Beyond Orientalism

Image Alexander Bevilacqua in n+1:

Many readers have been introduced to European–Near East relations by the books of Bernard Lewis and Edward Said, both of whom, albeit in very different ways, emphasized the missed opportunities and the lack of commensurability between European and Arab and Muslim societies. Despite decades of both sober criticism and seething polemic, the most frequently cited critical paradigm for examining East-West relations remains that of Said’s Orientalism (1978). Whatever Orientalism’s merits in explaining the 19th and 20th centuries, which are the book’s primary focus, for the period from the Renaissance to the French Revolution, Said’s model of intercultural relations is not a helpful or accurate explanatory device. In the early modern era, the balance of power had not yet tipped in Europe’s favor, and 19th- and 20th-century events were far from foreseeable. Today, thanks to several recent investigations by historians, it is possible to perceive a richer and more complex history, one that acknowledges both the animosities and the mutual attractions that brought Europeans and Ottomans into contact and exchange. Alongside the great military engagements of the early modern era, and before the very different ones of the 19th century, curiosity, imitation, and translation flowered.