Orientalism

On the 11th of September, 2001, two planes piloted by Islamic extremists slammed into the World Trade Center buildings in New York.  Suddenly Americans cared about Islam, looking to Oriental scholars to explain what had happened to them.  Two of these scholars, Edward Said and Bernard Lewis, have been debating the subject of “Occident vs. Orient”[1] for decades and their opinions have shaped the post-9/11 debate in America.  Said’s and Lewis’ opinions of this matter differ greatly, however.  This paper will look at the fundamental differences in Said’s and Lewis’ arguments about Orientalism and their heated debates on the subject, while attempting to determine who is the more credible authority.

Said’s understanding of Islamic cultures is illustrated in his 1978 book Orientalism.  Although Said looks at Muslim attempts to Westernize just as Lewis does, his book is mostly focused on those who study Islamic countries.  Said believes that Western studies of Islam always show these communities from the lens of colonial bias, ultimately siding with imperialism.  Citing the myth of the “Mystic Orient”, Said shows how these stereotypes are used to subjugate the people in these countries by painting them as inferior.   “An assumption had been made,” Said writes, “that the Orient and everything in it was, if not patently inferior to, then in need of constructive study by the West.” [2]          

Lewis was one of the many to review Said’s book, and he was not complimentary.  Lewis argued against Said’s interpretation of the Arabic words “Tawhid” and “Thawra”, claimed that Said only used obscure scholarship to prove his point, and suggests that Said may have socialist sympathies.  Responses to each other’s arguments, full of vitriol, started to appear in The New York Review of Books.

In 2002, Lewis’ ultimate argument appeared in the press: his book What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Modern World.  As the title of the book implies, Lewis believes that Islam and Modernity do not mix.  In addition, Lewis claims that the reason Muslim countries are so far behind the West is because of their inherent inability to separate politics and religion.  Religion, he claims, has blinded Muslims into ignoring anything that is not bound to their faith, including Western advancements in science and technology.  Lewis claims that “it is precisely the lack of freedom…that underlies so many of the troubles of the Muslim world”.[3]

Perhaps this fundamental difference in belief is what makes the argument between these two scholars particularly venomous.  Essentially, Lewis is everything Said disdains: a Western-born scholar claiming Western superiority over Middle Eastern countries.  Still, Said goes too far when he writes “Lewis’ carelessness in reading English disqualifies him from argument well before we get to Arabic”[4] and “to Lewis, what he writes about ‘Islam’ is all so self-evident that it allows him to bypass normal conventions of intellectual discourse, including proof.”[5] Although Lewis certainly attacks Said’s theories, he wisely leaves the personal jibes at home, leaving him appearing on the surface like the more reasoned individual.

Although Lewis may look reasoned, his book does not hold water very well, especially his claim that freedom is necessary to achieve modernity.  For much of America’s rise to power, Americans enslaved or horribly repressed large populations of their people and were still able to join the global economy.  China is also a country that Westerners would never consider free, yet some estimate that China’s Gross Domestic Product may already be higher than that of the United States.[6]  Obviously, freedom is not a necessary to achieve prosperity.   Also, Lewis’ almost complete reliance on Turkish sources, applying them to the whole Middle East, is problematic.  Still, Lewis backs his claims, staunchly asserting that his theories are always right.  In addition to this, Lewis’ convictions have led him to advise former President Bush about Middle East foreign policy after the 9/11 attacks.  He is so sure his opinion is correct that he is willing to put whole countries on the line.

As a longtime advocate for Palestinian rights, Said is not unbiased himself and may be painting too harsh a picture of Oriental scholars.  In addition to this, Said’s theories have holes as well.  The most glaring of these is how he completely left out the opinions of German scholars in his efforts to examine European study of Islamic cultures, which he freely admits.   This penchant for admitting that his theories have holes is his most redeeming quality, however.  Unlike Lewis’ inability to admit that he may be wrong, Said has declined invitations to advise government officials, wondering “why indeed was there this extraordinary assumption that from my university office I had some special insight into the smoldering twin towers?”[7]  For this attitude, Said is to be applauded.  Ultimately it is Said’s willingness to entertain the criticism of others that makes him the more reliable authority.   In addition, Said has studied his topic more deeply than Lewis, not picking and choosing his data as it fit his thesis but honestly incorporating scholarship from a myriad of sources to support his claims. In Said’s introduction alone, he mentions the opinions of Disraeli, Stevens, Panikkar, Renan, Jones, Nerval, Flaubert, Gobineau, and Marcus, clearly showing his deep knowledge of the field of Orientalism in general.[8]

It is to be expected that this debate will go on.  As long as America is inconvenienced by her bad relationship with the Middle East, scholars will attempt to make sense of it and the Saids and Lewises will continue to disagree.   Although there are flaws to both of their arguments, ultimately Said is the more rational authority because of his wider coverage of the topic and his willingness to admit the imperfections of his work.  Hopefully, more attention will be paid to Said’s theories in the future.


[1] Edward W. Said, Orientalism, (Random House: New York, 1979), Page 5

[2] Edward W. Said, Orientalism, Page 41

[3] Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Modern World, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), Kindle Edition, Locations 2483-90.

[4] Edward W. Said, “Orientalism: An Exchange”, The New York Review of Books, 12 August 1982, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1982/aug/12/orientalism-an-exchange/?pagination=false, (accessed 4 March 2012)

[5] Edward W. Said, Impossible Histories: Why the many Islams cannot be simplified, (Harper’s Magazine, July 2002), Page 71

[6] Tom Gjelten, “Is China’s Economy Already No. 1”, National Public Radio, 21 January, 2011, http://www.npr.org/2011/01/21/133100774/is-chinas-economy-already-no-1, (accessed 4 March 4, 2012)

[7] Edward W. Said, Impossible Histories, Page 69

[8] Edward W. Said, Orientalism, Pages 5-8

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