Across the Bay

Monday, May 17, 2004

The Wicked Fool who Cried "Orientalism"

A friend of mine sent me this horrible and infuriating piece by Jonathan Raban published in The Guardian.

I decided to paste unedited my immediate reaction to it, which I sent him by email. Please excuse its roughness. (Raban's statements are in italics, mine are in between.)
Jonathan Raban
May 13, 2004

Seeing the terrible pictures of the beheading of Nicholas Berg, it's easy to miss the significance of the soundtrack that accompanies them. The taped voice - presumably that of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian associate of Osama bin Laden - rails not just against the Bush administration, but against the torpor of the Arab world. "The shameful photos are evil humiliation for Muslim men and women in the Abu Ghraib prison. Where is the sense of honour, where is the rage? Where is the anger for God's religion? Where is the sense of veneration for Muslims, and where is the sense of vengeance for the honour of Muslim men and women in the crusaders' prisons?" Professing himself to be outraged by the absence of Arab outrage at the photos from Abu Ghraib, Zarqawi proceeds with his gruesome remake of the videotaped killing of Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002.

That portion of Zarqawi's repellent message - his claim that people in the Middle East haven't been as shocked by the Abu Ghraib pictures as one might expect - is surely true. For days, there was a feeling of tentative, nervous relief in the United States that the pictures streaming out of Abu Ghraib had not - yet - provoked the wave of uncontrollable and violent popular protest across the Arab world that many Americans had feared. It was suggested that Arabs are so inured to torture in their own countries that they had lost the ability to be shocked by it, also that Iraqi Shia Muslims and Kurds were unlikely to be greatly upset by the sight of Ba'athist Sunnis getting a taste of their own medicine from their western jailers.

WHAT!? This is utter nonsense, as the Arab media immediately jumped on the story and is still milking it to this day. In fact, it consciously played down or ignored the Berg slaughter in order to maintain the heat of the Abu Ghraib story. Everyone, including the officials who sanction and order worse acts on a daily basis in their own prisons, have expressed "outrage." Shiites and Kurds have also expressed outrage, even when some Kurds were disappointed that now their own past horror stories from Abu Ghraib will be supplanted by the recent American scandal, thus, in classic Arab fashion, erasing the old (Sunni Arab) atrocities to lambaste the recent American one. With help from idiotic journalists like Raban, they will succeed of course, as they always find enablers in the West. For instance, Raban is almost seconding Zarqawi, not just rationalizing his barbarity. (Note: Readers will remember that I said that I was eagerly waiting for someone like Fisk or Seale or Chomsky to rationalize what Zarqawi did in post-colonialist heroics, and here it is, as advertised!)

Both these quasi-explanations were self-serving shots in the dark. What was clear from reading the English-language Arab press over last weekend was the truth of the old saying: "American viciously humiliates Arab" is not news; only when the terms are reversed are headlines made. To most of the Arab editorial writers, and perhaps to most Arabs, the digital photos merely confirmed what they had been saying since long before the invasion of Iraq took place: America is on an orientalist rampage in which Arabs are systematically denatured, dehumanised, stripped of all human complexity, reduced to naked babyhood.

The irony in this paragraph is that Raban unwittingly admits that there is a self-fulfilling prophecy involved here. The Arabs weren't about to be "won over" by anything the Americans did in Iraq, simply because they had already convinced themselves -- in classic Occidentalist fashion -- that the West is "immoral and decadent." In other words, the Arabs didn't need Abu Ghraib to think this way about the US. It is entrenched in their Occidentalist outlook.

As for the "orientalist rampage," no one save for Kurds actually remarked on the "dehumanization" of Arab and Kurdish (who are completely brushed aside in this typically Arabo-centric piece) prisoners before the Americans came to Iraq, and still to this day in every Arab prison. THAT, is Orientalism PAR EXCELLENCE, as it is based on the premise that these are "the ways of the Arabs." As Bernard Lewis recently said (in a lecture at GWU on 4/29) this preposterous, racist, and condescending attitude passes for "pro-Arab," yet THAT position is the most harmful and reductionist of them all.

