Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Orientalism is Fun

Many students and scholars of the region are fixated on the so-called corrupting influence of Orientalism on scholarship about the Middle East. It’s not uncommon to hear the accusation of Orientalism being leveled at a good, intellectually-confident academic since there is no quicker way to discredit a scholar’s work than to label him or her an Orientalist. Orientalism, like the word Truth, evokes an automatic negative response from most well-trained Middle Eastern Studies students. Like political science, Israel, and objectivity, it is an idea which one must be reject completely if he hopes to maintain his regional studies credibility.

Frankly, I am tired of hearing about the fundamental “flaws” and “misguided” aims of the Orientalists. There is, in fact, a very simple explanation is for the incredible staying power of Orientalism as a totalizing worldview and dominant explanatory framework among twelve-year old boys from rural Kansas and major newspaper columnists. (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/opinion/editorialsandoped/oped/columnists/thomaslfriedman/index.html)

It’s fun.

That’s right, post-colonial studies has completely corrupted what was once the largest selling-point of regional studies; the ability to live one’s life as a explorer of those primitive peoples of the Middle East and as an active participant, ney, a patriotic servant, in a grand civilizing project.

In order to tease out the truly enjoyable element in Orientalism, you must ask yourself a few questions: Is there any other school of thought that allows you to make vast generalizations about an entire region based on its perceived religious roots? No. Is there any other school of thought that has such powerful resonance with both Middle America and Washington D.C. policy-makers? No. Is there another school of thought that is both descriptive and prescriptive in the sense that simultaneously grasps the problem (What Went Wrong) and suggests a new way forward for errant Arab societies? (i.e. be more like Turkey.) Of course not, well, perhaps modernization theory qualifies. That’s right, though post-colonial studies gives us the opportunity to create new words such as Islamophobaheteronormativity , queergenderism, metateleodiscourse, and postSabaMahmoodian, Orientalism employs simple categories such as “the Arab mind” and “the native disposition” in order to understand that age-old practice of freedom-hating.

Orientalism is not a paradigm, rather; it is a way of life.

Wearing tweed coats, collecting stone artifacts and orphan children from Oman, traveling to the region on exciting, four-year long sabbaticals to understand the natives in their primitive environment is not part of the academic lifestyle anymore. Sure, we go abroad to places such as Constantinople, Ramallah in new Israel, and Le Souk (http://www.lesoukny.com/) in Morocco but we do so in order to “understand,” “problematize,” and “observe.” Where is the strong, paternalistic Oxbridge-daddy-knows-best language and the remarkably lucid explanations of Islamic decline?

Some of the obfuscation and intellectual opaqueness of the post-Orientalist scholars can only be attributed to the decline of philology as a tried and true method of ascertaining the essence of Islam and therefore, of the Islamicate peoples. Thankfully, the study of obscure languages such as Ottoman still persists but where are Syriac, Aramaic, and Hittite? (www.harvard.edu)

We can easily remedy this situation by hiring academics who have a commanding knowledge of Hittite, little to no knowledge of contemporary politics, and a strong affinity for the ummah (at least in its idealized form). If we are successful, three years from now, the award-winning dissertation at MESA will be titled “A History of the Mohammedian Peoples from the Prophet’s Birth to the Modern day: A Story of Freedom-Hating and Insurrection.”

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