“Orientalism” is a way of seeing that imagines, emphasizes, exaggerates and distorts differences of Eastern peoples and cultures as compared to that of Europe and the U.S. It often involves seeing their culture as exotic, backward, uncivilized, and at times dangerous.
One of Edward Said’s central ideas in Orientalism is that knowledge about the East is generated not through actual facts, but through imagined constructs. These constructs imagined “Eastern” societies as fundamentally similar and sharing the characteristics that are not possessed by “Western” societies. Said argued that such knowledge was and is built through literary texts and historical records which are often limited in terms of their understanding of the authenticity of life in the Middle East. He further said that a long tradition of false and romanticized images of Asia and the Middle East in Western culture has served as an implicit justification for Europe and America’s colonial and imperial ambitions.
How did this happen?
Said outlined a theory where Orientalism arose out of a need for the West to define itself as the opposite of a counterbalancing entity. Europe found this counterbalancing entity in the crusades to be the East. The West found itself in positions of political and military power over what it saw as the East and subsequently used this power to subjugate it. Once a tradition of superior values of the West and a static view of the East developed, the tradition solidified. And it was and is difficult to break free of these constructs. However, we have the ability to make our own history and help remove these stereotypes from society.
Therefore, it is necessary for groups of people to speak for themselves and create discourses of their own history. They must share and dialogue with other people groups with the goal of true knowledge of the other and not merely political and “scholarly” knowledge.
Orientalism provides a critical theoretical framework through which people can explore numerous issues including: participating in systems of inequality, affirming commitments to social justice, and supporting those harmed by stereotypes and oppression, particularly those viewed as coming from the East. Conceptually, it also helps people make sense of certain types of knowledge construction associated with cultural competence, negative perceptions of Arab and Muslim women, aspects of international social work, Islamophobia, anti-Arab sentiments, speech, and practices, and more.
So, how can we overcome this issue?
I think as a society we must realize and accept that people everywhere are just as good or bad, just as varied, and have the same fundamental needs and concerns, as people everywhere else. We all live and breathe on the same planet, Middle Easterners are not aliens from far away, they are human beings, just like “us” Westerners. That is the biggest, and first, step to overcoming Orientalism . Additionally, educating yourself and encouraging those around you to do the same about this lens will help grow awareness to avoid the consequences and move past it.