At its peak, the British Empire ruled over around 24% of the Earth’s landmass and almost one quarter of the global population at the time, according to the BBC. The after effects of European colonization can still be felt in countries that eventually gained independence. Their ideologies and norms became a part of the fabric of the mindsets of the people in these countries. In Pakistan, this evident in our obsession with complexion, with the English language and our need to seek validation from our previous colonizers.
However, these ideologies have not only affected the mindsets of the colonized; over time they have also altered mindsets of the West and their attitudes.
One of such ideologies is Orientalism. Orientalism is described by literary, art and, cultural scholars as the depiction of various aspects of the Eastern world. The word “Orientalism” is derived from the Orient, which is the name given to the Islamic or Arab world by the West i.e. the Occident. It dictates how the East is perceived by the rest of the world, but through the lens of the West. It originated in the colonial period but continues to influence attitudes, behaviors, knowledge and images to this day. Oriental art and literature is known for the exotification of the Islamic world, as well as showing it in a position of moral or cultural inferiority to the West.
It can be observed in the depictions of Eastern characters and cultures in Western media content. An example is the portrayal of Arabs in most Hollywood films and TV shows as terrorist, crooks or even merely as someone who cannot be trusted. Try as we might to justify this as added entertainment value, but this negative media portrayal has real-life consequences.
A 2015 United States poll carried out while it was bombing Syria and Iraq shows that 30% of American Republicans were in favour of bombing Agrabah. This, they agreed to without realizing that “Agrabah” is a fictional country in the middle east that exists only in the Disney cartoon franchise Aladdin. This is evidence that orientalism effects how the whole Islamic world is perceived in the collective public mind i.e. often related with negativity and regression. This idea revolves around letting the West interact with the Islamic world, without ever losing the upper hand.
In its initial stages orientalism was justification of the West’s domination of the East. Colonialism created a legitimizing ideology of their own to rationalize their hold over the East. Therefore, one may say that colonialism created orientalism. Orientalism is about the West asserting its power over the East. It is a form of erasure, silencing and over-simplification of the Eastern and Islamic culture internationally by blending all of its subcultures, so that it can only be perceived through the Western lens.
There’s also plenty of evidence to prove that orientalism effects international politics and policy-making. According to Oxford Analytica, an independent strategic-consulting firm, since orientalism forms the basis of interaction between the West and East, it affects the Western politicians’ perception of any population they think is “oriental” and vice versa.
It presents the Orient as passive and incapable of self-representation, mostly because it observes it from an external point of view rather than a realistic understanding. According to a 2015 research paper written at the University of Cologne, Germany, Orientalism is an act of “metaphysical segregation” of the West and East. Simply put, it creates clear distinctions between the West and East in a way that puts them on opposite ends of a spectrum; the West being the superior one. This promotes an Us versus Them ideology; the Occident versus the Orient.
This same ideology, derived from Orientalism, is more often than not, used as justification for when the West interfere in matter of the East. An example is the US, who have given some variation of the same idea every time they’ve needed to justify their invasion of Iraq, their bombings in Syria and Yemen, and even their policies regarding the East like Trump’s “Travel” Ban that targets travellers exclusively from Muslim states.
According to Oxford Analytica, another argument is also that terrorist ideologies originating in the East are also derived from colonial-era legacies i.e. the idea that the West is culturally and morally superior to the East stimulates anti-west sentiments in the East.
The West needs to acknowledge and challenge these primitive ideas and concepts regarding the East. They need to develop an improved and more inclusive understanding of non-western societies without falling into their paternalistic and restrictive mindsets. Acknowledging this gap and trying to account for it can help alleviate resentment on all sides.
Diminishing these colonial influences will require an inter-generational effort to change attitudes and behaviors. The first step however, is the recognition of these influences. Orientalism cannot be reduced to just an academic and intellectual misunderstanding. It has to be recognized as an intellectual weapon that provokes conflict between the West and East. Once recognition sets in, efforts to alter the resulting attitudes and behaviors can be continued.