Orientalizing the Orient (part 1)

Dzięki współpracy ze Szkołą Językową “Direct” w Ząbkowicach Śląskich od czasu do czasu publikujemy, naszym zdaniem, ciekawe teksty w języku angielskim. W tym tygodniu zapraszamy do lektury eseju o szeroko pojętym Oriencie.

Frantz Fanon was certainly right in stating that „culture is being increasingly cut off from reality” Frequently understanding foreign culture is not a result of one’s own experience but rather a consequence of false assumptions which prevail in the media, pop culture, literature, language, etc. Comprehending another culture through the lens of fixed identities and stereotypes is characteristic for any civilization, whether it is European, African or Arabic. Indeed, for many it is much easier to accept the dominant framework of beliefs rather than to question it and look at it more critically.

The present study, however, is a critique of the commonly recognized opinions about Islam in the Western world. Conviction that Islamic societies are despotic, militant, backward, underdeveloped, with a strong disregard for human and women’s right have been present in the West as early as the Medieval times. These suppositions became so strongly embedded in the European and American perception that frequently it is the only way these societies perceive Islam. It is necessary to remember, nevertheless, that knowledge about Islam has been constructed and incorporated into the social settings of the Western world over a relatively long period of time. Edward Said in his highly influential study of “Orientalism” had called this process ‘orientalizing the orient:” Knowledge of the Orient, because generated out of strength, in a sense creates the Orient, the Oriental, and his world. Thus, according to the aforementioned it is possible to speak about constructed shared meanings and constructed corporate perception of Islam by the Western societies.

The essay endouvers to examine one of the key components of the anti-Islamic discourse existent in the Western world, that is to say, visual arts. Indeed, paintings, photography and political cartoons in a considerable way facilitated a certain image of Islam. The questions of the cardinal importance to be addressed in this paper are: to what extend visual arts had, and still have influence over the Western perception of Islam? To what extend art analysis can be of assistance in apprehending Western perception of Islam? Extending its analysis further, this work will argue that art plays a significant part in the practice of manifolding a pejorative image of Islam and Muslims.

In order to arrive at reasonable explanation for considered here questions the essay takes as a point of a departure historical analysis of interactions between the West and Islam. This type of investigation will permit us to ascertain historical background to the aspects discussed further in this dissertation. The second point will deal with the visual arts per se. It will take under consideration two paintings of the neoclassic painter Jean-Lěon Gĕrome: “Snake Charmer” and “The Slave Market”. An in-depth analysis of the aforementioned paintings should yield different information about their concealed meaning. More significantly, however, Gĕrome’s art will demonstrate the dominant view of Islam in the 19th century Europe. A third concern of this essay will take under consideration political cartoons depicting Islam and Muslims in a rather negative fashion. This particular point of interest will seek to elucidate how the image of Islam has changed in the visual arts after the events of 11/09.

Historical Background:
In explaining the negative attitude of the West towards Islam and Muslims, one must look back at the historical origin of the rivalry between the two entities and their changed power relationship. According to Ibrahim Kalin as early as the Middle Ages “Islam was seen as a major challenge to the Christianity.” That was mainly due to the fact that Islam constituted a theological as well as a political threat. It is assumed that from 622 (fall of Granada) until 1492 is a time of the hegemony of the Muslim World. It was during this period that the Muslim World experienced enormous expansion, with Islam spreading from the Arabian peninsula to North Africa and some parts of Asia and Europe. These successes of Islam prompted anti-Islamic sentiments in the Medieval Europe. Islam was denounced as the heresy, the Prophet Muhammad was to be considered  ‘an instrument of the devil’, whereas the Muslims were called Saracens. The anti-Islamic discourse was powerful enough to contaminate the whole Europe with its negative rhetoric. Generalizations and unverified beliefs about Islam, became undisputed facts of not only the Medieval Ages, but also of the other historical periods: “ These stereotypes which tend to lump Arabs, Muslims, Middle East into one highly negative image of violence and danger, are composed largely from collective memory, rather than from actual experience.”

