Race-relations in a globalised world: Orientalism and dehumanisation

 

What impact has globalisation had on modern day cultures? This question has generated fierce debate within the field of IPE. One side of the debate argues that globalisation has led to ‘homogenisation’, whereby everyone adopts a similar culture and mind-set. This phenomena is also sometimes referred to as ‘Americanisation’ – as the most influential and predominant culture of this era is undeniably the American culture. Others have argued that globalisation has led to ‘hybridisation’, whereby distinct and different cultures combine. Lastly, it has been argued that globalisation has led to ‘polarisation’, which refers to a clash of cultures amidst the growing interconnectedness of the world.

Upon exploring the different theories related to race-relations and culture, I have recently become fascinated with the ways in which we view people and societies that we consider to be different from our own. This fascination began when I started reading about Orientalism. The term ‘Orientalism’ was first coined by Edward Said in 1978, and refers to the general patronising Western attitude towards Middle Eastern, Asian, and North African societies. According to Said, the West considers these societies exaggeratedly different, primitive, and underdeveloped, whereas it considers itself to be developed, rational, and ultimately superior. This belief is often implicit within the way the West romanticises and essentially undermines aspects of the East. Within all of this, certain stereotypes are created, and they construct a highly distorted view of reality.

As a mixed-race British Arab, I am far too aware of certain stereotypes that are consistently perpetuated. I have witnessed both ignorant, and sometimes innocent, curiosity from both sides. From my British friends asking me if I’ll eventually be forced to have an arranged marriage to an old Arab man that I hardly know, to my Arab cousins asking me if we have chickens in England. I’m fully aware that sometimes there is a lack of understanding on each side, and it has always added a bit of humour to my life. However, the theory of Orientalism has made me realise the dangers of certain stereotypes that exist that can lead to the dehumanisation of a people. Orientalism dates back to the period of European Enlightenment and colonisation of the Arab world. It is said that Orientalism was used as a means to justify European colonialism, based on a self-serving history in which ‘the West’ constructed ‘the East’ as being vastly different and inferior and therefore in need of ‘saving’.

Consider the way the Arab world is often portrayed within popular culture; as an exotic fantasy land featuring flying carpets and belly-dancers. Unfortunately, even popular desert safari trips that many tourists go on when they visit the UAE and other Arab countries do absolutely nothing to help; a trip to the desert, a BBQ, perhaps a bit of shisha, followed by a customary belly dance performed by an Eastern European woman. These things make us Arabs cool, right? Wrong. It reduces us to nothing more than our cuisine and ‘so-called’ traditions. Consistently portraying this romanticised version of a culture can prove to be detrimental and ultimately, dehumanising; and if we’re not exotic belly-dancers then we’re crazy terrorists. The classic Disney film Aladdin features Orientalist themes from start to finish. And don’t even get me started on ‘Sex and the City 2′ – classicorientalist fetishizing white women coupled with ‘white saviour’ themes throughout the film. These images speak for themselves.

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By encouraging these exaggerated extremes of reality, we rarely see the average person. Fictional novels about the Arab world almost always show the same old family dynamic; young girls leading double lives, living in constant fear that their hot-tempered father will discover all of their secrets which will penultimately lead to their own honour-killing. How often do we hear about the hard-working and loving Arab fathers that have great relationships with their daughters? Very rarely.

Not only does this hyperbole fuel an already distorted narrative, but it robs us of our history; how many people know about the many great Middle Eastern scholars, and the influence that they had on many of the Wests developments of today? To deny the fact that the Middle East was once a hub of knowledge and innovation, and instead manufacture images of barbaric men and oppressed women such as the ones consistently portrayed in popular culture is a huge injustice that we often fail to recognise. The situation is so bad that many young Arabs are now completely disconnected from their heritage (myself included). Unfortunately more and more young Arabs are looking to the West as the ‘ideal’, whether it be in terms of education, art, or values; failing to recognise their own rich culture and history.

Moreover, this rhetoric makes it easier to justify the systematic killing and control of certain races. After all, certain races are violent and backward, and in need of saving and educating, right? Ultimately, the enforcement and perpetuation of certain stereotypes often serves a political agenda, and has arguably led to institutional Islamaphobia. Fear-mongering and stereotyping is perhaps what led many people to willingly accept the ‘War on Terror’ and the ‘us versus them’ rhetoric that came along with it. Needless to say that many in the West have publicly opposed inflicting war on the Middle East, but the majority seem to be in acceptance. So when white phosphorus falls on innocent civilians in Iraq and Palestine, literally burning the flesh right off their bones, their cries are met with silence. Does anyone hear their cries? Does anyone actually care? Do I really need to state who the losers are in this scenario?

 

Deena Abdo (Dubai Campus)

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2 thoughts on “Race-relations in a globalised world: Orientalism and dehumanisation

  1. Deena I love this blog post and really enjoyed reading it. We have similar views of how Middle Eastern culture is viewed by the West and the dehumanisation through Western media that has been happening for years on end. I also feel that many young Arabs are becoming increasingly Westernized because it is considered to be ‘cooler’. I find this quite sad as our unique and diverse culture is not appreciated even by Arabs who willingly trade their culture and traditions to the homogeneous Americanized culture that is taking over the world.
    Balqis Hindash (M00385581, Dubai Campus)

  2. Incredible blog post Deena – agree with everything you have mentioned so creatively. The globe is facing an identity crisis. Individuals like myself and you are considered as “Third culture” children. Our distinct cultures are at stake.This can be expanded to what we face in South-Asian countries, and maybe Africa as well. Among South-Asia, I can confidently speak on behalf of Pakistan. Globalisation can be equated to a flood tide that encourages an erosion of culture. This has created changes in traditional social structure; an encouragement of secularisation, and decline in social solidarity in Pakistan. These are inherently neo-liberal ideologies – a mantra of “every man for himself” which has manifested itself in a conservative country, consequently exacerbating complexity in social relations. Nevertheless, as you have outlined the Arab world is facing a much serious situation.

    Using my visit to Ghana as a simple example, I was humoured by the village chief’s “throne”. Initially, I was expecting a traditional seat decorated with ornaments, but instead found a plain black computer chair with a fluffed white pillow. The villagers appreciated an “IT chair” beyond belief because apart from the chief, no one was deemed worthy of being seated on his worthy “throne”. While on the one hand this signified their access to internationally designed products and hence the integration of the global political economy, on the other hand it portrayed a loss of unique traditional customs perhaps. An erosion of culture is on the rise unfortunately. However, one must acknowledge that to gain (i.e. derive benefits from the international political economy), they must forgo something – economic concept of opportunity cost. I do not believe that it has to be culture, but it is part and parcel of globalisation sadly.

    Ammna Nasser (Dubai campus)

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