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Daily RC Article 97

Redefining Orientalism: Edward Said's Call for Cultural Authenticity and Objective Understanding


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Edward Said's evaluation and critique of the set of beliefs known as Orientalism forms an important background for postcolonial studies. The Orient signifies a system of representations framed by political forces that brought the Orient into Western learning, consciousness and empire. The Orient exists for the West and is constructed by and in relation to the West. It is a mirror image of what is inferior and alien ('Other') to the West.

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The first 'Orientalists' were 19th century scholars who translated the writings of 'the Orient' into English, based on the assumption that a truly effective colonial conquest required knowledge of the conquered peoples. ... The most significant construction of Orientalist scholars is that of the Orient itself. What is considered the Orient is a vast region, one that spreads across a myriad of cultures and countries.

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Said argues that Orientalism can be found in current Western depictions of 'Arab' cultures: as “irrational”, “menacing”, “untrustworthy”, “anti-Western”, “dishonest”... These notions are trusted as foundations for both ideologies and policies developed by the Occident. Said writes: 'One would find this kind of procedure less objectionable as political propaganda - which is what it is, of course - were it not accompanied by sermons on the objectivity, the fairness, the impartiality of a real historian, the implication always being that Muslims and Arabs cannot be objective, but that Orientalists ... writing about Muslims are, by definition, by training, by the mere fact of their Westernness.'

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Said calls into question the underlying assumptions that form the foundation of Orientalist thinking. A rejection of Orientalism entails a rejection of biological generalizations, cultural constructions, and racial and religious prejudices. It is a rejection of greed as a primary motivating factor in intellectual pursuit. It is an erasure of the line between 'the West' and "the Other". Said argues for the use of 'narrative' rather than 'vision' in interpreting the geographical landscape known as the Orient, meaning that a historian and a scholar would turn not to a panoramic view of half of the globe but to a focused and complex type of history that allows space for the dynamic variety of human experience. Rejection of Orientalist thinking does not entail a denial of the differences between 'the West' and 'the Orient', but rather an evaluation of such differences in a critical and objective fashion. 'The Orient' cannot be studied in a non-Orientalist manner; rather, the scholar is obliged to study more focussed and smaller culturally consistent regions. The person who has until now been known as 'the Oriental' must be given a voice. Scholarship from afar and second-hand representation must take a back seat to narrative and self-representation on the part of the 'Oriental'.

Edward Said's critique of Orientalism unveils how the West constructed the Orient as an inferior 'Other.' Orientalism, prevalent in Western depictions, perpetuates biased views of Arab cultures. Said challenges this, advocating for a rejection of biased generalizations, prejudices, and greed-driven intellectual pursuits. He urges a shift from panoramic visions to nuanced narratives, emphasizing the need for authentic self-representation and focused, culturally sensitive studies to understand 'the Orient' objectively.
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