Edward Said: How Is Orientalism Used to Dominate and Colonize?

Edward Said famously examined the concept of Orientalism, its inner consistency, its subject, and its ideological function of domination.

May 6, 2023By Klejton Cikaj, MSc in Social Philosophy, BA Philosophy

edward said orientalism colonization


When he came to the US from Palestine, Edward Said was shocked by the gap between his experiences as an Arab and the presentation of the Arab’s experience in literature, texts, films, and media. More than the misrepresentation, what was interesting for Said was that these productions of the knowledge about the Orient were consistent with each other.


In this article we will take a look at the main ideas surrounding Orientalism, how this alternative knowledge is produced and how it is mobilized to further imperialist interests in the middle east and elsewhere. Using real-life examples, we will explore Said’s concept of Orientalism and how Orientalism serves western interests, especially in international relations and geopolitics.


Edward Said on the Orient in the West

Aladdin poster
A theatrical film poster of Aladdin, exhibiting many of the tendencies of Orientalism. Produced by Walt Disney Motion Pictures, 2019 via Wikimedia Commons.


These are the lyrics to the opening song for the movie Aladdin:


“Oh, I come from a land, from a faraway place

Where the caravan camels roam

Where it’s flat and immense

And the heat is intense

It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home”


Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

For many people, Aladdin was one of the first impressions of the middle east. The movie is rich with exotic portrayals of the characters, of a place that seems to be stuck in time. In one scene, Princes Jasmine takes an apple from the stand and hands it to a hungry child. Having no money to pay for it, the shopkeeper exclaims that this was an act of stealing that had to be punished, so he grabs her hand and gets ready to chop it off with a sword. This backward, barbaric place, with spontaneous justice and no penal code, was the middle east or the Orient in many western people’s imagination.


Edward Said argues not only that these portrayals are incorrect but that, weirdly enough, the literature, movies, and texts produced about the Orient were consistent with each other. Through this consistency, they produced a new object, “the Oriental,” which was common to all of them.


In 1995, a bombing in Oklahoma City took place. It claimed 168 lives. Immediately, the media rushed in with premature analyses, declaring that an attack of these proportions was definitely carried out by middle eastern terrorists. Only half an hour after the event, Said had received over 25 calls to his office from major news outlets wanting to talk to him about the event. The supposition was that, due to him being from the middle east, Said would somehow have some insight that he could share with them on the motivations of the attack. Said was astounded. He was an academic lecturing in Canada. What made these people believe that he would have some information that they didn’t? The answer was that Said, to them, was an Oriental and that Orientals are all the same. The perpetrators of the attack turned out to be white anti-government extremists having nothing to do with the middle east.


The Production of the Oriental

tribute orientalism
The Tribute by Ludwig Deutsch, 19th century, via Sotheby’s.


According to Said, Orientalism as a project serves to build systematic knowledge about the Oriental, knowledge which ultimately serves to establish the superiority of the European over the Oriental.


The Orient is spaceless and timeless. The Oriental is the same everywhere, from Morocco to Saudi Arabia. The production of the Oriental through religious texts, novels, and mass media reports is always an act of essentialism, of capturing the essence of these people who live far away and are radically opposed to our ways of living. The contemporary version of Orientalism consists of images depicting scary black flags with alien writing on them, terrorism, bombings, and beheadings.


The Orient, as understood by Said, is not simply a product of western imagination with no basis in reality, as it has often been interpreted by some critics. It is rather the past and present production of materials, texts, and literature that enables colonial domination as a manufactured necessity (now post-colonial). Orientalism is knowledge of and knowledge about the Orientals, their history, tradition, capacity, and limitations. Through this knowledge, we can establish that Orientals do not know what’s good for them and are inherently unable to govern themselves. Therefore, they need someone to govern them. They are a subject race, made to be dominated and guided by the Western man who possesses such knowledge about them and their wants.


harem orientalism
The Harem in the Kiosk by Jean-Léon Gérôme, ca. 1870-1875, via Sotheby’s.


The western man knows the Oriental more than the Oriental knows himself. Thus, he is not only allowed, but obliged to enlighten them with the right path towards progress, which the Oriental is simply incapable of finding because they lack the critical faculties that make it possible. The Oriental man has no particularity: he is a universal. There’s rarely any difference between them from India to Egypt. The Oriental man is the same everywhere and must be dominated, controlled, and subjugated everywhere he is found. The Oriental man is a platonic essence embedded in a fleshless body.


These are the reasons and the rationalizations that the Western man has crafted for himself that enabled him to rule – often ruthlessly – over these “inferior” cultures. Orientalism is the study of the Oriental man that supplies the westerner with the parameters needed to understand the Oriental like a phenomenon with rules and regularity.