Defining the orientalist project, Edward Said wrote of how occidentals feminised and infantilised Arabs, crediting them with "feminine" traits like intuition and an incapacity for reason (so Arab magicians figure large in the mythology, but Arab mathematicians not at all), and rendered Arabia as pliant, sensuous, passive, awaiting penetration by the rational masculine west.

Edward Said also went as far as to question whether the Kurds were ever gassed. As for Arab mathematicians, that's all we hear about in the West, as the Andalus is what's being "mythologized" in a way bordering on Occidentalism ("Europe was nothing but a dark-aged barbarous place before the Arabs enlightened it").

As for the passive part, it doesn't need the west to fulfill it, as the Arabs WERE "pliant and passive" and still are to the daily "penetrations" of their own regime, not the west's.

In classic orientalist fashion, Iraq was brutally simplified before it was invaded. Because of the way that the British, operating on the principle of divide and rule, had cobbled together three profoundly dissimilar Ottoman provinces to make a nation, Iraq stands alone in the Arab world in its complex rifts of religion, politics, tribe, race and class. For 80 years, Iraq has been an immensely tricky spiderweb of social and cultural lines and intersections. None of this was recognised by the invaders. As recently as last January, so we are told, George Bush was cheerfully ignorant of the deepest, most conspicuous fault-line in Iraqi society, the division between Sunni and Shia. The Bush administration rhetorically homogenised the several peoples of Iraq by endless iteration of the phrase "the Iraqi people", or, when speaking of Saddam, "his own people".

This is utter bullshit. This nonsense is the real simplification based on another reductionist vision (not orientalism), one that sees the US (exemplified by Bush) as a stupid, vulgar, ignorant cowboy land. Iraq does not stand alone in its complexity, yet Raban is blinded by yet another reductionist ideology (adopted by Said himself) that of Arabism (whose staying power is far more than that of Orientalism). Egypt has over 10 million copts. Algeria has its berbers, Sudan its non-Arab animists and christians, as well as non-arab african Muslims. Syria has its kurds and armenians, Lebanon has its own mosaic, etc. All of this was recognized by the war planners, and the post-baath iraq was based precisely on this recognition, because it aimed at the removal of the ideology that reduced and crushed those complexities. That ideology was not created by Bush or Wolfowitz, rather it was created by Arabs and still floats today as Arabism. This ideology is the one who has such lines as "unity that transcends sectarian lines." This is the ideology that sees the entire area from Morocco to Iraq as a homogenous Arab continuum. So these lines don't come from Bush, they come from the ARABS themselves, including some Iraqi officials today, who are working on the assumption of a unified Iraq (not necessarily in Arabist terms).

The last line about the "iraqi people" is ludicrous and maliciously manipulative. It's not even worth a comment.

When Saddam's gang of Tikritis gassed Kurdish villages or drained the water from the Marsh Arabs' swamps, they were decidedly not dealing with their "own people", but with people they regarded as dangerous aliens: tribally, racially, religiously, politically distinct from themselves. Now, when coalition forces insist on blaming "foreign fighters" for home-grown Iraqi insurrections, they unconsciously mirror the mindset of the Ba'athists, who regarded Kurds and southern Shia as equally foreign fighters. War, said Ambrose Bierce, is God's way of teaching Americans geography, and in the last year some human geography has been learned, mainly to the effect that a large number of Iraqi people appear not to belong to the Iraqi people - that orientalist construct which was the catchphrase of 2002.

This is outrageous. To equate the Jordanian and Saudi and Syrian (SUNNI) nfiltrators in the Sunni areas with the Iraqi Kurds and Iraqi Shiites is ignorant as well as nefarious. This is rubbish.

The Iraqi people were pictured as yearning, femininely, childishly, with one voice, for a pluralist free-market democracy, and (bad taste though it is to recall this detail) they would greet their liberators, femininely, childishly, with flowers. In the early autumn of 2002, the secretary-general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, warned that a western invasion of Iraq would "open the jaws of hell", but the orientalists listened to no one from the region, preferring to trust the Middle Eastern expertise of Paul Wolfowitz, who blithely represented Iraq as a comely bride, trapped in a dungeon by her wicked stepfather.

