If I say the words, Islam, Middle East, and Arab… what are the very first things that come to mind?
Orientalism has been on my mind as of late – been doing a lot of reading on colonialism, the middle east, and American foreign policy. The anti-Arab racism that is prevalent in American discourse is really starting to get to me. There are things, that I am starting to notice, that are said about Arabs and Islam that would never be tolerated if said about Blacks or Jews. Yet everyone feels free to spit these things out day to day.
A while back I read a book called Orientalism by Edward Said. In this book, it described how the “western powers” (France, Britain, and America) view the people in the Middle East, Asia, and Parts of Africa. In that we view people in these regions through an ideological lens that prevents us from seeing certain realities. Orientalism is basically how we stereotype these cultures. Said digs through the history of our literature, our media, and our academic writings on these regions and finds a connecting string of bigotry that is prevalent in our views.
It shows that everything we write about places like the middle east, is tainted. Tainted with this aura of cultural superiority. We have painted this image that ceases to coincide with the real culture. We have ceased to analyze the actual culture and instead built an internally consistent fiction of the culture. One which continuously prevents western societies from facing certain realities. Views that promote violence and dominance in a region that is in economic tatters in no small part due to the interventions of the western powers.
The origins of Orientalism is something that is quite interesting, I recommend that if you find any of what I say interesting here, you pick up Said’s book immediately. I actually just want to look at one aspect of Orientalism, the middle eastern ideology filled with anti-arab racism. I have not read the book in about a year, so excuse me for providing a quick and simplistic summary. (I may add corrections later.)
Anywho, here we goes…
The middle east has been the trade center of the world for quite some time. They have the prime geographical location for trade. As a result, the ones who control the trade, own the land, will reap the benefits of most of the wealth. So what happens when the European countries with the vast militaries, and their imperialist mindset, understand that “to own the land” is to reap its wealth? Obviously, these nations are going to try and claim ownership of such lands, or at least develop good (dominant and one sided) trade relations with them…. As such, lots of military action and political wars are wielded all over the region in order to take ownership of the wealth that region produces. It is because of such a socio/economic distribution, that scholars and academics examined middle eastern culture – so that, you know when trading with these people,or conquering them, you “know” what you are getting into.
Here is the thing with that… when you analyze other cultures, you are inevitably going to view behaviors through your own myopic cultural lens. As such, these built in biases will influence the effectiveness of your analysis. You actually have to have a strong level of cultural awareness to combat this… needless to say, back in the day, when imperialism and explicit bigotry was rampant… no such awareness was normal or even thought of as a valid option. So what kind of analysis do you think this will likely yield?
The answer is fairly simple. It is going to be laced with whatever bigotry and stereotypical thinking that are inherent within the ones doing the analysis… So our first cultural analysis of the middle east came from elitist racist academics viewing the world through a privileged lens. It is also because of the positions of power these academics have in their culture, they become the “goto” experts on the middle east. Instead of people going to the middle east themselves, or you know… trying to talk to middle eastern people… they will read the “experts and authoritative” guide on the middle east. Therefore, this bigoted and stereotypical picture spreads into the imperialist mindset, and they start to think of themselves as “authoritative” on the culture.. more than say the people who live in it themselves! You see, it is the europeans that define the middle east… not the people of the middle east… wonder how that will turn out?
Once the imperialist nations started to tighten their grips on the middle east… they put themselves in such places of power and authority, such that they had the ability to define the culture of the middle east. Of course such an analysis is going to be tainted by their ideologies, structuring the culture to seem “primitive” in comparison to the “elite” european. Using such social and economic power, heir tainted picture becomes “sociological/anthropological fact.”
Soon, down the line, scientists that grow up effected by such bigoted ideology think of biological theories to explain the “inferiority” of the people. Artists, writers, and movie makers.. write fiction about the middle east that does not actually reflect the middle east itself, but reflects the bigoted scholarly work of the past. More and more, over time, people explore the middle east.. not by talking to “the other” who happens to inhabit the very land they wish to explore… but by exploring books about it – authoritative ones at that!
What you get then is a self-propagating lie on what the middle east is… and instead of going to the source and examining it independently, people all over the globe reference “scholarly” work to back up their analysis on middle eastern culture – never knowing that such work is tainted with bigoted biases. Finally such a volume of work is accumulated that the stereotypes laced all over the material, quickly become the only “valid and factual” analysis of such a complex culture.
Edward Said, covers the insidious nature of these stereotypes extensively in his book, as well as its origins – give it a read when you can.
Now, as Americans rose to power and became their own imperialistic empire….. American Orientalism, a distinct version from the European one came to rise. Specifically american oreintalism was designed to give the aura of a “barbaric” and “uncivilized” people that can not understand reason, but only understand force. This is used daily, even in present day, to validate the wars americans wield over the middle east over the decades. What most fail to realize, is that this narrative is the result of our relationships, indirect through the Isreal Allegiance, in the region. What we do, and we do it often, is that we concentrate on the negatives of the culture, and never go into anything else. The negatives are the things that are useful to the aggressive narrative Americans want to take when interfering int eh middle east.
In the end, what this lopsided depiction does to the ethos around the Middle East, is it gives an inaccurate vision of what and who they are. When you only take one part of a culture and only advertise that one part… people are going to start thinking that, this is all there is to it. Instead of understanding that this is only one aspect of that culture, people will start to think the entire region is to be defined by one inaccurate and bigoted vision of one small part of that culture. Which rather conveniently is used to justify all sorts of injustice in the region we propagate over their for our own ends.
As a small test of this, Americans can ask themselves to identify what first words or first images come to mind when we talk about the peoples in the Middle East. Those raw images or words speak volumes. In fact, if I ask someone to talk about something positive and or innovative that takes place today in the middle east… few, if any, will be able to answer. I put to you all that this tells us something deep about ourselves – not the middle east.
Islamophobia is real. It is the outcome of years of stereotyping the middle east. It impacts in subtle ways that influence our irrational reactions to the people of that region. It is startling how prevalent anti-arab racism and Islamophobia has penetrated our culture to such a degree, where everyone fails to have an accurate picture of that society and religion.
What I am tired of is the abundance of criticisms of Islam, and the Middle East, that are laced with massive amounts of stereotypes. Basically hateful bigoted ideology under the guise of actual rational criticism. The problem with this is that the American people are so misinformed and uneducated about the middle east and Islam, they still rely on, to this very day, the inaccurate scholarly work that was developed with specific imperialistic intentions such that…. in this day and age, it is almost impossible to not be influenced by horrible stereotypes as you try to critique some negative aspect of that religion of region.
So I put to you all this.. Considering that Orientalism is a real phenomenon, and that this leads into anti-arab racism/Islamophobia than… We need to be highly critical of what our own thoughts are about such a region or religion because at this point in time…. unless you have taken time to study the issue in depth… I don’t think anyone is capable of avoiding internalizing the stereotypes prevalent in this culture.
This, is distressing to me, considering the amount of unjustified action the United States government has taken in that region, and most of the time in full support of most of the populace.
If you wish to learn more, I recommend picking up that book, because it will arm you against casually accepting such bigoted norms about the middle east.