Posted by: Dawud Israel | November 5, 2010

Occidentalism: Does it exist or How can it exist?

While reading about the Orientalist project one can’t help feel angry and want to retaliate by creating demeaning characterizations of the Occident (Europe and the West- much like the video above). However, I thought about it and realize this would not be a very good idea and I found this answer stated between the lines of Edward Said’s work. It is fascinating and powerful that the answer to the mistakes of the orientalists lie in retrospectively looking at Edward Said’s early works and ideas that have little to nothing to do with Palestine nor Orientalism. Its as if this was the moral buildup to him finding the errors of orientalism.

In literary criticism and its related literature studies one can identify with the characters, their struggles and see something of oneself in them- even if those characters are of a different culture or ethnicity. It is in the common struggles that everybody faces that we can develop and learn through, and connect with one another. Orientalists never looked at the Muslim world nor at Africa nor at China to hear the stories that they may sympathize and relate to. They could never see past the foreign-ness, but all they saw and as many Europeans only continue to see is the superficial. Right at the outset these Orientalists were translating and pronouncing verdicts on ancients texts, stories and myths- rather than, learning from them and dividing and subdividing languages and characterizing them as if they were a newly discovered plant or animal. They didn’t learn much in the ways of historical struggles nor did they take away any of the great lessons the East offers.

This is a crucial difference. What did Orientalists gain? Nothing. All they did is carry books on their backs like donkeys. Huizinga writes, “The historian must always maintain towards his subject an in-determinist point of view…Only by continually recognizing the possibilities are unlimited can the historian do justice to the fullness of life.” (1) Without that objectivity, that indecision, you close yourself off from the possibility of things, and the possibility of learning is foreclosed.

Overall, there is a serious lack of character on part of Orientalists and this is why they failed in benefiting from the Muslim world anything beyond scientific facts and racist generalizations.

Character is what enables the individual to make his way through the world, the faculty of rational self-possession that regulates the exchange between the world and the self; the more cogent the identity, the more certain a course of action. One of the curious facts of history is that it is the compulsive man of action who feels the need for character more strongly than the man who is only on the verge of action. (2)

It was through strength of character that Muslims of the past were able to negotiate their way through the world, through different cultures and different ideas that they never encountered. And today, this is still the case, although it does seem harder not to compromise too much. It is through character that we can continue to retain who we are as Muslims and yet make sense of the unfamiliar and put it in the proper place it deserves: learning. And if we do not, then we risk falling into mentalities of resentment and ‘cultural jealousy’ that Orientalists fell into.

It is also important to realize how connected the Occident and the Orient are to each other. It is not easy to cut the two in half- how would one cut Turkey in half? Or the Muslim Balkans in half? How do you cut off the past from the present and the future from the past? The fact is in many ways we are connected to the ‘unfamiliar’ and it is in this fact that there is an imperative need for us to understand something of those we may not be fond of. Muslims today, are benefiting and learning in every corner of the world. As Said says, “Islam is inside from the start.” What this means is our destinies are tied up with those of everybody else. Said points to Joseph Conrad, the author of the “Heart of Darkness”:

It was Conrad, more powerfully than any of his readers at the end of the nineteenth century could have imagined, who understood that the distinctions between civilized London and “the heart of darkness” quickly collapsed in extreme situations, and that the heights of European civilization could instantaneously fall into the most barbarous practices without preparation or transition. (3)

It is conceivable that glory could collapse, just as it has in the Muslim world or that it could be replaced by calamity and strife, that no matter how refined and cultured or talented a people are- this risk is always upon our heads (not surprisingly also a Quranic warning). And for this reason it is important that we not cut ourselves off from other peoples. The convenient idea of the Islam vs. the West is falling apart today because that is not the reality, because disaster can strike anywhere in the world and then we are left with the question- do we help the Other?

1 “The Claims of Individuality” by Edward Said

2 “The Claims of Individuality” by Edward Said

3 “The Clash of Ignorance” by Edward Said


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