Orientalizing the Oriental

Cairo Demonstrations
Nationalists demonstrating in Cairo, March 1919, via Wikimedia Commons.


The Orient does not arise from the civilizations it refers to but is rather the product of the encounter of western civilization with these Other, different, and unintelligible cultures. However, Said’s focus is not the inaccurate representation that the westerner has made of the Oriental, but the internal consistency of the western works about the Oriental. The result is a self-referential world with its own rules and logic that academics, writers, novelists, and everyone participating in the Oriental discourse follows with outstanding consistency.


This inner consistency could not have persisted if Orientalism was merely an arbitrary fiction that the West has fabricated. Consistency requires a particular motive or interest. Orientalism is a manifestation of the power the occidental holds over the Oriental. The inaccuracies of Oriental representation aren’t produced by simple mistakes but are a by-product of a positivist and essentialist approach, along with the inertia of the consistency of the texts on the Orient. This conception is not restricted to a passive neutral observation but is a productive and constant force that moves the discourse toward its colonial logic.


Orientalism and Islam

kaabah hajj season
The Kaabah during the 2018 Hajj Season. Performing hajj is one of the pillars of Islam and required for those who can afford to do it. Adli Wahid, 26 August 2018, via Wikimedia Commons.


The production of the Oriental is tied to a caricature of Islam and is, as a project, fundamentally ahistorical. An example of this are anti-Islamic “intellectual” figures who popped up in the mainstream media to justify the invasion of Iraq, such as Sam Harris:


“All the beliefs around martyrdom explain the character of Muslim violence we’re seeing throughout the world. And if they had different doctrines, they would behave differently.” (Interview for Vox.com)


The Oriental is interpreted as having singular essence that explains his behavior – in this case, the Qur’an. The Oriental reads the Qur’an, and off he goes, committing murder because the Qur’an is bad. There’s no attention paid to US imperialism, which influenced the current condition of the middle east. There’s no discussion of US funding of fundamentalist groups in the middle east. There’s no analysis of the material conditions in which the Iraqis live, no account of the many geopolitical complexities which contribute to fundamentalist violence.


Everything that happens is reduced to the existence of a bad book, a bad ideology that gives people bad ideas. Harris’ inept interpretation of the conflict was rarely criticized at the time. He could even come out looking like a very rational and objective person in news media. The reason why this was possible is precisely because he was playing a tune familiar in the public consciousness of the average Western viewers: that of the Orient being stuck in time, unable to progress like European or American societies. Harris’s solution? Diagnosing them with Islam. The cure? Invasions, torture, and Muslim profiling: these are all things that Harris openly advocated for, all the while being held as a pillar of rationalism in the media.


Edward Said, Orientalism, and how Knowledge is Used to Obtain Power

President suharto
Suharto, second President of the Republic of Indonesia, at the start of his sixth term, State Secretariat of the Republic of Indonesia, 1993 via Wikimedia Commons


To have knowledge over the Orient and the Oriental means to be able to dominate it, to have power over it, to exert authority over that which you know. A similar rationale lies beneath our domination of nature. Nature, since Descartes, was seen as a mechanic entity abiding by physical laws which could be understood and manipulated. The Oriental isn’t much different, both literally (Racist myths often portrayed middle eastern people as being unevolved and closer to nature) and figuratively, in the sense that the Oriental could also be controlled once knowledge of it could be established.


“To have such knowledge of such a thing is to dominate it, to have authority over it. And authority here means for “us” to deny autonomy to “it”—the Oriental country—since we know it and it exists, in a sense, as we know it.”

(Said, Orientalism, p. 33)


Once knowledge of the Oriental is claimed, the colonial can now claim that he has more knowledge of the Oriental than the Oriental has of itself. This ideologically charged notion serves as the ground for the justification for every invasion, every colonial project, and every interference from a foreign power which proudly declares that the Oriental can not govern themselves. If they can’t govern themselves, they need someone to govern them.


A similar logic was adopted during interferences during the cold war, in which the US government was responsible for regime changes in more than 30 countries, not to mention their other countless interferences all over the globe. Third-world countries which were finally gaining independence from colonial superpowers were met with an ultimatum from the US: adopt friendly policies to them, open the market for their Investors, or you will be taken care of.


According to cold war propaganda, the emerging countries of the third world couldn’t govern themselves. They needed freedom, liberation from communists. In Indonesia alone, following the rise of the US-backed dictator Suharto, more than 1 million Indonesian people were killed in a ruthless crusade against communism.

Author Image

By Klejton CikajMSc in Social Philosophy, BA PhilosophyKlejton holds an MSc in Social Philosophy from the University of Tirana in Albania. Klejton has a deep interest in all philosophy-related fields, from metaphysics to epistemology, to the philosophy of mind and politics. Klejton is dedicated to making the substance of philosophy accessible to regular readers without diminishing its quality.