Writing in 1978, the Palestinian-American cultural theorist Edward Said redefined "Orientalism" to describe the phenomenon of Western cultural producers representing and depicting Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, the so-called "Orient." These depictions distanced the Orient from Europe as an object under constant scrutiny; in other words, depicting an African and Asian "them" in tension with a European "us." The Orient was viewed as a mystical, dangerous land that aroused both curiosity and fear in European academics and travellers. Importantly, Orientalist scholarship and art were produced en masse across Europe in a period of explosive European colonialist and imperialist activity abroad.

Orientalist works, Said argued, were inherently linked to the aims of the societies which produced them, which made the works complicit in European campaigns of neo-colonialism and -imperialism abroad. Further, he suggested that these campaigns were engineered, supported by social, political, and cultural systems which could themselves be studied. He suggested:

There is nothing mysterious or natural about authority. It is formed, irradiated, and disseminated; it is instrumental and persuasive; it holds a status, establishes canons of taste and value; it is virtually indistinguishable from certain ideas that it dignifies as true, and from traditions, perceptions, and judgments that it shapes, transmits, and reproduces. Above all, authority can, indeed must, be analyzed.1

In my previous article, I illustrated how, a quarter century earlier, Hannah Arendt’s pivotal volume The Origins of Totalitarianism could be credited as partially paving the way for Said’s later text. Both Arendt and Said examined the exercise of power by one population over another, illustrating the mentalities that made this exercise possible.

In his book, Said describes "Orientalism" as a perspective that exists in three distinct but related contexts. The first is the separation of "the Occident" from "the Orient," distancing Europe from Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Although this isn’t inherently discriminatory, Said wrote that it motivated European cultural producers to assert their identity in opposition to the Other. In other words, the identity of Europe, or "European-ness," was founded in contrast to what it was not; if Europe represented civility, modernity, and democracy, these must be characteristics missing from Asiatic or African societies. If Europe was strong, masculine, and rational, this meant the Orient must be weak, feminine, and unruly.

The second context of Orientalism refers to academia, in which scholars sought to acquire knowledge of the Other which could then be used to categorize, compartmentalize, or disenfranchise populations abroad. By claiming to have expert knowledge of a group of people, one could acquire the authority needed to rule over them and justify their subjugation.

This leads to Said’s third and final context of Orientalism: its use as a political instrument of domination. He claimed that the identity Europeans crafted for themselves, combined with their knowledge of the Other, created a mentality which dehumanized Asiatic and African populations to the point where colonization was morally justifiable. He wrote: "To say simply that Orientalism was a rationalization of colonial rule is to ignore the extent to which colonial rule was justified in advance by Orientalism, rather than after the fact."2

It is important that we not dissociate these three contexts from each other; the Occident-Orient dichotomy, academic study of the Other, and political Orientalism are all deeply intertwined and continually inform each other.

One theme shared by both Said and Arendt is how imperial powers have used alternative narratives to further their expansionist aims. Said repeatedly illustrates how the constructed identity of Europe was used (and, in fact, still is) to fabricate an equally artificial identity for the Middle East, legitimizing colonial conquest of the latter by the former. Said claimed that most Europeans in the first half of the 20th century had internalized the "superior European" mentality to such a degree that it became treated as a fact. For them, Europe was more advanced than the Middle East, and the various Arab states claiming independence from the Ottoman Empire were not capable of ruling themselves, therefore justifying imperial stewardship.

The propaganda against Jews pushed by the Nazis (explored in my previous article) and that against Arabs pushed by the British were both intended to cover up the state’s real agendas, which were concerned with expansion and acquiring power. In both cases, the state used knowledge of the Other to demand authority. Scientific racism was used by both to dehumanize the Other, which in turn could decriminalize the acts of occupying their lands or expelling them from their own territory.3

There are many similarities in Said’s and Arendt’s texts as they explore the interconnected and interdependent mentalities of Orientalism and totalitarianism. One major difference, however, is the social position of the groups that were subjugated by imperialist powers. While Arendt focused on a minority population within Europe, Said looked at a majority population outside of Europe. This necessarily altered the context in which the state operated. As a result of Arabs’ distance from Europe, they were not depicted as posing any threat to Europe; this contrasts with the case study of Nazi Germany, which regularly used propaganda to portray the "Jewish threat" to Europe.

In our post-9/11 world, where passengers are removed from planes for speaking Arabic, hijabs and niqabs are criminalized, and Muslims face daily attacks and discrimination, Orientalism is alive and well in the form of Islamophobia. Just as Nazi Germany sought to portray Jews and other minorities as the “threat from within,” Muslims in the West now face the same treatment.

In his introduction, Said wrote, "We allow justly that the Holocaust has permanently altered the consciousness of our time; why do we not accord the same epistemological mutation to what imperialism has done and what Orientalism continues to do?"4 The essence of Orientalism lies in its focus on differences between groups rather than similarities. These differences have influenced the foreign policies of European powers such as Britain, France, Germany, and others during the imperial era, as well as shaping perspectives across the West today.

Hannah Arendt and Edward Said were two of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. Their contributions were critical to a field that would later open up for subaltern studies, microhistory, history-from-below, and other inquiries into the ways in which entire population groups have been subjugated and disenfranchised by European occupiers. Sadly, it seems Said’s advice to heed "what imperialism has done and what Orientalism continues to do" has been largely ignored by the decision-makers for whom it would make the greatest difference.


Said, Edward. Orientalism. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978.