The Iraqis DID rejoice over the removal of Saddam Hussein, whose 3 decade long emasculation of the Iraqis never brought up a PEEP from Amr Moussa or Jonathan Raban for that matter. Besides, this seems contradictory to the former passage. In the former, Raban says that any homogenous view of Iraq is Orientalist. In this paragraph, he says that a pluralist vision of IRaq is orientalist. Like the Arabs' reaction to Abu Ghraib, Raban's categorization of the US as Orientalist is predetermined and independent of facts.

By the time of the invasion, Iraq had been so exhaustively orientalised that it had lost almost all connection to reality.

By the time of the invasion, Iraq indeed had been exhausted, only not by Orientalism, rather by the crimes of Saddam Hussein and those who stood silent as he raped the iraqis daily. Furthermore, it would have continued to be so had it not been for the US, and it would have been with the tacit indirect collaboration of people as stupid as Raban, who alone has no connection to reality.

Much of this effort was grandly sentimental, oozing goodwill toward "the Iraqi people".

It's far more goodwill than Raban and his likes have ever shown.

All of it was dehumanising, robbing Iraqis of their intractable particularity. None of it fooled the long-memoried Arabs in neighbouring states, who had seen this stuff many times before,

In fact, it was based on a vision OF iraqi particularity, and it was based on their HUMAN RIGHT NOT to be tortured or killed or gassed, none of these rights by the way were ever defended by the likes of Raban. Secondly, how can this moron talk about Particularity and then support that by referring to the Arab neighboring states!!! How is that particularity! That is stupidity and that's all that it is. By the way, the only thing the arabs had seen before is the likes of Saddam in each of the "neighboring" countries, and Idiots like Raban who want to have us believe that their survival is for the benefit of the Arabs!

and who might, perhaps, have recognised in the perorations of Wolfowitz of Arabia the ghostly voice of TE Lawrence in the poem that prefaces The Seven Pillars of Wisdom with a breathtakingly vain promise of mutual orgasm:

I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands

and wrote my will across the sky in stars

To earn you Freedom, the seven-pillared worthy house,

that your eyes might be shining for me

When we came.

In the event, Lawrence's seed was spilled, like Onan's, and like that of every orientalist who has dreamed of liberating Arabia, on the sand.

This is nonsensical at best. Condescending, and irrelevant as it reveals nothing about the Arabs, but more about Raban.

It is necessary to go over this old and painful ground in order to read the messages from Abu Ghraib. One searches the photos in vain for signs of furtiveness on the part of the torturers, for any indication that they were snapped on the sly. To the contrary: the soldiers, fresh-faced, smiling, happy, look as if they are taking pride in a job well done - and the job in question looks like the orientalist enterprise, acted out in gross cartoon form. Here is Arabia nude, faceless under a hood, or ridiculously feminised in women's panties, forced into infantile masturbatory sex and sodomy. (These people are ruled by their nether organs, not by their higher faculties, is the orientalist line.) The jail has become a grotesque nursery, with Private Lynndie England (her very name like the nom de guerre of a sex worker), cigarette jutting from her cheerful grin, playing the part of the au pair from hell. The pictures appear to be so single-minded in their intent, so artfully directed, so relentlessly orientalist in their conception, that one looks instinctively for a choreographer - a senior intelligence officer, perhaps, who keeps Edward Said on his bedside table, and ransacks the book each night for new ideas.

The only thing missing here is the reaction TO the tortures in the US as opposed to the Arab world. These things happen daily in the arab world and no one labels them "orientalist" or looks for edward said's comments on them. Whereas in the US these were viewed for what they are: criminal behavior, one that will be punished. This is the difference between the two: one is self-critical, the other is victimologists, with plenty of morons to enable it, Raban being the dumbest of them all.

This is in fact not worth reading... this is insulting, ignorant bullshit. Not a word in there about the arab malignancies... of course not, for that would be "orientalist".