Mon Dec 11, 2023
December 11, 2023

Birth and evolution of Orientalist discourse: a Marxist appraisal

Besides serving to interpret the world, the speech is a tool for transmitting ideologies. It also serves to legitimize and explain the actions of social classes, which generally act in defense of their interests. When it is related to relationships of domination, between classes, states, civilizations or people, one’s speech plays the role of supporting and reinforcing the status quo, while other’s is fighting the order. Wars are also wars between different stories, between speeches opposing each other; major clashes between civilizations have been always followed by stories on which they are based.

Emergence and expansion of Islam

The great monotheistic religions rely on historical, mythical and legal stories that offer a particular interpretation of the world and rules of human behavior. Some religions have an expansionist character while others don’t. Among expansionist monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam are the most important, being the third, obviously Judaism.

Islam emerged in the seventh century AD and is still expanding tremendously, becoming something more than just a religion. It is rather an egalitarian worldview that seeks to unify all the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula under one power. 

However, the oligarchs of Mecca are concerned with the possibility of losing power. The egalitarian message of this young Muhammad and especially his anti-aristocratic irreverence are capable of undermining the foundations of a hierarchical and non-egalitarian world. (Chebel, 2011:18)

Both Islam and Christianity have important points of contact, such is so that, from a sociological point of view, it is considered that there is a thread of continuity between them. In many times, both religions have coexisted harmoniously, in others, however, harmony was not the rule. The expansion of Islam raised eyebrows in the Christian world. 

First Persia, Syria and Egypt, then Turkey, then North Africa; fell to the Muslim armies; in the eighth and ninth centuries Spain, Sicily and  parts of France were conquered; in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries Islam ruled as far east as India, Indonesia and China. And to this extraordinary assault, Europe could only respond with very little except fear and a kind of awe. Christian authors witnessing the Islamic conquests had scant interest in the learning, high culture and the frequent magnificence of the Muslims, who were, as Gibbon said, “coeval with the darkest and most slothful period of European annals” (but with some satisfaction he added: “Since the sum of science has risen in the West, it should seem that Oriental studies has languished and declined”). (Said, 2014:93)

The first major response of the Christian world to the spread of Islam were the Crusades; European armies were organized to invade the territories of the Muslim empire on the Biblical lands and whose objective was to take Jerusalem from the Arabs.

This violent reaction of Catholics was in exorbitant proportions, not only because of the military threat represented by Islam, but also due to the technical and cultural superiority that this ascendant empire represented at that time regarding a still fragmented and divided Europe under the rule of a parasitic nobility and a corrupt Catholic Church. 

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, during the reign of his ancestor Harun al-Rashid, the caliphate had been the world’s richest and most powerful state, its capital (Baghdad) the center of the planet’s most advanced civilization. It had a thousand physicians, an enormous free hospital, a regular postal service, several banks (some of which had branches as far eastern as China), an excellent water-supply system, a comprehensive sewage system, and a paper mill. Indeed, it was in Syria that the Occidentals, that until their arrival in the Orient used only parchment, learned the art of manufacturing paper from straw. (Maalouf, 2012, p. 97)

The papacy did not encourage the Crusades only to retake the Holy Sepulchre, but also to rid mankind of a cult that “exalted ignorance, cruelty, slavery, despotism and was an enemy of civilization.” (Gil Bardají, 2009) It was not simply a territorial issue, which was undoubtedly part of the problem, but a war between two narratives, two ways of feeling and perceiving reality. 

(…) But the Crusades are the point of departure of all persecutions of those who do not profess the same faith, through this monument to intolerance that was the Inquisition, following the depredations and genocide by the Spanish, Portuguese, English, French and Dutch in the Americas, Asia and Africa between 1500-1900, and culminating in the holocausts of Stalin and Hitler, Hiroshima and Vietnam, without forgetting the massacres perpetrated against the Armenian (1915-1923) and Algerian (1948-1960) peoples – that have unhinged our XX century. (Elia, undated, p. 12) 

Renaissance, bourgeois revolutions and colonial expansion

Renaissance, the maritime expansion to the Americas, the liberal revolutions (mainly the French Revolution), the industrial revolution and the formation of nation-states in Europe brought – mainly to the British and French empires in the nineteenth century – a period of major technological, economic, political and military progress, starting a colonial expansion that had as one of its consequences the dominance of maritime trade in the Mediterranean and of trade routes to India. 

