When supporters of the soon-to-be ex-President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol Building in Washington DC last week, many things were revealed that day. We saw the lengths that Trump supporters would go to keep him in office, the fragility of American democracy, the shockingly limited security employed by the US government, and then the subsequent clampdown on aspects of free speech by big tech companies.
One thing the world also saw, though, was the reversal of the classic roles held by the developed West and the “third world” countries. Social media users gazed in awe at Arabic-language news channels reporting on the incident, describing it as “surreal”. It was wildly reminiscent of scenes throughout the decades when Western news reported on the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, or the coverage of the Arab Spring protests in 2011 and the overthrowing of dictatorships.
Middle Eastern governments then reacted, issuing statements expressing “concern” and calling for calm. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry started it, stating: “We believe that the USA will overcome this domestic political crisis in maturity. We recommend that our citizens in the USA stay away from crowded places and places where shows are held.” The United Arab Emirates (UAE) also issued a similar statement calling on its citizens in the US to stay clear of the affected areas.
Even Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani lamented the state of American democracy, urging the US government to make up for its past and to: “Restore the country to a position worthy of the American nation… for their own benefit and the good of the world.”
Leaders of the European Union (EU), India, Japan, Australia and the UK then released statements calling for a safe “transition” and an “orderly transfer of power” to the new administration of Joe Biden – words eerily similar to those that the US and other Western nations have long used during revolutions and uprisings abroad.
What was going on? The world – particularly the East, for lack of a better term – had found its opportunity to turn the tables and to get its own back on the US and its long history of intervention, even if only symbolically.
But then, inevitably, came the comparisons of the incident to something that would happen in Syria or other Middle Eastern countries. This was not limited to social media users or public testimonies, or even journalists, but was even spouted by established political commentators broadcasting on popular television channels.
This was clear when the American CNN commentator Van Jones exclaimed: “Where we’re headed looks more like Syria than the United States of America,” and when ABC News reporter Martha Raddatz compared scenes at the Capitol Building to “Baghdad”.
Such comparisons, though inaccurate and subject to context, are somewhat understandable as they are rooted in the very psyche of those in the developed West and “first world”, who have for decades seen the covering of uprisings and chaos only in the Middle East and surrounding regions. They have forgotten the revolutions and atrocities throughout Europe in the 20th century, discarding such events as belonging only to the past and the dustbin of history.
Anything remotely resembling a societal breakdown or an event necessitating military action, therefore, is to them unthinkable in the US or Europe. In their minds, such happenings are only possible – and expected – in the Middle East and beyond. This is, of course, not a conclusion they come to thoughtfully or logically, but is deeply embedded in their subconscious as just something that is.
This is not only seen with regards to politics or societal issues, but also down to the very smallest of things. When watching a documentary on life in Iran years ago, for example, (British) friends of mine watching with me expressed their surprise that shopping centres, paved streets, leafy avenues, gardens and glossy high-end restaurants could exist and prosper in such a place. Other acquaintances even expressed their apprehension and concerns about visiting a place like Istanbul in Turkey, which is considered one of the most Western and European locations of the East.
The fact is that any place in, or slightly associated with, the Middle East is seen by many in the West as a semi-desert environment where violence is rife, corruption is rampant, buildings are crumbling, streets consist of dust and potholes, foreigners are in ever-present danger and any form of democratic values are non-existent. And let us not forget the atmosphere that is eternally tinged orange by a sandstorm, regardless of how far away a desert is, like Hollywood productions so accurately depict.
The result of all of this? A culture in which the Middle East is seen as a playground and a subject for exploration, rather than a region of equal worth and value as the West. This was what the Palestinian-American intellectual and professor Edward Said observed in much detail in his famed book Orientalism, over fifty years ago.
“Orientalism,” Said wrote, is “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” Said perceptively saw this phenomenon for what it was and what it would further evolve into, as: “A sign of European-Atlantic power over the Orient.”
In fairness, not all Orientalism and its practitioners mean badly. There are some who are well-intentioned and set out with a genuine fascination with the MENA region, its culture, politics and people. Though these types – from which us writers and journalists are not always exempt – also often end up contributing to the popular narrative, regardless of the intent.
A Tehran-based translator of Persian poetry, who goes by the pseudonym of Sharghzadeh, spoke to Middle East Monitor of his own experiences with Orientalism while studying in the US and travelling throughout the Middle East.
The Westerners he met largely held views predicated on an Orientalist worldview, despite learning about the region themselves. In his Middle East studies classes: “My classmates would judge me for opinions that are completely normative and mainstream in this culture, yet they were students of this culture – it was very frustrating.”
Sharghzadeh said that while welcoming those who are fascinated by the Middle East and want to study it: “You have to accept us as we are. You can’t bring your assumptions and values to us and expect us to adopt them. You have to suspend judgment and respect our norms if you’re going to immerse yourself in our culture.”
When living in Jordan, too, Sharghzadeh met many NGO workers who seemed: “To have a very paternalistic pity for the Middle East… they’re fascinated, they want to learn Arabic or Persian, but they also look down on us. A lot of girls, especially, would pity their local female friends because they perceived Middle Eastern culture as anti-women, or they misunderstood the way we show love to be possessive or excessive.”
This Western tendency to feel the need to teach others from different cultures, he said, is hypocritical and does not grant those in the region the worth they deserve. “Who are you to teach them? We’re an ancient culture, we’re older than you, you’re not anyone to teach us,” Sharghzadeh reacted.
These same NGO workers also knew only a few words of Arabic, despite living there for around five or six years, making him question their legitimacy in being so-called Middle East experts. “They couldn’t even talk to anyone, so how are you an expert? Many of the things they said and believed were very old Orientalist tropes, so far from reality, and these are the people that supposedly link the West and the East.”
Ultimately, Sharghzadeh believes that producing this type of person is a primary purpose of those NGOs, which are: “Designed to Westernise us and to spread Western values in the region.” His experience with Orientalists made him realise that: “They really wanted their version of what they found interesting in the Middle East, a Middle East catered to their tastes, foreign enough as to be interesting but not foreign enough to challenge their values. They don’t want our Middle East.”
If the first two weeks of 2021 have shown us anything, and if the Trump supporters’ storming of Capitol Hill was worth something, it’s that even when the West is in trouble, it still concerns the East. Orientalism is very much alive and well.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.