CLARIN

Orientalism Revisited, Warped Views Of East And West Sow Conflict

The discourse of East and West, and specifically Islamic East and Christian West, is flawed and implicitly destined for conflict. A view from Latin America as Paris burns.

In the Coptic quarter of Cairo
In the Coptic quarter of Cairo
Hamurabi Noufouri

BUENOS AIRES — In his first year as head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has not tired of denouncing a tragedy that is being tolerated in part as a calamitous result of the "Orientalist" outlook pervasive in the West. He has condemned the persecution and attempted expulsion of Christians from the Middle East before the world's silent gaze — in a manner he has observed, not dissimilar to another silence, before the violent persecution of the Jews.

"Now it is the turn of the Christians, and the world says little," he said. Why?

It is not the first time the world fails to react to events, and it is impossible to attribute the inaction to one, universal behavioral trait of governments or nations, nor even to regional "idiosyncrasies." Still, the Pope's outcry prompts one to wonder if this "hindered" sensitivity is perhaps the fruit of a prejudice that impedes us from seeing Christians in the Middle East as "like ourselves" or even as "proper" Christians.

To some it might sound contradictory to speak of "Christian Arabs" or "Arab Jews," and more so if we already have our mind set around the false synonym of "Muslim-Arab-Bedouin." Too many texts erroneously equate Arabs with Muslims (and vice-versa), and it is difficult not to picture Bedouins when you hear "Arabs."

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Muslim greetings in Buenos Aires. Photo: BLMurch

People are surprised to hear that Arab immigration to Argentina began in the 19th century, alongside the Jews, and that most of these were Christian farmers unrelated to nomads, as were the fewer Arabic-speaking Muslim migrants. We might find it more surprising to recall that these were the descendants of the world's first — original — Jews and Christians.

It is a flaw in our collective perception, which is difficult to correct as long as we see the world divided into East and West, with the West as the natural home of Judeo-Christianity and "civilization." It is what the historian Edward W. Said referred to as Orientalism, which attributes an inherently "barbaric" nature to Arabs (or Bedouins), stripping the Arabs of their religious diversity, and Christianity, Judaism, Islam and even secularism of their linguistic varieties, geographical mobility and evolution over time on all fronts.

Opposing words and worlds

It is a negation of diversity on both sides, symbolically excluding Arabs and Muslims of a "Western" universe exclusively based on the Judeo-Christian heritage, and making the Orient exclusively Islamic. This determinism is the source of absurd expressions like Islam and the West, which makes all Arabs Muslims, until proven otherwise.

This vision of Islam is necessarily one opposed to "the West" — the Judeo-Christian, civilized West — given the implicit antagonism of placing two opposing words together: East and West, civilization and barbarism.

This false vision is bound to displace or dislocate millions of secular Jews and Christians living in the "East," or secular citizens of Muslim heritage living in "the West," and effectively assign them as being outside their "natural" setting. As if they were foreigners from nowhere, or a social anomaly to be rectified sooner or later.

The victims of discrimination are thus surreptitiously handed responsibility for being victimized, and rejection of their discrimination is silenced. One sees that when a lengthy association is established between what is seen (evidence) and the absurd (prejudice or interpretations), the latter is strengthened and the former weakened, as stereotypes will only pay attention to anything that confirms them. The rest is dismissed as noise.

The criminal attack against Charlie Hebdo targeted this weakness: hoping that the "reaction" would cancel any acceptance of differences. And when diversity diminishes, democracy suffers.

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