Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

"Celebrating" Orientalism

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

"Celebrating" Orientalism

Article excerpt

Whether one views the impact of Edward Said (1935-2003) on academia as a brilliant triumph or a catastrophic tragedy, few can question the astonishing scope and penetration of his magnum opus, Orientalism.1 In one generation, a radical transformation over-came Middle Eastern studies: A new breed of "post-colonial" academics, boasting a liberating, anti-imperialist perspective, replaced a generation of scholars disparaged by Said as "Orientalists." Nor was this transformation limited to Middle Eastern studies: Said and his postcolonial paradigm assembled a wide range of acolytes in many fields in the social sciences and humanities.

And yet, when one surveys the past two decades alone, Said's academic progeny have been spectacularly off the mark in their analyses of and prescriptions for action in the Middle East; and nowhere has this been more apparent than in the misreading of the disastrous Israeli-Palestinian Oslo "peace process"2 and the "Arab spring," with its rapid deterioration into a welter of tribal and sectarian wars that have, among other things, created millions of refugees, many of whom have literally washed up on Europe's unhappy shores.

Much of this failure can be attributed to the strictures placed by post-colonial thought on the ability to discuss the Middle East's social and political dynamics:3 If scholars and journalists were mesmerized by the prospects of Arab-Israeli peace and the mirage of a wave of Arab democratization, it was partly because they had systematically underplayed the role of honor-shame cultures in Arab and Muslim societies, and its impact on Islamic religiosity, all of which Said had tarred with the derogatory brush of "Orientalism."

Honor-Shame Dynamics: Political and Religious

The term honor-shame designates cultures where the acquisition, maintenance, and restoration of public honor trump all other concerns. While everyone cares what others think and wants to save face even if it means lying, in honor-shame cultures, such concerns dominate public discourse: There is no price too high to pay-including one's life-to preserve honor. In such political cultures, public opinion accepts, expects, even requires that blood be shed for the sake of honor.4 In such societies, when people voice public criticism of those in power-those with honor-they attack their very being; were the latter not to respond- preferably through violence-they would lose face. Authoritarian societies accordingly enable their alpha males to suppress violently those whose language offends them. Hence, honorshame cultures have immense difficulty tolerating freedom of speech, of religion, of press, and an equally hard time dealing with societies that do.5

In self-help justice cultures, this insistence on honor can mean killing someone who killed a relative, and in Japanese culture, honor can mean killing oneself. However, in some honor cultures, this concern means killing a family member for the sake of the family's honor. And driving the performances, motivating the need to save face, and defining the ways to do so is "public judgment," whose verdict decides one's fate in the community. The Arabic term for gossip is kalam an-nas (talk of the people), which is often harsh in its judgment of others. Psychologist Talib Kafaji writes,

Arab culture is a judgmental culture, and anything a person does is subject to judgment ... induc[ing] many fears ... with serious consequences on individual lives. Avoiding such judgment can be the constant preoccupation of people, almost as if the entire culture is paralyzed by Kalam [an]nas. In other words, all of the people in Arab society are hostages of each other.6

Despite sounding "Orientalist," this attention to a crippling and pervasive judgmentalism provides important insights into the dysfunctions of the Arab world today.7

Honor-shame cultures tend to be zero-sum: Men of honor jealously guard their honor and view others' rise as a threat to self. …

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