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East is East, and West is West: The Concept of the 'East' in the Western Mind

A fountain and the hall is pictured in Great Court at Trinity College, part of the University of Cambridge, in Cambridge, east England on October 14, 2020 [JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images]
A fountain and the hall is pictured in Great Court at Trinity College, part of the University of Cambridge, in Cambridge, east England on October 14, 2020 [JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images]

In 1636, the prestigious British University of Cambridge established a department of Arabic Studies. The purpose of this department was stated in a letter by the founder of the department as follows: "The work itself we conceive to tend not only to the advancement of good literature by bringing to light much knowledge which as yet is locked up in the learned tongue, but also to the good service of the King and State in the commerce with the Eastern nations, and in God's good time to the enlargement of the borders of the Church, and propagation if Christian religion to them who now sit in darkness".

The first holder of chair of Arabic at Cambridge planned to write a book that refutes the Qur'an, although he never completed this book. One of his early successors in the 18th century wrote a book entitled "The History of Saracens", and recommended that the Qur'an should be read in order to contradict or refute. These, then, were the goals of Arabic and Oriental studies in most of the European universities at that time. They were not only scientific goals but were political, colonial, commercial, and religious goals as well.

In the mid-sixties of the twentieth century, Arab writers, intellectuals, and researchers appeared in Europe and America, who studied, learned, and resided in the West. They began to criticize the Western view and ideas about the East, which were reported, published, and fixed by Western researchers and writers interested in the East, who described it, studied it, and wrote about it, the so-called "Orientalists".The first of these researchers was the Egyptian-French Coptic communist scholar and thinker, Anouar Abdel-Malek (1924-2012) when he wrote a very famous article in 1963 entitled "Orientalism in Crisis".

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Abdel-Malek said in his article that Western Orientalists were of two types; the first type were researchers, scholars, and writers interested in the East, and the second type were travellers, army leaders, employees of the Western occupation, merchants and businessmen, who came to the East for different reasons and resided there for different periods as well.

Abdel-Malek believed that the view of the two types of Orientalists to the East was actually one. It was a racist, superior view looking at the East as an isolated, weak, passive, ineffective, and non-sovereign identity. They considered that the East is a place ready for interference, penetration, and exploitation by the advanced civilized West.

The Palestinian-British scholar and intellectual, Abd Al-Latif Al-Tibawi (1910 – 1981) came later and published another famous article in 1964 entitled "English-Speaking Orientalists".Tibawi said that there has always been a deep hostility on the part of the European world towards Islam, and that, since the nineteenth century, there has been a strong relationship between Christian missionaries heading to the East, and Western academic Orientalists who used to study and write about the East. As a result, many Western Orientalists have been influenced by the goals of those missions and failed to achieve scientific neutrality in their view of the East and in their writings about it.

Tibawi also said that these Orientalists adopted rigid and preconceived ideas about Islam, and they showed a nearly complete lack of understanding of the nature of the Holy Qur'an. They did not view it as the immortal, uncreated word of God, but rather as a human composition, in which elements and ideas from Christianity and Judaism were introduced.

Then the Palestinian-American Protestant intellectual and scholar, Edward Said, (1935-2003) came in his most famous book "Orientalism", that he published in 1978, to confirm the arrogant-colonial view that prevailed in the language of Western Orientalist discourse towards the East. This view has considered the world as made of two unequal halves, Orient and Occident, and the relationship between them "is the relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony".

Said emphasised the idea of Europe as "a collective notion identifying "us" Europeans as against all "those" non-Europeans, and that the idea of European identity is always superior in comparison with all non-European peoples and cultures".

Said also criticised most of the studies, writings, and ideas written and formulated by Western Orientalists of all kinds, nationalities, and times. He considered that they were mainly aimed at achieving and imposing the strong West's control over the weak East. From their point of view, this control is justified by virtue of the natural Western superiority arising as a result of race, birth, and culture, thought, and civilisation.

Said concludes that "the notion that Arabs are qualitatively different than Westerners (and almost always worse), is still fairly widespread in scholarly and journalistic circles".

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It is surprising that many Eastern, Arab, and Muslim scholars, educated and laypeople have been influenced—and even believed in those Western ideas and opinions about themselves, their culture, and their religion. They were content to live subjugated, defeated, and overwhelmed, whether by the Western occupation in the past or by their new tyrant rulers which serve the purposes of the Western powers. Many of them have Western ideas and opinions, imported and alien to their beliefs, cultures, and societies, under the pretext of liberation, enlightenment, progress, and civilisation. Said about East and West:- East is East, West is West, and they will never meet.

Rudyard Kipling: British poet, writer, Orientalist, and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (1907)- East is East and West is West; if they meet, a clash of civilisations will break out.

Samuel Huntington: American political scientist, professor at Harvard University, and author of "The Clash of Civilisations".- East is East, and West is West, and if they meet, I get a commission.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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