‘The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the public alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary’ (H.L. Mencken, 1923)

The BBC documentary ‘The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear’ aired in the United Kingdom during November 2004 was a fascinating insight into the rise of fear as a political tool and source of manipulation. According to the documentary, the failure of American liberalism during the 1960s and 1970sand decreasing American state legitimacy drove the search for new avenues to restore power and authority. Instead of delivering dreams, politicians began to promise protection from nightmares in order to derive much-needed legitimacy. In the past, the Soviet Union was labelled as the nightmare to be fought against through state knowledge and power. Post September 11th, a new nightmare shaping fear and driving US foreign policy emerged packaged in the form of ‘Islamic Fundamentalism’. The need to fight ‘Islamic fundamentalists’ for the sake of national security and world peace has become a predominant preoccupation.

What has become increasingly apparent, however, is that certain intellectual perspectives towards Islam and the Middle East are driving the discourse. After a subdued role in the public arena during the 1990s, Orientalist perspectives of Islam and the Middle East have re-surfaced, contributing to the construction of another perceived nightmare from which people need rescuing and saving.

Orientalism: Study and Approach

According to the Oxford English dictionary (1971), the word Orientalism was generally used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to refer to the work of the Orientalist, a scholar versed in the languages and literatures of the Orient (Macfie, 2002). Toward the end of the eighteenth and the first quarter of the nineteenth centuries, the word began to acquire and reflect an alternative meaning, which coincided with British colonial rule and governance in India. Orientalism in the British tradition was used to refer to or identify a ‘conservative and romantic’ approach to the problems of government, faced by the officials of the East India Company in India (Mackenzie, 1995). This understanding and perception of Orientalism dominated minds and official political thinking during the epoch mentioned and was viewed as providing a much needed insight into the culture, behaviour, traits and mannerisms of the Orient, so that the Occident could attain a better understanding of far-off societies and civilisations. This rather abstract approach and study towards the Orient came into question during the period of de-colonisation that followed the end of the Second World War (1939-1945). Previously considered a neutral discipline, Orientalism began to attract suspicions of cynicism and subjectivity in its approach towards the Orient. This new attitude towards Orientalism turned this approach into a fiercely contested word within the world of academia. After recognition as a scholarly tradition, concerned with the study of the Orient, its approach was now found to be rather biased, touching upon negativism – some even suggested a hint of racism – as it consistently concluded that non-western civilisations (Orient) were inferior and mediocre in contrast to the superior and more advanced Occident (Sardar, 1999). More specifically, the culpability for this inferiority and backwardness was placed upon Oriental cultures and values. According to Orientalism, these values had effectively chained and subdued societies, preventing them from progressing and engaging in the process that drove the ‘Enlightenment’ and Reformation in the Occident, which consequentially gave birth to capitalism and the liberal ideology, laying the foundation for the scientific and industrial revolutions that followed (Said, 1978). In essence, according to the Orientalist perspective, the internal configuration and orientation of such societies was the underlying dominant causation behind their deterioration and decline (Roy, 1994).

Scholars such as Anouan Abdel Malek, an Egyptian sociologist, Abdul Latif. Tibawi, a Palestinian scholar of Arab history, Bryan S. Turner, a leading English sociologist and Edward W. Said have provided scholarly critique of Orientalism, associating it with imperialism. Edward Said’s book ‘Orientalism’ exposed the inherent perceived prejudices towards Arabs and Muslims in the works of leading writers and intellectuals who would class themselves as Orientalists. He argued that the portrayal of the Orient in novels and other published material in Europe and America was intended to provide the legitimacy for colonialism. This line of argument was reinforced in Said’s later books, such as ‘Culture and Imperialism’ and ‘Covering Islam’ (Othman, 2003). However, this refutation of Orientalism did not go unchallenged, with Orientalists launching a defence of their approach against the aforementioned academics. Rather than delving into the numerous arguments posed by the advocates and opponents of Orientalism, my article aims to provide an insight into the re-emergence of Orientalist perceptions of the Middle East post-9/11. I also intend to provide an intellectual framework for a constructive discussion and debate about the way forward for the Middle East from the predicament it is in today. Problems exist in all states, whether the problems are related to social relations, economics, or politics and the Middle East is no exception; it deserves objective analysis, approach and study in order to understand the truth of the situation.

