Orientalism – Edward Said

Orientalism: A Century Later

Orientalism describes a concept wherein a strong cultural, racial, or political body wields power over a weaker one. The power of the stronger is based on many variables of cultural power and intellectual strength. In his 1979 essay entitled “The Scope of Orientalism”, Professor Edward Said presents the idea by analyzing the relationships between East and West during the nineteenth and twentieth century. Said interprets the meaning of a lecture given by British statesman and politician Arthur James Balfour to the House of Commons on June 13, 1910. In his lecture Balfour outlines the western imperialist stance that proffers the dominant supervising role to England and the subordinate role to what Balfour calls the “subject race”, in this case Egypt.

The fundamental principles that are illuminated when viewing the Chomsky essay through the lens of the Said are that in the modern Occidental vs. Oriental situation in Iraq, we still cling to the tenets of division put forth by Balfour. Can we divide humans into categories based on culture, race, tradition, society, etc. and survive the consequences humanely? as Said asks.

In his essay, “U.S. Iraq Policy: Motives and Consequences”, written in 1989 and given as part of a lecture, Noam Chomsky, Professor of linguistics at MIT and frequent critic of U.S. foreign policy, seeks to expose the U.S. for its duplicitious self interest in dealing with Iraq. Chomsky creates a portal through which the essence of Said’s concept of orientalism can be discerned. The framework of dominance by one group in order to exploit another inherent in orientalism exists in modern times and rears its ugly head as theUnited States struggles with the Iraqisuues. Through thinly-veiled trickery and deceit, the U.S. manipulates Iraq to do its bidding.

Searching for a cause and shining light on the reasons for the United States’s underhanded tactics in Iraq, Chomsky finds no basis in morality. He finds the U.S. complicit when Hussein gassed his own people in Halabja in 1990. The U.S. is playing two sides of the same coin during the Iraq war with Iran in the 1980s, trying to get a leg up and come out on top after the two oriental nations gave each other a drubbing. Britain joins the U.S. in supporting Hussein up until Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the reversal of western opinion.

“Overwhelmingly Saddam Hussein;s crimes were committed during that period, and the U.S. supported him all the way through, with a good deal of enthusiasm. That tells us that just by elementary logic the crimes can’t be the reason why we have to destroy the monster.” p.67

The U.S. is toying with Iraq to have complete and free control over Iraq’s number one resource: oil. By offering up the red herring of Hussein’s rampant crime history as if to suggest that the west even cares, is all part of the orientalist’s bag of tricks. This fits appropriately with Balfour’s assertion that ultimately the west is involved with the east to benefit itself. What’s most interesting to note his how the US changes its tune a year latter by imposing sanctions on Iraq which effectively lend a hand to imperiling more people. We do this and all our underhanded dealings in Iraq for the purposes of our own (the West’s) self-interest, namely to profit from the resources found there.

“they have got under it far better government which not only is a benefit to them, but is undoubtedly a benefit to the whole of the civilized west.”

In the modern Occidental vs. Oriental situation not much has changed from the west vs. east “us vs. them” ideas originally put forth by Balfour nearly a century ago. The same factors of division are involved as Said askes:

“Can we divide humans into categories based on culture, race, tradition, society, etc. and survive the consequences humanely?”

These ideas still hold sway over the West’s political motivations in the Oriental world. Said and Chomsky both discuss power. The concept of power transforms from Said’s examples of Balfour’s “knowledge as power” principle of government manipulation to Chomsky’s “might means right”, which has become the West’s basic protocol.

Balfour and Cromer are not so much racists as they are rigid, streamlined, doctrinarians? It’s doubtful. It seems more that they are racists that hide behind a mask of pragmatism. The same can be said for the administrations of the west that have further advanced the problems in Iraq via the lop-sided structure of power distribution at the core of Orientalism.

Chomsky’s characterization of the “west” is portrayed far more viciously than Said’s. This is indicative in Chomsky’s word choices. Chomsky has a tendency to use powerful and subjective phrases like “vengeful despot”, “beast of Baghdad” and “monster” to describe Saddam Hussein. He is no less direct in his implications of the Janus-faced U.S., pointing a finger indicting the government for its sloppy disregard for human life in the interest of political gain. Said’s tone is more even-keeled. He brings to the surface the implications of the arguments of Balfour and Cromer by alluding suggestively to their nefarious roots. His indictment is more insidious, taking the the orientalists to task . All of these terms could be applied to the way the concept of Orientalism is used as a defining and dividing people

Stability is an issue in both essays. For stability to be maintained in both of the oriental nations, Egypt and Iraq, the West must provide influence. In Egypt this entails denying sovereignty. In Iraq this involves supporting a notorious despotic leader in a series of strategic moves perpetrated as being in “our” best interest. As Balfour notes, unlike the west, Orientals have never known government other than despotic rule.

The weaponsof mass destruction issue is one that Balfour could not have predicted. English occupation of colonial Egypt was more heavy-handed than the U.S.’s wavering interest interest in Iraq. However since Balfour’s speech of 1910 comes in the wake of growing Egyptian nationalism and promises to answer the “challenge to orientalism” proposed by J.M. Robertson which questions the right of the dominant party, we can gather that the English troops in occupied Egypt were forced to deal with security problems of the weapons of mass destruiction caliber.

“There is indeed a way to eliminate the capability of producing weapons of mass destruction, only one way and that is the Carthaginian solution: you totally destroy the society. If you do that, they won’t be able to produce weapons of mass destruction.”


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