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Orientalism, Ukraine and the social disease of selective solidarity

March 3, 2022 at 10:18 am

Ukrainians and Israelis who support them gather during a protest against Russian attacks on Ukraine, on 26 February 2022, in Tel Aviv, Israel. [Mostafa Alkharouf – Anadolu Agency]

A couple of weeks ago, I stood in front of my most diverse group of students and the largest class I have had since I began teaching in 2020. It was my first face-to-face cultural content seminar since the start of the pandemic, and I hesitated for a second, knowing that what I was about to say would shake the students out of their comfort zone. “In this course,” I explained, “you will learn about the many ways Orientalism infiltrates our global psyche and by the end, you will understand it as an ideology that has influenced power dynamics and international relations, as well as the flow of social capital and economic wealth. It has done so for centuries. Everything from how you are sitting in this classroom to why your lunch is covered in single-use plastic can be explained, in part, by an Orientalist encounter.”

It was not a stretch of the imagination to make this claim to a group of hopeful twenty-something students. In his 1979 magnum opus, Orientalism, the late Palestinian American scholar Edward Said demonstrated the manner in which the Global North (then known as Europe, the US and the so-called West), fashioned its socio-political supremacy by fossilising the myth of cultural superiority in juxtaposition with a culturally degenerate, undeveloped and barbaric Orient (also known as the East, the Other or the Global South). When speaking of Europe specifically, its identity was contingent upon finding an “other”, an inferior mirror image upon whom it could superimpose its self-derived entitlement for absolute political power.

The aim, of course, was economic and political control; colonialism in its many iterations, was mandated through orientalism, as the colonised subject was dehumanised to its most extreme version. Often indigenous, the Oriental was seen as a hypersexualised savage, culturally inept and, therefore, in need of saving from its inherent barbarism by the White Man. Such was the White Man’s burden, to restore the world to its ancient glory by reviving the so-called Orient and dispossessing natives of the right to their own lands.

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Much of the economic disparity between the Global North and the Global South is a direct and absolute legacy of centuries of resource extraction from colonised lands. It does not take much to imagine the level of injustice when considering the extent to which the Indian subcontinent or Africa were deliberately de-developed in order to provide a lifeline of “great power” to the colonial metropoles in London, Paris or Washington, for instance. The global community is still dealing with the environmental devastation and the humanitarian crises borne out of colonial practices in today’s allegedly postcolonial world, and while the material and environmental crises facing our planet are evidence enough that the system we have inherited in the wake of colonialism is destroying us, perhaps the more social and cultural elements of that inheritance still need further exploration.

When I returned to my seminar this week, my students and I paused for a moment on our scheduled discussion of female orientalist travellers in the Ottoman Empire to make note of media coverage of the crisis in Ukraine. I was, in part, relieved that they were able to identify the markers of orientalism on their own; that it could not be unseen once the first layer of the onion is peeled back, but it’s almost impossible to get to the core. This is how deep this runs.

Orientalism is an ever-evolving, ever-mestasising social disease, which as of late has moved the world’s most powerful leaders to decry the Russian invasion of Ukraine with a remarkable gusto that was largely absent six months ago with the fall of Kabul, or six years ago when Syrian refugees, fleeing the tyranny of Assad’s Russian-backed regime, made the arduous journey across the Mediterranean in search of a passage to Europe. No comparable echoes of despair were heard with regards to the Armenian/Azerbaijani battle over the Republic of Artsakh, and while the dispossession of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan and the other areas of Israeli-occupied Jerusalem briefly lit up social media with messages of global solidarity, no comparable immediate international action or globally-led sanctions have been offered as a sign of solidarity to brown and black bodies facing political aggression or invasion.

Coverage of Ukraine Refugee crisis is 'racist' - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Coverage of Ukraine Refugee crisis is ‘racist’ – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Sweden, Finland and Switzerland did not consider setting aside their neutrality for Syria or Afghanistan, both altered forever by Russian interference and occupation. FIFA has not placed indefinite bans on other military aggressors and selectively chooses not to fine footballers with European teams who have expressed solidarity with Ukraine while those who do so for Palestine face penalties. Many news outlets, including the BBC and CBS have featured commentators — including journalists and global leaders — who have expressed their shock at the fact that Ukrainians, who are “relatively civilised, relatively European”, are facing a crisis that they seem to think should be reserved only for those with melanated skin. Along the same lines, Georgian-Ukrainian politician David Sakvarelidze said that the situation in Ukraine made him “emotional” because he is seeing “people with blonde hair and blue eyes being killed every day.” Western media platforms all echo the same general sentiment: how could it be that people who look European, and live in a Christian majority-country, are fleeing their homes in 2022?

The same question did not seem to shake Europe to the same degree in the 1990s when Bosnian Muslims, many with blonde hair and blue eyes, were not granted the same courtesy because of their religious background. Moreover, Ukrainian Jews were not granted this same courtesy of care during the Holocaust, and so on and so forth.

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Instead of asking such questions, Global North leaders should ask themselves why they believe that the people of Asia, Africa, the Arab world and Latin America, as well as the indigenous tribes of the Americas, should alone experience the sum of all suffering and injustice in the world; and why they fail to recognise and take responsibility for the centuries-long oppressive practices that elevated them to a global political precipice at the expense of more than half the global population of seven billion people. Why are Europeans — White people on whichever continent they have colonised — entitled to an elite brand of safety, security and humanity while the victims of their foreign policies are doomed to live in a purgatory of poverty and social inequity?

In short, the level of selective solidarity with Ukraine, one that is not afforded to other vulnerable populations, should be the default benchmark for global solidarity and action. People should not have to have blue eyes and blonde hair to receive our sympathy and support. Yet, the commentary that has been on full display since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated to us otherwise. It has proven that Orientalism is alive and well and that the rhetoric of dehumanisation and cultural superiority that was set in motion with the Crusades is still with us, and is probably here to stay.

There are many lessons that can be learnt here, but the one major takeaway as far as I am concerned is that if people of colour and members of minority groups do not see their own liberation and standing in solidarity with Ukraine as mutually exclusive phenomena, why are the privileged leaders and citizens of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful countries so committed to nourishing this divide? Why are brown and black Ukrainians, visiting students or refugees, being thrown off the trains evacuating the country whilst others with lighter skins are allowed to flee to safety? It is high time that we all understand that there is no excuse for racism, orientalism or selective solidarity when the planet is on fire; that sooner or later we will have to contend with the rage of Mother Nature in a warming world; that climate change cares not for skin colour or man-made wars.

And to be clear, I stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine just as I stand in solidarity with all oppressed people. It is the only just, ethical and humanistic position to take.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.