Said’s Orientalism Through the “Clash of Civilizations” and Reel Bad Arabs

When Edward Said published his work on orientalism in the 1970s it served as kind of a shocking wake up call to the familiar and comfortable way academics around the world had been viewing the Arab World and the Middle East for the better part of the last couple of centuries. Today it is hard to image to find any kind of academic work on this region of the world that doesn’t make some mention of the term orientalism, or at least the ideas behind Said’s definition of orientalism. In the introduction to his work Edward Said mentions several key characteristics of orientalism; though these characteristics are many, and in some cases overlapping there are four of these characteristic that stand out: the geopolitical/ geographic nature of orientalism, the concept of a binary otherness, the uneven exchange of power, and the interests of the modern political-intellectual state. The characteristics of Said’s orientalism are evident in the work of Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations” and in the documentary Reel Bad Arabs by Jack Shaheen.
One of the first characteristics that Said points out in his efforts to define orientalism is the fact that the very name of orientalism comes from the geographic term of the colonial era for the east as the orient. As the very name of the term has such a strong tie to a geographical awareness it is no wonder the term itself has much to do with geography. In Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations” the main argument is the fact that an armageddon will arise from a great clash of civilizations along cultural lines, yet Huntington himself defines these “cultures” in very geographical terms such as “Western” or “Latin American” civilizations. While the Middle East is presumably defined under the flag of an Islamic civilization the rhetoric and pervasiveness of the ideas of orientalism bring to mind a the world of the Middle East. In Huntington’s work geography as a characteristic of orientalism may not seem abundantly clear it is certainly more clear in terms of Shaheen’s documentary. In Reel Bad Arabs there is an entire section of the documentary devoted to what Shaheen calls the idea of “Arabland;” according to him “Arabland” is the geography of a vast stretching desert that is nearly always presented in films as the harsh homeland of the Arabs. The homogeny of this image, and the unrealistic nature of this hegemony is a clear representation of geography as a characteristic of orientalism as Said discusses it. Orientalism is a process of hegemony and simplification, and simplifying the whole range of geography found in the Arab world to a simple never ending desert exemplifies this characteristic of orientalism perfectly.
The orientalist constant desire for simplification lends itself to another characteristic of orientalism that Said discusses. The uneven exchange of power between the east and the west is most evident in the fact that orientalism strips the “other” from being able to speak and define themselves. This uneven power balance is most clearly seen I think in the realm of stereotypes and generalizations. Shaheen explores this idea throughly through the the ideas of the sexually belly dancing women, the creepy leacherous Arab men always after the white women, and the more modern identity of the terrorist. All of these identities exemplify this uneven exchange of power as they are clearly representative of the other’s inability to define themselves. The idea of the other being unable to define themselves is also evident throughout Huntington’s piece as he makes great sweeping generalization about people and places, cherry picking the facts that fit his narrative while the viewpoint of the other remains silent. This uneven exchange of power is important in understanding the scope and effect of the orientalist narrative; perhaps if the characteristic didn’t exist orientalism would have never become as pervasive as it is today.
A third characteristic of Said’s definition of orientalism revolves around the concept of the binary us vs. them; that is to say the idea of an “other.” Personally I think this is the most important aspect of understanding orientalism as it is this idea that creates the self-perpetuating paradigm of orientalism that makes it such a hard social idea to overcome. The human fear of the other is a well documented thing throughout history, and in my opinion Huntington is a master of capturing that fear and legitimizing it in academic terms. Huntington’s paper quiet literally predicts the end of time, and in his world the question “Which side are you on?” becomes synonyms with the question of “What are you?” He then goes on to say that “what” one is “is a given that cannot be changed.” This idea exemplifies otherness and prevents the “other” from ever hoping to leave this category. Otherness is also discussed in Shaheen’s work as he discusses several films that come back to the point that these other Arabs will always be different than us, and even the children are programmed in a way to be different than the west. These ideas of otherness play off fear. It is a fundamental characteristic of orientalism that is important to understand in the greater quest to understand what exactly orientalism is.
A final characteristic of orientalism is the modern intellectual- political fascination surrounding the term. This fascination is something that is well documented in Shaheen’s documentary through the examination of the connection between Hollywood and Washington. There is no doubt that several of the movies he presented had strong political messages that as Said put it have less to do with the Arab world and more to do with our world. Huntington is also an example of the power of this current interest. One could argue his work would not have gotten nearly so much attention had it not catered to the political scene in Washington. In a way Huntington’s argument simplified a complex issue into term that fit what Washington wanted to hear; therefore, it got a level of acceptance that might have never occurred had it gone against the views of powerful politicians. The intellectual and political world has a great deal of influence, and it is for this reason Said classifies it as a characteristic of orientalism.
Orientalism is term that seeks to simplify, to put issues into simple binary term; the ideas of orientalism have been embraced throughout society again and again, yet there is hope as long as it is recognized when it appears. Said’s characteristics of geography, uneven power, otherness, and an understanding of the role of the modern intellectual and political situation define orientalism so that it might be better recognized. The work of Shaheen provides support for Said’s argument of orientalism, and Huntington exemplifies this term. In the future, as long we can recognize orientalism for what it is there is hope me can move beyond the binary.

