Neo Orientalists: Sugar Coat it all you want, it’s still Orientalism

Why are you teaching me about my own culture?

Rajesh Guthrappali to Sheldon Cooper

Living in the Middle East, it’s interesting to listen to different interpretation of the region and to try to keep an open mind, which believe you me, given the content and the source of many aformentionned interpretation, is pretty challenging in itself. 

So here I’m compiling some things that made me look for Edward Said to give a good old lecture about Orientalism (By the way, there should definitely be an App for that. Imagine, listening to some aggravating comment, you’d take your phone out of your pocket and a Said-like voice would boom:eeerrrrr ORIENTALISM! SHUT UP SHUT UP RIGHT NOW OR THE ANTI ORIENTALIST BRIGADES WILL ARREST YOU!). God. I’d love that.

Anyway, before we start, here’s a brief explanantion of what Orientalism is. Orientalism, as per Said’s thinking, is a  “subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture.” Orientalists interpret the region according to a set of -often- romanticized prejudices that serve to differentiate the ‘West’ from the ‘East”, the result of this interpretation being of course that the East is inferior to the West. Orientalists see Middle Eastern societies as similar to one another and dissimilar to western societies. This stance allows for domination of the economically and militarily most powerful over weaker States and participates to the imperialist effort of the former.   In other words, it is the patronizing onlooker commenting on the, say, Lebanese political life, smiling to himself and thinking Aahhh those Arabs, such barbarian people. Their food is good and their women lovely, all in all they’re cute, but they’re just not cut out for politics. Thank God we’re here to help them sort themselves out (and make a couple of good deals out of it).

My issue is that, even though their consider themselves leftists and despise the orientalist position usually associated with conservatives and neocolonial forces, some  leftist europeans and north americans seem to have a hard time distancing themselves from the romantic view of a Middle East principally defined by Islam. This is particularly striking when it comes to political Islam groups: they are seen by leftist north analysts as quintessential revolutionary groups who are the primary anti-imperialists in the region, and if you dare to disagree (after all you kind of thought for one second you had your say, you know, being a lebanese and all) you’ re a conservative reactionary sell out, or they’d just shrug your arguments off with a snigger of ‘oh you don’t have a PhD, therefore your opinion doesn’t count: we told you, analyse everything through the prism of Islam’ the subtitle of such a point of view being that Middle Eastern societies can’t have secular ant-imperialist regimes, just as their own countries do. Now don’t get me wrong, aformentionned academics and co won’t want for a minute such a regime for their own country: it ‘s good enough for the Arabs, you know, for whom the struggle against imperialism should only pass through religion, us, we’re more evolved, we’re secular.

Underlining the collaboration of some political islam groups with imperialist powers while outlining the absence of any social justice discourse or action (coupled with an official and public discourse of revolution, resistance and equality) won’t go down too well with the KnowItAll bunch. They’re fighting the Empire, therefore they’re anti imperialists. Khalas, that’s it, and there is little room for nuance in that analysis. Such positions might stem from european and north american conservative reactions that automatically assimilate political Islam groups to terrorists: there is however no need to sacralise such groups either. In both cases, this is Orientalism.So guys, you might not be aware of this, but this is pretty much the message you re sending out. You might want to think again before the Anti Orientalist Brigades arrest you.

The plight doesn’t stop at leftists analysts and scholars. International NGOs and International organisations people know more than you do about solving the Middle East development issues, the current upheavals and revolutions and how to make Mouloukhieh. The fact that it’s people on the ground taking the violence and the bullets while they’re savantly analyzing the situation safely tucked away in Hamra trrendy cafes isn’t relevant, as examplified (true story) by a German woman I witnessed in Bread Republic. She worked for an international organisation I won’t name and spent a good half hour explaining to a Syrian young women how the SYrian people were not doing things properly and that the peaceful demonstrations wan’t the way to go, all the while sipping away at her organic cappuccino while my blood was boiling and the people of Syria dying.

The list could go on, but it is our job, like Said did, to reclaim our own History and our own internal affairs, welcoming constructive debate as a way to advance rights and find solutions while rejection patronizing attitudes, shedding the internalized orientalism. And of course, not falling into the traps of orientalism in reverse.

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