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Thursday, June 21, 2012


A serious cultural reference if ever there was one, Edward Said's Orientalism is mentioned almost as commonly as economic theory authors such as Keynes or Marx without people necessarily having read him. Living in Tunisia and interested in the popular - and otherwise - portrayal of the Arab world, which is Said's focus even when his definition of the Orient stretches beyond onto Asia, in the West, this book truly was an eye-opener. While Said concentrates heavily on academic and literary descriptions of the Orient from the 18th century on, and while he also concentrates too single-mindedly on individual authors at times, his book published in 1978 proves itself astonishingly relevant even for today's supposedly enlightened, post-colonial media age. Almost prescient of a post-9/11 world where Arabs are viewed as interchangeably as terrorists or Islamists - or both - he wrote:
'One aspect of the electronic, postmodern world is that there has been a reinforcement of the stereotypes by which the Orient is viewed ... all the media's resources have forced information into more and more standardized models. '
Obviously, 'the notion that there are geographical spaces with indigenous, radically "different" inhabitants, who can be defined on the basis of some religion, culture, or racial essence proper to that geographical space is ... [at best] a highly debatable idea', yet it is still true that 'whereas it is no longer possible to write learned (or even popular) disquisitions on either "the Negro mind" or "the Jewish personality," it is perfectly possible to engage in such research on "the Islamic mind," or "the Arab character."'

This single-minded perception of Arabs as dangerous, conservative, religious fanatics at this very moment can be seen in the Western governments (and media) stunning silence on an anti-democratic military coup in Egypt where a democratically legitimized parliament and President was about to take power. The initial euphoria for the Arab Spring, dominated by young, internet-savy people like us, has been replaced with a fear of the quiet, stereotypical Islamic majority, the other, who is a threat and as such does not have to be treated to the same democratic as 'we' do.

As Said put it, the aforementioned democratic protesters did not have to be feared because they - erroneously - perceived 'European not Eastern,' just like 'the Arab cultured elite today - the intelligentsia ... [which] is auxiliary to what it considers to be the main trends stamped out in the West. Its role has been prescribed as set for it as a "modernizing" one, which means that it gives legitimacy and authority to ideas about modernization, progress, and culture that it receives from the US for the most part.' The democratic victory of a non-occidental, Islamist party in Egypt does not fit this bill and in that sense its repression is not something that has to be deplored by '[us] represent[ing] a superior civilization.'

Said's Orientalism is the rare analytical work as relevant today as it was yesterday, denouncing as fraud widely held ideas on the clear-cut and almost natural differentiation of Occident and Orient.
'Orientalism overrode the Orient. As a system of thought about the Orient, it ... announced an unchanging Orient, absolutely different ... from the West.'

1 comment:

Jullianna B said...

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