The Relations between West and Middle East through the Lenses of Western Interests and Modern Orientalism

Western views and actions toward the Middle East have always been riddled with deep interests in the area. Starting from the 1920s with the strategic foundation of the state of Iraq by the British, much of what the Western powers have carried out in the Arab peninsula, both in the colonial as well as in the post-colonial era which has seen the rise of the US influence in the area, has always been connected to their self-interests, pursued through actions that followed a strictly Western logic, more often than not inappropriate. In 1978, Edward W. Said gave a name to the reason for such a logic: Orientalism. Orientalism, he said, represented a style of thought, originating from the imperialist Western societies of the 18th and 19th centuries, which developed in a patronizing Western representation of the “Orient”, including the Middle East, as static and underdeveloped. This was, he believed, what de facto constituted the backbone of Western action in the East throughout the 20th century and what legitimized such actions in the eyes of the Western opinion. With time, of course, the features of Orientalism have changed, but its final outcome has remained the same all along. Orientalism in the 21st century, in fact, has still been among the legitimizing factors of many Western policies aimed solely at the fulfillment of self-interests in the Middle East. In 2003, the Bush administration reaction to 9/11 heralding the “liberation” of Muslim women among its reasons for the invasion of Afghanistan, is a perfect instance of modern Orientalism combined and used for the mere fulfillment of national interests.

However, as demonstrated on various occasions already throughout the 20th century, the history of relations between the West and the Middle East is not one of simple Western domination and Arab victimism. Indeed, when the Arab Spring uprisings erupted in 2011 jeopardizing Western interests in the area, they caused a wave of political change that is still today shaking the equilibrium between the West and the Middle East. Moreover, the unprepared Western response to the upheavals and to the massive migration flow that followed the revolutions offer a great insight into the flaws of the Western approach to the Arab peninsula in the 21st century. This is why analyzing those events from the perspective of the Western logic can become a way to grasp the essence of the Western approach to the Middle East and what role modern Orientalism and Western interests play in characterizing the complex relation between the spheres of neo-liberal democracies and Arab states.

This work’s attempt is indeed that of analyzing the West’s logic in front of the Arab Spring upheavals – especially in Egypt – and of the post-revolutionary scene between migration and terrorism in Europe in order to better comprehend what are the key issues of the relations between the Western sphere and the Middle Eastern world.

Western logic and interests in the Egyptian upheavals

As the revolutions of the Arab Spring broke out against what had been the political “order” of the Middle East until 2011, the Western countries reacted to the upheavals with deep unease. After all, Arab dictators in the region were instrumental for Western powers who paid them in return for friendly policies that allowed the West and Israel to carry out their agendas. One of the most influential among these regimes was that of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the most populous Arab country and a crucial player in the Middle Eastern geo-political arena. When the stability of Mubarak’s rule started to look under threat, the West’s, especially Obama’s reaction, was that of procrastinating for what many thought to be too long before taking a position necessarily on the side of the protesters. Already at this early stage it is evident how Western powers, not having expected to see the secular regimes they backed in danger, immediately found themselves caught up between values and interests. On the one hand, they “had” to sympathise with those who demanded an end to authoritarian rule and to corruption. On the other hand, especially the US was wary of the potential outcome of the revolutionary wave that was shaking the Arab world, since, again, it might have evolved into a system less compatible with Western preferences than the pre-2011 environment. 

In the meantime, as protests began in Cairo as all over Arab countries, and people demanded the ousting of Hosni Mubarak and other authoritarian leaders, equal citizenship and freedom, much of the academic debate actually concentrated on the democratic nature of the protests. Since the process reminded the West of what had happened centuries before in Europe, many started to believe what was about to happen was going to be a “fourth wave of democratization”. The uprisings, therefore, bolstered what was already a pillar of Orientalist theories: the idea that Western democracy was meant to be the ultimate solution, the panacea for all the ills, no matter how different they might be. This of course, meant uncritically embracing a universalist Orientalist logic that failed to grasp the complexity of Arab societies and of the many different groups and claims present among the protesters. Furthermore, even the possibility of a democratic transition was welcomed with hesitation by Western leaders, as in any case it still threatened regimes which were greatly instrumental for Western democracies; it was not to be taken for granted, indeed, that a democratic Middle East would eventually be as Western-friendly as previous regimes. As a consequence, Western media coverage of the first stages of the revolutions was rather impartial and generic, often superficial. As Al-Jazeera’s chief  political analyst M. Bishara explained: “Shortly after the beginning of the Arab revolution, the media began to fixate on the role of social media, ignoring other social and political factors”, with media channels like CNN even depicting the role of social media as “the most fascinating aspect” of the uprisings”.

