Orientalism, Us, and Islam

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by Neil Godfrey

One of the most influential publications of the twentieth century was Orientalism [link is to the Wikipedia article on the book] by Palestinian born American scholar Edward Said. The book has been translated into 36 languages and said to have revolutionized Middle Eastern studies in the U.S. Naturally, as with any major revolutionary work that challenges conventional ways of thinking, it has had its critics. I single out here some of Said’s commentary on Western attitudes towards Islam that I believe stand as valid today as they were when first published in 1978 and expanded in 1994. My own comments are in blue italics.

The principle dogmas of Orientalism:

  1. The absolute and systematic difference between the West, which is rational, developed, humane, superior, and the Orient, which is aberrant, underdeveloped, inferior.
  2. Abstractions about the Orient, particularly those based on texts representing a “classical” Oriental civilization, are always preferable to direct evidence drawn from modern Oriental realities.
  3. The Orient is eternal, uniform, and incapable of defining itself, therefore it is assumed that a highly generalized and systematic vocabulary for describing the Orient from a Western standpoint is inevitable and even scientifically “objective.”
  4. The Orient is at bottom something either to be feared (the Yellow Peril, the Mongol hordes, the brown dominion) or to be controlled (by pacification, research and development, outright occupation whenever possible).

Every one of those dogmas has come through loud and clear in the the writings of Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne and others, as well, of course, in many recent comments on this blog. We do not have to get to know or learn about Muslims from their own writings or history; we only need to pick up the Koran to see our suspicions and fears confirmed.

Islamic Orientalism accordingly believes there are still things such as “an Islamic society, an Arab mind, an Oriental psyche.”

It makes no difference whether we are talking about a situation in Bangladesh or events in Egypt, Palestine, Afghanistan or Bedford. The world is facing a threat from a singular religious belief system that threatens Western civilization.

Every facet of societies in the modern Islamic world is anachronistically interpreted through texts like the Koran.

Islam, or a seventh century ideal of it constituted by the Orientalist, is assumed to possess the unity that eludes the more recent and important influences of colonialism, imperialism, and even ordinary politics. Clichés about how Muslims . . . behave are bandied about with a nonchalance no one would risk in talking about blacks or Jews. At best, the Muslim is a “native informant” for the Orientalist. Secretly, however, he remains a despised heretic who for his sins must additionally endure the entirely thankless position of being known — negatively, that is — as an anti-Zionist. (p. 301)

I consider Orientalism’s failure to have been a human as much as an intellectual one; for in having to take up a position of irreducible opposition to a region of the world it considered alien to its own, Orientalism failed to identify with human experience, failed to see it as human experience. (p. 228)

If anyone dares to suggest that colonialism or national political factors have had anything to do with the troubles we see expressed by anyone who can also be identified as a Muslim, they are dismissed as naive, haters of America, apologists for terror.

Islamic Orientalism makes “reductive, negative generalizations” about Islam. It presumes “that Islam is a unitary phenomenon, unlike any other religion or civilization”, “antihuman, incapable of development, self-knowledge, or objectivity, as well as uncreative, unscientific, and authoritarian.” Islam is “monolithic, scornful of ordinary human experience, gross, reductive, unchanging.” It is “one prototype of closed traditional societies.”

How often has this been the base line of what I think can rightly be called Islamophobia. There is only one Islam and all Muslims are potential instruments of acting out or quietly supporting its most extremist manifestations.

Islam can signify all at once, “a society, a religion, a prototype, and an actuality.” “Each of the many diverse aspects of Islamic culture could be seen . . . as a direct reflection of an unvarying matrix, a particular theory of God, that compels them all into meaning and order: development, history, tradition, reality in Islam are therefore interchangeable.” In reality, of course, history cannot be reduced to culture and culture cannot be reduced to ideology, and ideology cannot be reduced to theology.

Yet many commenters do just that. What is seen happening in Bangladesh, Egypt, Palestine, France, UK, can indeed by reduced to theology.

