Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka
Meanwhile, scholarship on Islam has changed considerably in the last thirty years. In the 18th and 19th centuries, European scholars specializing in the languages and literatures of the "orient" (Turkey and the Arab world, and later India, China, and Japan) were called "orientalists." The wars of the first half of the 20th century put an end to the old empires of the Ottomans, Russians, Germans, and Austrians, and then launched the period of decolonization that followed the Second World War. This led to the emergence of orientalist scholars from the very countries formerly governed by European powers and studied by European scholars.
These new orientalists challenged traditional orientalist assumptions, such as the belief that an "oriental essence" could be found within the cultures of Asia. In his seminal 1963 essay "Orientalism in Crisis," Egyptian sociologist Anouar Abdel-Malek argued that the national liberation movements of Asia, Africa, and Latin America demanded a new approach to understanding the problems of the orient. No longer would the peoples of the orient be merely the objects of the scholars' studies; they were the scholars themselves, with their own voices and their own deep interest in the problems of their nations and cultures. Abdel-Malek's essay was quickly followed by a critique of orientalism from the Palestinian Muslim historian A.L. Tibawi. In his 1964 essay "English-Speaking Orientalists," Tibawi discussed European Christian hostility toward Islam, seen most clearly in alliances between 19th-century Christian missionaries and orientalist scholars. These alliances, Tibawi argued, cast suspicion on the objectivity, or so-called "scientific detachment," of orientalist scholarship.
Edward Said's 1978 book Orientalism launched what was by far the most resonant and effective critique of orientalism. Said, a Palestinian Christian professor of English and Comparative Literature, analyzed orientalist scholarship and argued that it serves as a body of hegemonic discourse. Echoing Tibawi, Said discussed in great detail the failure of orientalist scholarship to adhere to such core intellectual virtues as rationality and objectivity. What orientalist scholarship does is create stereotypes through which power over Muslims peoples is asserted and justified. Instead of approaching the study of Islam or Muslims in terms of specific questions about local circumstances and historical influences, orientalism carelessly portrays all Muslims in an undifferentiated mass, describing them as irrational, backward, despotic, inferior, and so forth. The West is then by extension stereotyped as rational, progressive, humane, superior, and so forth. Other orientalist stereotypes include such untenable concepts as the so-called "Arab mind" and "Islamic society." Echoing Abdel-Malek, Said argued that whether consciously or not, the orientalists had created a discourse that serves to justify European, and subsequently American, imperialism.