Islamist groups come to the fore

Orientalist biases on the Middle East uprisings, however, had blinded Western powers in front of what was actually happening in many Arab states: given the disorganization regarding the final aim of the protests – many were the views among different people, everybody wanted “change” but what this change meant was not a unanimous answer – Islamist groups were actively participating in manifestations and gaining consensus, aiming to seize the political vacuum created by the toppling of autocrats. Eventually, it became clear that Islamists groups were succeeding in hijacking the revolution seizing the political opening. Parties like the Muslim Brotherhood, with already a long history in Egypt’s social environment, and the Salafi party Hizb al-Nur were able to assert themselves, beating their secular opposition. This, from a Western perspective, was by far the worst possible scenario. It didn’t take long, in fact, for Western media coverage to become partisan and inaccurate especially regarding Islamists groups who were coming to the fore. It was not uncommon to hear phrases like “the Arab Spring has become the Western Winter”. Most striking was the generalizing attitude used by Western media outlets that attributed features of the ultraconservative and anti-Western Salafi groups to all Islamists groups, Brotherhood included. Having found the perfect scapegoat, Western media made all Islamists groups suffer from an extremist label which also contributed in planting the seed of what was to become one of the biggest instrumentalized phenomena of the post-Arab Spring scene: islamophobia.

At the end of the day, what Western response to the Egyptian upheavals in 2011 shows us is not only how Orientalist biases played a role in preventing the West from seeing what the uprisings actually meant, but also how Western democracies, caught up between their values and their interests, ended up in controversial, incoherent reactions, both on the political and on the mediatic level. Obama’s disjointed response, for example, pushing for an “orderly transition” in Egypt while supporting forceful change in Libya and initially refusing to denounce Syria’s regime, is a perfect instance of the gap between Western values and the realpolitik of self-interests. Little was the Western concern for the misery that civil wars were bringing to many other Arab countries, while much attention was devoted instead, as shown, in finding new ways for maintaining their interests pursuable in presence of the “Islamist enemies”.

Orientalism and immigration: the “melting-pot”

Looking at the wider picture of the Middle Eastern peninsula situation after the Arab Spring, it is evident how the democratic transition that the West had imagined had not taken place, and that the  Western ambivalent attempts to preserve their own interests had certainly not helped in avoiding heavy consequences for many Arab countries where civil wars had arisen, such as Libya and Syria. As a result of conflicts, discriminations and misery, a huge movement of migrants flowed from Arab countries to the doors of Western democracies, which initially welcomed the diaspora under wonderful liberal notions of “acceptance”, “integration”, and “multiculturalism”. However, the actual situation in the peak years of immigration was a very different one. In both Europe and the US, previous counterterrorism policies had overwhelmingly generalized and targeted Muslims. This, combined with Orientalist biases proper of Western societies, had already contributed to a strong and widespread “othering” of Muslims in European societies. As a consequence, high expectations existed, toward those who “chose” to seek asylum in Europe, regarding their willingness to adopt European culture as their own, to “integrate”. Nobody, neither at the political level nor at the societal level, questioned the legitimacy of such expectations made towards people coming from a completely different culture, who obviously can’t help but see in this latter their true identity. Europe, following an Orientalist mentality which was already becoming hostile, considered itself to be the perfect “melting-pot” for different cultures, but the equilibrium of this melting-pot was rather pending toward Western culture. As a result, two phenomena developed, often boosting each other in a vicious circle: Muslim people felt as if they were expected to adopt a culture that didn’t reflect their identity, and at the European level this attitude was perceived as simple unwillingness to integrate and as a threat to European cultural background. As a result, hostility towards the “otherness” of Arab and Islamic culture grew and we witnessed a gradual, implicit, marginalization of Muslims which hit both immigrants and European Muslims. Moreover, far-right parties in Europe built around the growing islamophobia – also through a smart politicization of Christian religion as an identity marker – and anti-Muslim politics became electorally successful, while Europe fell deeper in the hole of liberal-democratic crisis. 

