Combating Orientalist Attitudes and Viewpoints

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Nasir Khan,  August 17, 2013
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I would like to add a short note to Mary Scully’s excellent piece on Orientalism, which evinces a general perspective on western attitudes in academia and western people towards the ‘Orient’. The very use of such terms transports us into a mythical East, romanticised and mystified when seen by the western academics and scholars. We may not be happy with such terms and their usage in the contemporary world; they nonetheless reveal much about the history of colonial supremacy and white superiority. During the growing power and expansion of colonialists, especially in the East including the Middle East and North Africa, they were able to resort to dehumanise the conquered ‘natives’ by focusing on their being the ‘Other’. That cleared the conscience of the colonial administrators from any moral inhibitions they might have had about the way they treated the colonised or enslaved people or races. A stark picture of that reality is the African people who were denuded of any humanity to start with, caught as if they were animals and transported to the new world of Americas. The way the British treated the people of India after the 1857 uprising against the foreign rulers was also another major reflection of the colonial attitudes towards the ‘Other’. What was lacking was any basic human impulse to look at the colonised people as full human beings. But to do so would have changed the right to rule and control.
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The expanding colonial powers assumed they were civilising the uncivilised, who in Kipling’s words were ‘half devil and half child’. Many pressure groups, the press, literary figures and religious establishment contributed to the imperial control. Even a socialist thinker like Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932) gave a guarded support to imperial expansion because he saw in it some material benefits for the colonised people when he said: ‘A certain tutelage of the civilised people over the uncivilised is a necessity.’ Thus the White races were doing God’s work for the dark and brown races!
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Mary Scully on Orientalism,
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The book “Orientalism,” by Edward Said (1978) is the first volley of postcolonial theoretics against the writings of Marx & Engels about colonialism in “the Orient,” particularly the Middle East. Although Said claimed it was a caricatured misunderstanding of his book, the term Orientalism has become an epithet & insult signifying western superiority, Eurocentrism, & a colonial mindset in commentary by westerners (including Marx & Engels) on Middle Eastern culture & politics. In interviews, Said acknowledged his strongest influence was Sub-Alternative historical studies in India & rued a similar lack of influence among Arab & Islamic scholars.
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There is no question western scholarship on Middle Eastern countries is up to its eyeballs in racist caricature & misrepresentation (often camouflaged with incense & romanticism). That is just as true of US scholarship on Black & Native American history in the US. Scholars are remunerated handsomely for promulgating racist horse manure in place of scholarship & obsequious social climbers in academia dutifully sing for their suppers. It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s that racist US scholarship on slavery, Reconstruction, civil rights was challenged by the new generation of Black scholars & Black studies departments. The Arab uprisings are likely to have a similar profound affect on Middle East scholarship by westerners.
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The problem with Said’s postcolonial perspectives is that they muzzle & undercut international solidarity. They make people timid about speaking out about things like the attacks on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt lest we betray a sense of western superiority over Arabs–as if we’re lecturing them on how to conduct their political affairs or attempting to speak for them. The problem with Said’s theoretics is that they treat Middle Easterners as an alien species from westerners & ignore the human & political universalities that bind us together as the human race.
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Democracy (circumscribed in only its parliamentary form) is usually defined as western culture & barbaric violence inculcated by the Quran defined as Middle Eastern. These kinds of views are not merely Orientalist; they are arrant racism & stupidity & no part of the thinking of Marx & Engels on colonialism in the Middle East. Solidarity with the colonized was the sine qua non of their theoretics–no matter how many things they may have gotten wrong. That solidarity means not keeping your trap shut when unarmed civilians are being gunned down. Expressing international outrage isn’t exposing some insidious power inequality or patronizing Egyptians with a homiletic rendition of Kumbaya or the Internationale. It is reaching out in the spirit of fraternity & sorority to express an active solidarity, a solidarity which demands of the US (which is bankrolling the bloodbath) “Hands off the Muslim Brotherhood,” “Hands off Egypt,” “No US aid to the Egyptian military regime,” “An injury to one is an injury to all.”
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