Orientalism: What It Is, And How It Made It Easier To Dominate A Continent


Orientalism is the way Western media and scholars interpret and describe the Eastern world, from a supposedly objective point of view. It is a concept that is associated with the criticism of how the West came to create a story about Asia that legitimized its invasion and colonization.

In this article we will see what orientalism has consisted of and how it has been the cultural arm with which the West has dominated Asia, especially the Near East and the Middle East. according to theorists such as Edward Said, famous for making this concept known

The origins of orientalism as an idea

Authors linked to the Asian continent and Arab culture have actively denounced both the perspective on Asia that is disseminated in first world educational centers and the stereotypes associated with the East transmitted by the media. Edward Said, theorist and activist, expressed these criticisms in his famous works-essays. Orientalism and Culture and imperialism.

According to Said, Western society has learned to refer to the inhabitants of Asia by appealing to a concept of “the other”, the unknown, something that establishes a moral and empathetic border between these people and the direct heirs of European culture Unfortunately, this is the position that much European orientalist scholarship has taken.

Missionaries, explorers and naturalists who entered the East to examine it created many new works, but they also imposed an external vision on the cultural heterogeneity of Asia. Even those called by curiosity for the strange, made it easier to draw the line between us and the they turned eastern societies into an enemy to defeat and conquer whether to protect the West or to save the Asians and Arabs from themselves.

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The civilizing story

In a way that escapes any reason, since the time of Roman rule, there has been a certain need on the part of the great empires to “civilize” the eastern peoples, to help the barbarians develop to survive in optimal conditions. The story that has been constructed since the 18th century in history books regarding Orientalism has been, sadly, one of domination.

No matter the author or the intellectual condition of the writers or narrators who speak about Asia through Orientalism, they all follow the same descriptive pattern: associating everything that is done there with the bad habits of the foreigner, the savage, the infidel, of the underdeveloped… In short, a simplistic description is made of the people of Asia and their customs, always using the characteristic concepts of Westerners, as well as their scale of values, to talk about cultures that are unknown.

Even if the exoticism of the East is praised, these peculiarities are talked about as something that can only be appreciated from the outside, a phenomenon that is not so much a merit of the orientals as a trait that has appeared in an unsought manner and that can only be appreciated from the outside. Ultimately, Orientalism separates Orientals from what they could be proud of.

It could be argued that the binary narrative of the Western vision regarding the Eastern world, the “us” and the “others”, has been at least negative for the people of Asia, especially if another race is associated with it. The Western point of view, which proclaims itself as the possessor of truth and reason, cancels any possibility of reply on the part of the observed It is that imaginary strip between the West and Asia imposed by Orientalism that has allowed a distorted vision of the strange, of the unknown, so that this simplification makes it easy to conclude that it is an inferior culture.

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The legacy of the orientalist story

For scholars specializing in orientalism such as Edward Said or Stephen Howe, all the analysis, exploration and interpretation that emerged from Western encyclopedias, especially English and French, meant a clearing of the ground for the legitimation and justification of the colonialism of the time The expeditions to Egypt, Syria, Palestine or Turkey served to prepare reports favorable to a potential political-military intervention in the area: “we have the duty to govern them for the good of the civilization of the East and that of the West above all else” said Arthur James Balfour in 1910.

This was one of the speeches that represented the role of England in the colonial era of the 19th century, seeing its influence in the Maghreb and the Near East in danger as a result of growing local nationalism (Arab, African, Ottoman) and tensions over resources. economic activities in the area such as the Suez Canal. What was supposed to be a dialogue between West and East, turned out to be a political tool of occupation by the European powers.

Eveling Baring, the so-called “master of Egypt”, crushed the popular nationalist rebellion of Colonel Ahmed al-Urabi (1879-1882) in the name of the British Empire, and shortly afterwards, he gave another speech of dubious impartiality: “according to the knowledge and Western experiences, tempered by local considerations, we will consider what is best for the subject race. Once again, it is incurred without any type of modesty or remorse.

Edward Said’s criticism

A fully orientalist debate would not be understood without mentioning the Palestinian scholar and writer Edward W. Said (1929-2003) for his work Orientalism. This essay meticulously describes the clichés and stereotypes that have been built over the last centuries on everything oriental, Arab or even Muslim. The author does not make a study of the history of the East, but rather uncovers the entire propaganda machinery of “ideological clichés” to establish a confrontational relationship between East and West.

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In both the 18th and 19th centuries, the dichotomy of “us and the others” was coined, the latter being the inferior civilization that needed to be controlled by a central power from Europe. The era of decolonization was a setback for the interests of the historical powers leaving them orphaned of arguments to perpetuate interference in the interests of the East.

Consequently, Western conservative propaganda once again confronted two cultures with an unequivocally warlike term: “the clash of civilizations.” This clash responds to the legacy of orientalism to endorse the geostrategic plans by the superpower of the United States, especially for legitimize the military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq

According to Said, an element that distorted and simplified an entire set of cultures was once again put in place. The value given to the perspective of orientalism was well recognized by his fellow European citizens, who supported any “civilizing” action towards those lands that are so far away. The Italian writer Antonio Gramsci makes another assessment of all this “Western truth” and proceeds to deconstruct his theories. For the transalpine, American anthropology aims to create a homogenizing story of culture, and this has been seen time and again throughout history.