critics of certain political and anti-Western trends in Islam, and many of them, like Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, have access to major media outlets. Some occupy distinguished academic chairs, and many have published extended inquiries into the principles and practices of Islamism. However, they are usually considered hostile to Islam by what has become the academic mainstream. Some critics of Islamic culture and society have indeed been given to sweeping generalizations and overstatements about the East, but then that is just as true of their West-bashing critics. The problem, as is apparent from the post-attack discussion about the East, is that they have been pushed from the intellectual center of the debate.

Take the case of Daniel Pipes. He is the editor of the Middle East Quarterly, and has published widely on Islamist issues–especially its anti-Western antipathy–even as he has fended off continuous personal attacks on his motives. Indeed, shortly after the murders in New York and Washington, The Los Angeles Times published excepts from 10 authors who had recognized the magnitude of the terrorist danger, and who had predicted, in some sense, such an event. Pipes, unlike any of his critics, made the list.

Yet in the weeks following the murders, the term "Islamism," never mind an understanding of the complex movement it described, was almost entirely absent from the ceaseless discussion. Why? Politically, the U.S. wished to avoid all mention of Islamism in the interests of coalition-building. Intellectually, confronting Islamism would run counter to the feel-good discussion about Islam that emerged from Western guilt. Yet it is a simple enough matter to make a distinction between Islam as a community of believers, and Islamists as utopian revolutionaries capable of mass murder. After all, Islamists have been killing people in Egypt, Algeria, Israel, Russia, and elsewhere for many years. They'd already murdered hundreds of Americans. Now they've slaughtered thousands more. Even so, it never entered the debate. The West's enemy remained "terrorism," the tactic, not Islamism, the idea.

By contrast, many practitioners of the Orientalist critique have tended to dismiss the term "terrorist" as a usage of Western propaganda. Said himself wrote in Orientalism that "terrorist" was a label used to describe those persons unwilling to obey Israel's orders. After the fall of Soviet communism, Susan Sontag observed that the consumers of Reader's Digest turned out to have been better informed about the communist nightmare than were the readers of the more respected The Nation. Who was better prepared to understand what was happening on September 11: students of the Orientalist critique, or the readers of the scorned neo-Orientalists?

Orientalism, the systematic stereotyping and degradation of Easterners that dehumanized them in the eyes of the West, enabled the colonial powers not only to mistreat whole populations, but also, in some of the West's blackest moments, to slaughter them in horrifying numbers. What makes it possible to commandeer passenger planes filled with innocent travelers, including children, and use them as bombs to murder thousands of people in office buildings? It is a systematic stereotyping and degradation of Westerners that dehumanizes them, and makes their death a pious deed for some and a cause for celebration for others. It is Occidentalism.

The phenomenon of Islamic Occidentalism has received almost no attention from the academe, and less from the Orientalist critique. The term exists in academic discourse, but there is not even a consensus about its meaning. To some, it describes the process by which the West flatters itself in positive terms. For others, it is the process by which people of the East, especially the Far East, idealize the West and overlook its flaws. There are few scholars to whom the term suggests a process by which an Easterner might utterly misconceive the West and its citizens, much less do them an injustice.

One scholar who has begun to study Islamic Occidentalism, based on years of work with the Egyptian women's movement, is Dr. Nadje Al-Ali, a social anthropologist who teaches at the University of Exeter. Al-Ali is careful to note in her work that Occidentalism is not, in her view, the equal of Orientalism so much as a reaction against it. Only last April, Al-Ali organized a scholarly conference in Britain that attempted to provide the study of Occidentalism with some theoretical structure. In the meantime, she has written that the phenomenon is "part of a political ploy," in that "it uses available cultural categories to gain symbolic advantages for 'the self,' and to handicap 'the other.'" It has resulted in what she calls the construction of "an imperialist, corrupting, decadent and alienating West."

If you attach that description to an empowering eschatology and arm it with explosives, you end up with something very like an angry Islamism contemplating its "corrupting, decadent and alienating" enemies.

While a serious, sustained study of Occidentalism lies in the future, its content will not turn out to be a mystery. It draws on the same sources of belittlement and dehumanization from which hatreds–including Orientalism–have always drawn. Indeed, its outlines are visible in the documents of extreme Islamism.

