By Lindokuhle Makapela, 6 Sep ’16
Edward Said states that the way in which the West has studied the East, Africa and the rest of the world is prejudiced and very ethnocentric (Said, 1978:10). The West uses studies of the East and Africa to assert their power and dominance, instead of viewing these parts of the world as equal counterparts. Said coins this term orientalism. Orientalism refers to the representation of the East and Africa in a stereotypical way that is regarded as embodying a colonialism attitude. Orientalism can also be defined as the body and tradition of western representations of the Orient (Said, 1978:16). Dogan and Pelassy (1990:23) state that comparison is the engine of knowledge. Comparison is said to be one of the most basic human activities, and is something we do daily, both consciously and unconsciously. Comparative politics is the systematic study of institutions and performance of governments and political processes around the world (Dogan and Pelassy, 1990:29). Said’s argument on comparative politics is that the way in which the West views the East or rather, the Orient, is in such a way that distorts the actual reality of these places and its people (Said, 1978:19). In the following essay, I will be discussing Edward Said’s orientalism and providing a critical analysis of orientalist representations of the East and Africa, by the West. I will be making use of various examples to substantiate my argument.
Orientalism, which is a framework used by the West perceives the people of the East or the Orient, as being different and threatening; arises from comparison or rather, comparative politics. According to Said, orientalism stresses the separation of different groups of people and deems difference as being a threat (Said, 1978:45). According to Said (1978:55), “the Orient is an integral of European material civilization and culture”. This means that the Orient have given in to western dominance and have adapted the civilization, cultures and way of life of the West. This is evident in the way in which we (the Orient) dress, communicate and acquire education, among other things. When it comes to Orientalism, and any other form of comparison, it matters who studies who or what, and who gets the comparisons in order for us to formulate an argument. In the case of orientalism, we must acknowledge that the Orient, which comprises of the East and Africa, is who or what is being studied. The West, in this case, is the one responsible for making the comparisons. Undoubtedly, since the West is the one making comparisons, it will appear as being the better one or rather, the dominant factor.
The rise of the Islamic state has a striking resemblance to the formation of nation states in the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively. The Islamic State has self-proclaimed its status as being a statehood. However, President Barack Obama objects this claim and has referred to the group as being a “terrorist organisation” (U.S policy towards the Islamic Republic of Iran, 2010). Denying the Islamic State sovereignty is essential to western attempts to delegitimise its territorial claims. However, classifying the group as “terrorists” risks obscuring their significance by using extreme political language. This, in its own right, is evidence of how the west continues to show dominance and power over the Orient (U.S policy towards the Islamic Republic of Iran, 2010). Islam is a religion of collective morals and contains a bare minimum of what is classified as being political. Is the real reason why the West, particularly the United States of America, refers to the Islamic State as being a terrorist organisation mainly because the views of the West and that of the IS are on opposite ends, and everything that is not approved by the west is posed as being a threat? Islamic political theory is not idealistic for the Western World and as a result, the West deems the East (more specifically the Islamic State) as being a threat.
“Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistermological distinction made between the Orient and the Occident” states Said (1978:56). The occident refers to the West or inhabitants of the West which comprise of Europe and the western hemisphere. Terrorism and suicide bombings are phenomena which are synonymous with the East or rather, the Islamic State. Terrorism is defined as being the use of violent acts to frighten individuals in a particular area as a means of trying to acquire a political goal (Terrorism-research.com, 2016). Currently, there is some obsession in the media, particularly western media, pertaining to the East (or Islam), and the West. This obsession is based on the media’s predominantly negative depiction or rather, portrayal of Islam and Muslims. They depict Muslims as being violent, unruly, extremists and terrorists (Terrorism-research.com,2016). Islamophobia, a term coined to describe the fear of Islam or muslims, has intensified over the last decade. Islam has been consistently portrayed by the global media as a violent religion which is in opposition with the values and beliefs of the West. When the 9/11 bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York took place, the muslims were the first and main suspects because of the way the West has defined and continues to portray Islam and muslims (U.S policy towards the Islamic Republic of Iran, 2010). It is understandable, to an extent, why muslims feel anger and antipathy towards the West, specifically the United States. Muslims are angered at how they are constantly depicted by the West as being unruly, and are also angered to see their co-religionists killed by U.S forces merely because they pose to be “threats”.
