Earlier in the year, I was asked to write this article by ‘The Lifting the Veil Project’. It was first published on their blog on 18th April 2014.
In 1978, the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism resulted in a systematic dismantling of the academic discipline bearing the same name. Since then, anyone who has read Said’s seminal work will attest to the fact that it causes a shift in perspective which is irrevocable, and so pervasive is the influence of Said’s work that even those who haven’t read it may have, at some point, used the word “orientalist” in the meaning intended by him.
In the academic context, Orientalism as a discipline was originally the study of ‘Eastern’, Islamic, or Arab nations and cultures, and to some extent later morphed into what is now known as Area Studies; it is indeed where the ‘Oriental’ in the London ‘School of African and Oriental Studies’ (SOAS) finds its origin. What made Said’s contribution invaluable is that inOrientalism, applying the theory of philosopher Michel Foucault to British and French colonial literature, Said demonstrated how discourse, i.e. the communicated word, played a central role in the exercise of Western imperial power and colonial exploitation. Examining works of British and French writers from c.17th to 20th Century CE, Said described how the need for the West to negotiate the Orient was thus expressed in the literary representations of all colonised/colonisable peoples and cultures. As an expression of the Western imperialist mindset, these representations were inevitably misrepresentations, depicting non-Western groups and cultures in a manner that was inferiorised, mystified and exotified, thus providing moral and intellectual justification for their subjugation.
At the heart of Orientalism is a Eurocentrism that allows judgment of everything non-Western from a Western perspective, so that the value of every ‘foreign’ cultural practice, social norm, religious belief etc. is judged solely from the position of the West and its presumed superiority over all else. Orientalism explains, for instance, the continued demonisation of Eastern men who allegedly force their women to veil, and simultaneously also explains the Western fascination with belly-dancing over all other expressions of Arab culture. These two phenomena are by no means unrelated – in the Orientalist imagination, the male is always violent, regressive, and opposed to Enlightened reasoning; the female is an object of desire whose allure forever lies in her uncovering. Both are reductive images which reflect not so much the reality of ‘Oriental’ men and women as they do the Orientalist’s need to place himself in a position of control over the Orient. Once we become aware of the Orientalist perspective, its manifestations are not particularly difficult to identify, and they appear everywhere.
Jack Shaheen’s Reel Bad Arabs, and the film of the same name which was based on Shaheen’s work, both explore the (Orientalist) depiction of Eastern/Arab males as morally redundant sociopaths. This image continues in discussions and depictions of real-life individuals such as Abu Hamza as well as fictional characters such as Homeland’s Abu Nazir. It is also glaringly obvious in films such as Zero Dark Thirty, where the courageous white woman persists in her relentless pursuit of the evil bearded terrorist. The Orientalist portrayal of women from Arab cultures also remains exotified and unrealistic, whether we consider the bare midriff and harem pants worn by Disney’s Jasmine, or the same combined with token head covering for Jeannie in the 60s comedy I Dream of Jeannie.In the film Body of Lies the character of Ayesha, first veiled and then unveiled, speaks again to the Orientalist fascination with Arab women. This appropriation and misrepresentation is not limited to Arab culture either, for the mechanism of control that is Orientalism merges in its racist imagination Eastern cultures which are often distinct and diverse, combining all of them into a monolithic amalgam conveniently referred to as “the Orient”. It explains therefore not just stereotypical portrayals of Arab cultures and people, but those of Persian and South Asian origin as well; take, for instance, the morally repugnant Persian king in 300, the controlling, backward character of George in East is East or the curious, violent rituals in Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom.
However, while the representation of Eastern cultures remains problematic, when Said later reflected on the observations made in his book of 1978 he made it clear that one of his primary concerns with modern-day Orientalism was the way in which it continues to be deployed to provide justification for Western imperialism. Centuries later, not much has changed. The depiction of Palestinian youth as rocket-launching terrorists continues to be used to justify Israeli occupation. The depiction of Saddam Hussain and Moammar Gaddafi as crazed despots, and their nations as being incapable of implementing democracy without Western assistance, is used to justify Western military intervention.The depiction of the Taliban as backward fundamentalists continues to be used to justify Western military presence in Afghanistan and Western interference in Afghani politics.
Therefore while Orientalism as a discipline may have been dismantled, the Orientalist approach to controlling the Orient through skewed, exaggerated and racist representations of it carries on to this day. The remedy for Orientalism, or rather the inoculation against it, lies only in all free-thinking people becoming aware of its functions in everyday contexts, and subsequently beginning to recognise ‘Orientalism’, as well as all aspects of ‘the Orient’, for what they truly are.