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Orientalism and the need for the eradication of the man - made division between the ‘West’ and the ‘East’

Updated on March 14, 2020
Nicole Zanetti profile image

Future university law student/ attended the international relations course at Cambridge Immerse/ completed my Politics A-level

Orientalism and post-structuralism

The way individuals across the international arena view the Middle East can be best described through the so-called Orientalist lens. Orientalism is a patronizing Western attitude towards other cultures, particularly the Middle East. In Edward W. Said's analysis in his book ‘Orientalism,’ the West essentializes these societies as static and undeveloped thus fabricating a view of Oriental culture that can be studied and reproduced. Said suggests that indirectly, this fabrication creates the idea that Western society is the opposite of that in the East, that is it is developed, rational, flexible, and superior. Therefore, Orientalism can be viewed as a form of racism and stereotyping of a group of countries that have vast differences between and within them. This essay argues that the cause of racist attitudes and the division of the West and the East are caused by Orientalism; therefore the only way that this division can vanish is through individuals as according to Said in his book ‘Orientalism’ “Neither the term Orient nor the concept of the West has any ontological stability, each is made up of human effort, partly affirmation, partly identification of the Other”. Therefore, in this essay, one can identify the deep-rooted beliefs of Western countries towards the ‘Middle East’ as well as differences among Western countries in the way they wish to view the Middle East through Orientalism; hence further highlighting the view that the concept of Orientalism is man-made and poststructuralist theory prevails.

Poststructuralism doubts the possibility of attaining universal laws or truths as no world exists independently of our interpretations. Poststructuralists encourage researchers to be sceptical of universal narratives that attempt to offer an objective worldview, as these assumptions are heavily influenced by pre-existing assumptions of what is real – and usually underlined by the views of those in power. This renders poststructuralism openly critical of any theory that claims to be able to identify objective fact – as truth and knowledge are subjective entities that are produced rather than discovered. Post-structuralism is used to emphasize the fact that Orientalism is not a ‘truth’ but rather a human creation and can, therefore, be revised and demolished. However, this is not an easy task, as the roots of Orientalism are well embedded in contemporary society. What is evident in our contemporary society is the constant desire for belonging and the passion for collectivism. This can be used to explain the support of Orientalism throughout the years by identifying the Orient as the ‘other.’ Conflicts are caused by the creation of man-made “herd-like” communities such as the “West,” “Islam” or “America” which are invented by individuals to create a collective identity when in fact the individuals within such “societies” are significantly diverse.

The origins of Orientalism and the way countries in the West view the Middle East can be traced back in history and can take various forms such as literature and art. Indeed, prominent, leading French artists such as Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Léon Gérôme have highlighted the orientalist fantasy within the Middle East, romanticizing it and viewing it as an exotic world whereby women were portrayed as belly dancers and men as exotically romantic. Gerome’s most distinguished work was his painting of the ‘snake charmer.’ ‘The Snake Charmer’ is an immoral imperialist vision of "the east." In front of glittering Islamic tiles that make the painting shimmer, a group of men sits on the ground watching a nude snake charmer, draped with a slithering phallic python. Such a vision highlighted the belief of the Western countries that the East was a mythical place that differed significantly from the advanced and rapidly developing West. It can be argued that the creation of the ‘Orient’ was nothing more than an attempt of the Western countries to dominate, restructure, and have authority over the Orient. Through Orientalism, the Middle East is viewed as eternal and incapable of advancing like the countries in the West.

