The possibility of Arab Occidentalism

In one of my classes this semester, Arabic Literature, we are studying a few pieces from an anthology of Arab travel literature, called America in an Arab Mirror, The collection tracks back depictions of America and the West by Arab writers including poetry, prose, short stories and other works.

We had an interesting discussion about the concept of knowledge and power, and more specifically the constructs developed by Edward Said in his famous work Orientalism. For those unfamiliar, a short summary of Said’s work would suggest that Western scholarship on the Orient (Middle East, Far East, etc) is not an innocent scholarly look into another part of the world. He suggests it is a scholarship laden with power relationships performed through a vantage of power, making the East an exotic entity, and not objective but hand-in-glove with power.

This brought up the question of whether this kind of scholarship can turn the microscope back onto the West, and whether there is the possibility of an Arab Occidentalism.  In my opinion, Arab Occidentalism is unavoidable because of the points of contact between these two regions (the West and the Arab world). Even in a pre-9/11 world, these two regions have been in contact over economic, security, geopolitical and religious reasons. And of course since 9/11, the points of contact have been ever more apparent.

The two main schools of thought that exist within the study of Arab Occidentalism suggest that Arab’s view of the West is either informed by deep-rooted cultural, religious or historical beliefs or by American foreign-policy within the Arab world. However, I think a third category must be added to this list: Arab travelers within the West who write about the West from the inside, the most contemporary such writer being Sayyid Qutb.

At first glance, it is easy to say that Western Orientalism is far more consequential than Arab Occidentalism. Western Orientalist writers are often part and parcel with policy-makers, either by working in policy spheres themselves or heavily influencing the ways in which policy is formed. On the contrary, one would be hard-pressed to find Arab Occidentalist writers within similar arenas in the Arab world.

However, I think it is important to consider Arab Occidental writing as it shapes Arab views of the West because these are the very views that groups in the Arab world play off of to promote their chosen image of the West. Taking again the example of Sayyid Qutb, in his work “The America That I Have Seen,” and Milestones Qutb clearly sets up an image of America that informs the ideology of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda and Islamic Jihad.

It is easy to brush off Arab writings about the West because they are similarly essentialist as Western Orientalism yet lack the institutional power that Orientalism is associated with it, but I think we would be well-advised to still consider these works as they inform the larger conversation about the West in the Arab world.