Edward Said: On Orientalism and Imperialism

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What is the connection between Orientalism and Imperialism? What role did the Orientalist scholarship play in the expansion of the Middle Eastern empires?

In Orientalism, Edward Said deploys the theme of Orientalism and Imperialism to explore the role Oriental Studies played in the expansion of the Middle Eastern empire. He suggests that Orientalist tropes about Eastern passivity played a major part in legitimizing the imperialist project.

Keep reading to learn about the connection between Orientalism and Imperialism.

Edward Said on Orientalism and Imperialism

Orientalism revealed itself to be a potent force in world politics by the late 19th century. By this time, the British and French governments had come to view the cultivation of experts in Oriental studies as necessary for the survival and expansion of their Middle Eastern empires. This was because Western policymakers viewed the Orient as essential and unchanging. Thus, experts in ancient languages, monuments, and religions could provide valuable insight into the eternal “Oriental mind” that would be of great use in dominating the contemporary peoples of the Orient.

The mobilization of academic knowledge in service of imperialism became a hallmark of Orientalism during this period. Orientalist tropes about Western superiority and Eastern passivity played a major role in justifying and legitimating the imperialist project. Orientalist scholarship was not merely confined to the ivory tower of academia. It influenced the actions of key historical figures like Napoleon, who very much saw themselves as modern-day exemplars of an ancient tradition of Western dominance. 

The political results of these Orientalism-inspired actions were profound, with Europe coming to fulfill its imagined role as the rightful ruler of the Eastern world. Indeed, by the end of World War One (1914-1918), European powers had conquered a staggering 85 percent of the world’s landmass, including large swathes of the Orientalist heartland of the Middle East.

This was a great triumph of Orientalism. Orientalists were no longer just analyzing history; now, they were actively making it. 

In this way, the Orientalists, with their unparalleled knowledge of the achievements of the Orient (which, to them, was eternal and unchanging) were the true guardians and inheritors of that tradition—more so than the people who actually lived in the Middle East.

For the Orientalists, the views of the people of the Orient themselves were irrelevant, as they were clearly incapable of self-government or judging their own self-interest. To supposedly enlightened British imperialists like Balfour and Cromer, empire-making was not mere conquest or subjugation. Instead, they genuinely believed it to be an inherently humanitarian enterprise, one in which colonial officials, scholars, and entrepreneurs were engaged in a great civilizing mission. Their role would be to protect the heritage and allure of the Orient from the depredations of the “Orientals.”

Edward Said: On Orientalism and Imperialism

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Here's what you'll find in our full Orientalism summary:

  • How Western society invented the concept of Orientalism
  • Why "the Orient" was thought of as a different, exotic, and dangerous place
  • How Orientalism was central to European colonialism

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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