France extended its rule over Tunisia in 1881, Britain occupied Egypt in 1882, Italy seized Libya in 1911, and the European powers consented to a Franco-Spanish protectorate over Morocco (the only North African country to have preserved its independence from Ottoman rule) in 1912. (Rogan, 2009, p. 109)

All these events unrolled during 3 or 4 centuries, the period of consolidation of the capitalist system in Europe and its subsequent expansion in search of markets, labor and raw materials. For lack of space we cannot explain in detail all these great events of human history, marking the beginning of the decline of the Islamic world and European dominance over the world.

The colonization of North Africa rose strongly in the nineteenth century, as in the previous centuries the major European empires were busy stabilizing their countries, who had lived several revolutions, and consolidating the technological and economic advances represented by the industrial revolution. Spain and Portugal, in turn, already had their colonial possessions in America and lived by theft of gold and other natural resources. 

Colonies were established for economic and strategic purposes. It was expected from them to provide tropical products to the metropolis and serve as a market for their manufactured goods, while providing settlement for its citizens and a source of investment for its bourgeoisie. In addition, empires were regarded as civilizing missions that would spread Christianity and raise native culture to the standard of Europe. (Allen, 2013, p. 104)

Two requirements were necessary to accomplish the ambitious colonial project. First, to build a discourse that would legitimize the colonization. Second, to study and codify the societies that would be ruled. It is in this context that the Orientalist discourse appears.

The period of immense advance in the institutions and content of Orientalism coincides exactly with the period of unparalleled European expansion; from 1815 to 1914 European direct dominion expanded from about 35 percent of the earth’s surface to about 85 percent of it. All continents were affected, none more so than Africa and Asia. The two greatest empires were the British and French; allies and partners in some things, in others they were hostile rivals. In the Orient from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean to Indochina and Malaya, their colonial possessions and imperial spheres of influence were adjacent, frequently overlapped, often fought over. But it was in the Near Orient, the lands of the Arab Near East, where Islam was supposed to define its cultural and racial characteristics, that the British and the French encountered each other and the “Orient” with the greatest intensity. (Said, 2014: 7)

Orientalism is, following this reasoning, linked to economic and political power structures of European elites which in turn needed to build, in the more “scientific” and objective way as possible, at least in appearance, a discourse to identify the enemies of the civilization they used to lead and which they wanted to expand.

This European expansion is part of the step of forming nation-states and the building of their national identities. The success of the project largely passed by the characterization of the ‘other’, the ‘strange’ and ‘barbaric’, because, after all, as important as knowing who we are, is to know who we are not.

Orientalism is based from the beginning in abstract generalizations about an alleged Oriental character, as opposed to the Western one. Being a mental representation, the idea of the East, this ahistorical geographical and cultural space, is static; unlike the West, which in turn is dynamic, changing, historical and diverse.

However, the ‘academic’ orientalists were not concerned to analyze the reality, but to seek the aspects of reality that fitted their theories and prejudices, although there were only few aspects that matched them, totally unrepresentative of the societies in question.

The objective of the Orientalists was to “save Orient from the Eastern peoples,” who were nothing more than barbarians beings and unable to govern themselves; by the exaltation of a remote Oriental Greco-Roman epoch. These alleged Greco-Roman roots, that is, the existence of some points of contact between East and West, would allow these backward Oriental civilizations to have hope for the future.

According to Said, Orientalism is primarily an academic discourse created and developed by anthropologists, sociologists, historians, philologists, etc. In a more general way, Orientalism is also a style of thought that is based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between the “Orient” and the “Occident”, that is, the way of thinking the “Orient” developed by poets, novelists and philosophers, as well as by politicians, economists and imperial administrators. Finally, roughly since the late eighteenth century, Orientalism is a ‘corporate institution for dealing with the Orient – dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views about it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it; in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over it’ (Said,2014: 3). (Gil Bardají, 2009)

Studies on Orientalism have the American-Palestinian lecturer of English and comparative literature at Columbia University (New York), Edward Said, as a theoretical reference. In 1978 he published his most important work: Orientalism.

However, there are a number of contemporary authors who criticize some aspects of Said’s work and try to update it following the new developments in North Africa and the Middle East known as the Arab Spring.

