Edward Said's "Orientalism"

The Orient beyond Cliché

The Palestinian-American literary scholar Edward Said (1935 – 2003) is required reading for anyone talking about Islam today. His main work, Orientalism, recently came out in a new German translation. Stefan Weidner read it for Qantara.de

Edward Said (photo: DW)
Said opens himself up to attack where he need not be vulnerable, his lack of distance supplying a generation of Muslim fundamentalists with the patterns for their no less effective 'Occidentalist' clichés

​​ It is no exaggeration: Said's book traumatised the traditional academic field of Orientalism when it hit the shelves in 1978. The first German version, dating from 1979, has been out of print for years and was generally considered shoddy work. This new translation is the perfect opportunity to test Said's theses in the light of the historical developments of the past 30 years.

Orientalism and colonialism

For an impartial reader picking up the book in our times, it must be difficult to understand all the past excitement over it. Barely an academic worth their salt would now deny that the emergence of Orientalism at the turn of the 19th century was fundamentally favoured by Britain and France's colonial ambitions; Edward Said details the roles of Sylvestre de Sacy (1758 – 1838) and Edward Lane (1801 – 1876) in this context.

Orientalism in art and literature fares little better. All too often, the French novelist Flaubert finds exactly the same curiosities on his travels around Egypt that Lane puts into his mouth in his ethnological report on the 'modern' Egyptian of 1836. And almost all Western travellers to Arabia up to well into the 20th century followed the maxim that a trip to the Orient on which one does not find the cliché of the Orient is simply not a proper trip to the Orient. Said's probably most highly charged observation is that Orientalism cultivated ideological, in some cases openly racist standpoints, which in turn were picked up on by politicians and opinion-makers to justify interventions in the Orient.

Undisguised racism

image source: Wikimedia
Cultivation of ideological and standpoints in the name of science: Sylvestre de Sacy, Europe's first modern Arabist

​​Statements such as the following from the well-known Orientalist William Muir (1819 – 1905) speak for themselves, and were all too willingly received by politicians such as Lord Cromer: "The sword of Mahomet and the Coran are the most fatal enemies of civilization, liberty, and truth, which the world has yet known."

There is a clear line of continuum from such statements to today's Islam-critical blogs – and wary observers might be tempted to place the pope's Regensburg speech in the same tradition.

If Edward Said is a controversial figure to this day, it is down to the alarmingly long afterlife of precisely those attitudes towards the Orient that he revealed in the authors he studied. Behind the current Enlightenment fundamentalism, which knows no opponent other than Islam and its defenders, lurks an old high-handed reflex – re-invoked in the form of pro-war arguments purporting a missionary need to bring civilisation upon Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Orient beyond the cliché

image source: publisher
"An essay that has overflowed its banks": Edward Said's top-heavy essay, <i>Orientalism</i>, in its new German translation

​​Academics in Islam Studies have inherited from Edward Said the question of whether and how it is possible to talk about the Orient beyond the Orientalist cliché. Many of the younger generation – particularly in the German-speaking world – have now found an appropriate answer. Their response is to constantly reflect their own research, to let Islam speak for itself as far as possible, to refrain from sweeping essentialist statements along the lines of "Islam is…" – instead studying individual cases and the many different 'Islams'.

Were all this as standard practice as it ought to be, Edward Said would be a mere slice of academic history and we would have no need to read him today. He set the ball rolling, with numerous single-focus studies and overviews since putting his point more precisely – and often more convincingly. On re-reading, we encounter Orientalism as an essay that has overflowed its banks, at times confused, a little shoddy in its style, a little premature in its conclusions – which are rarely wrong but which one wishes were more carefully derived. Said opens himself up to attack where he need not be vulnerable, his lack of distance supplying a generation of Muslim fundamentalists with the patterns for their no less effective 'Occidentalist' clichés.

Flawed retranslation

The new edition brings these flaws to the forefront more strongly than the English original, in which the same sentences that have German readers shaking their heads sound elegant and convincing. For a retranslation, this is a breathtakingly careless piece of work. Not only has the translator used the German term "Islamisten" (i.e. Islamic fundamentalists) to mean scholars of Islam; in many cases, whole sentences are rendered incomprehensible, the only option being to resort to the original to make sense of the translation.

Stefan Weidner

© Qantara.de 2010

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

Stefan Weidner authored the book Manual für den Kampf der Kulturen. Warum der Islam eine Herausforderung ist (Manual for the Clash of Civilisations – Why Islam Is a Challenge) and is currently the August Wilhelm Schlegel Guest Professor at the FU Berlin.

Edward Said: Orientalismus. German translation by Hans Günter Holl. S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt 2009.

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