Said’s Orientalism Through the “Clash of Civilizations” and Reel Bad Arabs

When Edward Said published his work on orientalism in the 1970s it served as kind of a shocking wake up call to the familiar and comfortable way academics around the world had been viewing the Arab World and the Middle East for the better part of the last couple of centuries. Today it is hard to image to find any kind of academic work on this region of the world that doesn’t make some mention of the term orientalism, or at least the ideas behind Said’s definition of orientalism. In the introduction to his work Edward Said mentions several key characteristics of orientalism; though these characteristics are many, and in some cases overlapping there are four of these characteristic that stand out: the geopolitical/ geographic nature of orientalism, the concept of a binary otherness, the uneven exchange of power, and the interests of the modern political-intellectual state. The characteristics of Said’s orientalism are evident in the work of Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations” and in the documentary Reel Bad Arabs by Jack Shaheen.
One of the first characteristics that Said points out in his efforts to define orientalism is the fact that the very name of orientalism comes from the geographic term of the colonial era for the east as the orient. As the very name of the term has such a strong tie to a geographical awareness it is no wonder the term itself has much to do with geography. In Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations” the main argument is the fact that an armageddon will arise from a great clash of civilizations along cultural lines, yet Huntington himself defines these “cultures” in very geographical terms such as “Western” or “Latin American” civilizations. While the Middle East is presumably defined under the flag of an Islamic civilization the rhetoric and pervasiveness of the ideas of orientalism bring to mind a the world of the Middle East. In Huntington’s work geography as a characteristic of orientalism may not seem abundantly clear it is certainly more clear in terms of Shaheen’s documentary. In Reel Bad Arabs there is an entire section of the documentary devoted to what Shaheen calls the idea of “Arabland;” according to him “Arabland” is the geography of a vast stretching desert that is nearly always presented in films as the harsh homeland of the Arabs. The homogeny of this image, and the unrealistic nature of this hegemony is a clear representation of geography as a characteristic of orientalism as Said discusses it. Orientalism is a process of hegemony and simplification, and simplifying the whole range of geography found in the Arab world to a simple never ending desert exemplifies this characteristic of orientalism perfectly.
The orientalist constant desire for simplification lends itself to another characteristic of orientalism that Said discusses. The uneven exchange of power between the east and the west is most evident in the fact that orientalism strips the “other” from being able to speak and define themselves. This uneven power balance is most clearly seen I think in the realm of stereotypes and generalizations. Shaheen explores this idea throughly through the the ideas of the sexually belly dancing women, the creepy leacherous Arab men always after the white women, and the more modern identity of the terrorist. All of these identities exemplify this uneven exchange of power as they are clearly representative of the other’s inability to define themselves. The idea of the other being unable to define themselves is also evident throughout Huntington’s piece as he makes great sweeping generalization about people and places, cherry picking the facts that fit his narrative while the viewpoint of the other remains silent. This uneven exchange of power is important in understanding the scope and effect of the orientalist narrative; perhaps if the characteristic didn’t exist orientalism would have never become as pervasive as it is today.
A third characteristic of Said’s definition of orientalism revolves around the concept of the binary us vs. them; that is to say the idea of an “other.” Personally I think this is the most important aspect of understanding orientalism as it is this idea that creates the self-perpetuating paradigm of orientalism that makes it such a hard social idea to overcome. The human fear of the other is a well documented thing throughout history, and in my opinion Huntington is a master of capturing that fear and legitimizing it in academic terms. Huntington’s paper quiet literally predicts the end of time, and in his world the question “Which side are you on?” becomes synonyms with the question of “What are you?” He then goes on to say that “what” one is “is a given that cannot be changed.” This idea exemplifies otherness and prevents the “other” from ever hoping to leave this category. Otherness is also discussed in Shaheen’s work as he discusses several films that come back to the point that these other Arabs will always be different than us, and even the children are programmed in a way to be different than the west. These ideas of otherness play off fear. It is a fundamental characteristic of orientalism that is important to understand in the greater quest to understand what exactly orientalism is.
A final characteristic of orientalism is the modern intellectual- political fascination surrounding the term. This fascination is something that is well documented in Shaheen’s documentary through the examination of the connection between Hollywood and Washington. There is no doubt that several of the movies he presented had strong political messages that as Said put it have less to do with the Arab world and more to do with our world. Huntington is also an example of the power of this current interest. One could argue his work would not have gotten nearly so much attention had it not catered to the political scene in Washington. In a way Huntington’s argument simplified a complex issue into term that fit what Washington wanted to hear; therefore, it got a level of acceptance that might have never occurred had it gone against the views of powerful politicians. The intellectual and political world has a great deal of influence, and it is for this reason Said classifies it as a characteristic of orientalism.
Orientalism is term that seeks to simplify, to put issues into simple binary term; the ideas of orientalism have been embraced throughout society again and again, yet there is hope as long as it is recognized when it appears. Said’s characteristics of geography, uneven power, otherness, and an understanding of the role of the modern intellectual and political situation define orientalism so that it might be better recognized. The work of Shaheen provides support for Said’s argument of orientalism, and Huntington exemplifies this term. In the future, as long we can recognize orientalism for what it is there is hope me can move beyond the binary.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *