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Latent Orientalism Part I

Latent Orientalism

Part I: The Etiology of an Ideology

by Ronald L. Iverson

A Personal Encounter with Orientalism

Recently, I was discussing the double standard concerning Oriental dancers which is common in Middle Eastern societies. Most women who are paid as Oriental dancers are not considered respectable women, and most parents would probably not be very supportive if their daughter were to choose dance as a career. Yet the most successful dancers are revered as cultural icons and artists, receiving the same kind of adulation which movie stars or rock stars receive in the West.

My very intelligent friend was struggling to understand how such a contradictory double standard could exist. The conversation ended when he said, “I guess that is the way Middle Easterners are, right?” Before I could stop myself, I responded in the affirmative.

Turn of the Century European Salomé. Courtesy Tanz Oriental.

Upon further reflection, I realized that is where the conversation should have begun, not ended. My passive acceptance of this statement had the effect of supporting and affirming a negative characterization of Middle Easterners which I certainly do not agree with consciously. The implication was that Arabs are somehow two-faced, devious, emotional, irrational, inconsistent, etc. The ability of Arabs to accept and live this paradoxical standard regarding dancers was taken as evidence to support this perception.

Neither of us thought to point out that American parents have the same kind of dilemma when their children decide to become rock and roll musicians. In fact, many societies revere the people who perform the liminal functions on the edge of acceptable society, functions that help define and shape culture, yet would discourage their children from facing the obstacles and risking the ostracism which comes with those chosen paths.

What actually happened in that conversation was that we touched on powerful and unconscious attitudes toward Arabs which are common in Western society. Although the end of the conversation left me feeling uncomfortable, I was not quick enough to recognize and point out the negative stereotyping that had occurred. If the conversation had been about Blacks or Jews, I would have been much more sensitive and responsive. The same attention has not been paid to Western attitudes towards Arabs, leaving most Westerners unaware that they may be unconscious carriers of negative stereotypes.

The most important step in eradicating prejudice is to confess that as members of our society, we are also carriers of that dread social disease. It is impotent and useless to spend time condemning those nasty slave owners or Nazis for their horrible treatment of fellow human beings. The recognition that “I am a bigot” is to prejudice as “I am an alcoholic” is to alcoholism. This is the first step in bringing to light the unconscious, irrational influences within each of us which color our perception of others, and prevent us from engaging in human relationships in an objective, straight forward, and uncluttered way.

Another important step in eradicating a disease is to understand its etiology. We have learned important lessons in the dangers of stereotyping and prejudice from the struggles of the civil rights movement and the tragedy of the holocaust. A study of the function which anti-Jewish sentiment played in Nazi Germany, and an understanding of the legacy of slavery in U.S. society are instructional not only historically, but can also provide insights into human behavior which can then be applied in a very personal way to our individual experience today. It helps us to recognize the red flags in our own thought and speech, and prevents us from buying into the customs and behavior patterns which perpetuate those destructive attitudes.

Edward Said’s Orientalism

Fortunately, an intellectual foundation has been laid for an understanding of the etiology of anti-Arab sentiment in the West. A very significant contribution to this understanding is embodied in Edward Said’s Orientalism. Said’s bicultural experience places him at a unique vantage point to understand and critique the Western influence on the Middle East. He grew up and was educated in Palestine and Egypt, received a Western education at Princeton and Harvard (Ph.D., 1964), and for many years has been Parr Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He holds lofty status in Western academia: “His influence in the American academy has been primarily as one of the preeminent introducers of contemporary European critical theory, particularly as a critical supporter of Michel Foucault and opponent of Jacques Derrida, but his international prestige is based on his position as perhaps the best-known post-colonial critic.” (Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory, p. 461.)

Orientalism is widely considered to be the seminal work in post-colonial criticism. It is a study of the development and perpetuation of a Western tradition of knowledge concerned with the geographical area commonly known as the Middle East. Said asserts that this tradition of knowledge was not purely objective, but rather was founded on, and continues to be influenced by, a set of beliefs, fantasies and unsupported assumptions. He demonstrates that the historical inability to perceive “Oriental” societies without racial bias and cultural distortion can be traced as much to the gross generalizations of leading Western scholars as to the negative images of Arabs portrayed in the media.

Said points out three ways to view Orientalism. It is an academic discipline, created and perpetuated by specialists in the West who study the Middle East. In another sense, it is also a style of thought, one which focuses on the radical distinction between “Occident” and “Orient.” Orientalism in this context extends beyond the arena of the academic specialists: “A very large mass of writers, among whom are poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, ‘mind,’ destiny, and so on.” (Said, Orientalism, p. 2)

A third meaning of Orientalism, one which is the focus of Said’s major thesis in the book, treats it as a “discourse,” a concept developed originally by Michel Foucault (Foucault, The Order of Things), which encompasses the interactions between the ideas, persons and institutions associated with the Western encounter with the Middle East. “My contention,” asserts Said, “is that without examining Orientalism as a discourse one cannot possibly understand the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage — and even produce — the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period.” (Said, Ibid., p. 3). From the vantage point of their “superior” knowledge and social development, Orientalists viewed the Orient and Orientals as inferior objects to be studied and helped. Thus, Orientalism is a political knowledge, one which grew out of, served and promoted Western hegemony in the colonized Arab world, enhancing European strength and self-identity by casting the Orient in the role of inferior “other.” In Said’s words, “Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient — dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” (Ibid.)

The idea that Arabs were essentially inferior and uncivilized promoted a hierarchical relationship between the knower and the known, the Orientalist and the Oriental, and formed a basis for imperialist arguments that “uncivilized” areas of the world had a need to be colonized by the more advanced nations. Orientals were viewed as pathetic and alien, rarely seen, a subject race, a problem to be solved. Sympathetic study of classic Arabic texts and ancient accomplishments only served to foster the perception that contemporary Muslim society was in a sorry state of decay caused by the inadequacy of the Arab race, justifying at the same time both the Orientalist’s study as well as his condemnation of modern Orientals. Ideas regarding the biological basis for racial inequality, and quasi-Darwinian theories of advanced and backward races, found resonance with the attitudes regarding Oriental inferiority.

Much of Said’s effort in his work is devoted to clarifying the degree to which Orientalism misrepresents the Orient. Yet, in thus overriding the Orient, Orientalism also invented an “Orient” which acquired a reality of its own within the Orientalist discourse. Orientalists acquired the axiomatic assumptions about the “reality” of the Orient from their predecessors. The Orient and Orientals appear to be strikingly absent in the Orientalist discourse. Orientalism is a representation of the Orient from a position of exteriority. After all, Westerners are the only ones who are capable of studying the Orient, since Orientals are not capable of representing themselves. Even those writers who traveled to the Middle East, and were thus in a position to bring pieces of existential Oriental reality into the Oriental discourse, tended to be so steeped in the Orientalist tradition and their perceptions were colored to such an extent that they merely supported and perpetuated the traditional “created” Orient. Imperial administrators were especially prone to this distortion of perception as they created and controlled that portion of the Orient for which they were responsible.

The stated views of scholars, writers, administrators, and others about the Orient represent what Said calls manifest Orientalism, whose development and changes can be studied historically. Orientalism is an incredibly rich and detailed critique of the many contributors, some renowned, some unknown except in academic circles, to the development of the Orientalist discourse from the late eighteenth century to the present. More important to our consideration is Said’s concept of latent Orientalism, which represents the constellation of underlying attitudes and assumptions about the Orient which have remained essentially constant and unchanging through the years: “its sensuality, its tendency to despotism, its aberrant mentality, its habits of inaccuracy, its backwardness.” (Ibid.,p. 205) These attitudes were essentially imperialist, racist and ethnocentric.

Latent Orientalism fostered a sexist, male-dominated view of the Orient. As with other academic disciplines, Orientalists were almost all males, and Orientalism viewed itself and its subject in male terms. The Orient was viewed as a supine, submissive and malleable female ripe for Western intellectual and imperialist penetration. There is a persistent motif in Western writing about the Orient connecting it with sexuality: “not only fecundity but sexual promise (and threat), untiring sensuality, unlimited desire, deep generative energies.” (Ibid., p. 188) This attitude was especially prevalent in the writing of travelers and novelists: “women are usually the creatures of a male power-fantasy. They express unlimited sensuality, they are more or less stupid, and above all they are willing.” (Ibid., p. 207) The Oriental male, on the other hand, was often considered with a mixture of contempt and fear.

Gustave Flaubert’s accounts of his travels in the Orient, as well as the characters in many of his novels, are striking examples of the association of the Orient with sexuality. Although his undisputed genius certainly lent artistic dignity to this motif, the popularity of his writing also helped to cement Orientalist sexual fantasies in the European mentality. One of the most celebrated aspects of his travel accounts was his description of his encounters with Kuchuk Hanem, a dancer and courtesan from Wadi Halfa in the Upper Nile area. Kuchuk was an almeh, a term which originally described learned and accomplished reciters of poetry in the eighteenth century, but which by the nineteenth century was used to describe a class of dancer/prostitutes. (Ibid., p. 186). Flaubert was entranced by Kuchuk’s dance, “L’Abeille,” before he slept with her. She provided the material for such characters as Salomé and Salammbô, the sexual temptations to which St. Anthony was subject, etc.

In all of his novels, Flaubert associates the Orient with the escapism of sexual fantasy. Emma Bovary and Frédéric Moreau pine for what in their drab (or harried) bourgeois lives they do not have, and what they realize they want comes easily to their daydreams packed inside Oriental cliches: harems, princesses, princes, slaves, veils, dancing girls and boys, sherbets, ointments, and so on. The repertoire is familiar, not so much because it reminds us of Flaubert’s own voyages in and obsession with the Orient, but because, once again, the association is clearly made between the Orient and the freedom of licentious sex. We may as well recognize that for nineteenth-century Europe, with its increasing embourgeoisement, sex had been institutionalized to a very considerable degree. On the one hand, there was no such thing as “free” sex, and on the other, sex in society entailed a web of legal, moral, even political and economic obligations of a detailed and certainly encumbering sort….(T)he Orient was a place where one could look for sexual experience unobtainable in Europe. Virtually no European writer who wrote on or traveled to the Orient in the period after 1800 exempted himself or herself from this quest: Flaubert, Nerval, “Dirty Dick” Burton, and Lane are only the most notable. In the twentieth century one thinks of Gide, Conrad, Maugham, and dozens of others. What they looked for often — correctly, I think — was a different type of sexuality, perhaps more libertine and less guilt-ridden; but even that quest, if repeated by enough people, could (and did) become as regulated and uniform as learning itself. In time “Oriental sex” was as standard a commodity as any other available in the mass culture, with the result that readers and writers could have it if they wished without necessarily going to the Orient. (Ibid., p. 190)

The Death of Sardanapalus, Eugène Delacroix, 1827

Artists of the period were not immune to the Orientalist influence. Like Flaubert, Eugène Delacroix actually travelled to the Middle East, yet allowed his “education” in the Orientalist literature to overshadow his firsthand experience. In1832, Delacroix was invited to accompany a diplomatic mission to the Sultan of Morocco. The weeks he spent in North Africa in the spring of that year provided ineradicable memories of a primitive way of life which was, he felt, visually and spiritually closer to antiquity than to the present. But the “oriental” subjects he painted thereafter were often as violent and sensuous as those he discovered in his reading: “the clash of hunters and wild beasts in the hostile African landscape, the frenzy of religious fanatics at Tangier, the animal voluptuousness of women imprisoned in an Assyrian harem (see “The Death of Sardanapalus,” page 8), the magnificent panoply of the Sultan of Morocco on parade.” (Hamilton, 19th and 20th Century Art, p. 60)

In the nineteenth century, learning was taking a more statistical view of experience. Artists in academic settings especially relied on a realistic technique, and “visual truths were often used for the interpretation of scenes from mythology and history, scenes inaccessible to any but the imaginative vision.” (Ibid., p. 82) Jean-Léon Gérôme’s “The Slave Market” (see this page) presented a completely fictional scene with such photographic realism, inspired by the recent invention of photography, that one could scarcely doubt its authenticity. This development in the arts paralleled a development in academic Orientalism which used the authenticating power of “scientific” technique to justify the legacy of Orientalist assumptions and fantasies, which remained essentially unchanging in spite of the developments in thought during the nineteenth century.

The idea that the Orient and Orientals can change, grow or develop is foreign to the Orientalist point of view. The male-dominated point of view characteristic of latent Orientalism “tends to be static, frozen, fixed eternally. The very possibility of development, transformation, human movement — in the deepest sense of the word — is denied the Orient and the Oriental.” (Ibid., p. 208) The study of Islam yielded an anthropomorphic abstraction of the “Muslim Oriental,” and “the Arab mind,” which formed an axiomatic and unchanging basis for the study of Islamic culture. Contemporary trends in religious thought and practice were seen as corruptions of essential textual Islam, which itself contained a kind of “negative eternality.” “Latent inferiority” characterized the underlying attitude of Orientalist discourse about Islam.

The Slave Market, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1867

The ethnocentricity of latent Orientalism is especially evident in the Orientalist treatment of the Muslim prophet Mohammed. Mohammed’s role in Islam was viewed as analogous to Christ’s role in Christianity; thus, Mohammed was viewed as an imposter, Islam a misguided version of Christianity, with obvious implications for the corrupt nature of Islamic culture and the deceitful character of Muslims. Because of the trauma caused to Europeans by the real threat of the hegemony of Islamic militarism since the seventh century, Islam came to symbolize “terror, devastation, the demonic, hordes of hated barbarians.” (Ibid., p. 59) This religious conflict further fueled the negative perceptions of the Oriental.

In spite of the secularization and modernization of thought during the nineteenth century, the essential paradigms of latent Orientalism were distilled into an authoritative body of knowledge which was to form an unquestioned foundation for future developments in the study of and attitudes about the Middle East. In his analysis of nineteenth century writers, for instance, Said found that although there were differences between them in terms of form and personal style, “(e)very one of them kept intact the separateness of the Orient, its eccentricity, its backwardness, its silent indifference, its feminine penetrability, its supine malleability; this is why every writer on the Orient, from Renan to Marx (ideologically speaking), or from the most rigorous scholars (Lane and Sacy) to the most powerful imaginations (Flaubert and Nerval), saw the Orient as a locale requiring Western attention, reconstruction, even redemption.” (Ibid., p. 206)

The second and final article in this series, entitled “Latent Orientalism: the Modern Legacy,” will be printed in the next issue of Habibi, and will focus on how the foundations of Orientalism established in the nineteenth century continue to influence both academic and popular thinking today.


Clifford, James, Review of Orientalism, in History and Theory: Studies in the Philosophy of History, Vol. XIX, No. 2, 1980 pp. 204-223.

The Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory: Approaches, Scholars, Terms, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1993, pp. 155, 461-463.

Foucault, Michel, The Order of Things, New York: Random House, 1971.

Grewgious, Review of Orientalism, Critical Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 4, pp. 87-98.

Hamilton, 19th and 20th Century Art, Henry N. Abrams, Inc., N.Y., p. 60.

The John Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, JHV Press, Baltimore, 1994, pp. 582, 642-4.

Kapp, Robert A., Michael Dalby, David Kopf, and Richard H. Minear, “Review Symposium: Edward Said’s Orientalism,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 39, no. 3, May 1980, pp. 481-517.

Rassam, Amal, and Ross Chambers, “Comments on Orientalism: Two Reviews,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Cambridge University Press, Vol. 22, No. 4, October, 1980, pp. 505-512.

Said, Edward W., Orientalism, Vintage Books, N.Y., 1979.

First published in Habibi Magazine, Santa Barbara, CA, Volume 14, No. 3, Summer 1995, pp. 6-9.

Ronald Lloyd Iverson, Ph.D., served as assistant editor and layout design for Habibi from 1992 to 2002, and continues to assist in the production of The Best of Habibi. He has Bachelors degrees in Sociology (Pomona College) and Religious Studies (UCSB), a Masters degree in Counseling Psychology (Cal Poly), and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology (Pacifica Graduate Institute). He worked for 25 years as a child custody mediator and evaluator with the Superior Court in Santa Barbara, and is currently a psychotherapist in private practice. Email: roniverson@cox.net.

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