The Question of “The Middle East”

Through the Needle's Eye

By Samuel M. Taylor

In 1973, members of the First International Congress of Orientalists convened in Paris on their 100th anniversary to call into question the very term for the field in which they had chosen to involve themselves.  The Congress voted, nearly unanimously and with little to no legitimate opposition, to change its name to the “International Congress of Human Sciences in Asia and North Africa”—thus casting the term ‘Orientalist,’ as historian Bernard Lewis puts it, onto “the garbage heap of history.”[1]  It is difficult to determine whether or not the phrase ‘Middle Eastern Studies’ will or should occupy the same garbage heap as ‘Orientalist’.  As the late literary theorist Edward Said suggested in his 1978 magnum opus Orientalism, the consequences of the term and its legacy have outlived its official use in scholarship.  For Said, ‘Orientalism’ is “a considerable dimension of modern political-intellectual culture…

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