Orientalism & Colonialism

This essay concerns the ways in which the West conceived of the East, and how history and the academic scholarship contributed to the understanding and estimation of the ‘Orient’. We shall see how the Orient was represented in the Western discourse from antiquity until now, and how various events (colonialism, 9/11 or 7/7) established a specific angle from which the West identifies and transposes itself against the East.

This essay concerns the ways in which the West conceived of the East, and how history and the academic scholarship contributed to the understanding and estimation of the ‘Orient’. We shall see how the Orient was represented in the Western discourse from antiquity until now, and how various events (colonialism, 9/11 or 7/7) established a specific angle from which the West identifies and transposes itself against the East.

One of the core problems of this essay is the influence of such a concept, as Orientalism, most prominently introduced by Edward W. Said in 1978 . Orientalism can be briefly described as a paradigm of the Western conscience that puts the West and the East on the opposite sides of an ontological axis. This concept, however, was only expressed in more detail by Said, though he borrowed to some extent from such authors, as Anwar Abdel Malek and Michel Foucault. The dichotomies like ‘good-evil’, ‘faithful-unfaithful’, ‘civilised-uncivilised’ have often been attracted in order not only to explain the differences between ‘West’ and ‘East’ as categories, but also to predict the way their relationship was going to evolve. The Westerners considered themselves as an embodiment of the good, hence the East always represented the evil that either needed to be purged, or else eradicated. This helps to justify the ontological view of the eternity of conflict between the West and the East, as well as to allow for a continuous evocation of the fear of threat and of the spirit of the Crusades in the Western society.

It is extremely important to bear in mind that the clash of the West and the East, for all its tangible forms, is implanted in a number of presumed civilisational differences. As Edward Said remarks in the Preface to the fifth edition of Orientalism, this clash of civilisations is ‘unending, implacable, irremediable’ Arnold Toynbee had pointed out long ago that a civilisation survives through expansion, which rather often than not takes a form of a military conflict and colonisation. Hence, for the Western civilisation to subsist it, it always needs to have an abstract enemy to fight against or simply to be afraid of, in order to keep its intrepidity and ‘otherness’ intact.

To begin to understand how the Orient is conceived, one has to begin with the geographical dimension of the ‘West’. Before the 20th century it is safe to conclude that the West is territorially located in Europe. With the advent of the USA on the political stage at the end of the First World War, and especially after the Second World War, the boundaries of the West have been significantly expanded. By now the image of an enemy is generated predominantly across the Atlantics, and Europe conforms to this view as much as it has to, being a part of the NATO.

This explains how the Orient has come to mean pretty much anything that is located in the part of Eurasia between the boundaries Europe and Alaska Peninsula. Of course, such a view did not come into being in the last sixty years, and indeed there have been different concepts of the Orient since the times of Herodotus. What is important is that gradually the necessity to impose one politico-cultural paradigm upon another has become a goal in itself. As Said observes, such ‘Western’ concepts as modernity, enlightenment and democracy are not so well agreed-upon ideas as to use them to confront the presumed ‘Eastern’ backwardness, lack of democracy and abrogation of women’s rights. Nevertheless, these concepts are used to explain the supposed cultural ‘betterness’ of the West over the inferior, ‘uncivilised’ East, which includes countries as different as Egypt, Iran, India and even China.

Therefore, when one discusses Orientalism as a quintessence of the Western views of the East one has to consider the historical experience of the two ‘poles’ in order to explain how the West became so hostile and arrogant, and how the East fell over on the other side of the ‘axis of evil’. Here we shall focus predominantly on the encounters of the West with the ‘Islamic’ East, as it is mainly the Near and Middle Eastern region that concerns the West today. This region contains vital natural resources, and has also inherited the long-existing problems in relations with the West that date back at least to the times of the barbaric invasions in the late antiquity.

The Orient has often been symbolic of three things: barbarism, belligerence and, strikingly, charm. While beauty or belligerence more or less excluded the possibility of prejudice, barbarism certainly did not. The first to openly announce their pretence on being cultivated, as opposed to barbaric, were the ancient Greeks. This is important to bear in mind, as in time the concept of ‘otherness’ will come to dwell on the cultural dominance or inferiority.

During the Greco-Persian Wars in the 5th century the Greeks were strongly challenged by the ‘Barbarians’. These wars were not only a comprehensive check on the Greek ability to survive, but they also challenged the Greek cultural unity. One can say that the Western image of a ruthless Eastern barbarian armed to his teeth had begun to be moulded exactly at the time of these wars. This military conflict had been commemorated in many historical narratives, most importantly, Thucydides. The narratives were later to be studied scrupulously, copied, translated and used as rhetorical manuals and the hubs of political wisdom. The magnificent conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC prompted further musings on the barbarism and ruthlessness of the Eastern peoples, conveniently placed within the eloquent praise of the Greek civilisation.

The 6th-8th cc. AD saw the formation of the religion of Islam. Almost from the beginning there were different branches of Islam, but these were ignored by the West, because of the linguistic difference, and also due to an utter fear of the Arabs. The new religion was undoubtedly an indication of the Arabic hostility to the West, since it reinterpreted the Bible, did not hold Jesus as a son of God, and ultimately, was an altogether different theosophical paradigm.