Paradoxically, these ”axioms” over the years have been sustained and transcribed into the new historical circumstances. Thus, during the Renaissance and Enlightenment Islam was further denounced as a heretical religion, nevertheless, Islamic civilization simultaneously started to be admired by the various thinkers of the period. This was mainly caused by the shift in the power relations between the West and the East. Essentially, since the beginning of the crusades in the 11th century power was slowly orbiting towards the West. The year 1683, in which the expansion of the Ottoman Empire was stopped at Vienna marked a considerable change in the power relation. Nonetheless, the culmination of the Western superiority took place in the 19th century. It was in this century that most of the Middle East had been conquered by few major Europeans powers.

European colonialism comprises a turning point in the Western perception of Islam. First of all, Muslim world ceased to be consider as a major threat. It started to be view as a fallen and pitted civilization, which in opinion of many contemporary Europeans, required assistance from the more modern and sophisticated civilization:” (…) the Muslim Other is seen as the embodiment of inferior civilizations and cultures. (…) the attempt is made to embrace difference by trying to “understand” the culture and religion of the Other.”5 Thereby, an extensive studies of Islam took place, which resulted in launching of the new discipline of science, Orientalism. The creation of Orientalism led to various scientific publications, reports, journals and articles which had a long lasting effect on the Western perception:” (…) Orientalism reinforces the mystique of the Orient by evoking such fixed identities and stereotypes as the exotic harem, the sensuous East, the Oriental man and his concubines (…).”

As stated by Kalin “these images of the Orient are still alive in the European mind and continue to be an inexhaustible resource for Hollywood constructions of Islam and Muslims in America.” Indeed, western pop culture and the mass media of the 20th century have  sustained and what is more important have strengthened stereotypical image of Islam and Muslims.Nevertheless, since the colonialism none other event influenced western perception of Islam more, than the Al-Qaeda attacks upon the United States on September 11, 2001. 9/11 only seemed to confirm already existing negative perception of Islam. For many, Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” began. Ibrahim Kalim argued, moreover, that the 9/11 crystallized two main attitudes towards Islam: “ (…) the resurfacing of the medieval descriptions of Islam as the religion of the sword, the Prophet as the violent person, Muslim societies as monolithic, violent and power driven collectivities (…) ” And the second:” (…) Islam as a code of belief and action that is obstinately irrational, anti-modern, aberrant, rigid, religious, and traditional.”9 Post 9/11 discourse strongly affected the contemporary perception of Islam.

The above-mentioned adjectives, such as: violent, irrational, etc., became the only way Western societies view Islam. We started to equate Islam with the terrorist from Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda with Islam. Two terms began to mean the same. One should not forget, however, that Islam is not a monolithic but a diverse and multi-faced reality, thereby, to reduce the entire Muslim world to one of those adjectives would be a mistake.

Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, (Groove Press, New York 1963)
Edward Said, Orientalism, (Vintage Books, New York 1978)
Ibrahim Kalin, Roots o Misconception: Euro-American Perception of Islam Before and After September 11”, p. 145 (cited from www.worldwisdom.com/public/library/default.aspx)
Debra Merskin, The Construction of Arabs as Enemies: Post-September 11 of George W. Bush, Mass Communication&Society Journal, 7(2),
Mehdi Semati (2010): Islamophobia, Culture and Race in the Age of Empire, Cultural Studies, 24:2, p. 257
Ray Pratt, Rhythm and Resistance: Explorations in the Political Uses of Popular Music, (Praeger Publishing, New York 1992)
Linda Nochlin, The Politics of Vision, (Harper & Row Publishers, New York 1989)
Plato, The Republic, (Penguin Classics, London 1956)
Jean-Lon Gérôme cited from Linda Nochlin, The Politics of Vision, (Harper & Row Publishers, New York 1989)
Peter Gotschalk, Gabriel Greenberg, Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy,(Rowman & Littlefield, New York 2008)

Autor: Sławomir Usiatycki

Absolwent University of Aberdeen (Szkocja) oraz Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego. Stypendysta berlińskiego uniwersytetu Frei Universitat Berlin. Certyfikowany egzaminatorem British Council, ETS Global oraz Międzynarodowych Certyfikatów Językowych TGLS ,wykładowca akademicki Uniwersytetu Ekonomicznego w Łodzi.  Obecnie współpracuje z Direct Language School w Ząbkowicach Śląskich.


Autor: Salwador Pietruszka