Moreover, this image of the Middle East can be viewed through a myriad of Hollywood movies and even Disney movies. The most prominent example of this case is Aladdin. In the movie Aladdin, the lyrics of the opening song are as follows: “I come from a land from a far-away place/Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face/It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” These lyrics and the movie itself result in children associating the Middle East with a magical, exotic land that contrasts Western civilization. All in all, the prevalence of post structuralism can be further explained by the theory of discourse as illustrated by Michel Foucault, French philosopher and prominent post-structuralist thinker. Michael Foucault examines orientalism as a discourse which allowed the European culture to manage and produce the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period. The concept of orientalism as a man-made theory can be seen in the way it is interpreted differently by different countries. Indeed, Britain and France had colonies in the orient, hence establishing long lasting colonial relationships and acquiring actual experiences in the Middle East. On the other hand, the US experienced much less direct contact with the Middle East as there was no American occupation of any Middle Eastern countries. This suggests that the US adopts an indirect orientalism based on abstraction. Moreover, American orientalism is politicized by the presence of Israel by which America is a main ally. All in all, the different ‘versions’ of orientalism between countries indicates that orientalism is not a static phenomenon or a fact but rather a man-made concept that is interpreted differently by various countries so as to satisfy their needs and views.

The effects of Orientalism result in devastating effects on the countries in the Middle East. Indeed, by viewing the Middle East as an exotic and rather static in terms of change civilization, the West has created the impression that it has the right to colonize the countries of the Middle East to help them develop and advance. That is why Orientalism has been used as a justification for the Western colonization of Eastern countries. Western leaders feel that they can change the map of the Middle East as if ancient societies and myriad people can be shaken up like peanuts in a jar. This misconception that the Eastern countries are merely toys that the Western leaders can play with and alter as they wish must be eradicated as it contradicts the claims that we live in an advanced, open-minded society with education and intellectuality as our guiding values. Indeed, this attitude results in the West manipulating the way it wishes to portray the East in terms of Jihad. The demonization of Islam has been portrayed in a plethora of movies and media coverage, whereby investigative reporting is absent; instead, the media repeat the beliefs of the government. Therefore, the manipulation of Orientalism and the association of Islam and the Eastern countries as an 'evil' has created intense racism and fear towards countries in the East. In the news, we are bombarded constantly with images of the terrorists of the East, thus unwillingly forming the impression that all Eastern countries are dangerous and all their inhabitants must be treated and approached with great caution.

By continuing to view the Middle East through the lens of Orientalism, we are inevitably discriminating and stereotyping the entire Middle East and completely ignoring the vast differences between and within the countries that comprise the so-called Middle East. Even the term ‘the Middle East’ is considered to be Orientalist because it standardizes as a Western viewpoint by referring to West Asia and North Africa as the middle of the East. It is quite evident that Algeria is very different from Egypt just like Indonesia and Saudi Arabia have little in common even though they are both Muslim countries as they have vast differences in history, language, and tradition. The concept of terrorism as a label to be used to describe all the countries in the Middle East is absurd and inhumane. Terrorists can be found in various countries across the world. The Middle East has a population of over 411 million people; therefore, a lot more than just terrorist activities are going on there. The concept of Islam and terrorism as the main words used to describe all these countries is a vast generalization which creates a hostile environment between the so-called ‘West’ and ‘East.’ Orientalism unfortunately remains powerful in contemporary society because it shapes, not just how people in the West view the East, but also how they view themselves. However, humanism must prevail as it is perhaps the only and ultimate way of fighting the inhumane practices and injustices of the contemporary world. Without accepting that we view the Middle East through Orientalism, we cannot attempt to revise and view the countries in the Middle East differently.

In conclusion, the Orient is a European invention which has causes hatred, racism, and discrimination towards a large group of countries in the Middle East that differ significantly between them and yet have all been labelled by general characteristics fabricated by the Western countries in an attempt to establish their superiority. Therefore, adopting a poststructuralist attitude, one must comprehend that such generic descriptions of the Middle East cannot be accepted and should be significantly questioned if not ultimately denied. It is quite irrational for individuals to have a preconceived vision of how people are and act in the Middle East even though they have never been in the middle East nor ever met someone from the Middle East. Many steps need to be taken in order to remove this image that Western countries have of the so-called Middle East. The term itself ‘Middle East’ should be eradicated, and individuals should apply common sense and humanism when judging the various countries that make up the ‘Middle East.’

© 2020 Nicole Zanetti

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