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Edward Said (1935–2003) was a sociologist, post-colonialist, and Palestinian/anti-Israel activist. Born in Jerusalem to a wealthy family, he would shortly move to Cairo where he acquired his education in primarily English-speaking schools. Afterwards, he would acquire his Ph.D. at Harvard in English literature. Though he was an Arab Christian, he taught mainly about 'orientalism', arguing that American and western viewpoints of Arab and Islamic culture were heavily biased and stereotyped, causing discrimination amongst religious and ethnocultural lines. In addition, he was a strong supporter of the Palestine and Arab causes and an ardent critic of legislation promoting Israel's occupation of Palestine, resulting in heavy backlash from supporters of pro-Israel and pro-American legislators. Although he advocated for a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he criticized the specific peace treaties that were being instituted at the time.
Edward Said's first book, Orientalism, is about the judgments that we make in Western society about 'the Orient', an area of geography roughly referring to Asiatic regions such as the Arab states, Yemen, Mongolia, China, Japan, Korea, and other types of 'nonwestern' countries across the map. Throughout his work, Said discusses the nature of 'orientalism', and how the way people in the west make judgments about these countries within 'the orient' are shortsighted, unfairly determined, and cause a separation that allows for the rationalization of wars, pillaging, and general negative sentiment to that region of geography.
Throughout his work, Said discusses the nature of European colonialism and how it directly and indirectly contributed to Orientalistic ideas that exist today. European and western regions historically have compared Islamic and other Asiatic nations to their own Christianity, and although Islam is based off of Christianity, Islamic people are presumed to be 'imitators' of western culture, as if western culture is the hallmark at which human societies should be. Through this illogical logic, people in western nations built characters based off of the stereotypical examples from these Asiatic nations: Muhammed and such. Because of this, they were marked and marketed as the hallmark of 'oriental' nations, depicted as barbaric, backwards, dishonest, and simply foreign region of the world. Yet, this type of thought only exists in western civilization, despite it being assumed to be adopted universally. This characterization of knowledge of 'the orient', therefore, rests solely in the assumptions and limited information that is known to western culture.
Stemming off of Western dominance, Orientalism tended to persist across a large period of time. Other than Islamic and Arab nations presenting potential political challenge, nations and regions were incapable of removing the label that had been placed on them within the mainstream. Said notes that Napoleon's journey across the oceans in his desire to explore the world was based not on knowledge of the actual culture in those regions, but rather instead based on writings and myths that were presented as fact, further bolstering the notion that these were exotic, foreign, but also savage regions at which civilization was not known. When Napoleon, for instance, and his crew entered such a region, the people who were supposed 'experts' on the Oriental had to make a decision between sympathy for those in the 'orient', or siding with the European colonizers, at which they always took the latter. The Orient existed, therefore, as "a set of values attached not to its modern realities but to a series of valorized contacts it had had with a distant European past." There was a general misconception that while the European nations acquired scientific and textual knowledge, that 'the orient' had not.
Culture and Imperialism
Said writes in his next book, Culture and Imperialism, about how the nature of European societies and their Euro-centric ideas for domination affected the rest of the world and their cultures in relation to those of Europe. He focuses primarily on the claims of land that were instituted by European powers, noting that a staggering amount of land was unequally distributed mainly in the hands of European nations such as Great Britain, France, Spain, and such. However, this was not embarrassing, but rather the opposite: this idea of colonizing other areas, 'saving' the savage from uncivilized lands, was a widely accepted cultural idea within European nations. To the chagrin of 'oriental' regions and nations of the world, the domination that European nations performed were stated to be in terms of altruism, but were effectually forceful domination.
Imperialism in this context refers to a control over another region of the world with a centralizing governing body at the 'home' country. A possible effect of imperialism, colonialism refers to the establishment of settlements within said regions of the world that are essentially extensions of said centralized governing body. The reasons for these two happenings are not simply attributed to the idea of attaining resources: they are an attitude based on a general consensus of a primitive form of 'manifest destiny', ideologies that rationalize the imperialism and colonialism not in terms of monetary value but rather in terms of moralistic claims. These moralistic claims can be seen simply in U.S. history (although it is present in other countries, of course) in the form of dominating 'the blacks' into slavery as a favor to their perceived intelligence, of 'reteaching' Native Americans from their 'barbarianism' into 'civilized' society, of vetting Central American immigrants to supposedly unilaterally allow only the 'best' immigrants. All of these claims are made in the form of altruistic morality, but in practice and reality are effects of domination designed to solidify the power that the centralized body has over the 'foreign' citizens or people.
