Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The New form of Orientalism

There was insightful and short article in today's Guardian that caught my attention. It was written by Soumaya Ghannoushi, director of research at IslanmExpo, entitled 'Return of the Muslim Other'. The focus concentrated on the recent rise of right-wing politics in Europe. This paragraph from the article should give an indication of the content:

The far right is on the ascendancy in many parts of Europe. Beyond its explicit party political expressions, this assumes a more worrying form. What had been traditionally confined to the margins of dominant political discourse is progressively penetrating its mainstream, with parties of the centre absorbing much of the far right's populist rhetoric. This underlies the complaint by Jean-Marie le Pen, leader of the racist National Front, that Nicolas Sarkozy had "stolen his clothes". Across the Channel, the Tory candidate for the London mayoralty, Boris Johnson, believes that "to any non-Muslim reader of the Koran, Islamophobia - fear of Islam - seems a natural reaction".

What Soumaya points out is there an attempt from the right-wing to construct some cultural essentialism in order for Europeans to define themselves and create a Muslim Other. There is a lot of legitimacy in this argument and it seems we have learned nothing from Edward Said's Orientalism. Political Theorists like Samuel P. Huntington are clear examples of 'academic/populist' attempts to create cultural essentialism. From this type of thinking people are grouped into crude molar identities (e.g. civilisations) without a regard to the dynamic nature of culture and identities. Rather than deal with the complexity of the issues these right-wing thinkers make the basic argument of West/Europe = Good & Rational and Muslim/Oriental = Evil and Irrational. There also seems to be a clear disregard for historically understanding, or even the acknowledgment that colonial or cold war phenomenon could have played a part in contemporary problems of the world. Nor can they envision benefits for a multi-cultural Europe or USA. Once again S.P. Huntington leads the way in this sort of argument, which can be read in his book 'Who Are We?America's Great Debate'. Maybe it is time to stop trying to cling onto essential identities, and rather put the focus toward who we can become?

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