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What is Occidentalism?

My answer to this question will be in the form of a set of questions revolving around whether, as in the case of Orientalism as defined by Said, the texts produced by authors from the ‘Orient’ actually belong to a collective formation which we may call ‘Occidentalism’, and whether there exists a synthesis between these texts and their authors and this complex collective formation to which they consciously or unconsciously contribute.

In other words, did these authors work towards the construction of a discourse and a way of thinking which we may call Occidentalism? A way of thinking that is charged with feelings of revulsion, anger and disgust in the same way as Orientalism is charged with feelings of domination and superiority towards an Orient which is depicted as barbaric, inferior and flaccid?

Is Occidentalism a rejection of, if not a rebellion against, Orientalism? Have these authors produced their texts as a counter-discourse against Orientalism? If so, are they motivated by a desire to change the negative and stereotypical images produced about them? Or to create an equally damaging set of (mis)representa- tions that would dehumanize the Occident, or at least unmask it for its inhumane deeds during and after colonization whose legacy is seen as the main source of the ills of the present?

And if so, what is the purpose of this endeavor? Is the Orient engaging in a war of words which often justifies, whether in a direct or an indirect manner, the many political wars which exist today between Orient and Occident?

On the other hand, isn’t this intellectual dialogue between Orient and Occident an attempt at reconciliation and rapprochement? Isn’t distortion in representation often a result of a lack of genuine encounter?

The term ‘Occidentalism’ is often defined as an inversion of Orientalism, which also entails an inversion of its function; while Orientalism is a mode of representation of the Orient in a stereotypical manner, Occidentalism is also defined as stereotyped and sometimes essentialized views on the Occident.

What is of major importance in this study is the evolution of the relationship between Orient and Occident, how it all began and how it developed. Is it really all about hatred and revulsion? If so, what are the causes which resulted in such feelings and why is it that the Occident was and remains till this date a major attraction to people from the East? How could hatred and revulsion for the Occident make it at the same time a pole of attraction to people from the Orient, in both colonial and post-colonial times? Could one speak of a love-hate relationship? Or of a mission of revenge by the people of the Orient for the deeds of the Occident during the colonial period, and for the host of prejudices and misrepresentations which it propagated about them?

El-Enany insists, “With few exceptions, Arab intellectuals, no matter in which period, have never demonized the European other or regarded him in sub-human terms,”74 a view which I would support even though the Maghrebi encounter with the Occident differs in many respects from the Middle Eastern encounter on which El-Enany focuses in his book. This is mainly due to the colonial past and the nature of the encounter with the Occident, which has naturally shaped the quality of the resulting discourse.

Therefore, while we may argue that Occidentalism is still an evolving concept, being constantly nourished by the ongoing relationship between the Orient and the Occident, we should also bear in mind that there are many Occidentalisms. It is hoped that it is evident from the above discussion that the term ‘Occidentalism’ seems to be very amorphous and has a resemblance to phantasm. That is to say, if Orientalism has been the conception of the Orient by Europeans only, Occidentalism is not the conception of the West by the people of the Middle East and the Maghreb only. Indeed, it is the multi-conceptions produced by multinations - not only as reactions against Orientalism, but also as the attitudes of at least four continents out of six towards Western civilization and Westernization.

Consequently, by observing the diverse encounters with the Occident through literary discourse, we have reached diverse forms of reactions, which can be classified as follows:

  • 1 hatred of the Occident: Occidentophobia
  • 2 love of the Occident: Occidentophilia
  • 3 ambivalence towards the Occident.

While the colonial period produced texts written in the colony and in the language of the colonizer about the encounter with Western thought and civilization, the post-colonial period offers the reader two categories of texts: the first category comprises texts written in the Maghreb both in French and in Arabic, and the second constitutes texts written in the diaspora and mainly in French and English, as this latter has become, in the last three decades, the language of globalization and has proved to be very popular amongst the Maghrebi diaspora.

The main questions which emanate from the study of this period revolve around issues of Muslim identity and the element of diversity, which should be born in mind when looking at all Muslims as one uniform crowd. Al-Azmeh remarks: “Algerians in Aulney-sur-Bois, Kashmiris in Bradford, Kurds in Kreuzberg all live in similarly diverse conditions. Yet, we are told repeatedly Muslims, Europeans or otherwise, are above all Muslims, and that by this token alone they are distinctive and must be treated as such.”75

Without doubt, Al-Azmeh’s point is directed against a tendency to group all Muslims under one umbrella regardless of their country of origin, colonial past and historical circumstances of migration. In the post-9/11 events the West, and this time I mean Europe and the United States, engaged in a frenzy of forums and symposia around the issue of ‘Islam in the West’, a concept which takes us back to Orientalism’s calling Europe’s ‘Others’ the Orient.

The many literary works written by Maghrebi authors in the post-9/11 period focus on the element of diversity, and instead of one Islam they speak of many Islams, and particularly of ‘Maghrebi Islam’. Although Edward Said affirms that, unlike the United States, Europe has become more educated in matters of stereotyping the ‘Other’, describing migrant communities in the West whose religion is Islam as ‘Muslim communities’ demonstrates that not much has changed since the colonial period. In fact, the situation as we see it today is that the question of identity which has, for the last two centuries, been the chief dilemma of Europe’s subjects has now reached the center itself, i.e. the Occident. Many studies have recently focused on the status of Europe in the post-9/11 events, and who gets to call themselves ‘European’.

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