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Recognising Other-ism

The West’s perception and treatment of the East is bound by its reliance on a discourse that is inescapably political, explains M Haghir.

The noun ‘Orientalism’ describes a whole edifice erected by the West with the express purpose of creating ‘images of the Other’ who, in turn, ‘Help […] to define… the West [as] its contrasting image, idea, [and] personality…Orientalism is a mode of discourse with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies and…styles’. Looking at the current global geopolitical situation, specifically, the Middle East and the Islamic world, the above quotation is easier to understand now than when it was published in Edward Said’s seminal book, Orientalism, in 1978. It is clear that the media consistently projects a Muslim ‘Other’ with which something (anything) must be wrong. For example, in the West’s discourse about Iran’s peaceful nuclear energy programme it is acceptable for some (indeed many) countries to have nuclear weapons, but it is not acceptable that other nations should even possess the knowledge to develop nuclear energy. Thus, the argument is about the possession of the knowledge rather than the possession of the energy as such, let alone a nuclear weapon. This is a very good example of Orientalism at work, supported by economic sanctions that are themselves also instances of Orientalism. What we have here is the creation of definitions. That is to say, we define an entity as ‘x’ then highlight its problems and contrast it with our own entity which does not suffer from those problems (or, if it has any, they are, by definition, different in kind or not as bad as those of entity ‘x’).

Although aspects of Western Oriental understanding are factual, this alone is less than adequate for an accurate understanding of the Other. What the ordinary Western person watching TV or reading the newspaper is not directly conscious of is the existence of a whole Orientalist edifice with specific purposes and agendas behind the information being put out.

Western consciousness views Muslims from the perspective of the so-called modern and contrasts this with what it sees as backward Middle Eastern culture. This view is achieved through the discourse of Orientalism. The idea of discourse in Michel Foucault, whom Said followed, is intimately bound up with ideas of power and knowledge. Foucault was concerned with the question of the ‘…presentation of the order, stability, authority, and regulatory power of knowledge’. In this context he endeavoured to understand how ‘statements’ acquire ‘their social and epistemological status’ and how these ‘statements’ end up ‘as accomplished work [and] as disciplinary convention.’ In this way, Foucault traced the development of various types of ‘institutions’ through statements that are ‘extended’ from them. He found that power through knowledge leads to domination. Consider, for example, the Arab Spring, and compare the coverage by the Western media of recent events in Syria with their relative silence on the actions of the Bahraini and Saudi regimes against their own protesting masses. There are many Western institutions in which active Orientalism is at work, be it economic, educational, social, cultural, or military. Two of these present themselves as pillars, without which today’s Orientalist phenomena could not be sustained. These are Orientalist scholarship and the media reflecting that scholarship. For Western Europeans, specifically for those in Britain and France, the need to know about Islam and its people, lands, languages, cultures, is bound up with the Western desire to define itself as the opposite image of the Other, an image of ‘us’ in contradistinction to ‘them’, and this process has been going on for centuries. In this context it is not surprising turies. In this context it is not surprising that a whole branch of human studies has been cultivated under the banner of Oriental Studies.

…the West has a feeling of ownership over the Orient and all this is applied within a framework of ‘accomplished work [and] disciplinary convention.’ The West now believes it knows the Orient and can therefore claim ownership of it so that if the Oriental has the audacity to object, it is attacked, culturally, economically, psychologically, linguistically, socially, and philosophically.

Western scholars research the Orient, formulate and analyse ideas about it, make findings and judgements on the basis of which Western governments then decide what actions they need to take in order to serve their interests. The Oriental Other is, here, only the subject of study, very much like matter in a chemistry lab. All these processes occur within a Western culture with the complete normalcy of scientific research and are accepted by society at large. This is how ideas about the Orient and the Oriental have come to acquire the status of irrefutable knowledge and how that knowledge has been produced and owned by the West. Thus, the West has a feeling of ownership over the Orient and all this is applied within a framework of ‘accomplished work [and] disciplinary convention.’ The West now believes it knows the Orient and can therefore claim ownership of it so that if the Oriental has the audacity to object, it is attacked, culturally, economically, psychologically, linguistically, socially, and philosophically. And, if none of these work, there is always the military option. This is one meaning we can decipher from media reports that ‘all options are on the table’. Even so, how do Orientalist ideas find their way into public consciousness? The Western viewer/reader of a programme/ article about the Middle East is given pieces of information that have resulted from an Orientalist process. Although aspects of Western Oriental understanding are factual, this alone is less than adequate for an accurate understanding of the Other. What the ordinary Western person watching TV or reading the newspaper is not directly conscious of is the existence of a whole Orientalist edifice with specific purposes and agendas behind the information being put out. S/he does not know that s/he is as much subject to Orientalist discourse as are the Orientals, with the difference that the former is manipulated by the results of Orientalism whereas the latter have already been manipulated as the very substance studied. It is also interesting that the Orientalist culture of the Western world is so pervasive and so absolute in its convictions that accuracy appears to have only a partial priority. Thus, as Said noted, the US TV network CBS reports the Shi’ite event of Ashura in Moharram and equates it to ‘Mohammad’s challenge to world leaders’, thereby producing a false consciousness in the Western viewer. Moreover, Western reporters are often unable (or unwilling) even to pronounce Middle Eastern names correctly. So, for example, ‘Ghotbzadeh’ is ‘changed…to…Gaboozaday’ or ‘Beheshti [to] Bashati’ In these circumstances we may legitimately question the motives of the West and, in so doing, question a machinery designed to produce not knowledge, but perceptions that serve certain interests. By the same token, the motives of those Muslims who question the way they are portrayed by the West may be attributed to the knowledge that, in Western consciousness, Muslims, ‘…occupy space… as a negative value. They are seen as a disrupter of Israel…Insofar as they have any history; it is part of the history given to them…by the Orientalist tradition, and later, the Zionist tradition…Isolated from everything except the past created for him by Orientalists, the Muslim is chained to a destiny that fixes him and dooms him to a series of reactions.… However, the Muslim Middle East is also the easiest manipulated oil supplier.’ Thus, we arrive at an understanding of forces at work which want to chain the Muslim world to its Western-created non-history and lack of identity. This is the function of Orientalism. Seen in this way, it is hardly surprising to see a Middle East in constant turmoil. We need to ask, who benefits from this turmoil? And, what would the West lose in the face of a peaceful Middle East?

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1 Comment on Recognising Other-ism

  1. It is alarming to see how the situation and problems of the world has not changed and even got worse…. same agendas, same plots and same problems…

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