Orientalism, Occidentalism and Westoxification.

 

The terms above are bandied about in Middle East academic circles. The one that is almost ubiquitous in any recent book or article about the Middle  East is “orientalism.” In the general usage of the term today, it means viewing the Middle East  or non  Western world in a stereotypical fashion.  Allegedly this is a “colonialist” attitude  taken by the early (and some modern) scholars writing about Islam and the Middle East. It has come to mean that these scholars, wittingly or unwittingly, wrote in a denigrating manner attitude toward the people of the Middle East. It has been  so identified primarily by the American writer Edward Said in his famous (notorious?) book “Orientalism.”  Today to label a historian in Middle East academic circles  an “orientalist.” is to diminish or dismiss his ideas and writing. It is a pejorative term.  Edward Said ( now deceased) has  created a huge school ( or cult)  of thought in academic circles that today often views any caustic criticism of the Islamic or Arab world as “Orientalism.”  In the post modernist world of  half – baked political ideology it has become lumped together with “racism.”

Orientalist literature

some of my Orientalist  library

 

This is ironic because were it not for the mostly British and French Orientalists we would almost nothing about Middle Eastern or Arab history. and what we would know would be gleaned mostly from “made for TV” melodramas.    Not so surprisingly, Many of these orientalist  scholars were, in some degree, sympathetic or empathetic toward  Islamic and Arab culture. Two  world famous  British historians., Arnold Toynbee and Edward Gibbons were  very critical of Christianity and  Western  civilization, especially Gibbons, and quite sympathetic to Islam.

guillaume

One of my favorite Orientalists

Although I have read the politically correct versions of Islamic and Arab studies by people like Karen Armstrong, John Esposito  and Reza Aslan, I found them to be  vanilla pablum.  One of the things I find most irritating  (in addition to their hagiographic, syrupy  views of early Islam)  is their  way of prefacing their presentations   denouncing Islamist terrorism and then preceding to  long explanations or apologias as to why they  murder  the innocents.  Their tepid denunciations are hardly convincing.

The book that anyone interested in this needs to read is Robert Irwin’s For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies. It is one of the most readable of books, yet  erudite and witty. It was a pleasure  to read . Especially appealing to me is his sense of humor – an almost unknown trait among the anointed ones of the intellectual class.  Almost thirty years after the Edward  Said Orientalist book appeared,  Irwin  had the courage to take on its shoddy scholarship and prevarication. Irwin wrote , “To put my cards on the table at this early stage, that book ( Orientalism, my note)) seems to me to be a work of malignant charlatanry. in which it is hard to separate honest mistakes from willful misrepresentations.”

irwin

a great book to tread for enjoyment and knowledge

Said disparaged all the great Orientalists such as Edward Lane, David Margoliouth,  Ignaz Goldziher, Theodore Noldeke, Edward Browne, The American Duncan MacDonald, Maxime Rodinson, Gustav Grunebaum, Philip Hitti,  Rapheal  Patai, Elie Kedouri, and of course the bete noire of Edward Said, the late and great Bernard Lewis. One has to notice that many of the Orientalists were Jews, and despite their vociferous denials, there is a great deal of latent anti – semitism bubbling up among the Said cult followers. There are many things that the far right and far left have in common,  and one is anti-  semitism    (somewhat more skillfully disguised as anti -zionism among the lefties.)

All the above does not mean that  there is not a great deal of abysmal ignorance and misrepresentation of the Islamic world and the Arabs.  There is. I read it every day.  Edward Said could have done a great service to us all had he aimed at Hollywood and main stream journalists, especially those who often extolled  the butchers of the Arab world such as Hafez Assad, Saddam Hussein,  and their  great favorite,  Abdul Nasser.  In instead of excoriating  the Orientalists who struggled  for decades to bring knowledge and appreciation of the East to the people of the West,  Edward Said,  who was a formerly literary critic, should have taken on the more recent works of would be Middle East “experts,” and target their incoherence and  basic inability to write lucid English.  Like many Western journalists too many  Middle East scholars seem  more interested in “making a difference” (pushing an ideological viewpoint) than truth.

One of the great advantages of reading the works of the Orientalists is their ability to write cogent and elegant English, as opposed to the opaque, murky rivers of words written by the post modernists which serve to cover a lack of substance.