Muslim othering and ISIS: the Middle East pays a visit to the West

What was happening in the meantime in the Middle East was definitely not helping the situation. As disorder and misery reigned in Syria and Iraq, a group of Al-Qaeda fundamentalists came to the fore and seized the political vacuum occupying Iraqi and Syrian territories and declaring the creation of a new Caliphate, which was to become ISIS. Thanks to a sophisticated use of new media, this radicalist group was able to reach Western societies, and in particular to seduce those Muslims in Europe that felt more and more alienated and abandoned to themselves in countries that didn’t respect their otherness. As a result, from 2014 on Europe witnessed a massive internal terrorist crisis which was parallel to a deep democratic setback, as far-right parties quickly gained electorate instrumentalizing widespread islamophobia. However, what was most striking was how nobody in Europe was able to grasp the fact that the rise of ISIS and the fact that all of a sudden “the enemy” was inside the borders and not in some far Arab country, was also partly a consequence of immigration policies contrasting with societal dynamics that avoided an effective cultural encounter. This was, after all, what Orientalism had become in the post-Arab Spring era: it was Western “experts” reducing Islamist terrorism in Europe to a psychology of ressentiment, without bothering to explain why European citizens of Muslim origin might feel alienated. It was Trump’s anti-Muslim racism, iterated in France – where second and third-generation citizens of Muslim origin are still seen as immigrants considered ill-equipped for “integration” to the French republican values of laîcité – and widespread in Scandinavia, in Hungary, in Italy, in Germany. At the end of the day, the Arab world was paying a visit to a West already in deep crisis, and the “war on terror” much advocated by right-wing parties was nothing but a simplistic response to what was a symptom, rather than the problem. In the meantime, islamophobia had backfired and caught up the West between its neo-liberal ideals and its people’s growing distrust and fear toward the Middle-Eastern or African “others”, while new players such as Russia and China – seizing the opportunity brought about the Western weakness in the area – put down their roots in the Middle Eastern landscape.

Conclusion

Orientalism and Western interests both played crucial roles in shaping Western response to the Arab Spring uprisings and to the Muslim diaspora of the second decade of the 21st century. However, what needs to be pointed out is how, in such a time of democratic crisis all over Europe, with far-right parties coming to the fore, even the very Orientalist essence of Western thought has been modified, although always characterizing West’s logic and actions toward the Middle East all along. Modern Orientalism is one of an era in which Western liberalism has plunged into deep crisis, exacerbated by anxieties over Syrian refugees, borders, terrorism and economic decline. It is an Orientalism in crisis, incurious, vindictive, and often cruel, one of walls and hatred. As Said argued, his classical Orientalism already represented an intellectual but also a human failure, “for in having to take up a position of irreducible opposition to a region of the world it considered alien to its own, Orientalism failed to identify with human experience”. Nowadays, contemporary Orientalism and the insuccess of many Western grand plans in the Middle East has shown us and is still telling us that this failure is more alive than ever. For too long simplistic models of representation of the Middle East have been proposed, backing Orientalist assumptions of Islamic inferiority. The particularism of Middle Eastern culture and political change defy simplistic models, and until Western perception of the Middle East will be just that of the “bad neighborhood” ruled by barbarians and terrorists – as far-right parties in Europe and Trump in the US still depict them – distrust and war will always be the answer, and the recent lesson received from the success of ISIS will not be learned. Until then, relations between the West and the Middle East are very likely to remain what they have always been; to cite the Italian author Italo Calvino, “a story of pursuits, pretences, misunderstandings, clashes, oppressions”.

Simone Cimadomo.

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