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July 28, 2011, Thursday

What is Orientalism?

Anders Behring Breivik, who murdered 76 people in Norway, says he is anti-Islam. It is obvious that he was motivated by Islamophobia. To better understand the growing sense of Islamphobia, we have to elaborate on a few concepts, one of which is Orientalism. What is Orientalism?

In brief, Orientalism is the definition and depiction of the Orient and Islam by the mindset and mentality of the Occident. Orientalism is a conceptualization of Islam as a religion, Muslims, as followers and subscribers of this religion, the geography that Muslims live in, their history and the given state of social affairs of this community. A conceptual image, however, is not the reality. When the mind depicts an image, it sees what it focuses on the most and its perception is mostly affected by where it focuses. Therefore, not every image is objective, rather a subjective interpretation. We think that we perceive reality because we can see it and observe it. The reality, however, does not always reveal itself as a whole; most of the time, it hides certain features and dimensions. When we base our understanding of something we see at first glance, we actually distort what the reality is in our mind. We end up reconstructing and rebuilding what the genuine reality is. For this reason, one of the prayers reportedly recommended by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) reads, “O Allah! Show me reality as it is.”

In Orientalism, Islam, Muslims and the Orient are redefined by the perspective of the Occident. Moreover, it also asks the Orient to view itself from the perspective of the West's redefinition.

Orientalism certainly did not emerge from nowhere, it gradually developed; Orientalism is the secularization of the Western perception of Islam. Following the developments in the 16th and 17th centuries, physics, sociology and the social sciences became less reliant on religion in the Occident, whilst the West's perception of the world and in its definition of the human being became less connected with religion; likewise, its approach towards the Orient and Islam also became secularized. The new discourse and new outlook that emerged during this period led to Orientalism. In essence, the Occident mindset and the emergence of Orientalism and the image that Orientalism created shared the same perspective; in other words, there were no real differences in their approach to the Orient. Traces of religion in the Western mindset were replaced by secularism.

Before the arrival of Orientalism, the Christian world had a certain perception of Islam. This image reflected on the discourse of orientalism, which we can see in scientific literary and texts. In other words, the legacy that has a historical background has been preserved within a secular setting.

When Islam was founded, the Judaic world and the Christians did not recognize it as a new religion. The two religions have perceived Islam as a threat ever since its emergence.

Islam made three assertions: First, Islam is the final revelation and the final religion; Secondly, the Torah and the Bible are both products of this revelation, but they have been changed significantly -- their original content does not exist anymore; and Thirdly, Islam, as the final revelation, confirms the Torah and the Bible, but also makes references to the manmade changes in the scriptures. Thus, these two religions needed the new model that Islam introduces in order to discover their origins and complete the process of historical perfection. This fundamental approach held by Islam vis-à-vis other divine religions was dismissed both by Judaism and Christianity; it was even perceived as a threat. This threat started defining the relations between the religions.

Over time, Islam has spread across the continents; it first emerged in the Arab Peninsula; but spread across the Middle East, North Africa, Azerbaijan, Armenia and even to China. In these areas, it has actually challenged the domination of Christianity. Particularly in the historical basin that served as the center of Christianity (today Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine) and other parts of the Middle East, Christianity has been strong and influential. However, the influence and domination of this religion was weakened upon arrival of Islam.

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