Quotes from American textbooks: “few people of this [Arab] area even know that there is a better way to live.” “What links the people of the Middle East together? The last link is the Arab’s hostility — hatred — toward the Jews and the nation of Israel.” “The Moslem religion, called Islam, began in the seventh century. It was started by a wealthy businessman of Arabia, called Mohammed. He claimed that he was a prophet. He found followers among other Arabs. He told them that they were picked to rule the world.”

How many have learned that school lesson well!

The Oriental is imagined to feel his world threatened by a superior civilization; yet his motives are impelled, not by some positive desire for freedom, political independence, or cultural achievement on their own terms, but instead by rancor and jealous malice. (p. 249)

Or by theology that fuels that rancor and jealous malice. “They hate us because of our freedoms.”


Against the role of Islam as a transcendent, compelling Oriental fact, the realities of everyday human experience, of nationalism, class struggle, the individualizing experiences of love, anger, or human work are relatively inconsequential. The diversity among the Islamic countries, whether they are republican, feudal or monarchical, and understanding them in terms of their historical experiences and resistance (both political and nonpolitical) with colonialism, are irrelevant to understanding the nature and motives and mindsets of Muslim nations.

That is, Islam is the dark medieval cloak that is place upon them all and that prevents us from relating to them, or even seeing and understanding them as human, motivated by the same human desires in their everyday lives that motivate us, responding as humans to localized human conditions.

Orientals were rarely seen or looked at; they were seen through, analyzed not as citizens, or even people, but as problems to be solved or confined or — as the colonial powers openly coveted their territory — taken over. (p. 207)

In that light, I suggest, what has changed in recent years is that “the Islamic Oriental” has become all the more threatening and problematic because he has broken out of his place as our submissive colonial subject. He has fought back while those who loathe open political violence have, worst of all, even left their natural place in preference for our own neighbourhoods.

It seems a common human failing to prefer the schematic authority of a text to the disorientations of direct encounters with the human. (p. 93)

How often we told all we need to know about Muslims by what Westerners read in their Koran.

Edward Said
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Neil Godfrey

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27 thoughts on “Orientalism, Us, and Islam”

  1. Every one of those dogmas has come through loud and clear in the the writings of Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne and others, as well, of course, in many recent comments on this blog. We do not have to get to know or learn about Muslims from their own writings or history; we only need to pick up the Koran to see our suspicions and fears confirmed.

    I didn’t have much sympathy for the shellacking you have taken on this issue, and I am even less sympathetic in the wake if the Boston tragedy. Move on for crying out loud!

    1. For God’s sake if you want to really do something meaningful about the hate and violence then get in touch with reality. Learn the facts. Know who and what we are talking about. That’s all this post is asking for. Let go of your visceral bigotry.

      1. NG, I should hope many loyal readers left here are developing their own pet theories about your interesting “muslim” thing… going on now for some time. Please allow me a longish recap of my own experience: At first it does surprise, and then there is observing your manner of reply to anything you’ll cast as adverse. Then comes a re-evaluating the strength of the particular post itself (in order to make sure you haven’t misread it somehow), contrasting it’s claims with all your current and previous work here. I also like to put myself into this Islamophile position you’ve chosen and try to help it with some balance that is purposely being omitted (this is so obvious now, its embarrassing). In the end of any examination like this it will be useless to speak towards the remarks of the other commenters… both for and against mainly because they are not the ones providing the so-called missing ‘truth’ of the post I was honestly reading. Truth can be contrived instead of discovered, and you proved that dictum with too many quality scriptural & theological postings. Finally I’ll infer that some-many-all of the commenters could be part of the experiment as well.

        I would just describe all of this very much like that social experiment where everyone in the room, but yourself (the reader in this case), is instructed to provide the wrong cognitive answer. The only point being: Yes you (the victim) are wrong, because 2+2 does equal 5, if I say so. The reader internalizes this assertion of will (or just when) you’ll be forced to go along with something completely absurd instead of anything remotely logical (say for example “Certainly the prior week in Boston can be perfectly explained as offending Muslim sensibilities”). Well… “Don’t believe your lying eyes” comes quickly to my own mind during such an exercise. And yes this can be especially difficult when you’ve agreed/accepted upon the reality of the room as, formerly, being quite honest. All of this “muslim” thing comes as a challenge to that premise, which is undoubtedly your most important point here in toto.