The Orient re-visited

The Middle East has been an important centre of colonial struggle and conflicting interests due to its economic riches and strategic geographical position. Media focus and coverage of the Middle East has been intensein the last few years, which is not surprising given that the region has become the centre for the American led War on Terror and the drive for democratisation which has been articulated as a foreign policy objective by Bush administration. As a result of the aggressive neo-conservative foreign policy, debate about the root causes of ‘Islamic terrorism’, the socio-economic failings of the region and the political future of the Middle East has come to the fore. This debate amongst western thinkers and policy makers is remarkable and a major turn around, given that prior to the 1990s, the Middle East was seen as beyond hope of change and reform, unlike other regions around the world, coinciding with Samuel Huntington’s ‘Third Wave’ of democratisation (1991). The term ‘Middle Eastern Exceptionalism’ was coined to infer the apparently inherent inability of the region to engage in any substantial political engineering in order to re-orient its stagnant political infrastructures. The seminal work on political reform and change by Diamond et al during the 1980s excluded the Middle East, further reinforcing the repuation of the region as a political anomaly.

During the 1980s, academics such as Elie Kedourie, Bernard Lewis and Fuad Ajami related this peculiarity of the region to intrinsic cultural issues, emphasising traditional Orientalist arguments about the backwardness of the Orient. They pointed out a number of factors that they believed contributed to the backwardness and stagnation of Middle Eastern societies; issues such as the absence of civil society, the Arab psyche, praetorianism and the domination of patriarchy within Arab political systems. A number of issues emerged which the Orientalists perceived as root causes of backwardness in the Middle East, but significantly they connected the above-mentioned factors to the institutional role Islam has played in Middle Eastern societies. Islam developed, according to them, a political culture and mindset of entrenched gender polarisation and passivity, which resulted in social imbalance and consequently led to a downward spiral of backwardness (Kedourie, 1992). This particular reading of the Middle East was dominant during the 1980s, but with the end of Communism, alternative perspectives and theses emerged concerning the Middle East, which did not propound such a negative picture concerning prospects of reform. The field of Middle Eastern Studies gained further diversity in addition to the Saidian school of thought (named thus because it followed from the approach of Edward Said) and put Orientalist negativism on the back foot. Despite this intellectual diversity in relation to the study of the Middle East, the old commentaries have returned to the fore post-9/11, providing a regurgitation of old ill-conceived perceptions of the Middle East. The skewed commentaries provided by the Orientalists have been instrumental in shaping public mindsets and thinking towards the Middle East.

Contemporary societies in the Middle East have been under sustained attack for their lack of democracy, discrimination against religious minorities and the inferior legal status of women. The Orientalist dogma of negativism, subjectivity and perceiving the ‘other’ has resurfaced, providing justification for America to project its power and to utilise violence to liberate the backward Middle East from dictatorial and autocratic political systems. Bernard Lewis, described as ‘the doyen of Middle East Studies’, has penetrated Bush’s Pentagon and National Security Council and has been instrumental in helping the likes of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld develop their understanding of the causes of the problems in the Middle East and the potential correctives (Alam, 2002). Secular democracy is presented by Lewis as a cure for the ills of the region, requiring hard power in order to institutionalise secular models of governance. A decisive show of American strength in the Arab world is needed to take the offensive in the region and rid it of despotism. He was among the earliest voices in the aftermath of 9/11 to press for confrontation with Iraq, expressing his thoughts in a series of pieces in the Wall Street Journal with titles like ‘A War of Resolve’ and ‘Time for Toppling’ (Hirsh, 2004). Lewis is not alone; a fleet of able lieutenants, such as Raphael Patai, Thomas Friedman, Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer have all made ample contributions. Martin Kramer’s book, ‘Ivory Towers on Sand: The failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America'(2002), launches a scathing attack upon the present status of scholarship in the field in America, considering it too apologetic and failing in its duty to inform policy makers of the real issues concerning Islam and the Middle East.

