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
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
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”
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.
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