Sunday, 18 October 2009

Orientalism and the Left

I've never seen much value in Edward Said's Orientalism hypothesis. Yes, Western writers have over the centuries seen "the East" in various ways: synonymous with luxury and vice, to begin with; then decadent and technologically backwards. But all civilisations and nations stereotype their neighbours and competitors. For centuries the British characterised the French in more or less "orientalist" terms. The Americans "orientalised" the British. Two thousand years and more ago, the Greeks orientalised the Persians, while the Roman orientalised the Greeks. But then the Romans also orientalised themselves: Tacitus, for example, contrasted the virile vigour of German tribes with the effete degeneracy of contemporary Rome, while other Roman writers tended to contrast their generation with the pristive virtues of long ago. "Orientalism" embraces so many different forms of admiration and contempt, romance and terror that it serves no useful purpose except as an instrument of liberal self-loathing, which presumably is why it has been such a potent myth on the political left.

Nevertheless, I was intrigued to spot this piece by Matthias Klein who claims to have identified an orientalism of the left. "This leftist orientalism" he writes "combines old-style orientalism à la Bernard Lewis with (equally) old-style Marxism and "anti-imperialism" à la Soviet bloc."

beliefs about civilisational backwardness and the determinant of religion are mixed up with notions of class struggle. Thus, non-elite Arabs and/or Muslims and/or Iranians (the labels are interchangeable) are generally the "oppressed" and elites are "oppressors", with two notable exceptions: allies of the west – be they rich or poor – are by definition "oppressors" and even the most brutal political elites are "halal" if they are "standing up to the west". Hence the support for Saddam Hussein among a sizeable chunk of the European left because he was "withstanding American-Zionist aggression" and "fighting for Palestine". Hence the often unqualified sympathy for Hamas and Hezbollah because they are "liberation movements". And hence the blank antipathy towards the Gulf countries.

This is certainly true, so far as it goes, though I can't see it has much to do with orientalism. It's also rather obvious. There has always been a tendency on the Left to overlook the deficiencies of regimes who stand in opposition to western interests, whether it's the Soviet Union under Stalin, or the Sandanistas, or, indeed, Saddam Hussein. The alliance seen today between left-wingers and Islamists is especially bizarre, since much of what Islamists stand for (such as the seclusion of women, hatred of homosexuals, or theocratic government) ought to be anathema to anyone who considers themselves "progressive". It's more likely, though, that support for Islamists springs from a narrative about the wickedness of the capitalist system, or the United States than from any particular love of Islamic or Arab culture.

Klein writes that "like the right, the left and centre judge non-western cultures by western standards":

For the liberals in the west, slogans about "self-determination" and "indigenous cultural development" are only valid if the peoples in question determine to go in what the west holds to be the "right path" and if their indigenous development moves along what westerners deem appropriate.

I'm not at all sure what he means by this, unless he is saying that it is wrong to want to enjoin respect for human rights and accountable government on countries that currently possess neither. But why not? Because they're "different"? If any position can be described orientalist, it's that.

Klein's main point, though, concerns the "blank antipathy" he sees evidenced on the Left towards Gulf states and their inhabitants. He notes that at the time of the Gulf War the Kuwaitis were often portrayed a oil-rich sybarites who were both the Americans' stooges and their paymasters. He detects snobbish disdain for people who, if they hadn't struck lucky would "still be herding goats and camels". And he locates this widespread view in "a combination of attitudes", all of them recognisably orientalist: first, the ancient stereotype of the noble bedouin warrior; second, the feeling that their oil wealth is somehow unearned; third, accusations of vulgarity commonly flung at nouveaux riches sheikhs.

Aesthetic displeasure pervades many, if not most, of those articles about Arab Gulf states that aren't travel pieces. This is not to say there is nothing to criticise in a place like Dubai, or Doha, or Kuwait, but in coverage of the Middle East orientalism comes into play as well.

Reports on workers' conditions, the economic crisis, the expat mentality, and yes, even bad driving, are necessary and, I may add, are constantly featured in the local and regional media. But a slag-fest isn't, especially when there is no complementary portrayal of cultural traditions, environmentalism, architectural history, social fabric and the internal discussions over where the respective society came from and where its members want it to go.

The main problem with this argument is that such attitudes are not "orientalist" at all. For a start, the noble bedouin myth is deeply embedded in Arab culture. The classical form of Arab poetry known as qasida - a meditation on deserted campsites, failed journeys and lost hopes - predates Islam itself. Some Saudi princes keep up the old tent-dwelling tradition - as, famously, does Colonel Gaddafi. It's also an image Osama Bin Laden deliberately invoked in his broadcasts from the Afghan caves. As for the complaints of vulgarity and unearned wealth - these are voiced most strongly not by orientalist-minded Westerners but by Egyptians for whom materially poor Cairo remains the cultural and intellectual heart of the Arab world. Snobbery is not a Western prerogative, nor is it confined to "orientalising" narratives: lack of historic quaintness, cultural unsophistication and flashy vulgarity are all charges that Europeans once aimed at American cities, and to some extent still do. You'd be hard-pressed to argue, in any case, that modern Dubai is not vulgar. But no more so than Las Vegas.