I’ve been reading Edward Said in class and just watched a documentary about him, so I thought I’d share some of his ideas on here. Said has got to be my all-time favourite person in the world. He is one of the only scholars to have emphasized how completely & totally subordinated the Arab world has been because of the west, and how it continues today.
Said points out that growing up, there was this constant disparity between what he experienced as being an Arab and the representations of Arabs in art and literature. He discovered that the Orientalist discourse was structured and built upon itself: every writer, artist, politician etc simply built upon what earlier Orientalists had created, with the result being a discourse that was incredibly durable. Said also points out that the Orientalist discourse is one that is closely linked to power, especially since it came about during imperialism, a time when Europeans needed to find out how to easily subdue the natives.
He writes that the same images keep coming up over and over: sensual woman there to be used by the man; the East as mysterious, full of secrets and monsters. Orientals are all the same, whether in Egypt or India. The Orient never changes or develops: it is timeless. The Orient is also powerless in the sense that it does not speak for Europeans, whereas Europeans speak for the Orientals: the Europeans had the power to produce knowledge.
American Orientalism is different in the sense that it is more politicized, especially because of Israel. He says it is virtually impossible for Americans to read books or watch programs that do not portray Arabs/Muslims in Orientalist fashion. It is also a fact that Islamophobia is pretty much officially sanctioned, both in America and now also in Europe: it is no longer offensive to insult or degrade Muslims. This is certainly something I now see in the Netherlands.
Said describes the US media as lazy and controlled by interests, both commercial and political. It also becomes clear in this documentary that Islamophobia was becoming an issue way before 9/11. I find this interesting since most westerners who attack Islam today do so based on 9/11 and terrorism since then. The fact that Islamophobia was already on the rise may show that in fact the problem was coming from the western side.
Said then went on to discuss Hollywood. Common themes include sheikhs, women dancing, swords, violence, the desert. The movie either has a Muslim villain or fanatic, or there are large numbers of Muslims being killed, as if Islam is something to be wiped out. There is the idea that Muslims are of a lesser breed and only understand the language of force. This is an argument that was often used by colonialists when they wanted to justify killing millions of “natives.”
Said also talked about Aladdin, a film I loved when I was little. Part of the song at the beginning goes like this:
It’s barbaric, but hey it’s home.
Wow! So basically kids are internalizing this from when they’re really young.
Then there is the point that the term Islam doesn’t even really mean anything: what does Indonesia have in common with Saudi Arabia? He argues that the west needs an enemy, otherwise how will they justify the massive amounts they are spending on the military? This reminded me of what a professor of mine said the other day: the biggest industry in the US and UK is the weapons industry. Basically: the US and UK need wars.
The documentary then showed media clips of the Oklahoma bombing, and how EVERYONE thought it was the Arabs who did it. The FBI even announced it was looking for 3 men of Middle Eastern origin and that they were treating it as a Middle Eastern incident. Only to discover later that a white, blue-eyed American had done it. Yeah.
He ended the documentary by talking about Palestine (he’s Palestinian). He points out that the Palestinians are paying for what the Europeans did to the Jews. He also said he doesn’t want to “kick the Jews out” – he wants coexistence. He says that unless we find tolerance and ways of being different without hostility, violence will continue to escalate and we will have more Palestines, Bosnias, and Rwandas.
Ah, I love him. What do you guys think about his ideas?