Previous Session: Wither Orientalism? Islam and the West – Friday, 11 November

Since its publication in 1978, Edward Said’s Orientalism has exerted an overwhelming influence on the way we conceptualise the relationship between ‘Islam and the West.’ The book enjoys a near ubiquitous presence in course reading lists and scholarly bibliographies, and as conflict continues unabated in the Middle East, its central themes are no less relevant today than they were in the 1980s. Simultaneously, Orientalism has met with a consistent barrage of scholarly criticism, hailing from both the Islamic and Western worlds, seeking to expose the book as a piece of polemical sophistry, filled with empirical errors and unsubstantiated libel, covertly motivated by Said’s outrage at the conduct of the Israelis in Palestine. Even Said’s claim to have spent his childhood in Jerusalem has been contested. Fuelling the enduring pitch of this debate was Said’s explicit claim that the ‘Orientalist’ straightjacket continues to circumscribe Western representations of the Islamic world into the 21st century; hence, to criticise ‘Islam’ is to clandestinely advocate Western neo-imperialism in the Middle East. In light of this, the Majlis asks:

  • Do any formal problems with Said’s thesis invalidate the substance of his critiques of Western scholarship?
  • Is Said’s understanding of the Islamic world irreconcilable with a contemporary cosmopolitan conception of global society?
  • Has the Orientalist discourse complicated the efforts of progressive Islamic voices to gain an effective platform for reforming elements of Islam?
  • Is it reasonable to suppose that western discursive practices might contribute to providing a platform for reform within the Islamic world? Is this assumption, in fact, a subtle form of Orientalism?

This week’s discussion will be led by John Goldie, an Honours candidate in the School of History. John has travelled extensively in the Middle East. His research explores sympathetic representations of Islam as an instrument of religious toleration in the religious politics of late 17th and early 18th century England.

The following articles are suggested background readings on the topic. They are not required for participation, rather, they are provided for those who would like to prepare for our discussion:

Session will be held on Friday, 11 November in the Centre for Arab Islamic Studies Tutorial Room at 11am.


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