        Lastly, there is some genius in the selection of Islamophobia.

        Looking at it thusly, and speaking for only myself, it can become intriguing rather than inexplicable to any veteran Vridar readers still left puzzled. Really NG, you might not care very much about the bonds being broken with them, but I’d just like to state the obvious for their sake.

        1. Bunto Skiffler, I believe the room is full of people who believe just as you do. I fear society as a whole is fast slipping back into another dark period of intolerance, ignorance and bigotry. When I come around to thinking the same as everyone else in the room then your point would have been justified.

          My post is there for you to argue with. What is it in my post that you disagree with? What have I said that is wrong? Quote me.

          Jerry Coyne today posted an article that laments the lack of reasoned debate. Yet Jerry himself said anyone who disagrees with his views can kiss his arse.

          What have I said in my post, or any of my posts, that supports your assertion that I am an “Islamophile”? Quote me.

          I have been told my timing is bad with this post. Presumably the same people will suggest that Muslims hide themselves from public view also at this time since they might otherwise offend people’s hatred of all they are convinced “they” adhere to/stand for, even if tacitly. Yes?

          1. “….My post is there for you to argue with. What is it in my post that you disagree with? What have I said that is wrong? Quote me…”

            NG, as per your request I would enjoy the opportunity to explain another position regarding your series of Muslim postings (including some of your own replies to comments contain within them). But I would only do so if my effort would be considered as an entire standalone post for Vridar and its readers, rather than just a too-longish comment that’s buried among the rest.

            I’ll offer an apology beforehand if you see this proviso as inappropriate on its face (I respect Vridar very much after all). But I will only consider such an effort as a posting.

            1. I know readers sometimes want to write comprehensively on their own viewpoints. However, I need commenters to engage with the arguments I present on this blog.

              My invitation was for you to argue with my post, to quote what you disagree with and argue your contrary point.

              I have no problem with lengthy comments that are relevant and adding to the discussion. One recent comment exceeded 2000 words.

              I cannot give a carte blanche agreement to a post on this blog that (1) stands against what I personally stand for, and (2) that I have not yet seen.

              You can post your comment online elsewhere for us all to see. (If you don’t have a blog you can easily create one for free for the sole purpose of doing a post like the one you have in mind.) If you post it as a comment here instead and if I decide to respond in detail I will most likely copy and paste it in a post of mine.

              Are there points in my post that you want to engage with and discuss?

  2. I enjoyed Said’s book very much. A useful antidote to a lot of the knee-jerk anti-islamism of recent years.

    Although I am an atheist, I do recognize that there are many decent believers and that religion doesn’t necessarily turn everyone into an inhumane monster. I for one appreciate your efforts to discuss some of these issues in a less superficial way.

      1. Thanks, mcduff — and to all others who have also expressed their encouraging support. I only wish I could find a way to present the issues in a way that will prise open up a genuine debate with the others. Still working on it.

  3. Thanks for the post, Neil—it needed to be said…..

    Atheists can be a force for good for theists because their criticism can help revitalize and improve religion for the better. When religions improve, those who follow can be better human beings. However this can only happen when we see each other as “family” as brothers in humanity.

    Surah 3 verse 104 “and let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong….”

    People of different religions can also help each other become better human beings by sharing and co-operating rather than alienating each other

    Surah 2 verse 148 “to each is a goal to which God turns him; then strive together (as in a competition) towards all that is good. Wheresoever you are God will bring you together………..”

    rather than fighting over our differences, we can work together to make this world a better place.

    Surah 5 verse 48 (partial) “….To all have we given a law and an open way. If God had so willed, he would have made you all a single people but his plan is to test you in what he has given you: so strive as in a competition in all virtues. To God is your return and he will clear the matters in which you differed.”

