International Journal of Law in Context

Research Article

Dilemmas of cultural legality: a comment on Roger Cotterrell’s ‘The struggle for law’ and a criticism of the House of Lords’ opinions in Begum

John Mikhaila1

a1 Georgetown University Law Center


In Orientalism, Edward Said’s seminal critique of Western discourse on the Arab and Islamic world, Said begins with an epigram from Karl Marx: ’They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented‘ (Said, 1979, p. xiii, quoting Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte). Said then argues that Marx’s statement captures a basic reality about Western representations of ’Oriental‘ societies, which is that they often rest on a pattern of cultural hegemony. The dominance of European colonial powers, primarily Great Britain and France, over their subjugated populations is what allowed the latter to be depicted in a way that reinforced ‘the idea of European [superiority] in comparison with. . .non-European peoples and cultures’ (p. 7). For example, in Gustave Flaubert’s popular novels, ‘Flaubert’s encounter with an Egyptian courtesan produced a. . .model of the Oriental woman. . .[who] never spoke of herself. . .[and] never represented her emotions, presence or history. He spoke for and represented her. . .telling his readers in what way she was typically Oriental’ (p. 6, emphasis original). Moreover, Flaubert’s superiority in relation to her ‘was not an isolated instance. It fairly stands for the pattern of relative strength between East and West, and the discourse about the Orient that it enabled’ (p. 6).