Twenty seven years after the publication of Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’, in which he highlighted the intentions, assumptions, modalities and negativity of the Orientalist approach, there is a dire need for an objective and thoughtful discourse about the Middle East that excluding bias and prejudices. We can agree with Orientalism’s criticisms of the authoritarianism, moribund political systems, economic retardation and the oppression that women face in the region. I hope to discuss in the following sections of the article what factors, or factions, are to blame for such problems, in order to widen the parameters of blame and criticism.

Who or what is to blame?

Put simply, the Orientalists consider the Islamic culture to be fundamentally responsible for the political, economic and social failure of the Middle East, in the past and in the contemporary era. In his aforementioned book What Went Wrong? Western impact and Middle Eastern response, Bernard Lewis identifies the Islamic culture as a key cause of the malaise that pervades the Middle East today. He argues that the absence of clearly defined secular parameters are an instrumental factor in the region’s modernity deficit. According to Lewis secularism, recognising the separation of church and state “is, in a profound sense, Christian”, as the Christian injunction to give God and Caesar each their due laid the framework for the evolution and development of modern western societies. Western secularism is therefore inherently Christian due to the presence of this religious precept in Christian theology. Prior to the enlightenment era the Church had transgressed against Christianity and imposed itself upon society. Progressively increasing its power, it used the state to eliminate or marginalise competing religions; it gained the right to define all religious dogma and rituals; it acquired properties, privileges and exclusive control over education; it expanded its legislative control over different spheres of society (Alam, 2002). This was the predicament of Europe during Medievalism and a crucial factor, according to Lewis, in the failings of Europe until the separation of Church and state, first seen in the French revolution, heralded a new era of progress and modernisation. Consequently Lewis identifies the role of Islam in the political domain as a key source of backwardness.

The Orientalists fail to understand the deterioration of the Middle East when they view the region through the lens of European history. A number of factors formed the environment within which Europe underwent political change, heralding the emergence of secular political systems. Abuses such as simony, nepotism and financial excess were frequent, leading to much popular discontent. The theocratic nature of government, which prohibited criticism of both Church and state, distancing the Church from the masses. Finally the periodic antipathy of the church towards scientific progress and modernity further incensed the burgeoning intellectual classes. These factors collectively provided the backdrop for the emergence of new ideas that began to challenge the undisputed authority of the Church and led to the birth of the secular political order.

In contrast to the situation in Medieval Europe, a study of Islamic culture and Islamic history would indicate the great extent to which they are adverse to the problems that necessitated transition to a new model of political governance in Europe. With all Muslims bound by Islamic law to the same degree and with no exceptions, Islam has not developed a clergy. The existence of scholars well-versed in the Islamic disciplines has never translated into a religious hierarchical structure with monopoly over religion. In addition, history is testament to the absence of institution equivalent to the Church in the Islamic world, which owned or owns thousands of properties, serfs and acres of land. The mosque has an important role in Islamic society but is has never been bound by feudalism, the way archbishops, bishops and abbots in Germany ‘gave their loyalty to the king and became no different than great nobles, managing agriculture and owing military services’ (Durant, 1950). Therefore the religious elite and exploitive religious institutions that plagued Europe prior to the reformation have no place within Islamic culture and never developed in Islamic societies in the past.

The Islamic model of government is not theocratic, as the ruler is not divinely appointed, nor is he beyond the law. A just society is further enhanced by the presence of accountability mechanisms such as political parties, a council of representatives and an independent judiciary that curtail the emergence of oppressive government. The Orientalist caricature of authoritarianism being inherent in Islamic culture seems rather one-dimensional after inspection of the Islamic political system. A clearer outline of that system can be found in the article ‘New Caliphate New Era’ in this edition of New Civilisation.

Islamic history bears testimony to the progress that was made in the various sciences led to a highly developed civilisation. The fear of a society based upon religion being an anathema to science and technology was not realised in Islam, therefore the dichotomy between religion and science does not exist in its culture. While a framework existed to ensure law and order, the excesses of state intrusion upon society did not manifest in the Islamic world to the extent to which they were found in Europe. It is clear that the analogy between Western and Islamic historical development is weak, so it is unfortunate that Lewis and others have failed to provide a proper insight into the nature of Islamic culture, but have instead continued to purport the traditional Orientalist party line. I am not trying to put an Elysian sheen on Islamic history, because there is no doubt that serious failings on various fronts did occur. However such failings need to be analysed through a constructive prism rather than projecting Europe’s experiences into a dissimilar environment.

