The "new Orientalism"
Alastair Crooke, England
August 31, 2006
It's unconscious. It slips out almost inadvertently. It is not deliberate but, rather, a reflex: an Israeli commentator discusses options for clearing Hizballah from the area south of the Litani River in the context of the war in Lebanon. After reviewing the options he adds, in an almost despairing note, that probably whatever Israel does, almost certainly a "Hizballah terrorist will pop up somewhere on the back of a donkey with a rocket."
The imagery is clear, but paradoxical. Clear because his report implies a grudging and bemused respect for a foe that unexpectedly is not being crushed by the Israeli onslaught (as every western and Israeli analyst had assumed), paradoxical, because whatever the force that was frustrating this mighty military machine, it was certainly something more than "a man on a donkey". Why the donkey? Because this foremost proponent of modern asymmetrical guerrilla warfare--Hizballah--must nevertheless somehow be associated with obscurantism, with a reaction against western modernity and a desire for a return to a pre-modern age. It's just how we see things.
Edward Said rightly identified this western unconscious prejudice as "Orientalism". He suggested that the West sees the Orient as that mysterious "Other" that eludes rational analysis. Western academics and observers continue to see the Orient, and to define it, in polar opposites: we in the West are rational, the Orient is violent and inexplicable; we are moderate, they are extreme; we practice good administration, they live under oppression and tyranny.
This flawed western analysis is entirely self-serving: the language of Orientalism, Edward Said noted, was a construct of power. For the previous 300 years, Europeans have regarded the Treaty of Westphalia* (an agreement that shattered the Christian "caliphate" in secular nation states) as laying the foundations of modernity. The separation of church and state, the belief in the inevitability of progress through science, a faith in reason as a solution of social problems, everything that we think of as the "Enlightenment" ideal, became our mantra however much European reality differed from this ideal.
The Enlightenment grew from a simple concept to become, irretrievably, a synonym for "modernity" itself; the Orient became its antithesis. The ideals we believe are reflected in the Enlightenment became the device that allowed us to use the language of European modernity not only as a tool to "domesticate" the Orient but also as an interpretative template from which to offer a critique of the Orient's "backwardness". The Enlightenment mindset of European modernity became sedimented in western thinking at the same time that it served western colonial and economic interests.
In the years since Edward Said published his classic, the West has elevated Orientalism into something more serious: an inexorable self-fulfilling reality. The global "war on terror" has allowed western leaders to cast "our" struggle as one for civilization itself--"we" have values, they have none, we want to spread democracy, they hate our freedoms. The West is now defined by its opposition to terrorism and as a defender of civilization. The war on terrorism has transformed orientalism, from a European-based vision of modernity that could be used to "domesticate" non-Europeans, into a program that establishes a frontier between "Civilization" and "the new Barbarism".
The new "Orientalism" offers us new political tools. Since the "new barbarians" live outside of civilization, civilized rules no longer apply to them: if "they" win elections they can still not be part of "us"--office holders and parliamentarians can be abducted and interned without a murmur; members of "barbarian" movements can be arrested and taken away for imprisonment and torture in other countries, and barbarian leaders, whether or not legitimately elected, can be assassinated at the pleasure of western leaders. They "abduct" us, we "arrest" them.
The underpinning of our worldview is based on our idea of what constitutes the legitimate use of power--and, therefore, on the use of violence. It is the bedrock of the Enlightenment. Violence practiced by the nation state is legitimate; violence used by non-state actors is a threat to civilization and the existing world order. The barbarians do not have resistance movements, they are not for liberation, and they are not fighting oppression. To admit so is to admit that we are oppressors, and that cannot be. They are not fighting for their homes: they are "unauthorized armed groups".
Non-state actors who use violence--defined now as "terrorists" in the new lexicon of the Bush-Blair world view--face a double proscription: not only are they outside of civilization and undeserving of having civilized standards applied to them (such as respect toward elected representatives), they are excluded from international law too. Their challenge to "our" Westphalian rules on the use of violence permits us to cast them as barbarians and outlaws. Nor are we constrained by our own rules of war in the military struggle to be waged against them. Why are we bombing them? Because they don't have our values.
As these "Others"--these barbarians--find themselves isolated and excluded from civilization, as well as from the safeguards of international law, they respond by assuming the characteristics we attribute to them. If we do not apply civilized standards to them, and use unrestrained military force against them, is it any wonder that they respond in kind? And so this "new Orientalism" becomes self-fulfilling: since their violence is "terrorism" and our violence is "self-defense," we propound a reasonable solution--we get to keep our guns, but they must disarm.
* It is often said that the Peace of Westphalia (1648) initiated modern diplomacy, as it marked the beginning of the modern system of nation-states… Subsequent European wars were not about issues of religion, but rather revolved around issues of state. This allowed Catholic and Protestant powers to ally, leading to a number of major realignments. (Wikipedia)
Alastair Crooke is a director of Conflicts Forum. He was formerly an EU mediator who facilitated a number of ceasefires with Islamist movements. He was also a staff member of Senator Mitchell's Fact Finding Committee into the causes of the Second Palestinian Intifada. This article was first published on Aug. 31, 2006 on