For example, critics of Orientalism have generated an enormous literature addressing the West's reduction of the East in erotic terms. But the Occidentalist murderers and their celebrants have developed a parallel discourse that addresses Western women in terms of erotic corruption, immorality, and decadence. According to some news accounts, Osama bin Laden is reported to have been especially disturbed at the presence of American women soldiers in Saudi Arabia, Islam's most sacred ground.

Critics of Orientalism have accused the West of drawing on negative imagery dating back to the Crusades in addressing contemporary political issues. But Occidentalists are capable of precisely the same rhetorical act. In fact, the murderers evoke the Crusades directly. Bin Laden's 1996 fatwa calling on Muslims to kill Americans actually refers to Americans without irony as "Crusaders." (In the wake of the September 11 attacks, President Bush referred to the developing anti-terrorism campaign as a "crusade," purportedly committing the sin of insensitivity. Bush unwisely used the term in its generic sense, but that somehow received more attention than has bin Laden's repeated use of the word as a specific historical accusation.)

The critics of Orientalism have charged that the West has traditionally portrayed Easterners in terms of cravenness, contrasting their supposedly boastful-but-cowardly natures, for example, to the stoic courage of Israeli troops. Yet bin Laden's documents are suffused with charges of American cowardice, based on the U.S. government's decisions to pull troops out of Beirut and Somalia following unexpected casualties. Public statements by Mullah Muhammed Omar, head of Afghanistan's Taliban, drew on the same trope when he accused Americans of lacking the bravery to come to that country.

The same critics of Orientalism have long accused the West of depicting authority in the East in terms of a distorted concept of "Oriental Despotism." There are entire studies of this one subject (the most exhaustive is Alain Grosrichard's 1979 work, The Sultan's Court). But Occidentalist notions of power in the West are not merely distorted; they are crazed. They are dominated by an obsessive conspiracism that sees hidden plots–usually Jewish plots–everywhere. While the Orientalist trope of despotism reduces the Easterner to a slavish figure unconcerned with his freedom or rights, the Occidentalist trope of conspiracy reduces the Westerner to a witless puppet manipulated by unseen hands (while simultaneously absolving the Occidentalist of any responsibility in his own political failures). Despite the enormity of the role played by conspiracy fantasies in the Eastern political imagination, there is only one full-length study of the issue in English: Pipes' The Hidden Hand: Middle East Fears of Conspiracy (1996).

Nadje Al-Ali may be quite right when she argues that these and other aspects of Occidentalism are "deeply informed" by an awareness of Western attitudes and constitute a response to them. But that is not their whole function. Like conspiracism, Occidentalism appears to play a scapegoating role for some, "explaining" Eastern political failure by positing a satanic foe and extending the revolutionary struggle against him, just as Orientalism played an exculpatory role justifying a brutal Western colonialism.

Occidentalism of this sort thus becomes quite useful, because the unavoidable fact is that Islamism has proved a failure. Far from establishing a benign, new relationship between rulers and people along traditional theological lines, political Islamism's most notable characteristic is repression. As the author Olivier Roy argued as long ago as 1992, the two models of Islamism from which to choose are the Saudi model of "revenue plus sharia" (the Islamic code of law) and the Sudanese model of "unemployment plus sharia." But Islamists cannot think that way and continue their struggle. Occidentalism provides part of that struggle's continuing justification.

In fact, the Orientalist critique may have played an indirect role as well. Islamism's failure is only the latest in a string of Eastern political failures that now extend over half a century. The East's own scholars have yet to confront this history in a sustained way. Rather, they have engaged in an Orientalist critique of their own, often drawing on the arguments of Western thinkers and blaming their problems on the West. Western scholars might ask themselves to what degree their work is less a critique of Western power than an enabler for Eastern failure.

One of the more interesting observations made in the wake of the murders is that "There isn't a single Islam: there are Islams, just as there are Americas." That is an invitation to ponder more carefully this global confrontation of values. Some Islams, perhaps like some Americas, offer the prospect of shaping identity through faith in a world of roiling choice. Others may invite the prospect of terror and blood. All parties burying their dead throughout the world would do well to consider the numerous dimensions of their struggle, and the numerous dimensions of their foe.

Who wrote of many Islams and many Americas? It was Edward Said, in his Observer essay. Would that he had said so to begin with.