Another part of the world which falls under orientalism or rather, the Orient, is the continent of Africa. Africa is the world’s second largest and second most populous continent in the world. Poverty, starvation, disease and black magic (evil forces) are some of the things which come to mind when one mentions Africa (Oliver and Fage, 1989:15). From the colonial era (maybe even further back in history) to recent times, Africa has been associated with all the bad things. Poverty and starvation are probably the oldest forms of evil the continent of Africa has had to deal with. The stereotypical way in which orientalism has “othered” Africa is one whereby people of the West (more especially those who have never set foot in Africa) see Africa has a continent which is largely dominated by poverty, starvation, poor infrastructure, just to name a few. The West does not highlight or make emphasis on the positive things which occur and can be found in Africa (Oliver and Fage, 1989:22).
In the 20th and 21st centuries, a large number of Asian immigrants and the instant rise of Asian nations in political and economic power led to an increased cultural interest which led to the rise of orientalism. Said (1978:53) states orientalism as being “a manner of regularised writing, vision and study, dominated by imperatives, perspectives and ideological biases ostensibly suited to the Orient.” Said argues that this perception of the orient did not originate in countries which were associated with the Orient, but they were willed over the Orient because the Orient posed to be weaker than the West. While orientalism was heavily based in colonialism, our modern appreciation for Asian things is in many ways, the product of orientalism (Said, 1978:55). Our knowledge of Africa right now is probably on the same level of our knowledge of Asia a few decades ago.
Poverty is defined as being a state or condition whereby a person or a community lacks the financial resources and essentials to enjoy every day, basic life. Poverty is an extremely difficult cycle to break and is often passed from one generation, to the next (Oliver and Fage, 1989:36). Africa is often associated with poverty in many contexts, orientalism being one of them. Due to colonisation, civil wars and other issues, poverty is still a great problem for the continent of Africa. The colonisation era resulted in many inadequacies which affect Africa to this day. Poverty being one of them. Typical consequences of poverty include alcohol and substance abuse, poor education and poor housing or living conditions. The age-old stereotypical portrayal of Africa by the West has, to some extent, the reason why Africa is poverty stricken. The colonisation era resulted in Africa being “othered” by the West, disadvantaging Africa greatly in terms of infrastructure, education and general economic wealth (Said, 1978:59). Had colonisation and orientalism not occurred, Africa would probably be in a better socio-economic state.
The stereotypes and orientalist representations of the East, and Africa, by the West are not limited to terrorism, suicide bombings, poverty and starvation, but they also include other stereotypes such as diseases, evil and all kinds of darkness, to name a few. All these stereotypes or rather, orientalist representations are all in some way correlated. A disease is defined as being an abnormal condition or disorder of a particular function that affects a part or all of an organism. Where there is poverty and starvation, there is bound to be disease (Oliver and Fage, 1989:39). The Broken Africa stereotype is one of the ways the West, more specifically the United States of America picture Africa. All they see is HIV/AIDS, malaria, cholera, Ebola, the list is endless. In the eyes of the West, Africa was and will always be backward. The occident does not deem the Orient as being capable of producing anything good. “Anything good in Africa comes from outside” states James Watson, co-founder of DNA (1900s). According to the West, Africans are incapable of doing anything right, and never will they be able to do so. These orientalist representations have resulted in many stereotypes and prejudices directed at the Orient, deeming them as being inferior to the occident and under the power and dominance of the West.
With the various orientalist representations stated above, it is easy to see just how instrumental the study of the Orient has been in helping the West have authority and control over the East and Africa. The various stereotypes and prejudices of the Orient, by the West have resulted in the Orient becoming somewhat subordinate and subservient of the West. This is evident in our everyday lives_ we live in such a way that is advocated and accepted by the West. Our economic dependence on the West reaffirms the view of the Orient as being troubled and the West as being dominant. With all that is orientalism and what it stands for, it is, to some extent, safe to say that orientalism is subtle racism. It is subtle because unlike racism which is based on the colour of your skin, it is based on your geographical position more than the pigment of your skin. Orientalism has been used and is still used as a means of justifying colonisation and its inadequacies. In conclusion, the studies of the East and Africa are deeply ethnocentric and highly prejudiced. These single-story studies are used as a way of further oppressing and exploiting Oriental countries for the benefit of the West.
Said, E.W., 1978, Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.
Oliver, R. and Fage, J., 1989, A short history of Africa. New York: Facts on File.
Terrorism-reseach.com, 2016, Terrorism research – What is terrorism? , http:/www.terrorism-research.com/ [ Accessed 21 August 2016 ].
U.S policy towards the Islamic Republic of Iran, 2010, Washington: U.S G.P.O
Dogan, M. and Pelassy, D., 1990, Understanding Comparative Politics. New York: Penguin Books.