If we look at how the Papacy conceived of itself and its dominion by the time of the First Crusade (1095), we shall see where the future concept of Orientalism and its immediate goals originated from. The Pope embraced all spiritual and, by consequence, political power, which did not extend on to Rome only, but also to Europe and the rest of the world. This papal ecumenism took for granted the fact that those who were not yet a part of the Pope’s dominion, were to be included in it, as this was the God’s will. However, this will was to be accomplished amidst the ‘evil’, which, since the Arabs conquered Jerusalem, was quite naturally associated with the ‘Turks’, a term that became common for all the Arabs, and that was synonymous with ‘infidel’. The idea of jihad that was elaborated during the Crusades was in fact the Arabic response to the Western invasion, but curiously it was the West who would turn tables on the Islamic societies by accusing them of harbouring aggressive intentions.

Even this short sketch gives us the understanding of simplicity which would later become so characteristic of the Western perception of the East. The Ottoman Empire included territories, which varied in history, culture, ethnicity and even religion, and it was this diversity that played such a cruel role in the decline of the Empire in the 19th c. Still, since the counter-Crusades had started in the 14th c. until the decisive battle of Lepanto in 1571 the West would live in a constant fear of the invasion of the ‘Turks’.

The perception of the Ottoman Empire as the nest of evil stemmed not only from the evident belligerence, but also from such factors as religion and culture. Islam, despite its numerous similarities with the doctrines that formed Christianity, as well as from Christianity itself, was a religion in its own right. It was not a sect like Arianism that sprung from the Christian doctrine and could easily be suppressed as a heretical deviation of the mainstream teaching. Islam was different in that it had the same formative influence on the Arabic society, as Christianity had on the society of the Western Europe. The very term that was used to describe the Arabs – ‘unfaithful’ or ‘infidels’ – shows that faith, or religion, was at the heart of problem. To fight against Islam was in fact to fight for the different faith and the Papal ecumenism, for the politico-cultural dominance of one group of nations over another. And since both the Papal theocracy and the Ottoman sultanate were in effect Empires, the purpose and outcome of the war between the two were both justified by the need for expansion.

What is striking in the case with the Crusades is that Europe was very easily falling under the influence of the ‘Orient’. The ‘Orient’ had long been regarded as the Promised Land, or an earthly Paradise, but when the medieval knights finally arrived in the East, they were gob smacked. The Turkish delights included not only gastronomic delicacies, but also such unknown thing in the West, as baths. What were to follow are numerous reports of the knights who stayed in the lands of the ‘unfaithful’, sometimes even leaving their Western families behind.

Despite mutual resentment, the West and the East traded together, and the Papacy was becoming increasingly dependant on its dealings with the Ottoman Empire. The geographical discoveries, European Reformation, the Thirty Years war and the domestic political insurgency on the continent can explain why in the 16th and 17th cc. the West and the East lived side by side without much conflict. The battle of Lepanto had also created a more or less tangible barrier from behind which the two enemies could observe each other. By the 18th c., thanks to the decades of antiquarianism and the beginning of explorations in the natural sciences, a new type of mapping of identity came into being. No more did it stand on the grounds of religious difference – it now resulted from continuous and inquisitive observations of the origins of the peoples in the East, of their history, language, literature, but most importantly, the principles of economy and political institutions. As Francis Bacon would put it later, knowledge was power, and to conquer the East and to keep it subjugated was possible by one means only – by knowing it.

Edward Said, however, brilliantly showed that ‘knowing’ often meant ‘creating’ . In the process of ‘translation’ of the Eastern civilisation into a Western language in the era of colonisation, the West was doing more than a translator is supposed to do – it was ‘creating’ a ‘text’. It was painting an image of the East, which was to be analysed and revoked from the precise position of the translator. During the Enlightenment when Europe began to feel weary of the Ancient Regime and the critique of religion deepened, the East could sometimes erroneously embody if not democracy, then charity and humanism . This romantic view of the East changed almost immediately after the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt in 1798. The proclamation of the Napoleonic Empire donned more significance to this fact. The necessity to govern, indeed to subdue, Egypt can explain why and how the country had begun to be perceived as inferior, despite its well-known historical background. The withdrawal of the Napoleonic army left the country ravished and impoverished, in which state the British had found it. The long reflections on Egypt and indeed the ‘Orient’ that one can find in the 19th c. British speeches, essays, political treatises and historical books unveil the meticulous work of the British, or European, mind on restraining the ‘Orient’, on turning the medieval religion-based concepts into modern political premises.

Orientalism as an ideology coincides with the beginning of the colonial era, but it was by no means spurred by it, and consequently, did not end with decolonisation. In fact, it continues to exist, but this time in the murky waters of the ever ambiguous mass-media. By now Egypt and Maghreb countries are no longer in the focus of political and cultural discourse. The oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq are currently at the heart of Orientalist discourse. What has changed, in comparison with the previous centuries, is that religion began to play a less significant role in the Western society and at the very same time the West who cherishes democracy aims at adhering to the First Generation of Rights, which include freedom of faith. Therefore, Islam is no longer construed as a ‘foreign’ religion. It is being presented by the media and the academics as an ideology that defines the political stance of the region or of a particular country. And since this ideology is different from the Western, it needs to be corrected.