So what factors lie behind the current situation of the Middle East if the Orientalist view is unfounded? Drawing upon the recent history of the Middle East demonstrates further failings in the Orientialist reading of the Muslim world. Rather than Islamic culture featuring prominently in the political structures of the region and thus holding the Muslim world back, the reality is that for most of the last two centuries, Islam largely vacated the political space, to the extent that it came to be practiced almost exclusively in a social and spiritual capacity. The increasing political marginalisation of Islam can be traced back to the early 19th century, when officials in the Ottoman Caliphate found it difficult to apply Islam and to confront the numerous challenges they faced from an increasingly assertive and ambitious Europe, because of the absence of the juristic process of ijtihad. The loss of ijtihad as a tool for tackling new problems was the result of a broader intellectual, cultural and juristic decline that had been festering since the 13th Century CE. Following the closure of the ‘doors of ijtihad’, which meant restrictions were placed on the exercise of this intellectual discipline, a narrow approach developed in understanding Islam to problems in the society. The trend away from Islam became particularly pronounced by the mid-nineteenth century, when Ottoman reforms explicitly introduced European legal precepts in the form of a new penal code in 1857, new laws for trading rights in 1858 and the separation of courts ending the exclusivity of the Shariah courts. The eventual termination of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924 marked the formal end of Islam in a ruling capacity, though Islam had no practical presence in political life for years before that.

The despots who followed – and who currently plague the Middle East – did not draw on an Islamic political or cultural heritage to rule but rather flagrantly contradicted it; the fact that they rule over Muslims and periodically use religious rhetoric does not change this. Blaming the current tyranny and backwardness on Islam ignores the vast changes of the past two centuries, which in fact created the political vacuum that the current authoritarian dictators, monarchs and presidents eventually filled, and who now represent the real impediment to progress. Importantly, as a factor in the ongoing failure to progress, the slow marginalisation of Islam also marked a move away from a complimentary set of political, social, and economic ideas capable of articulating a coherent direction – which had once formed the basis of a formidable civilisation – to the take-up of a mixture of different and even contradictory thoughts in the scramble for new solutions, ideologies and political values. This led to a confused picture on how to proceed and what it meant to progress. Arab nationalism, Arab socialism, and the like all represented experiments that ultimately ended in failure, their number and variety representing the confused political scene that arose in the wake of Islam’s marginalisation. This failure to map a coherent direction thus acted as an impediment to progress.

Such internal factors as outlined above are a justifiable lens through which one can view the backwardness of the Middle East. However as Edward Said mentioned, nothing that goes on in our world has ever been isolated from outside influence and interference. Therefore we need to discuss issues of injustice and suffering within the context of this external influence. Middle Easterners are continuously told that victimology and dwelling upon the depredations of colonialism are ways of evading the responsibility that faces the region in the present. This carries some truth as one can become lost in the sea of history and self-pity. But this habit of blaming others for internal issues within the Middle East is presented by Orientalists to focus and restrict the problem on the culture exclusively, and therefore exclude other factors and reasoning. This is of course is also V.S Naipaul’s contribution to literature, that the victims of empire wail while their country is ruined and ravaged.

