Friday, August 16, 2013

On Orientalism

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.

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.

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.

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.”

(Photo is cover of “Orientalism,” which continues to have importance & influence whatever ones view of Said’s theoretics.)

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