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How Orientalism Shaped Obama

The White House’s response to the anti-Islam video is proof of the enduring influence of Edward Said’s ideas

Lee Smith
September 20, 2012
Edward Said.(Francis Tsang/Cover/Getty Images)
Edward Said.(Francis Tsang/Cover/Getty Images)

In the early morning hours of Sept. 11, the U.S. embassy in Cairo issued a press release condemning the “continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.” It was a shameful statement—why should the U.S. government apologize for our First Amendment freedoms? It was easy to sympathize with American foreign service officers trying to soothe an angry mob gathering outside the embassy compound and threatening to burn it down.

But it was something else when U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice told ABC’s Jake Tapper on Sunday morning that the protests convulsing through the Muslim World were “the direct result of a heinous and offensive video that was widely disseminated, that the U.S. government had nothing to do with, which we have made clear is reprehensible and disgusting.” At this point, you could no longer chalk it up to an attempt to calm religious fanatics menacing American diplomats.

No, it seems this administration actually believes that the anti-American protests that swept through the Muslim world last week were the result of a shoddy online movie trailer. Never mind that the Libyan president said that the murders of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others in Benghazi were the result of a pre-planned attack. Or that in Cairo the video was not widely disseminated, as Rice claimed, but shown on an Islamist TV station in an abridged form. Or that the video simply served as one pretext among others for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Salafist rivals to mass in front of the U.S. embassy and embarrass President Mohamed Morsi by showing that he can’t control Egypt’s streets.

Perhaps the White House knows all this, and blaming the video is part of some complex public diplomacy campaign. But it’s hard to see how this makes President Obama look good. Two months from the presidential election, the White House seems to be telling the electorate that one person’s unpleasant representation of Islam and its prophet is more significant than mobs rioting and burning American flags in more than 20 countries.

The question is why the White House is using this particular conceit to obscure the obvious: that the video was nothing more than a pretext for an intra-Arab political offensive; that various domestic political forces, as is often the case in Arab politics, used the United States as a bank-shot to score points off of each other; and that the demonstrations were simply another example of intra-Arab power politics.

Just as the Bush Administration sought expertise outside of government when it ran into troubles in the Middle East, it seems that the Obama White House has done the same. Where President Bush and Dick Cheney reached out to scholars like Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami to help them interpret the region, it seems Obama has taken a page out of Edward Said’s Orientalism.

Said, who died in 2003, was a larger-than-life professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia. (Obama, who was a student in 1981-1982, must have been aware of the internationally famous Palestinian-American professor, though because his transcripts haven’t been released we don’t know if he ever studied with Said. We do know that they both spoke at a 1999 event for Said’s colleague and Obama’s friend Rashid Khalidi.) But lack of personal connection would hardly prevent Said from influencing Obama’s views of the region. Although Said was not a Middle East expert, his 1978 masterwork, Orientalism, has shaped how at least a generation’s worth of academics, journalists, and laymen see the region.

The book argues that 18th- and 19th-century Western cultural representations of the Middle East served the aims of Western powers seeking to dominate the lands of Islam and subjugate its peoples. In Said’s telling, the demeaning accounts and images of Islam and the Middle East produced by European artists, writers, and historians helped the great European empires—and later the United States—overrun peoples whose humanity the West did not fully recognize.

The book is one of the most influential to come out of the academy in the last half-century, even giving rise to a number of separate disciplines within humanities departments. More important, it made legions of readers sensitive to the depredations of past imperial interference and Western foreign policy in the Middle East, leading many to conclude that a key goal of U.S. policy should be to reverse this pattern. However, Orientalism is not about the Middle East, but about the way the Middle East has been represented. As Said openly admitted in the afterword to the 1994 edition of the book, “I have no interest in, much less capacity for, showing what the true Orient and Islam really are.”

Perhaps the literature professor was using a postmodern trope here, but regardless such nuances were lost on readers who hadn’t been exposed to continental literary theory and instead imagined they were getting useful insights into a very complex part of the world. The effect of Said’s book was to show them that they didn’t really need to know much about the region, except for two major facts: that demeaning Western representations of Islam—orientalist renderings of the region—were to be avoided at all costs since these were the instruments of empire, and foreign interference was almost entirely responsible for the region’s pathologies.

“So far as the United States seems to be concerned,” Said wrote in the Nation in 1980, “it is only a slight overstatement to say that Moslems and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have instead is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression.”

Said was right that very little of that detail reached American audiences. But he was partly to blame for giving the impression that all they needed to know about the region was how Westerners had misrepresented, misunderstood, and colonized it. In other words, instead of describing the density and passion of the Middle East, Said flattered the self-image of Westerners: Everything that had gone wrong with the Middle East was because of them. Accordingly, for the Obama Administration, it is almost inconceivable that last week’s demonstrations could have been about anything other than something that we Americans did.

There were prior hints that Obama’s understanding of the region was shaped by Said’s approach. In his June 2009 Cairo speech, Obama said, “I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.” That bizarre formulation, that an American president must be vigilant against unflattering representations of Islam, makes more sense now. By ignoring on-the-ground dynamics in the Muslim world and focusing on a Western cultural product, this past week the administration has made its analytical model of the region clear. Said would’ve surely seen the video the same way: as another example of an “orientalist”—i.e., demeaning—representation of Islam, and another example of Western arrogance toward Middle Easterners.

He would have been wrong. The truth is that there are lots of people in the region who are disdainful of Said’s paternalism, his eagerness of find offense everywhere in order to protect Middle Eastern sensibilities. Rather, they want exactly what Americans have, the right to criticize anything we like, including or especially religion. The Obama Administration failed them as well as Americans when they missed an opportunity to make a robust defense of America’s universal values. Instead, it was trying to placate a bloodthirsty mob by observing the intellectual strictures of an English professor.


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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.