    1. Surah 3 verse 104 “and let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong….”

      But anyone who has read the whole Koran knows that when Mohammed speaks of “what is wrong” he means ceremonially wrong, and “what is good” he just means paying the tithe to himself! Murdering unbelievers is NOT wrong according to the Koran; its actually right according to the Koran. Atheists who defend Islam lose all their credibility as atheists: they must be Muslims on Jihad exercising the principle from the Hadiths that it it permissible for a Muslim engaged in Jihad to lie and boldly claim to not even be a Muslim!

      1. I wonder how many here are interested in reading Orientalism for themselves and discussing Said’s own words. Is anyone even interested in what Said himself wrote in response to his critics? Or does it satisfy our heated glands more to read only the hate pages? I had thought Vridar readers were smarter than this.

        From that linked page:

        Orientalism, Said’s bestselling multiculturalist manifesto, introduced the Arab world to the art and science of victimology. Unquestionably the most influential book of recent times for Arabs and Muslims, Orientalism stridently blamed the entirety of Western history and scholarship for the ills of the Muslim world. It justified Muslim hatred of the West, taught them the Western art of wallowing in self-pity over one’s victimhood, and gave vicious anti-Americanism a sophisticated, high literary gloss.

        I challenge anyone who has read Said’s book to find a skerrick of truth in any of the above outrageously false paragraph. If anyone thinks I would even waste time with anything that could be described honestly as such garbage I can only suggest they are reading everything I write with scoffing and disdain and could not bring themselves to even try to understand what I am trying to say.

        Presumably the words of Said I have quoted are uncomfortable, even arousing some anger. So instead of dealing with them rationally and with informed arguments, scurry around the hate pages to find something that sounds delicious to anyone who feels more at ease spreading hatred (for an ideology, of course, not the people).

        It is one thing to dismiss critics of Doherty who clearly have never read Doherty or so culpably distorted his words — after all, we have read Doherty for ourselves and can see right through those sham criticisms. How about a little consistency and applying the same standard to something that really matters?

        1. Neil: “I challenge anyone who has read Said’s book . . .”

          Aye, there’s the rub. That’s like asking an armchair Austrian-school economist to read John Maynard Keynes. Why would they do that when somebody “real smart” whom they agree with has already explained it to them?

          “Why, it’s just common sense!”

  4. When I read an author who writes about things in which I am not an expert and enjoy their work, it always worries me when they move on to a topic I do know something about, in this case the writings of Professor Coyne and Sam Harris, and I find them making very little sense. I begin to suspect that they may be as misguided on the former as the latter, and that I am wasting my time reading them. I have read most of the writings of these two men and I do not recognise them in your descriptions. You keep saying Jerry suggested that all who disagree with him should “kiss my arse,” but you don’t provide a link to this so that we may read it and verify its unreasonableness for ourselves. Much of the rest of your complaints look like straw men to me. There are no quotes or links to things they’ve said that you object to, just your own representations of things you claim they believe. Since I have read the vast majority of what both of them have said and I don’t remember these attitudes at all, I am forced to conclude that you have some other agenda which I don’t understand.

    the Islamic Oriental has become all the more threatening and problematic because he has broken out of his place as our submissive colonial subject

    Well yes, the “Islamic Oriental” has indeed become threatening, not by refusing to be colonised, but by randomly blowing innocent people up. If you think this behaviour is justified and acceptable then I suggest you explain your position. I am forced to conclude that this website is not on the side of reason and evidence, but merely anti-christian for emotional and irrational reasons, and that what you have to say on any topic cannot be relied upon to be properly thought through and supported. It is very disappointing.

    1. I invite any feedback on where I may have misrepresented or misunderstood anything said by Jerry Coyne or Sam Harris. Jerry had — still does have — the chance to correct any way I misrepresented him, but has chosen not to do so.

      I really would love you to tell me what it is in my comments about Coyne and Harris that you fail to recognize in their writings.

      If you believe I have posed straw men then I beg you to point them out to me.

      But I did link to their posts — I usually do — so readers can compare my own take with the words I am discussing. I always try to be careful that way.

      If what I claim about their writings is wrong then quote me where I am wrong. I have no doubt you have a very different view of their writings on this topic from what I have.

      And of course my take sounds alien to you. But that’s one of the reasons we have open debate. If I am misguided and there is no validity to my interpretation then make your case. If I thought I had nothing to say that was different from what everyone already thought then I would be wasting my time saying anything.