The Arab American Story Through Film

In films The Baby Doll Night and Amreeka, directors Adel Adeeb and Cherien Dabis offer both Arab and Arab American perspective of America. These perspective interact with the ideas of otherness, American exceptionalism, and what it means to be Arab American. Although these two films are quiet different cinematically, they present similar views of America through their different characters. Although they presents the topics in different ways, both films highlight the struggles of being classified as an other, discuss the story of American exceptionalism with regards to the war in Iraq, and what it means to be Arab American.
Both films throughly engage with the issue of otherness in a similar fashion. The concept of otherness caters to the binary definitions of an us versus them mentality; it is a term that dehumanizes and separates the us -in this case America- from the other – in this case both Arab Americans and Arabs. The concept of otherness in both films represents a kind boundary that must be overcome in order for the characters to achieve some kind of peace. In the film, Amreeka, this concept of otherness can be seen through the characterization of Fadi. Fadi is a Palestinian who has recently moved to America with his mother and now lives with his aunt’s family. Despite the fact that Fadi is eager to embrace a new Arab American identity, he is constantly faced with the struggles of being labeled as “other” particularly in school. This concept of other begins with his wardrobe as his cousin immediately dismisses his clothes as too FOB or fresh of the boat, and continues as he is bullied and harassed at school despite his best efforts to overcome this brand of other that has been placed on him. In the end of the film, he is seen as embracing and overcoming this term by refusing to fit into the binaries that otherness has placed on him. In the film The Baby Doll Night, otherness is dealt with similarly as a term though the circumstances are quiet different. The film takes place in the Arab world, and the viewer finds that despite this fact the concept of otherness is still a major issue of the film. I would argue in this film the concept of otherness does not center on a single chapter, but rather a more general examination of the relationship between the Arab world and America in response to the question that General Peter keeps asking which is “Why do the hate us?” I think that the director of the film was trying to make several arguments with this question, but Sarah’s understanding of the situation as America having always viewed Arabs as the dehumanized others provides the viewer with a greater understanding of otherness in this piece. Similarly to Amreeka, otherness is a brand that strips one of the power to decide and forces one to live within the binary. Sarah realizes that until both Arabs and Americans learn to place such terms aside there will be no peace. Both films engage with the concept of otherness as a binary cage that pits the us against the them and show the viewer that this binary must be overcome for peace of any kind to be achieved.
Although the perspectives of American exceptionalism with regard to the war in Iraq are presented very differently in these two films, I would argue that the directors strove to present similar messages. The film The Baby Doll Night dealt a lot more with the Iraqi war than Amreeka yet both managed to discusses the influence of American exceptionalism in this conflict. In Amreeka, this discussion was presented as just that, a class room discussion in Fadi’s social sciences class in high school. In this environment the voice of America exceptionalism was presented predominantly through a student in the class room whose brother was fighting in Iraq, while the rejection of this idea was voiced by Fadi’s cousin Selma. In