Orientalism Today

About three weeks ago, in an interview that was part of a tour to launch his latest book, Salman Rusdhie was asked about what he thought about the protests that erupted in Muslim countries as a result of the film, “Innocence of Muslims” (or the “Life of Muhammed,” or “Muslim Innocence, depending on reports). He responded by calling the video a “disgraceful little malevolent thing ” and the violence that erupted as a consequence of the film, “the release of a much larger outrage.” Rushdie went on to comment on the topic, saying “He’s clearly set out to provoke, and he’s obviously unleashed a much bigger reaction that he hoped for. One of the problems with defending free speech is you often have to defend people that you find to be outrageous and unpleasant and disgusting.”

It speaks to the nature of the video, more than to Rushdie’s somewhat self obsessed personality, that an author who just launched a memoir about the many years he spent under fatwa, would argue for the right of free speech of people whom one finds “outrageous and unpleasant and disgusting,” especially because those people “essentially” were the same ones who wanted him did. Rushdie in fact made a very valid point when he said what he did, one similar to the many arguments that Said weaves together in Orientalism. The central thesis of Said’s text is that the Orient has continued to be misrepresented and misunderstood by Europe during their colonial efforts. The knowledge that formed the basis for Europe’s rule of most of the world, was based on biased and false notions of the East which continue to penetrate Western thought and ideology even today. These intellectual efforts made by colonial states created a false system of knowledge, a process Said describes in vivid detail, that deemed Western culture, thought, politics, history, in short society, as infinitely superior and advanced than “Oriental” societies. This logic legitimized the continent’s conquest and rule of foreign territories and peoples.

In a section called “Crisis,” Said describes what he finds to be the limitations of Orientalism. “So impressive have the descriptive and textual successes of Orientalism been” he says, “that entire periods of the Orient’s cultural, political, and social history are considered mere responses to the West. The West is the actor, the Orient a passive reactor.” It is interesting to think of the launch of this video within the context of this quote and the larger framework that Said lays out. In this case, America, or the West did, quite literally, take action by making such a video, causing the so called “Orient” to react. But what this case illustrates is that the West still fails to understand Muslim reaction because it continues to be unable to see it through the eyes of those that they are representing. In an articled published by David Kirkpatrick in The New York Times, called Cultural Clash Fuels Muslims Angry at Online Video, Mr. Ali a 39 year old textile worker quoted making the very valid point that Muslims have never insulted Moses or Jesus. The reason for this being that both these men and their followers are recognized by the Koran as people of the book. While people in the West may criticize their own religions, there has hardly ever been a case where a Muslim has insulted a leader of either faith. So why has the West not learned that the Muslims exercise the same level of tolerance to other faith’s as they do to their own. Action again is from the West, while the reaction from the “Orient.”

The violent outcomes that resulted from the launch of this video sheds new light on Said’s formulation of Orientalism. One cannot continue to understand the “Orient” as an Muslim only domain where only Islamic values are taken into considerations by governments. Nothing much was stated in this article on the reaction of Christians in Egypt except one persons objection “only to the violence of the protests.” But the banning of “The Da Vinci Code” by Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon among other Arab countries is evidence of the penetration of “Western” thought, at least religious thought into the public sphere and it holding a stake at the political level. Insults to any religion are seen as crimes, irrespective of they represent or who is representing them. Why can America not have a policy where disrespect to a faith is not permissible?

 Kirkpatrick goes on to say that Egyptians and other Arabs “sometimes find it hard to understand that the American government feels limited by its free speech rules from silencing even the most noxious religious bigot.” [emphasis mine] What is striking here is that the author, who of course is a westerner who is representing and re-presenting the East to us through this story, thinks that it is the East which requires change, and that the East has to rethink the way it reacted. That the American governement’s lack of action on this issue and others like “the burning or desecrations of the Koran by troops in Afghanistan and a pastor in Florida” led to the “outpouring of outrage,” is a result of the country’s rules on free speech, proves again Said’s point that the West is the actor to which the East is reacting. What the rhetoric of Kirkpatrick’s statement says is that it is the East which must change it’s ways so that the West may maintain it’s free speech.

If it is true that the West does in fact have free speech, then it should in effect become tolerant and understand the actions that people of the “Orient” have taken. They themselves have to, as Rushdie said, tolerate the responses of the “people that you find to be outrageous and unpleasant and disgusting.” Or, for the better, they could try and understand, from the people who took action, the reasons behind why they reacted in the manner they did. Perhaps after learning something, these two worlds could together write a new discourse on the freedom of speech.

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