      I am most sorry you have missed the point or failed to comprehend the one key point of this post when you speak of a singular entity, “the ‘Islamic Oriental'”. There is no such person. He only exists in the nightmares of the poorly informed. I made allusions to enough things to surely make this point. It is the same sort of fear that is taking over western society that we have seen too often in the past and that brought down upon us nothing but pain and shame when it was all done.

      If you believe I am not well informed about the Middle East, Islam, Islamic nations and their histories, I can assure you that I am more widely and deeply read than Coyne or Harris on these things. I have written some detailed posts in the past, and may write more in the future. Or it would be easier for me to direct you to your own reading of reputable scholarship and research. Said’s “Orientalism” is not a bad place to start, actually.

      I am most dismayed, even offended, at your insinuation that I should have any sympathy for terrorism whatsoever. I cannot believe you have read any of my comments or posts with any calm attempt to understand the arguments I have been making. This is the sort of black and white / either-or thinking that I am trying to break down!

      I am also mystified that you call this an anti-Christian blog after the several times I have addressed that question and keep my responses readily available in the About Vridar page.

      If what I say cannot be relied upon, I beg you to produce the evidence that overturns the arguments I have been trying to make.

  5. This comment belongs here, I think, because I do not want it to be removed from the very crucial context of Said’s critique above. It needs to be posted on Jerry’s blog, too, of course, but it is long. Maybe an extract will appear there . . . .

    Dear Jerry,

    I am at the point of wanting to weep over the ignorance, the generalizations, the bigotry of your words. I really like the subtitle of the New Statesman piece that you discuss: “The atheist community is right to pursue rational, civilised debate, and should be able to do so without being tarred as bigots.” I agree. I would love nothing more than a rational, civilized discussion with you on this issue but you have already suggested that anyone who disagrees with your view can follow Chris Hitchens’ directive and kiss your arse. When you posted a reference to my earlier blog post you did not engage in discussion with any of my points of argument at all — yet there was a great opportunity for you to have pursued rational, civilized debate.

    I’m not going to try to defend my own posts here, except to say that critics like Godfrey can take a number, get in line, and, well, you know the rest. . . — Jerry Coyne, Islamophobia again. “Well, you know the rest . . .” links to Christopher Hitchens saying: “My own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, any place, any time. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line, and kiss my ass.”

    Jerry, for starters you miss the real meaning of a phobia and narrow the word “Islamophobia” to those who “simply hate adherents of Muslims as people, and wish to deny them rights or discriminate against them legally”. (You thus ignore the meaning of the term as I and others have expressed it.)

    I have no doubt you don’t “simply hate” Muslims “as people”. But what do you mean, exactly? “As adherents of Islam”? Or you only hate Nazism but not Nazis. Is that the sort of thing you mean? You are a scientist. We have a right to expect clarity and rigour.

    In your opening paragraph you do say that these adherents/people adhere to “invidious tenets” and that these adherents/people “continue to pillage, kill, and push their women into sacks . . . ” You also appear to have a very limited access to media outlets and have come to believe that most Muslims don’t deplore murderous crimes by Islamic extremists, apparently because they are fearful they will be murdered, too.

    So it does get pretty hard, you must understand, to know exactly how it is you are not at least fanning public hatred for “people” (all of them? most of them?) who do this sort of thing and/or believe it’s all okay and/or who are too cowardly to raise voices in protest. You do insist on talking about a single entity you label “Islam” and all who are its adherents — as if they are all one body, one faith, all expressing the invidious tenets of their faith with different degrees of honesty.

    You say you don’t wish to deny Muslims (collective — all of them) rights or to discriminate against them legally. That’s encouraging. But what do you believe, then, is the solution you would like to see enacted? That we should somehow arrange for there to be no Muslims at all, everyone deconverts? How? That sort of change usually comes through denial of rights and legal discrimination.