the discussion, the idea of American exceptionalism comes out through the male student’s claim that his bother is over there fighting to give the Iraqi people freedom which caters to the exceptionalist concept that America has a responsibility to spread democracy across the world. Selma rejects this claim as the voice of the other stating that if the student truly believes that he is blind to the realities of the world. Although presented in a much more gruesome reality, The Baby Doll Night offers a similar perspective. In this film, the viewer sees the cost of American exceptionalism in the bloody reality of the Iraqi war. The message regarding the destructive and naive nature of American exceptionalism in this film can be understood through an interaction that Awadin has with a Iraqi taxi driver. The driver says that no, the Arab people didn’t love Suddam Hussien, but when he was in charge he understood things the Americans never even considered, and when he was in charge there wasn’t the bloody war they were living through in the film. On the other hand there is General Peter who serves as the voice of American exceptionalism in the film; he repeatedly argues that the Americans are fighting to bring democracy which he sees as an American duty. Although different, both of these films give the viewer the message that American exceptionalism, particularly in the Iraqi war, is a dangerous nativity that is put onto the American people who either can’t or won’t see the true cost of this idea.
A final similarity between these two films can be seen in the examination of what it means to be an Arab American. Amreeka deals a lot with this idea, particularly with the characterization of Raghda who has been living as an Arab American for fifteen years at the start of the film. Raghda is presented as extremely homesick and melancholy sick of her live in America and longing to return to Palestine. She has idealized her former live in Palestine and routinely makes trips to the Arab markets in an effort to feel connected with her home land. Although Amreeka also offers other perspectives on what it means to be an Arab American the characterization provides one strong similarity between the two films. In The Baby Doll Night, the story of Layla Corrie represents a similar perspective of what it means to be an Arab American. Layla is a news correspondent who is sympathetic to the cause of the Palestine in the Arab-Israeli conflict; in the film, she is run over by an Israeli tank. Although these two character might not seem similar at first, they present a similar message on what it means to be an Arab American. In these two cases, the Arab American identity is synonymous with destruction. In Raghda’s case this destruction is one of happiness and belonging, and in the case of Layla this destruction is one of life in its entirety. Although these are two very different stories, I would argue the directors’ messages were similar in both, there can be a successful Arab American story, Housam in The Baby Doll Night and Muna in Amreeka, but there can also be destruction and sorrow. In this way, both of these films presented similar perspectives on what it means to be Arab American.
The films The Baby Doll Night and Amreeka are two very different films that follow different story lines, yet they present similar messages and critiques regarding the concept of otherness, the story of American exceptionalism in the Iraqi war, and what it means to be an Arab America. Through characters such as Sarah, Awadin, and General Peter, or Fadi, Raghda, and Selma these two films leave the viewer with different emotions, but strong similar messages. The use of these different perspectives to provide similar conclusions makes a strong argument for the universality of these concepts.

A Responce to “Whatever Happened to the Turkish Model?”

