West meets East
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Wednesday March 04 2020
“a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia” – Thomas Babington Macauley (Politician and Historian)
When you think of the Eastern world, what do you immediately think of? Do you picture Lawrence of Arabia-esque sand dunes as far as the eye can see? Do you picture the turban clad Arab waving a scimitar around, screaming “death to America”? Or do you picture weird and wonderful foods like monkey brains and a snake with beetles cooked inside?
Well, all of these preconceived notions we have about the East or “the Orient”, are steeped in century-old rhetoric that has been fed to us through our academia, culture, and arts.
In his revolutionary book Orientalism, Edward Said argues that the way we view the Eastern world, or “the Orient” has been framed through century-old rhetoric, that has traditionally portrayed the Eastern world as a mysterious, magical place that is inherently “backwards”. He refers to Eastern peoples as “Orientals” and argues that these people have been consistently otherised in our culture through art, literature and film. Stereotypes and archetypes have been fed into our subconscious thought as we have accepted them without question or criticism.
Cult classics such as the Indiana Jones films have skewed our view of the Eastern world, as Indiana Jones traverses Oriental lands and is met with the danger at every turn. This includes villains such as the cult leader Mola Ram, an Indian High Priest who is able to tear a still-beating heart from a man’s chest with his bare hands and is appropriately fond of human sacrifice. The heroic and righteous Indiana’s life is constantly threatened by barbaric turban clad Indians or murderous Arabs who want nothing but blood. Indiana Jones himself further cements the binary of the Western world meeting the exotic Eastern world as we are only ever shown a dangerous, timeless Orient. An Orient that, unlike the West, is never able to shake off its barbarity and move towards a more enlightened reality.
We have been fed a reductive perception of entire continents and regions that are infinitely varied in their culture and ways of life. This problematic otherization is also overtly evident in European academia and politics throughout European history.
Said argues that the views and ideas of European intellectuals have been passed down without criticism, which has resulted in our collective biases. These problematic “ideas are propagated and disseminated anonymously” and are “repeated without attribution”, thus resulting in these ideas becoming widely accepted. It could, therefore, be argued our general disregard for “the perfidious Chinese, half-naked Indians, and the passive Muslims” has been deeply entrenched in our culture for longer than we would like to admit.
Said also argues that European Colonialism was a result of the Orientalist worldview, as he believed that “Orientalism had accomplished its self-metamorphosis from a scholarly discourse to an imperial institution”. Evelyn Baring, 1st Earl of Cromer, was England’s representative in Egypt and wrote extensively on the Orient. His book Modern Egypt which was a history of Egypt and the surrounding area from 1876, drew on his biased experiences governing in the East and interactions with its people. His tenure in Egypt led him to the conclusion that “accuracy is abhorrent to the Oriental mind” and conversely, the “European is a close reasoner; his statements of fact are devoid of any ambiguity; he is a natural logician”, whereas the Oriental is “often incapable of drawing the most obvious conclusions from any simple premises of which they may admit the truth”. Baring’s views are undeniably problematic as his study of Egypt is quite obviously disparaging and a false generalisation.
Furthermore, European intellectuals have always made a point to highlight the ineptitude of the Oriental, in comparison to the great minds of Europe, that exude logical thought and rationalism to the greatest extent. In the Orientalist writings of Scottish Historian; Sir Hamilton Alexander Rosskeen Gibb, he argues that there are “aversions of the Muslims from the thought processes of rationalism” and how “the Arab mind, whether in relation to the outer world… or the processes of thought cannot throw off its intense feeling for the separateness and the individuality of the concrete events.” These generalisations and falsehoods disregard and dehumanise the intellectual traditions of the Arabs, and the rest of the Eastern world, and make them out to be blithering fools, incapable of rational thought. Gibb is, unfortunately, one of many to make such generalisations. The disturbing aspect of his rhetoric is that it was said in 1945, post WWII, in a world very different to his Orientalist predecessors who were the torchbearers of these disparaging view. Therefore, it is obvious to see why we are still afflicted with these preconceptions today, as it is a direct result of the euro-centric focus of European academia and its careless generalisations. Gibb’s views almost mirror those of Barings, as they further propel the Oriental into the realm of otherness.
The binary of the Oriental mind versus the European mind is an inherently flawed, overused and destructive worldview. For us to reduce these varieties of rich and vibrant cultures to our skewed version of a region we generally know very little about, is a travesty in and of itself. These views completely and utterly disregard the intellectual traditions of the Eastern world, which is a travesty. We are all complicit in perpetuating this damaging worldview. Let us try to purge ourselves of this mindset and move towards a more enlightened future.
It is, therefore, essential that policymakers commit to supporting academic freedoms and initiatives to decolonise education, whilst giving greater emphasis within the national curriculum to shared histories and the contributions of minority communities in building our society.