Of the many definitions of Orientalism outlined above we are particularly interested in the latter, claiming that it is an academic discourse used with specific purposes by a certain social class: the European industrial bourgeoisies, centrally the French and British.

Orientalism as a discourse has become one of the more powerful tools to submit some countries to the European colonial enterprise, at first, and to US economic domination in the current days.

Modern Orientalism

The figure of ‘Arabist’, very common in universities, governments and mass media; refers to a (generally non-Arab) expert in societies that were part of the Arab and Ottoman Empires.

In most of the institutions that use to study the “Arab world”, the number of Arab voices is quite a minority in relation to non-Arabs, verifying one of the major premises of the Orientalist discourse. Arabs are unable to represent themselves.

The ‘Arabist’ is the person who, due to the mere fact of having spent much of his career studying Arabic, feels entitled to issue judgments about the Arab society, the Arab politics, Arab history or the ‘Arab mind.’ (Gil Bardají, 2009)

The debate on Orientalism, present in the discourses of the mainstream mass media in Europe and the US, remains relevant nowadays because, although humanity has lived strong decolonization processes in the second half of the twentieth century, there remains an economic and political dependence of these developing countries (or semicolonial) to developed countries (or imperialist).

Orientalism forged in the US since the second half of the twentieth century differs from the European in the sense that the current Orientalist (the area specialist, as he is now called, according to Said) “lays claims to regional expertise, which is put at the service of government or business or both” (Said, 2014: 285).

He is not merely an expert in literature, but a sociologist specialized in a particular region of the planet. The Middle East has become a strategic region from a political and economic point of view, no longer a mere opponent from the religious point of view, as was previously the case.

In 1973, during the anxious days of the Arab-Israeli war, the New York Times Magazine had requested two articles, one representing the Israeli side of the conflict and other the Arab. The first one was commissioned to an Israeli lawyer, the second to a former US ambassador to an Arab country without training in Oriental studies. (Said, 2014, p. 387)

Israel and the need to convert the Arab into anti-Semitic

The creation of the state of Israel was accompanied by the need to convert the Arab into anti-Semitic. According to a study of how Arabs are portrayed in American textbooks, “the strongest link is the hostility – their hatred – for Jews and the state of Israel” (The Arabs in American Textbooks,quoted by Said, 2014). The Arab then becomes anti-Semitic and oil supplier and jihadist.

On the other hand, the Orientalist discourse, to be associated with power relations between West and East, takes different forms according to the needs of the moment. If previously it was necessary to characterize the Oriental as a backward, mysterious and exotic being, the current economic relations require the description of the Arab as a dangerous being; potential irrational terrorist, intolerant and extremist. This vision became abundant in the mainstream media, especially after the emergence of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

After the 1973 war between Palestinians and Israelis, the Arabs began to take shape as a threat. They were “Semitic,” had all the characteristics of cartoon, and were also the “cause” of the problems that plagued the West – the lack of oil. Anti-Semitism was transferred from Jews to Arabs. The “Arab” is considered as a disturber of the Western plans and an obstacle to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. (…) The prototype of a Jew previous to Nazism, says Said, has unfolded. On the one hand the colonizing Jewish hero who takes on the role of pioneer Orientalist, in the manner of a Burton or Lane. [1] On the other his terrible shadow appears to us as Oriental Arab. (…) The Arab is now an anti-Zionist oil supplier. (Said, 2014, quoted by Cabrera, 1997)

Orientalism in the mass media

The Orientalist discourse has entered strongly in the mass media, whether film, radio, television or newspapers. The academic discourse serves as a theoretical basis for the construction of speeches used by the mainstream mass media to describe Arabs and convince public opinion in relation to a set of stereotypes that have little to do with reality.

The major newspapers belong mostly to big media corporations producing legitimizing discourses of the current social order and defenders of political/economic special interests: the capitalist system in its current decadent and parasitic epoch.

The documentary by Jack Shaheen, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, explores more than one hundred years of creating degrading and stereotyped images of Arabs by the big American film studios.

Such persistence in spreading prejudices (the documentary analyzed over a thousand movies) contributed immensely to the naturalization of prejudice and totally distorted perceptions on various Arab peoples. This is a great demonstration of how the Orientalist discourse has grabbed the contemporary public opinion.

