Why is it mostly Orientalists who are putting Occidentalists under the microscope?

8 min readSep 26, 2021

By Moncef Marzouki

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In his discussion of the origins of the Humanities in Europe in the last two centuries, Emmanuel Wallerstein says:

“There has been a division of labour within Western thought whereby history, economics, sociology and politics focus on the study of the West, while anthropology and orientalism are designed to the study of the rest of the world.” The “rest of the world” is basically us, Arabs and Muslims. Just like parasites are studied in biology and rocks in geology, we are the subjects of two fields: anthropology and Orientalism.

These fields of research have not ceased to put us under the microscope. No one knows the extent to which we have been studied in these fields over the past ten years. It would be useful if our great universities devote a survey to what was written about us, say in the last decade, especially with respect to political Islam and the Arab Spring.

It is certain that such a study will reveal only the tip of the iceberg. Most high-quality academic studies are done for intelligence purposes. Fortunately, most of these studies end up on the shelves. I know from experience that decision-makers do not have time to read such studies, and fortunately, most people do not know how decisions are made at the highest levels. Neither do they know the circumstances in which decisions are made, nor the data on which they are based. Otherwise, they would have needed sedatives to be able to fall asleep.

The important takeaway from Wallerstein’s remarks is that we have never had occidentalists and anthropologists traveling in large numbers on scientific missions to research, for example, the origins of church choral art and its contribution to religious artistic taste in Europe, or the origins of Western savagery represented by the extermination of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australia, or the Holocaust in the heart of Europe. In fact, we have known the beginnings of the discipline of Occidentalism in the text of Ibn Fadlan’s Journey in 921 AD.

Ibn Fadlan, the envoy of the powerful Abbasid state, recounted everything he saw on his famous journey. He was disgusted by the filth of some peoples he visited (Bulgarians and Russians), describing them as barbaric and outrageously strange. The goal of the journey was the same as the goal of Orientalist studies, namely: the opening of trade routes and the transmission of the light of ‘civilisation’ to strengthen and expand the sphere of the political, religious, and economic influence of the authority that financed the campaign in Baghdad, the Washington of the time.

Unfortunately, this Arab Occidentalism did not continue, nor did it grow, save for some attempts, due to the absence of its necessary requirements.

Our material conditions such as the weakness of our states, the poverty of our peoples, and the backwardness of our knowledge tools and institutions have left us to the fate of being ‘researched’ rather than researchers.

Thus, no ‘Edward Said-Stein’ appeared in France, Spain or Germany to protest in the strongest terms this discipline called ‘Occidentalism’, with its sense of superiority, prejudices, and confused methodology, even if this ‘Eduardo’ is satisfied with living in Arab and Muslim countries as a teacher in their most prominent universities and a distinguished player of qanun, the favourite musical instrument of his Arab masters.

There is no way for us to comprehend the overlapping reasons, some of which we know while others are unknown, that made us the ‘researched’, rather than researchers. Why did creative thinking stop? What went wrong? We must dig deeper to discover the structural causes, rather than waste our time in lamentations and accusations, which have themselves become a subject of Orientalist study as if they were another distinctive cultural artifact.

Yuval Harari suggests that, contrary to what we think, all human beings share the same religion, and all their differences are limited to names and expressions. His argument requires an in-depth discussion that this article will not permit, but I will discuss it briefly. This common religion is made up of three layers that are stacked on top of each other like geological layers.

The oldest and deepest layer within consciousness makes us all spiritual and animist. We carry in our collective memory the beliefs of those we call primitive, namely: their belief that nature is a living being, that trees and animals have a soul and felt like our own, and that we can relate to them and influence them through magical rituals to appease them and use them against the tribulations of time.

You find the remains of this mode of thinking in children, poets, and magicians. The second layer of belief makes us polytheistic either in a clear way like Hindus or in a hidden way like Jews, Christians and Muslims who turned their ancient gods into righteous saints. The role of these saints is the same: interceding between the helpless humans and the supreme power that controls their destiny.

Finally, the highest layer of belief makes us monotheists. We believe in the existence of a being that created everything. Jews call him ‘Adonai’. Muslims call him ‘Allah’. Hindus call him ‘Brahma.’ French-speaking Christians call him ‘Dieu’, while English-speaking Christians call him ‘God.’

