Have the Arab Revolutions Defeated the Orientalist Discourse?

Shadia B. Drury

Although exaggerated and flawed, the “Orientalist discourse” contains an undeniable kernel of truth. What is the Orientalist discourse? What are its flaws? And has it been dealt a death blow by the revolutions in the Arab world?

The Orientalist discourse is a fancy term that was popularized by Edward Said in his celebrated book, Orientalism (Vintage Books, 1978). According to Said, Orientalism refers to the negative depiction of the Orient by Western travelers, writers, and intellectuals. They paint Orientals, including the Arabs, as primitive, inscrutable, and incapable of scientific or rational thought. Orientalism is a form of European self-congratulation in which Europeans are fully human, while the Orientals are an inferior manifestation of humanity. In this way, Orientalism justified colonial domination—as a means by which Europeans could introduce the Orient to civilization.

In Said’s postmodern lexicon Orientalism is a “discourse” because language, ideas, and knowledge have the power to shape the world. In other words, Orientalism is not just the attitude of Europeans toward non-Europeans. As the discourse of the powerful, Orientalism shapes reality in more than one way. By shaping the European attitude toward the Orient, it makes colonialism a reality. But interestingly, it also shapes the self-understanding of the Orient as inferior and subservient.

I would like to take issue with two aspects of this thesis. The first flaw is the assumption that the discourse shapes the self-understanding of the dominated, penetrates the heart of those it diminishes, and robs them of their humanity even in their own eyes. It seems to me that this presupposes a certain feeblemindedness on the part of the dominated that adds insult to injury. In truth, the simplicity of this psychological analysis falls short of the complexity of the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized.

It must be admitted that suspicion and contempt of the “other” is not simply a European phenomenon. In the Arabic language, there is a special word reserved for Europeans and Americans. The word in the singular masculine is agnaby. It indicates that the individual is a foreigner but not a Syrian, a Lebanese, a Jordanian, a Saudi, or an Indian. The word applies only to Westerners. It carries a connotation that mixes reverence with contempt. The reverence for the agnaby comes from his power, technical skill, and ability to dominate the globe. The contempt that is implied in the word is that the agnaby is a primitive simpleton. He has technical smarts but no depth, no soul, and no profundity. He cannot be expected to understand the poetic sentimentality that connects the Arab to the beauty of nature. He cannot be expected to have deep emotional attachments, especially to family and children. The agnaby is part man and part machine. When asked what he thought of Western civilization, Gandhi famously replied that he thought it would be a good idea. The same sentiment is implied by the term agnaby. The point is that the power of the Orientalist discourse to shape the inner reality of the dominated is highly overstated.

The second flaw of the Orientalist discourse is its postmodern inclination to undercut itself by denying the universality of human values. Thanks to the scam being perpetrated by globalization, it is understandable that universal principles have fallen on hard times. But just because universal values can and have been used as instruments of domination, there is no reason to give up on them altogether. To do so is to undercut the moral ground that gives the critique of colonialism its traction. The intellectual challenge is to distinguish between genuine universal values and their ersatz manifestations. I am not pretending this is a simple task, since people are inclined to think of the values of their own culture as the right ones for all humanity. This is particularly the case when a nation is as successful and as prosperous as the United States.

The flaws of the Orientalist discourse notwithstanding, the question is: Have the revolutions in the Arab world dealt a death blow to the Orientalist discourse? Yes and no. They have certainly given a human face to the Arabs as people who long for freedom and justice—and who are not violent fanatics. The world has been inspired and mesmerized by the courage of unarmed protesters defying the tanks of dictators financed and fortified by the only superpower in the world. The protesters in Tunis, Egypt, and Libya have displayed breathtaking resourcefulness, organization, and ingenuity. The Egyptian revolutionaries turned Tahrir Square into a working model of republicanism in its purest form. The Libyans showed the world how quickly an alternative government can be created and made to function in Benghazi. So it is not surprising that these revolutions have changed the attitude of the West toward the Arab world.