    So what is it you want to see as a solution to the problem? More wars? Nuke Iran? Round up Palestinians into tiny bantustans or walled reservations? Congress making laws in respect to religion? All Muslims to stay indoors for a month when an extremist commits a crime? Should they all be made to wear placards to prove their sorrow and shame? Should they all be confined to Muslim quarters or be returned to the homes of their ancestors where they won’t know any better way of life and remain subservient to authoritarian powers friendly to us?

    Or do you merely want to continue to call for a blanket condemnation of all of Islam and all of its adherents for either committing evil acts or “enabling” those crimes through “intimidation or cowardice”? Where do you envision such a battle cry leading? What is it you believe we should realistically do?

    You say “those who cry “Islamophobia” refuse to engage the atheist arguments against the perfidy of that faith. Well, recently I did refer to what I called Islamophobia and you remarked upon my post. In that same post I did engage with your arguments. In your response you failed to engage with mine. The reason, it appears, is that my argument did not accept your opening premise. Well, let’s discuss that opening premise. That’s what my post was about. Let’s pursue a rational, civilized debate. Or will you repeat to anyone who does not accept your beliefs that they can kiss your arse?

    You quote from William’s article: “Cannot we not agree that the real issue is whether the critiques of Islam proffered by today’s prominent atheists are correct? . . . But what signal is sent by a refusal to permit the issues to be even debated?”

    Yes, we can agree that the real issue is whether the critiques proffered by today’s prominent atheists are correct. That’s what I was discussing in my post. You did not see fit, however, to pursue a rational, civilized debate. What signal is sent by a prominent atheist who refers his readers to Christ Hitchens’ telling those who don’t agree to k. . . . . . ?

    You say that your views are “wholly consistent with observation.” Yes, they are. I agree. My point, though, is that what you are observing is only the tip of the iceberg. If you think that that statement is a cover for justifying terrorism then I invite you to learn otherwise through the pursuit of rational, civilized debate.

    You cite Williams, “apologists and liberal writers who nevertheless consider that Islam shouldn’t have to answer these charges . . .” I would be interested in knowing exactly what Williams/you mean by apologists and liberal writers? Are these the same people Williams and you are calling upon to pursue rational, civilized debate? If so, are Williams and you yourself responding to their arguments with honest discussion? Do they really say “Islam shouldn’t have to answer [charges] of criminal acts]”? (I always thought criminal acts were committed by persons and persons needed to answer for their crimes.) If you believe these “apologists” have falsely labelled you an Islamophobe then can you clarify through coherent and consistent arguments why that term is wrong. If it is not helpful, then I for one am willing to avoid it and use something else, but it would help if you could offer a coherent case that acknowledges what your willing debating partners are actually saying. Are Williams and you really prepared to pursue rational, civilized debate with anyone on this issue?

    With whom do you want to pursue that debate? Whom do you have left to debate after you dismiss those you and Williams label “apologists and liberal writers” for arguing a case you do not like?

    You lament those whom you say “dismiss [the new atheists] without addressing the substance of their arguments.” I did address the substance their arguments. No rational or civilized debate followed. Someone did write in to say Islam was shit and so am I. Many have repeated and expanded upon their own arguments. But I am still waiting for an actual debate.

    “There is only one Islam. And all Muslims are guilty either directly or by association.” That’s the message I’m hearing from you. And the solution that that message conveys is left ominously open. To plead for understanding of what’s happening the way we understand ourselves and our societies through our own historical and contemporary experiences is to be invited to k . . . . . With whom do you really want to pursue a rational and civilized debate?

    This is a most painful, and truly dangerous business. I see no interest in rational debate. Those who want debate are excoriated in your posts.

    1. An excellent letter – it seems that the ‘civil and rational debate’ called for is only to be held with folks who agree, in which case it’s not so much a debate but an echo-chamber.

  6. “He found followers among other Arabs. He told them that they were picked to rule the world.”

    Where do they get that idea from? I have never seen it in any formal description of Islam, whether written by a Muslim or not.

        1. That’s the point. They learned it from popular prejudice, fancy, folk-tale beliefs. They made it up, assuming it to be true. Like people today who believe that adherents of Islam are by virtue of their religion potential terrorists (or enablers of terrorism) trying to take over the world.

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