Critique of Said’s Orientalism

To analyze Orientalism, Said employs Foucault’s notion of discourse and power to identify Orientalism (Said, 2014: 3). Studies by the Palestinian author are based primarily in the field of literary analysis and discourse, by examining the ideological bases of the Orientalist discourse.

Throughout the decades following the release of his masterpiece (Orientalism), a significant number of critical studies of his work were published. The most serious criticism which is accepted by Said is that he does not propose different categories from those he criticizes, i.e.; despite the well-founded criticism of the artificial separation between Occident and Orient, Said indirectly assimilates these two categories, by not proposing any other that can be used to analyze Europe (Occident), and the Arab world (Orient).

Another important criticism is that Said is too “Westernized” due to his strong “British” training in Palestine and Egypt, and the decision to continue his academic career in the US. On the other hand, the literature used in Orientalism is mostly European. There are few Arab authors quoted by Said.

Gilbert Achcar not only says Said suffered too many influences of the British and American academies, but that uses little the vast cultural arsenal of Western philosophy.

On the other hand, apart from a small reference to Weber and Marx countless rejections by being Orientalist, there is little discussion in the book of Said on the vastness of Western philosophy and social theory corpus. (Achcar, 2013, p. 1375)

According to the professor of the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), Orientalism is based on the European essentialist methodological and philosophical idealism on the assumption of the idea that the fate of a civilization is strongly anchored in its culture, especially religion, which permeates and explains all aspects of the civilization. For Achcar, the study of religion is born out of the clash between bourgeois pluralist relativism and ideological monopoly of Christianity. (Achcar, 2013) It’s lacking in Said’s work an approach of the social relations between classes existing in a society, limiting his study to a purely cultural debate within the framework of ideas.

These criticisms, largely fair, don’t reduce the importance of Orientalism for the political, cultural and academic world. This is one of the great works of the twentieth century. For some, the author is the founder of what would become the postcolonial discourse.

Said’s book played a very important role and it was certainly not by simply being an academic piece. Quite the contrary: it was exactly the huge controversy caused by Orientalism that made ​​it a landmark in the history of ideas. (Achcar, 2013).

Finally, we summarize what seem to be the most important characteristics of the Orientalist discourse.

The most important features of Orientalist discourse

  • The Orient is treated as an ahistorical geographical and cultural space.
  • It underestimates the cultural development of the Middle East and North Africa peoples.
  • It uses the values ​​of modern European liberal democracies to value the political regimes in the region called Orient.
  • The Arabs are unable to govern themselves.
  • It gives to US and European powers the role of promoter of democracy in the region.
  • It characterizes most of the Arabs as being extremist, jihadist, oil supplier and anti-Semitic people.
  • The Arab nation-states born out of the colonial era are not viable because they are a boiling mix of ethnicities, religions and sects.
  • The media broadcasting an Orientalist discourse do it by means of “experts” on Arab world and not by Arab pundits living in the country analyzed. This does not mean that Arab people can’t equally express Orientalist elements in their speech or, conversely, that no-Arab people can’t make a non-Orientalist discourse.

 [1] Two early Orientalists, cited by Said



Achcar, G. (2013). Marxism, Orientalism, Cosmopolitanism. London: Saqi Books.

Allen, R. C. (2013). Global economic history: a very short introduction. Oxford University Press.

Almarcegui, P. (2014). Orientalismo y post-orientalismo. Diez años sin Edward Said. Quaderns del mediterrani (20-21), 231-234.

Cabrera, H. (March 15, 1997). Web Islam. Accessed on June 17, 2015, Orientalismo: En torno al discurso de Edward Said

Chebel, M. (2011). El islam – Historia y modernidad. Madrid: Paidós Contexto.

Elía, R. S. (Sin fecha). La civilización del islam. Pequeña enciclopedia de la cultura, las artes, las ciencias, el pensamiento y la fe de los pueblos musulmanes. Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Gil Bardají, A. (2009). Orientalismo, treinta años después. La Torre del Virrey, revista de Estudios Culturales (7), 61-66.

Maalouf, A. (2012). The Crusades Through Arab Eyes. London: Saqi Books.

Said, E. W. (2014). Orientalism. New Delhi: Penguin Books.

Rogan, E. (2009). The Arabs. A History. London: Penguin Books.

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