However, the Arab revolutions have not eradicated Orientalism altogether. The most toxic versions of Orientalism are still very much alive, especially among American Republicans and Israeli Likudists. Both have been critical of the Obama administration for not supporting the dictator wholeheartedly. Benjamin Netanyahu made his support for the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak clear; he mobilized troops to the border with Egypt in the Sinai, as if the “cold peace” with Egypt had ended and war with the new regime was imminent.

Asked about the revolution in Egypt on CBC Radio’s The Current (February 1, 2011), Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel, complained that there has been too much demonization of Mubarak. He described Mubarak as one of the valued “moderate” leaders in the region. He praised the dictator for his cooperation with American foreign policy, political as well as economic. He claimed that the alternative was fanatical Islamists in power. The implication was that Arabs need dictators to control their proclivity toward violence and extremism.

The same mean-spiritedness was displayed by Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, on the same program. Shaked maintained that Mubarak’s regime was one of the best in the Arab world and that abandoning it was a mistake as grave as abandoning the Shah of Iran in 1979; he expected the Egyptian Revolution to end in a radical Islamic theocracy, just as the Iranian Revolution did. He thought that the whole effort to promote democracy in the Arab world was the height of American naiveté. He claimed that the best thing that could happen is that a “Mubarak clone” would emerge to rule Egypt with an iron hand. He added that “we” would naturally like “them” to have democracy, human rights, women’s equality, and all these nice things that are readily available in the West, “but this is not possible in Egypt or any of the other countries, because the Arabs have no traditions of democracy.” Shaked claimed that the only democracy in the region is Israel—as if to distance it from the Arab countries in its neighborhood while emphasizing its affinity with the West. This kind of chauvinism lends credibility to the Orientalist discourse; it displays the noxious levels it has reached in our time where its racialized overtones are designed to justify permanent colonial domination. It also confirms the claims of Islamic radicals that Israel is a Western colonial power that does not belong in the region.

Nevertheless, it is possible to agree with Shaked and Kurtzer that the Arab countries have no traditions of democracy. But where did the traditions of democracy in the West come from? They came from the revolutionary overthrow of autocratic regimes—the English revolution of the 1640s that ended with the beheading
of Charles I was an auspicious beginning. But it was hijacked by the military dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell and his dastardly theocratic regime that outlawed Christmas for being too much fun. It was not till the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 that England managed to get a Bill of Rights. And that revolution was not as glorious as it was deemed to be, since it robbed Catholics of their rights, which explains why the politics of Ireland is still rife with sectarian violence. It also behooves us to remember that the French Revolution of 1789 ended in Robespierre’s Reign of Terror. It took the autocratic power of Napoleon to further the principles of the revolution. The American Revolution of 1776 may be deemed more successful, but it can hardly be considered nonviolent or egalitarian in view of the War of Independence, the legacy of slavery, and the butchery of the Civil War. The Arabs deserve the opportunity to make their own history with all its attendant dangers.

In truth, it is not the Arabs that need tyrants to rule over them as Kurtzer and Shaked maintain. No human beings deserve tyranny, oppression, and injustice. It is the Americans and the Israelis that need tyrants in the Arab world, because only tyrants can be bribed to do their bidding—the displacement and dispossession of the Palestinian people, the embargo on Gaza, the bombing of Lebanese civilians, the bulldozing of Palestinian homes, and the building of exclusive Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. Instead of lamenting the loss of their friendly dictators, Republicans and Likudists should welcome the opportunity of dealing with a new breed of accountable Arab leaders in a spirit of justice and fair play. This will force Israel to become an integral part of the Middle East, dealing with its neighbors on an equal footing—a transformation that will be good for Jews, for Arabs, and for the world.

Shadia B. Drury

Shadia B. Drury is professor emerita at the University of Regina in Canada. Her most recent book is The Bleak Political Implications of Socratic Religion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).


Although exaggerated and flawed, the “Orientalist discourse” contains an undeniable kernel of truth. What is the Orientalist discourse? What are its flaws? And has it been dealt a death blow by the revolutions in the Arab world? The Orientalist discourse is a fancy term that was popularized by Edward Said in his celebrated book, Orientalism …

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