This flimsy reasoning however ignores colonial intrusion and interference in the affairs of the Middle East. The region has been a constant target of intervention and interference by foreign powers throughout history due to its importance strategically and economically. The key problem in the region at the moment is entrenched political systems that are failing the people. These regimes have been installed and maintained by foreign powers. They have acted against their own populations, resulting in bloodbaths and massacres. Competing foreign powers have waged proxy wars at the expense of stability in the region, preventing the emergence of a clear and stable political path. The regimes today are not representative of an Islamic heritage or Islamic thinking in ruling, therefore to equate Islam with authoritarianism is incorrect and naïve. The line that started in 1798 with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, the colonial takeover of North Africa, and the Mandate era, continued during the twentieth century with struggle over resources and strategic control in the Gulf, in Iraq, Syria and Libya. The consequences of greed and meddling have been horrific, leaving their scars on the region to this day. The creation of the nation state system and colonisation of the region in the aftermath of the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire led to the emergence of nationalistic struggles for liberation. The rise of anti-colonialist nationalism resulted in the death of thousands such as what unfolded during the Egyptian uprising of 1919 and the Algerian war of 1954, which ended in 1962. Decolonisation was the not the end of instability, as after the short period of relative independence, the region witnessed political turmoil resulting in the era of military coups and counter coups, insurgency and civil war. Syria experienced 29 different governments between 1946 and 1970; a similar story of instability can be traced in Jordan and Iraq. The era of national liberation coincided with the advent of the Cold War, a period within which the West were content to support tyrannical regimes in order to safeguard national interests from the Soviet threat. Populations were subjugated under despots such as Saddam Hussein, Anwar Sadat, Hassan Bourgiba and King Hussein, who cared little for their populaces but were supported and backed by the West. After the end of the Cold War, there was little change in policy towards the autocratic regimes in the Middle East with support continuing for rulers such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Ben Ali of Tunisia. Persistent interference in Middle Eastern affairs and explicit support to despotic regimes has led to theimprisonment of tens of thousands throughout the region, especially those who call for a return to an Islamic system.

The post 9/11 climate does not herald a change in policy towards the Middle East, despite calls for democracy and freedom from the Bush administration. Support for selected regimes continues whereas those considered as potential threats are dismantled through American power. All the above-mentioned events are products of external interference and the consequences have been horrific to say the least. The Middle East is a strategic region and due to its importance foreign powers have constantly taken the interventionist approach, safeguarding interests at the expense of the needs of the region’s population. The aspirations of the people have been neglected by the regimes and the foreign powers, which has bred a deep-rooted culture of political apathy , which has grown over the decades but is now being replaced by a demand for change. The people have become increasingly assertive and aware of the fact that they have often been pawns in a wider political game for control of the region by foreign powers, which does not seem to abate any time soon.

Therefore what should become apparent is the greater context to the discussion about the state of the Middle East. Objectivity is clearly needed to move away from the narrow isolated approach to understanding the Middle East, in order to succeed in providing thought-provoking insight into the reality of the region. I hope that through this article I have been able to initiate the beginning of a discussion beyond the constraints that Orientalism has built, a discussion that extends into a more comprehensive understanding of the problems of the region. The Middle East is at an important juncture in history, with perceptions of its problems currently being built upon bias, value judgements and preconceptions. This thinking is penetrating and mapping American foreign policy towards the Middle East, which does not inspire confidence concerning the future of the region given what has already happened since 9/11. Pandora’s Box has been opened, inviting objective and inclusive discussion about the political future of the region.


Edward W Said, (1978), ‘Orientalism’, Routledge and Keegan Paul Ltd.

Edward W Said, (1995), ‘Orientalism: Western conception of the Orient, London: Penguin Books.

Zaiuddin, Sardar, (1999), ‘Orientalism’, Open University Press

A.L. Macfie, (2002), ‘Orientalism’, Pearson Education Limited

Oliver Roy, (1994), ‘The failure of Political Islam’, I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd.

Edward W Said, ‘Preface to Orientalism’, Al Ahram Weekly, 22/05/05

Murad Othman, (2003), ‘Edward Said- The emperor is dead’, http://www.globalcomment.com

Samuel Huntington, (1991), ‘The Third Wave: Democratization in the late twentieth century’, University Oklahoma Press.

Shahid Alam, (2002), ‘Scholarship or Sophistry? Bernard Lewis and the New Orientalism’, Studies in Contemporary Islam 4.

Bernard Lewis, (2002), ‘What Went Wrong? Western Impact and the Middle East Response, Oxford University Press.

J.J Rousseau, (1762), ‘Social Contact’, http://www.mdx.ac.uk/www/study/xrou.htm

Elie Kedourie, (1992), ‘Arab and Political Culture’, Washington Institute for Near East Policy

Martin Kramer, (2002), ‘Ivory Towers on Sand: The failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America’, Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

J. MacKenzie, (1995), ‘Orientalism: History, Theory and the Arts’, Manchester.

Michel Foucault, (1991), ‘Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison’, London: Penguin Books, pp27.

Will, Durant, (1950), ‘The Age of faith’, New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc.

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