The New Orientalism

the snake charmer

Jean Léone Gérôme's "The Snake Charmer"

In the 19th Century, the first Orientalists ventured to the Middle East from the West.  European artists and photographers like Jean-Léon Gérôme and Félix Bonfils went to the Holy Land looking to find inspiration from Biblical scenery.  What they found instead were cities approaching modernity and bearing little resemblance to the first century ideal in their imagination.  So instead, they painted the mosques and towns as they envisioned they would have been unchanged for centuries, not as they actually were.  They narrowed the focus of their camera lenses, shooting outside the bustling cities for more exotic scenery in the countryside: a shepherd tending sheep, a woman at a well, a poor fisherman.  Personal subjects were limited to those in traditional dress of scarves, veils, and robes.  They obsessed with the foreignness of the culture, emphasizing the barbarity of stoning, beheading, the washing rituals, the call to prayer, mosaics, snake charmers, and the Circassian beauties.  The Orientalists sought to capture the East not as is or even was, but as it was in their minds.  The Orientalists had seen the bigger picture beyond the camera’s romanticized reach, but their audience in the West who would largely never travel there themselves depended on this limited focus for their picture of the Muslim world.  While it was known on varying levels that this was not the extent of Islamic culture, it was the predominant impression, nonetheless.

In 1978, Edward Said published his seminal work, Orientalism, which redefined the term to refer to a postcolonial Western bias towards Arab culture.  The Islamic landscape was altered within a year of its publication, when the Ayatollah conquered Iran and Wahabism took over the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  Said’s impact on Western attitudes has only increased exponentially since 9/11, even though most people affected by this paradigm shift have never even read his book.  But without it, it’s unlikely that we would have the term “Islamophobia” in our lexicon, or that that “religion of peace” would be a euphemism for Islam.  Respect to Muslim sensibilities are at the forefront of US domestic and foreign policy, perhaps demonstrated no better than in the respectful way the military disposed of Osama Bin Laden’s corpse.  Criticism of Islam is quickly becoming unacceptable, as Americans are increasingly asked to become tolerant of intolerant values in conflict with universal human rights.  Cultural relativism has made us helpless to judge the oppression of women and minorities, not even in Afghanistan where the Taliban was overthrown, only to be replaced by a government that is, in everything but name, essentially the Taliban.  Everywhere in the media, from news coverage, to DC Comics’ joint publication of a Kuwaiti superteam, to Turner Classic Movies’ Arab Images in Film series this summer, there’s a concerted effort to re-educate the public about Islam, shatter the old prejudices, and create a new identity for Muslims.  As a nation, we seem to be apologizing for stereotypical attitudes and colonial transgressions, past and present.  We will probably have to apologize for a long time, in light of the mail bombs sent from Yemen last year addressed to historical figures from the Inquisition and the Crusades if that’s any indication of how long Muslim grudges last.

Heightened security and nearly 18,000 deadly terror attacks in the last ten years are a heavy reminder that an unquantified block of Muslims around the world hate the West.  But instead of responding to this fact, the West’s reaction has been to ask “why do they hate us?” with the rhetorical assumption that it must be something we have done.  Regardless of the answer we supply (occupation, blasphemy, capitalism, freedom, democracy, etc.), we have not only accepted the Muslim grievance without any critical analysis, we have also resorted to victim blaming.  In the extreme effort not to base assumptions about Islam on a narrow stereotype, the West’s new apologists for Islam have simply chosen a different narrow scope to point their camera.  In presenting a limited, romanticized ideal of Islam, they are following the same pattern as the Orientalists before them.  They don’t want us to see the whole picture, only the one they imagine.

These New Orientalists have isolated their picture of Islam through the West’s individualism, constantly reminding us that not all Muslims can be judged by the actions of a few.  While that premise is true, their agenda surfaces when their conclusions about Islam are based on a converse that Muslims can in fact be judged on a sampling of their own selection.  Overlooking the deplorable treatment of women, gays, and minority religions throughout the Muslim world, their favored perception of Islam is double-weighted on the minority of Westernized Muslims.  It matters little to them that Muslim countries are the most homogeneous in the world, with many countries comprised of 99-100% Muslim.  They have parsed “radical” Muslims from “moderate” Muslims, and no matter how small the latter may be, that romantic ideal is what they hold must be true Islam.  Of course, they have to then overlook the fact that all the identified assault rapes in Sweden last year were committed by Muslims, or that Amsterdam, birthplace of gay marriage, has become the gay-bashing capital of the world thanks to Muslim immigration.  They condemn a lone preacher in Florida who burns a Qur’an for the actions of Muslims a continent away who murder people who had nothing to do with the incident.  To the New Orientalist, the West bears the responsibility for the bad behavior of Muslims.

The problem with this view is that it’s actually more condescending than the Orientalism of the 19th Century.  Treating Muslims more delicately because we don’t expect the same good behavior from them as from the general public really degrades Islam.  For instance, the South Park episode that “incited” Faisal Shahzad to attempt to bomb Times Square also depicted Jesus Christ, Moses, Krishna, Buddha, and Joseph Smith in even more unflattering depictions than Muhammad, who was never actually shown.  Islam, however, was the only offended religion that inspired terrorist attacks.  The belief that our behavior must change to accommodate the lowest common denominator religion presumes an unspoken barbarity that’s not shared by all the other faiths.  Similarly, when Muslims force women to dress in extreme modesty, it’s actually an insult to Muslim men to treat them as if they’re handicapped by a lack of sexual self control that’s not present among non-Muslim adult males.  If we believed that Islam were truly civilized, or even just that it had the potential for civilized co-existance, we would not be excusing behavior that we normally wouldn’t.  Their common false equivalency is to compare Islam’s development to being as young as Christianity in the Middle Ages.  This ignores the history of Islam in the Middle Ages and how little has changed since then, or that Mormonism, the Baha’i Faith, and virtually every religion that has appeared since then has grown up faster in less than 200 years than Islam has in 1,400.  It would be absurd to believe that a religion started tomorrow would have a license for a thousand years of abuses, and so accepting this behavior from Islam hints at an inferior perception of Muslims, whereas expecting more from Muslims is actually showing them dignity and respect.

Yet these same apologists simultaneously treat Islam as though it can’t be changed.    They decry critics of Islam as “racists”, even though Islam is not even a race.  Western women donned headscarfs in solidarity for the “Today I am a Muslim too” rally, as if the hijab is an unalterable characteristic like skin color.  Their failure to treat Islam as a multi-racial, supra-cultural religion lowers it to a degrading stereotype.  The impression they give is that they really think Islam is a primitive culture endangered by modernism and in need of special protection.

The 19th Century Orientalists impeded the impression of Muslim development to preserve images of a bygone era, while today’s Orientalists have inhibited advancement to create an equally fictitious narrative.   Instead of pretending that gender apartheid is acceptable in Muslim countries, it would be more respectful to call for reform; not doing so does nothing to advance the status of women in Islam, and only gives the impression that Islam cannot be reformed.  Killing people over cartoons is childish, savage behavior, but continuing to reward this behavior by not treating Muslims as adults in the 21st Century will never change anything.  Restraining our criticism of the religion has only emboldened the more radical Muslims, who see non-Muslim respect of Islam as a validation of Islamic supremacy.  Some ex-Muslim critics, like Wafa Sultan and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, may argue that Islam cannot be reformed, but the apologists are not helping their own case by not even enabling an environment for it.  Only the future can say whether reform is really possible or not, but first we need to get beyond calling critics “Islamophobes”, to stop tolerating intolerance, and to start condemning inexcusable behavior.

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