The article “Whatever happened to the ‘Turkish Model’?” by Mustafa Akyol explores the recent collapse of the once highly praised ‘Turkish Model’ of democracy into authoritarianism. Akyol examines the degradation of democracy in Turkey through the history of the liberal A.K.P. political party that brought the liberal reforms and rhetoric which pulled the country out from under the control of the military at the start of the 21st century. The article gives two major reasons for the ultimate failure of the ‘Turkish Model’. First, the article argues that the A.P.K. adopted a liberal rhetoric to avoid being overthrown by the group of secularist generals who had ousted the Islamist predecessor of the A.P.K. Akyol alleges that because the A.P.K. embraced a liberal discourse out of necessity and not out of a real idealogical transformation, they were “corrupted and intoxicated” by power. The article also attributes the failure of the ‘Turkish Model’ to the country’s divisive political culture which has allowed the A.P.K. to thrive and create a virtual single party authoritarian regime.
In his article, Akyol examines the collapse of the Turkish liberal democracy solely through the lens of the A.P.K. party. While there is no doubt the party played a vital role in the rise and subsequent fall of Turkish democracy, the A.P.K. should not be viewed as the only voice in the story of the ‘Turkish Model’. At one point in the article, Akyol briefly mentions the strain placed on the country due to the Syrian refugee crisis and the struggles Turkish authorities have had with Kurdish separatists, yet there is no attempt by the author to bring these factors into his examination on the growing failures of Turkish democracy. Another key factor missing from the article is any discussion on the role of the Turkish military in the 21st century. Although Turkey has suffered a long history of military coups, and there was a coup a month after this article was published, Akyol focuses only on the role of the A.P.K. without mentioning the possible threat of the military.
According to the author, the other leading cause of the degradation of liberal democracy in Turkey is the “Machiavellian” political environment of the country. Despite the fact the Akyol views Turkey as a “torn country” due to the divisive political culture, he doesn’t mention this part of his argument until the second to last paragraph of the article. Furthermore, when this point is brought to light there is no attempt to provide the reader with information on “all other political actors” Akyol argues are also to blame for the current situation in Turkey. The article offers no descriptions, statistics, or even names of opposition parties in Turkey, nor is there any information on the “diverse views” that A.P.K. is trying to silence in direct opposition to their once liberal rhetoric. Without this basic information it is hard for the reader to understand what role the “combative, divisive, cynical political culture” has played in the failure of the ‘Turkish Model’.
The article provides an interesting history on the rise and fall of Turkey as a “shinning example of the compatibility of Islam and democracy.” The author argues that the A.P.K. party’s lack of devotion to an idealogical change to liberal democracy and the combative political environment in Turkey lead to the degradation of Turkish democracy. Despite the fact these arguments are important to understanding the failure of the ‘Turkish Model’, the author fails to adequately explore other important factors and back up his arguments with substantiating evidence. In the end, the article poses an important examination on the state of the Turkish democracy which is arguable more important now than it was at the time this article was written.


** All quotes from:  Mustafa Akyol, “Whatever Happened to the ‘Turkish Model’?,” New York Times, May 5, 2016**

The Square: A Movie Review on the Status of Egyptian Civil-Military

Tahrir Square

     The Square examines the Egyptian popular revolution in 2011 and its aftermath through the perspectives of Cairo’s Tahir Square protestors. The film follows these individuals through the three stages of the revolution beginning with the removal of Mubarak from power and the subsequent unrest and violence, then the Islamic Brotherhood’s victory in the popular election that was again followed by protests and violence, and finally the removal of Morsi from power in 2011. The main characters of the film represent the different religious, social, and political backgrounds of Egyptians, and the film examines how these differences shaped their experiences throughout the revolution. The film also identifies and examines the different roles the military, the Islamic Brotherhood, and protestors all played as the revolution unfolds. The Square highlights the determination as well as the trauma and suffering of the Egyptian people throughout this revolution.

The changing role of the military in this film highlights the complex state of civil-military relations in Egypt in the 2011 revolution. In this case, civil-military relations played a vital roll in the outcome of the revolution, and raises the issue of what civil-military relations can look like when the civilian institutions collapse in the absence of a coup. The film highlights the unpredictable nature of the military’s relationship with the people in such a situation as the military seeks to uphold order and protect military institutions. Understanding the position of the military in relation to the unrest and revolution in Egypt is important to understanding the 2011 Egyptian revolution, but it also provides an example of what an unchecked military can do to its citizens. The Egyptian military initial served in the interest of the people before deciding that protests now undermined stability causing them to turn violent against citizen; finally, the military stages a coup against the religious extremist president that had been elected after the fall of Mubarak. The film presents a unique personal perspective on how the civil-military relations in the aftermath of a revolution can effects the lives of a everyday people.