However, the nature of culture is much more fluid and hazy than strict boundaries. For instance, the idea of differentiating a culture today from a culture established years ago by a foreign power would be a difficult task. Similarly, to point out the parts of certain regions within your established nation that are completely untouched by other cultures is equally a difficult task due to the wily nature of culture's indoctrination and spreading. People within the country themselves sometimes do not have the knowledge to understand exactly what type of culture existed in the past, what caused it to chance, and long for the 'good old days' that they have constructed in their head rather than the one that existed in reality. The nature of history and culture are completely intertwined to the point that those within a culture do not realize that they are living history, only to have their complications of culture simplified in future history textbooks. This nature of stereotyping and simplifying a culture based on limited information, combined with a general sentiment of imperialism, nationalism, and colonization are major factors to Said's understanding of world colonialism and how it shaped the world today.
An important point to be taken away from this work is that Said points out that the sciences and courses of activism and study are largely seen through the West's lens, and doesn't take into account islamic or middle eastern revolutionaries and scholars. He demonstrates that not only has the land and economic functions have been taken over and whitewashed, but the narrative itself has been dominated and controlled, silencing or invisibilizing otherwise prominent scholars that have greatly influenced the counterpart's thought. The idea that the oppressed has no culture, ideas, or responses to colonialist ideas is itself ideological imperialism, and in order to address the issue fully, one must go beyond the commonplace Western philosophy and activism and identify real people that have fought against colonialism and have essentially been removed from the Western Narrative.
The question of Palestine
The most controversial topic that Said discussed was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Specifically, the nature and role of Orientalism and imperialism between the Jewish-dominated state of Israel and the Islam-dense state of Palestine. In particular, he looks at it from a socio-historical angle extended from the historical understanding of the United Nations' role in the establishment and further development of Palestine in the context of the world society.
Perspectives on supposed epistemological claims
Said holds an indictment towards western culture in that it tends to ignore the sheer existence of Palestine as a recognized country or citizen group. He notes that while the conflict can probably be reduced to an Arab-Israeli conflict, Palestine holds a specific complexity that holds it separate from most Arab nations. One of the main assumptions that Said pushes away is one that Palestine can be considered a separate geographical group from that which one would consider to be 'Oriental' or the middle east. To make a separation of the conflict between Palestine and Israel is to make a separation from Palestine to the entirety of the middle east, despite its obvious and ongoing connections to nations in that region.
Only relatively recently have Palestinians been recognized as a legitimate social group, but unfortunately, it is heavily associated with the word 'terrorism', due to the rising Palestinian militant attacks and military response from Israeli military. However, with a lack of understanding of the history of Palestinian-Israeli conflict, uneducated masses simply assume that Palestine refers to a fringe terrorist group, rather than a legitimate culture, country, and group of people with a rather substantial history of existence. In essence, the conflict can be summarized as a long-term response to a continued effort of historical colonialism of the Jewish population into the heavily established Islamic and Muslim population that identified with the land, stemming from a decision that was not theirs to begin with. Rather than resign to the colonialism, we instead have an example of one of the longest-running resistances to a colonialist effort in the world.
History of Israeli occupation
Historically, Palestine was regarded as a simple land. While the people who resided there were in fact there, they were regarded as 'backward', 'simple', and other types of derogating adjectives to diminish the importance of their existence. Nevertheless, they were still there despite their supposed lacking in technological or institutional progress. Due to Orientalist thought, Palestine was seen as a place to 'shape anew', a place at which a 'real civilization' could be established. It was justified as a form of, yet again, supposed altruism that manifested in violent domination. The substantial difference to this, however, to previous incarnations of this happening, is that the Palestinians had fought back for years on end, not succumbing to the colonialism, rather resisting perpetually amidst failures on the Israeli government to recognize them as a legitimate independent country.
It was not simply when the Jewish population started immigrating to Palestine that there manifested problems. There were a substantial amount of Jews, albeit proportionally small, that did in fact live in that region in the wake of World War Two. Before the establishment of Israel, there was nothing there other than a large Arab majority. However, in the early 1900s, there was a general idea that Palestine was a 'broken' nation, that only colonization of the Jewish population there would be able to rebuild it and put it in a 'place with modern nations', yet another effect of Orientalism. This did not just have the implied effect of placing a Jewish population there, but also as an erasure of any existing systems and culture that were initially there. The claims made were vaguely made to not address the fact that there were, in fact, people there that would oppose said colonialism.
Effects of colonialization
However, the colonialism was indeed not altruistically intentioned but rather a violent demonstration of domination. Palestinian villages and settlements were literally destroyed to the point where visitors were presented with the land as if it had been untouched: an extremely insulting statement to anyone who had spent time developing their place in that land. While land may have been 'bought' from the Palestinian settlers, they were largely displaced from their settlements, being densely packed into a metaphorical corner at which they had to make do with the increasing population in the land that seemed to decrease in size. These are the refugees that exist through generations today, people who are still alive today. Even people in Israeli-occupied regions of Palestine number in the million, many of whom lived during a time pre-occupation.
In short, Israel was established as a claim of Jewish domination of the Arab state, displacing millions of preexisting settlers, and when they fought back Israel reacted in military force, furthering occupation and developing their political and military power within the existing regions, all in the name of 'reinvigorating' the country into something 'modern'.
- Orientalism ISBN 039474067X