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.”
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.
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.”
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).
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.
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.