We can say that humans share one belief within which three approaches coexist.

Do we not think in a magical way when we make room in our dreams for the fulfillment of our desires?

Since magical wishing is not enough, we have created beliefs that weave beautiful stories about achieving our desires in this world or the next if we submit to the orders and prohibitions of an unseen force, especially if we believe in it without any doubt. Most importantly, it gives us a framework for action, even though a large part of it is still loaded with the remnants of magical thinking lodged in the depths of the subconscious.

Our intellect quickly discovers that heaven does not provide continuous services to prevent hunger and disease despite the many prayers and sacrifices. Thus, the intellect opts for the reliance on empirical solutions for the problems it faces. This third approach is what will give us science in its Western, not Islamic, sense.

Let us guard here against the naivety of the visions of progress that suppose the gradual transition of human beings from magical thinking to doctrinal thinking, and finally to scientific-experimental thinking. If those we call primitive had not had strong empirical intuition and the ability to think objectively, they would not have been able to hunt a single deer. They would have died of starvation. They would not have been here to read what I write. The reality is that magical thinking, as well as doctrinal and scientific thinking all, co-existed in our ancestors as they do today in the majority of humans. There is, therefore, no need to denounce or deny that Isaac Newton, one of the fathers of contemporary science, was fond of magic and practiced it regularly.

For complex reasons in which chance and necessity overlap, we notice, on the individual or collective level, the dominance of one of the three layers of thinking, without the other components disappearing. In the West, for example, the victory of science and technology, the brightest manifestations of the empirical mind, did not lead to the disappearance of the churches that lost their monopoly over truth. They rather coexisted. The church accepted this coexistence begrudgingly.

What made thought move to the empirical, scientific method turning it into the loudest voice within the individual or collective mind? The shift to empirical thinking was a breakthrough brought about by the realisation that magical thinking is futile in achieving goals.

Humans broke with their doctrinal thinking because they learn from their mistakes. This flexibility constitutes acceptance and evaluation of the source of strength that magical and doctrinal thinking lack. The most important part of this approach is that it rejects any alleged holiness since there is no holiness except for the truth that experience shows. This is how the Bible can say whatever it wants in the field of spirituality, ethics, and social relations. Yet it will be rejected without hesitation by Galileo and Darwin with respect to their statements about nature and human evolution.

The rule in empirical scientific thinking is that ancestors, whom the doctrinal mentality considers to be role models, are human beings like us. They have the same defects and virtues that we have. They can be good or evil. Some of them tell the truth and some lie. They can be right or wrong.

Therefore, just as Galileo did not bow before Aristotle, so Nielsen Bohr did not bow before Einstein because of his extraordinary ability and gift in the field. Bohr refused to recognise quantum mechanics which was subsequently proven to be rich both theoretically and empirically.

Does the secret to Western supremacy lie in the predominance of the scientific-empirical method, which history has proven to be superior to magical and doctrinal thinking in enabling humans control their world? Can we blame being turned into the ‘researched’ rather than ‘researchers’ on the dominance of magical and doctrinal thinking at the expense of the empirical method?

Are we victims of very limited and narrow-minded thinking? Do we forget that humans experimented and are still experimenting with the fruits of their political, religious, philosophical, scientific and technological experiences? Is it not likely that the future will witness other forms of their experiences in the same fields?

Are we aware that, since the beginning of life on this planet, nature itself is a field of continuous experiments on countless living species, including the human race?

The problem may not lie only in malfunctioning or short-sighted modes of thinking, but rather in a deeper imbalance.

Surely, the scientific-empirical method requires a great deal of courage to allow people to critique the allegedly sacred. The scientific-empirical method also affords us the integrity not to spread illusions and lies, the humility not to persist in denying our mistakes, and the flexibility to learn from our mistakes and overcome them.

Is it possible that behind the intellectual shortcoming that made us ‘researched’, rather than ‘researchers’, a moral failure that represents the source of the disease? If that is the case, then its treatment is the starting point of every attempt to heal.

The night will one day dissipate.

Source: Al Jazeera(Original Content -Arabic)




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