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Post-Orientalism and Geopolitics: Three Debates that Inform Islam and U.S. Foreign Policy

This article argues that a post-orientalist discourse has emerged over the past few decades to challenge the dominance of orientalism on Western foreign policy thinking towards Islam and the Muslim world. The paper examines the geostrategic thinking of Bernard Lewis, Edward Said, and John Esposito, and their impact on Western perceptions of Islam. The paper submits that while Edward Said exposed the prejudice inherent in orientalist thought, it was John Esposito and a cohort of post-orientalist scholars who engaged in three critical debates with the orientalist to provide a more authentic vision of Islam and a more nuanced picture of the politics of the Muslim world. The paper however concedes that while post-orientalism has triumphed in the academic setting, the orientalist perspective still dominates the policy sphere and continues to shape American foreign policy.

Post-Orientalism and Geopolitics Three Debates that Inform Islam and U
Protests in Washington D.C. against President Donald Trump’s ban on travelers from predominantly Muslim countries, June 26, 2018. MANDEL NGAN / AFP via Getty Images
 

Received Date: 31/01/2020  •  Accepted Date: 26/05/2020

 

 

 

The study of Islam in the West has gone through several transformations, often driven by geopolitical imperatives. As the Islamic faith emerged out of the Arabian Peninsula and expanded westward, the military and cultural encounters with the Byzantine Empire were already leading to the emergence of an image of Islam as a religious challenge to Christianity, as a cultural challenge to Europe, and as a geopolitical challenge to Christendom. The encounters with Christianity and Christendom also had an impact on Muslim thinking, not just about ‘others,’ but also about Islam and the Muslim world. Early Muslims thought of themselves as a faith community.1 As they encountered established empires and engaged with them politically and militarily, later Muslims started to think of their community as a polity and also, as an empire, and competed with other empires based on this new self-perception. As the encounters became more frequent, more intense and sometimes bloody, thinkers in both Christian and Muslim communities started producing discourses that shaped the identities of the self and the other; both began to construct and reconstruct the other through these narratives.2 Since the 18th century, European nations became more dominant globally and their languages (English and French) started dominating global literature and then global media. Consequently, their narratives about Islam and Muslims and the Muslim world became dominant narratives, even shaping how Muslims themselves think and talk about their own history, religion and identity.3

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