An Analysis of Orientalism by Edward Said

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Critical Thought Paper 1: Orientalism

In Orientalism, Edward Said discusses the many aspects of the term “Orientalism,” including its origins, the primary ideas and arguments behind Orientalism, and the impact that Orientalism has had on the relationship between the West and the East. He quotes Joseph Conrad for the proposition that conquering people who are different from us is “not a pretty thing.” It needs an “idea” to “redeem” it. Said’s concept of Orientalism helps define the “idea” that provides a political, economic, moral, and socio-cultural justifications for imperialist actions by more dominant countries such as the United States. In Iraq, this “idea” is that the United States is a more advanced, civilized, and productive nation that is trying to assist a less civilized country with inferior citizens that is being torn apart by civil war. We are seeking to bring Iraqis the “gift” of democracy. Said’s concept of Orientalism asks us to consider whether the United States is motivated by more selfish and imperialistic notions that motivate foreign intervention and our self-affirming “idea.” Orientalism in his view is primarily about power and a feeling of superiority. Because the Occident has superior people with a superior culture, we deserve to be in control. We justify our forceful intervention in other countries and protection of our own interests on the ground that it is “good” for the inferior Oriental people. Said asks us to consider whether intervention by force is the most effective way to positively change a nation, or whether there might be more peaceful and effective ways to help countries in the Orient achieve their own self-determination in their own ways.

Many reasons explain the need for conquest of the Orient. These reasons essentially fall under four categories: political, economic, moral, and socio-cultural. Politically, the English Empire was highly important to the Queen. She wanted to expand her powers and sovereignty, which in turn would provide more legitimacy to the thrown. Economically, the imperial economy ran on the “gifts” of the conquered colonies. Thus, an incentive existed to find a new land, take it over, and seize its riches. In Orientalism, Edward Said quotes Leroy-Beaulieu “Colonization is the expansive force of a people; it is the power of reproduction; it is its enlargement and its multiplication through space; it is the subjection of the universe or a vast part of it to that people’s language, customs, ideas, and laws” (219). Here, the “expansive force” is literally the English imperialism over the Orient. Leroy- Beaulieu intends the “reproduction” to mean the spreading of ideas, social cultural, etc.

This “reproduction” ties directly into the moral issues of conquest. Morally, Christian missionaries sought to bring peace and understanding to the native people before colonial governors and administrators physically entered the Orient’s boundaries. They believed this would prevent revolt and maintain peace through the land. However, the missionaries’ tasks were questionable and often viewed as real missions to convert the Oriental people to Christianity. Socio-culturally, it was imperative for England to maintain its “superior self” attitude and continue to add to its already impressive history of achievements – a sort of résumé. The English argued that the supremacy of its empire lies not in its military occupation, but in being able to recognize such an occupation. The legitimacy of the empire lied in its moral and intellectual approaches to occupation. These approaches began with the acknowledgment of a civilization whose time had passed. Thus, the English felt it their “duty” to carry the burden of leading this land, the Orient, to a new beginning – a new civilization. In doing so, they implemented English culture and ideals on the Oriental people. A group called the “Brown Sahibs” emerged who in essence were brown-skinned (Oriental)...
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