Within the East, a counter-movement to Western Orientalism has more recently emerged. It is the term Occidentalism. It is a dehumanizing stereotypical view of the West, including the modernity and values. Generally it is a view held by the elite or quasi-educated intellectual class, and part of the tenets of faith that comprise the belief system of the Islamists. However, It is by no means confined to the Middle East .

Orientalism : The West in the Eyes of its Enemies is a small book which explains occidentalism and expands on the subject of its origins and what feeds it in the modern era. Written by Ian Baruma and Avishai Margalit, two Israeli writers, it will of course be dismissed because of the writers’ origins. But it is a very succinct exposition of the growing phenomena of occidentalism within the East, and especially in the Middle East, (although it originated with the Japanese).

Occidentalism

a small but important book

The Middle Eastern  elite basically ignored  the West from the time of the Crusades to the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon in 1798. For a  brief period after World War I,  some  of the elite advocated emulation of Western literature and political systems, but with the end of World War II, Stalinist/socialist models competed against the “Return of Isl;am,”  as so presciently observed by Bernard Lewis.  As we see today, with very few exceptions, the Southwestern Islamic world is ruled by tyrants using stalinist methods covered by a pastiche of   convenient Islamist tenets .  Both Stalinism and Islamism share a common totalitarian ideology.

assad with saddam

The Butchers of the Middle East. Gone but still admired by many

As the authors point out occidentalism  can be found everywhere, not just the East. One symptom of this  is the phenomena of Western citizens departing the comforts  of the West to live close to the earth joining organizations such as the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and the ISIS. Many  Western people are  disenchanted with the gross materialism of the West and the declining faith of its people in anything remotely spiritual. Devout Christians have become an object of ridicule among the elite,  who tell them what and how to think through their control of education systems, traditional media, social media, literature, and the entertainment business.  History tells us that man lives not by bread alone, notwithstanding the current zeitgeist.

As Hilaire Belloc , the French -Anglo satirist,   wrote in  typical British tongue in cheek fashion,

When men of science find out something new

We shall all be happier than the day before

Islamism, like communism, and fascism, presents a  belief systems that is  particularly appealing to the  disenchanted elite and lost souls. Its power and promise of power are irresistible  to those seeking something more than the shallow but comfortable lifestyle glorified  by our sources of information and education systems.  With the erosion of a religious belief system  a comfortable life becomes the ultimate goal,   that of living an unchallenged pleasant life style.  It is part of our American humanism that we believe  man craves freedom. As Erick Fromm correctly observed , man craves not freedom but escape from freedom.  Choices are difficult.  So for decades  we have seen  the trend of Americans happily  giving up  personal freedom in exchange  for the cozy “benefits” offered by the State in a socialist form, or more insidiously and palatable, for the hoi polloi,  in a crypto-capitalist appearance.

“Westoxification” is usually associated with eastern elites who adopt or admire the Western civilization, or at least aspects of it. The Islamists and radical leftists of the Middle East view this as the greatest sin of all.  The originator of this term, Sayyid Muhammed Taleqani, an Iranian “revolutionary Islamist,”  saw the West as promoting the new “Jahaliyya” ( the era of ignorance)  because they not only worship other Gods but ignore God altogether. Naguib Mahfouz, would be seen as one “westoxified” as he admired some Western classical literature and almost paid for his “sin” with his life.

The really tragic aspect of this is  the veracity of Solzenitsyn’s  speech at Harvard in 1974 in which he castigated the liberals  and intellectuals for leading a Western world into a moral morass, incapable or unwilling to stand up for the values of our democratic republic.   Solzenitsyn  said,

“A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today. The Western world has lost its civic courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, in each government, in each political party, and, of course, in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling and intellectual elites, causing an impression of a loss of courage by the entire society. There are many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life.”

Middle Eastern religious clerics and politicians, who today are near indistinguishable  one fom another, are more vociferous in their view of a declining West and a triumphalist Islamist world.   They have noticed the loss of courage and confidence. This  creates a more dangerous world.

 

 

 

 

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About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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2 Responses to Orientalism, Occidentalism and Westoxification.

  1. TRF says:

    COL: I am going to assign this as reading in my modern Middle East history class this term. Thank you!
    Tim Furnish

    Like

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