This film broadened my understanding of the how democratic transition can occur from authoritarian regimes. The transition as outlined in the course follow 4 steps from solid authoritarianism to fragile authoritarianism, then fragile democracy to democracy. The film follows Egypt from 2011 to 2013 as the nation goes through this transition. While I understood the first two steps of the process, the film particularly broadened by understanding of the theory’s description of an election made by an elite pact that then transitions the government from authoritarian to democratic. On paper, this idea of elites controlling a populist uprising is hard to understand, but in the film you see exactly that happen. After Mubarak steps down, the elites of the military and the Islamic Brotherhood work to “highjack” the revolution from the people making their own deal where either the military’s candidate will win the presidency or that of the Islamic Brotherhood; either way the Islamic Brotherhood will control the parliament. The film ends after the military coup that removes this elitist president from power and pushes Egypt toward a stronger democracy which once again follows the pattern this theory of democratization presents. The documentary style of the film allows the viewer to better understand the transformation from authoritarian to democratic.

The Yemeni Conundrum

This semester I once again got the chance to attend several of the fascinating lectures that OU provides. I attended a talk on the  situation in Yemen this spring out of an interest for the situation and how international actors are or are not responsible for the degrading situation.

The conflict in Yemen has been on going now for two years, yet personally I have found the information surrounding the war in Yemen has never had any real defining clarity in the media. Is it a proxy war, or another civil war fought by waring factions in an effort to seize power? What is the role of terrorism and the subsequent role of the United States?
These questions highlight the ugly truth behind what Dr. Mustafa Bahran called the “Yemeni Conundrum” in his lecture a couple of weeks ago. He prefaced his talk with the fact that he is Yemeni, and he does not have his doctorate in political science or regional studies, but in physics. As a student that attends many events hosted by the College of International Studies this was both a surprising and refreshing change. Dr. Bahran also had an incredibly personal back ground that offered an in-depth passionate view on the current situation in Yemen.
Dr. Bahran began his lecture discussing what kind of country Yemen was; how it broke down demographically, but also geographically which is important in order the understand the difference between the north and the south in a country that is stretches much father along an east to west parallel than a north to south one. He then moved into the topic of the evening that I was most interested in which was the answer to the question of who is who in this conflict.
As it turns out the reason this answer is so jumbled in the media, and not well understood on the international stage is because the who is who of the Yemeni conundrum is a complex conundrum in itself. Dr. Bahran breaks it down to four main actors: the legitimate government, Huthi-Saleh, Hirak Movement, and non-state actors. Dr. Bahran explained that every one of these actors is in some way in bed with another, and in his lecture he repeatedly emphasized the fact that in the end no one wins, excepts for perhaps the warlords and thieves who are making millions off of the suffering of the Yemeni people. He also explained that this conflict has several different dynamics that exist at several different levels form the very local to the global.
Understanding these different actors and how the react and interact with each other according to the differing dynamics that Dr. Bahran explained begins to provide a better picture to understanding the true complexity of the situation.
One thing I thought Dr. Bahran did that was interesting and important in order for others to understand the current conflict what he explained the history of Yemen and the region that makes the current crisis a civil war and a proxy war simultaneously. The divide between the Huthis in the north and the Hirak in the south began the conflict as a Yemeni civil war, but the greater regional powers of Iran and Saudi Arabia got involved due to their long documented strong against each other for dominance in the region. As these regional powers got involved so too did their allies which contributes to the global dynamics that I mentioned before.
In the end, Dr. Bahran makes it clear that there are no winners but those willing to profit form suffering, and that there is plenty of suffering among the Yemeni people as the conflict drags to another year. Although this war started as a Yemeni conflict it in largely agreed that the ability to determine the fate of the country has passed from Yemeni hands to the great forces of the proxy war situation we see today. I would like to end on a final note that stuck in my head from Dr. Bahran’s lecture. As a physicist, Dr. Bahran sees the world in a certain way, and I thought it was very interesting when he applied this way of thinking to the religious difference that plague his country and many others. In physics the idea of quantum mechanics says that a particle can be in two places at once, Dr. Bahran asked if perhaps this is how some Muslims see there faith, as if there were two versions of god, the chosen people, and heaven existing at the same time. I think this idea applies to more than strictly some conflicts found in certain Muslim beliefs, and perhaps new ways of thinking that come from the most unlikely of places is something that is not considered often enough.