The Orientalist Blindness

The Orientalists who emphasized the contradiction between Arab and Islamic culture and democracy are afraid to admit their failure.

Mohanad Mustafa
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Mohanad Mustafa

For years, intellectuals, mostly Arabs, have been confronted by the stereotypical, even racist, approach found in much of Western Orientalism, including that in Israel. Under this approach, there is a contradiction between Arab and Muslim culture on the one hand, and democracy, equality and social justice on the other. Based on this contradiction, this form of Orientalism rejects any hope of democratization in the Arab world and justifies the prevalent tyranny. The Israeli propaganda machine is often proud of being the sole "island of democracy" in a sea of Arab despotism.

According to this simplistic notion, limited to a dichotomy and tainted by the crude sense of supremacy in which this Orientalism is imprisoned, Arab society is conflicted between the forces of undemocratic political Islam and those of oppressive, despotic regimes. Terms such as democracy and social justice cannot exist in Arab society because of the cultural obstacle that exists.

Children posing for photographs in front of the Egyptian Museum near Tahrir Square in Cairo, February 12, 2011.Credit: AP

This failure in understanding also has applied to political Islam's contribution to democratization in the Arab world. In most cases, political Islamic movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood, have been perceived as seeking to impose a strict theocratic political order. Apparently the security-minded and racist perspective that characterizes Israeli and Western Orientalism prevents these observers from understanding the process of deep change that these movements have undergone. They also fail to perceive the various approaches to the state, democracy, society and the West - even within the Muslim Brotherhood. The comparison of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood to the Iranian Revolution is one bit of proof of this distorted perspective.

The increased significance of young people in Middle East politics is not new. Early last century, young Arabs played a key role in shaping the elites and the worldview of Arab societies. Arab modernization, both on a national and religious level, was led by middle-class young people and was interrupted externally by Western colonial powers and domestically by Arab forces. This was followed by the rise of authoritarian regimes, most of them pro-Western.

The revolution of young Arabs in Tunisia and Egypt is not a revolution of the poor, or of young people who are simply seeking jobs. It's a revolution of educated young people, some of them middle class, who support values of democracy and equality. Wael Ghonim, for example, one of the young Egyptians who organized demonstrations using the Internet, comes from a wealthy Egyptian family.

The young Egyptians at Tahrir Square must serve as a model for all forces of democracy around the world. The people who have always preached democracy are now afraid to admit their ethical failure, and the Orientalists who emphasized the contradiction between Arab and Islamic culture and democracy are afraid to admit their failure.

At Tahrir Square, the young are already setting up the country they aspired to achieve through the most peaceful, effective and democratic revolution in the past century. In this square, decisions are reached equally by men and women, Muslims and Christians, poor and rich. All they aspire to do is to transform Tahrir Sqare into the new democratic Egypt. They are liberating themselves and their society and are leaving behind the Orientalists bound by a concept of the past.

The writer is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Haifa.

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