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Analysis: Orientalism and political dichotomy

Globalization is no new concept, and exploration into cultural worlds beyond one’s own is no new practice. Improvements in transportation and communicative technologies in recent centuries, however, have allowed for the unprecedented migration of peoples and ideas. During this time, the West arose as the dominant political power and the shaper of nations around the remainder of the globe. The demonym “Westerners” is largely used to establish a dichotomy against the historic “Orient,” as defined in Edward Said’s eponymously named work, and denotes an intellectual, societal, and economic superiority between the two.

After encountering the work, my perception of the West as the shining city on the hill was dismantled, my respect for the development of these Eastern nations in the wake of post-colonialism grew, and it became increasingly clear to me that the West, as Said stated, needed Orientalism “as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” In short, it provided the West with a self-reassuring identity relative to the world it subjugated.

The semi-myth of Orientalism and its assumed inferiority has waned with the economic rise of the East, independent of Western influence. But the West remains intent on doling out aid that is of little use to these now-rapidly developing nations. I have realized my own biases to the West in terms of moral superiority and quality of life, despite my parents’ cultural influences from a nation considered to be a part of the Orient; I conflated the stories of my parents’ childhood difficulties and poverty with general societal and economic inferiority in an entire region.

I was initially struck by how this word, Oriental, existed to encapsulate geographic areas often lumped together by colonial, cultural, and religious legacies in the Near East. The Oriental semi-myth propagated among Westerners the ideas that Muslims are modal Orientalists, and “distinctions between the type – the Oriental, the Semite, the Arab, the Orient – and ordinary human reality” were consequently effaced. I say “semi-myth” because Orientalism is a construct, but it has permeated into the depths of Western perception of the Arab world and South Asia.

It also explains to me the philosophy with which Western leaders approached Eastern suppression: “[Balfour] does speak for them in the sense that what they might have to say, were they to be asked and might they be able to answer, would somewhat uselessly confirm what is already evident: that they are a subject race, dominated by a race that knows them and what is good for them better than they could possibly know themselves”. The construct arose of the “native” and the “settler” following European colonialism within the physical spaces of the Orient, from North Africa to Southeast Asia.

In his work “Wretched of the Earth,” Frantz Fanon breaks down how the native is defined by the colonist: “For it is the settler who has brought the native into existence and who perpetuates his existence. The settler owes the fact of his very existence, that is to say his property, to the colonial system.” Fanon put into words the same phenomenon Said would describe decades later, at a time when Franco-Algerian relations were reaching a climax. This observation deepens my respect for Fanon and convinces me to entertain his argument of violence’s effect against a colonial oppressor for the right to self-determinate.

Examples of nonviolence are often raised to acknowledge its feasibility, but Fanon subtly underlines this by raising the task of the common man in earning a compromise with colonial oppressors. Fanon further elaborates that violence is a key aspect in the perpetuation of the Oriental mindset: “The violence with which the supremacy is affirmed and the aggressiveness which has permeated the victory of these values … the native laughs in mockery when Western values are mentioned in front of him.”

Another work that critiques the very systems the West touted as a beneficiary to the “Orient” would be Kishore Mahbubani’s “Case Against the West.” Mahbubani exposes the inherent futility of organizations like the G-8 in that they perpetuate ideas of a “western savior” complex.  

The World Bank, for example, provides funding for countries with extremely low rates of GDP, a theoretically useful system to provide developing nations with economic assistance, but countries like Ghana have begun to capitalize on the aid and now work to keep their GDP values low. These organizations prove the West’s inability to adapt to structural problems in the 21st century, as though they may redeem centuries of exploitation through the institutionalization of morality. Modern interventionism continues this trend.

The shock of American troops at the lackluster response from Muslims in the region when the United States invaded Iraq and executed Saddam Hussein “… highlighted the gap between the reality and what the West had expected would happen after the invasion … [American and British] approaches were trapped in the Western mindset of believing that their interventions could lead only to good, not harm or disaster.” This “led them to believe that the invading U.S. troops would be welcomed with roses thrown at their feet by happy Iraqis.”

Nearly two decades later, popular American sentiment is still defined by the assumption that the Iraqis should have been grateful to us. This lack of culpability admitted by Western leaders invokes the automatic assumption that figures who are displeasing to our society are inherently evil. It also allows for the continuation of neo-imperialism and the exploitation of developing countries under the guise of societal betterment. The invasion of Iraq became baffling and embarrassing to most Americans, and I find that it makes rebuking the middle-school mentality that the United States was attempting to aid unfortunate farmers in an obscure part of the world much easier.

The decline of the Oriental philosophy in terms of how the East defined itself has presented a challenge to Western identity: this 12% of the global population now contends with the intensification of regional identities outside of “the East.” Edward Said shed light on this and the unrecognized problems encountered in the post-colonial era with his book and opened the door for unprecedented scrutiny upon the nations, such as in Europe and the United States, that once convinced the world they were inherently necessary to any other nation that wished to prosper.

While these Western nations remain the economic leading powers, the East is rising and redefining itself. China, India, Azerbaijan are just a few of the many. I do agree that the post-Oriental world is socially struggling to define itself, but the struggle is unique in that has evolved to be free of the West in the way it once was.


Learn more

The Guardian – Twenty-First Century Orientalism

Al Jazeera – Edward Said’s Orientalism: Forty years later

Economist- The Notion of an East-West Split in the EU is Simplistic and Defeatist

Aena Khan ’22 is a prospective International Studies Major from Yonkers, New York with interests in both domestic and foreign policy. She has interned with the New York State Assembly and currently serves as Senator for Strategic Planning for the Class of 2022.

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