Islam on this occasion has become the same sort of quintessence of the supposed Eastern ideological and cultural crudity and hostility, as Orientalism has always been the quintessence of the abovementioned European assumed knowledge of the ‘Orient’. The word ‘Islam’ is equally applied to all sorts of Arabic or Muslim countries, but, Said asks, ‘how really useful is “Islam” as a concept for understanding Morocco and Saudi Arabia and Syria and Indonesia?’ What is striking is that the West is unambiguously insensitive not only to various groups within Islam, but also to the fact that the idea of Islam is often misused by the Easterners themselves. There are political groups in the East who misuse the doctrine of Islam in the same way, as the West misuses the principles of democracy for its own imperial purposes. ‘The fact is that in many – too many – Islamic societies repression, the abrogation of personal freedoms, unrepresentative and often minority regimes, are either falsely legitimated or casuistically explained with reference to Islam, which is doctrinally as blameless in this regard as any other of the great universal religions”. A good example is, of course, the 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan that followed. Another example is July 7th bombings in London, which were carried out in the name of Allah, and the reaction of the British Muslim community to this doctrinal abuse. The threat posed to the West by the presumed but not identified nuclear programs of Iraq and Iran led to the invasion of the former, while for the latter the future holds no certainty. Unfortunately, such examples continue to serve the purpose of upholding the image of the ‘Orient’ as the nest of ignorance, barbarity and hostility to the West.

On the other hand, the influx of the Easterners into the West since the beginning of decolonisation conveniently serves the purpose of supporting the view of the ‘Orientals’ as lazy peoples of poor faculties who are happy to feed on the fruits of the Western civilisation. This, in turn, creates necessary conditions for the Western presence in the East, as well as dissemination of the Western ideology, culture, law, and philosophical paradigms across the region. At the same time, the West is becoming strikingly bold in its treatment of Islam, especially where the media coverage is concerned. The recent cartoons and depictions of the Prophet Mohammad created a feeling of cultural seizure among the Muslim population of many countries across the world.

The insight into hermeneutics as applied to Islam and the understanding of the ‘Orient’ only supports the view of the West as a fearsomely unfaithful translator of the ‘Oriental text’. Since the category of ‘text’ includes nowadays not only written narrative, but also audio and visual sources, and even the events, one can try and assess Orientalism as a Western exercise in epistemology. The hermeneutical analysis of Orientalism as a corpus of various ‘texts’ from its creation until now shows explicitly that the West has continuously been misplacing Islam, and indeed the ‘Orient’, and putting them in the Western context, thus being deliberately subjective. By all means, this has been happening due to a simple fact of ignorance, since there have always been very few Westerners who would seriously contemplate on learning the Arabic language, to better understand the Arabic culture.

In this context, the ‘Orient’ was inferior, ‘unfaithful’, uncivilised, and effectively evil, and to fight with and to conquer it was one of the main purposes for the superior, ‘faithful’, civilised and good West. Islam was either represented as a misuse of Christian doctrine, or it was perceived as a kind of organising spirit of every individual Muslim, which, given the fact that Qu’ran was ignorantly seen as a reverberation of some biblical themes, plus as the denial of many Christian doctrines, meant once again that Muslims were inferior because they did not understand or misunderstood the ‘true’ word of God. Moreover, this coined a culture of supposing that there was a necessity for the East to have the West in its life as the ever-present Good. Thus ontological dichotomy of good and evil gave way to a somewhat utilitarian, but no less imperialist, view of the role of the West in contemporary society and politics.

Since the emergence of the United States as a contemporary Empire, the Orientalist approaches to the East and Islam have once again provided the thinkers and politicians alike with the framework for explaining away the necessity for any sort of intervention in the Eastern affairs. One can certainly agree with Windshuttle in that Said’s studies in Orientalism were restricted by their linguistic scope. On the other hand, one has to admit that the ontological, or essentialist, conflict between West and East is not a fiction, and it now exists besides any political doctrine or academic teaching. In this conflict, the West continues to identify itself as a progressive force that is constantly being challenged by the regressive Eastern ‘other’. Orientalism as a doctrine hence not only continues to mould the ‘Orient’ and ‘Islam’, but also the ‘West’ in that it creates the conditions in which the Western civilisation can exist in the face of new challenges.


1. Daniel, Norman. Islam and the West. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1980.

2. Fisher, Ian, Cartoon Unify Muslims, The New York Times Sunday, 5 February, 2006.

3. Hourani, Albert. Islam in the European Thought. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993.

4. Said, Edward W. Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World. London, Vintage, 1997.

5. Said, Edward W. Orientalism. London, Penguin Books, 2003

6. Southern, R. N. The Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages. Cambridge (Mass.), Harvard University Press, 1962.

7. Windshuttle, Keith. Edward Said’s Orientalism Revisited. New Criterion, 17 (January 1999).

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