Is orientalism dead?

I admit to not having read Edward Said's Orientalism, but from what I gather, his thesis is that any study of eastern cultures by western historians is necessarily tainted by a racist, condescending, colonial perspective that portrays eastern culture in an inherently inferior light. I have always had trouble accepting this thesis (at least, as far as the modern era - examples of it abound from the colonial era, for example pretty much everything written about India during the British Raj).

Any analysis of a foreign culture is necessarily going to happen across a cultural chasm. As such, it is inevitable that elements of that culture under study will be filtered through the observer's own. The whole point of cultural analysis is to try and understand something alien; the human way to do this is to try and relate it to something more familiar. As a result, the culture under study will be bent and folded (and even mutilated, depending on the skill or lack thereof of the observer) to fit into predefined (and alien) categories.

There probably is always some element of condescension involved as well. Cultural superiority is ingrained deeply by force of habit and the comfort of the familiar. How many times have we seen statements about the West from Islamic sources that seek to portray the West as inherently sinful, hedonistic, without morals, etc. ? Perhaps Western analysts have learned to mask or even suppress their condescension better. But is that condescension the core of the analysis or a side effect? Is the value of the analysis totally negated by it?

A modern day westerner writing about the middle east (which, it should be noted, includes we western muslims as much as it does someone like Michael Totten) will not be immune to these foibles. In my opinion, the thesis of orientalism draws a false line between east and west. In that way Edward Said is as guilty of perpetuating the "Clash" as Samuel Huntington (personally, I favor the Gash of Civilizations theory instead). When i think of Oriental I think of the far east (the Chinese civilization and its offshoots). The middle east is the frontier between east and west, but I don't think you can argue (especially with the adoption of western leftist parliaments and political systems) that its wholly distinct. Neither are they distinct in the religious sphere - after all, there are three great Abrahamic faiths, and they are coterminus at Jerusalem.

I think that we cannot expect a non-muslim writing about the middle east to be too sympathetic to our muslim axioms. It's our task to explain why orthodoxy and faith are important, to rescue terms like hijab and jihad from the negative connotation, to take our own pride in our orthopraxy. A non-muslim writing about the middle east will look for what they know - bars, liberalism, hot chicks - whereas we might see something different. That's not orientalism, its simply culture shock.

Overall, orientalism is badly named. It describes a relationship between colonial powers and its colonies more than it does east vs west or Islam vs (anything). I can't help but speculate that Said's motivation was really to try and establish a distinction between east and west as proxies for the palestinians and the israelis. That conflict is all the more tragic when seen as a fraternal one rather than one at the very frontier between two civilizations, alien and opposed. There's no reason however that the rest of us, who are not embroiled in a life or death struggle over holy land, need to be bound by this formulation. I think we as western muslims especially need to reject the concept of orientalism out of hand.

UPDATE: great essay in The Guardian, "Orientalism is not racism". In my opinion the most important part of the argument is as follows:

Today the west is bleakly incurious about the history of Islam, its art, peoples and learning. There's a blank wall of terror. This wall has been strengthened by Said's book because it closes down a crucial way for cultures to encounter one another: it closes down romanticism.

NOTE: Comments closed here - to discuss this essay, please join the discussion at Talk Islam.


What is an African-American?

Tariq has a very thorough post at his blog expanding on the question of what it means to be African American and whether Obama qualifies to claim that ethnic heritage or not. I think the post expands very well on the earlier discussion and i find myself in agreement now that the term African American does have a special meaning that is best left undiluted. I do still think that the self-identity of AA in the US needs to ultimately free itself of slavery’s shadow, much like the self-identity of Jews needs to free itself of the Holocaust, but in practice I don't know how practical that is.

It must be noted however that the term AA will continue to be used as a broad brush. So i think in one sense if ethnic AA's try to articulate their "ownership" of the term African-American, they do risk being tarred (unfairly) as making the “black enough” argument. It might be better to make the argument in the abstract for the term AA, but adopting a more specific label for pragmatisms’ sake. I personally think “Black American” is more descriptive since Africa, per se, is not really central to the identity in question.

(Note - comments closed here. Please discuss this post at Talk Islam).


Club Med

At Talk Islam, thabet links to a pair of editorials from the FT (skeptical) and the Economist (upbeat) regarding France's proposal for a Mediterranean Union. I must confess, I find the idea of a Mediterranean Union extremely appealing. I found this graphic from the FT rather fascinating, illustrating the economic disparity of the nations around the Med Rim: (click to enlarge)

I am also reminded of the way in which the states surrounding the Great Lakes here in the US came together to form the Great Lakes Compact. Access to the same massive shared body of water means that all adjacent polities have a vested interest in preserving it as a common resource. An economic union across the Med would also be a great way to uplift North Africa in particular, and provide an economic bulwark against fundamentalism.


Introducing Muslim Advocates: freedom and justice for all

Introducing Muslim Advocates - the Muslim-American civil rights group that CAIR should have been. Founded by the National Association of Muslim Lawyers (NAML), they are hitting precisely the right note in their mission statement about seeking freedom and justice for all. They have hit the ground running, by producing this excellent video titled "Got Rights?":

Watch This Video: It will give you crucial Information about how to protect you and your family when approached by law enforcement.Since the terrorist attacks of 9-11, Muslims, Sikhs, Arabs and South Asians have endured particular scrutiny by law enforcement -- and in some cases, questioning and searches that infringe fundamental rights at the core of the Constitution. In this climate, it is vital that members of our communities inform themselves about our rights as Americans.Then, Take Action: Share the video with your family and friends; and visit our website to tell us about your experiences with law enforcement.To change discriminatory policies, we first need to educate our fellow Americans about our experiences. Help stop racial and religious profiling.

Brilliant. They also invite you to share your story with them if you've been denied your rights or had an otherwise unjust encounter with the law.

The importance of this group cannot be overstated. For 15 years, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has failed to really make a case for muslim American civil rights. The failure of CAIR to articulate a national civil rights argument on behalf of muslims has not gone unnoticed - leading CAIR's chairman to resign in frustration (though he certainly deserves some of the blame). CAIR's membership has been steadily dwindling as well.

Is CAIR now irrelevant? Not neccessarily. I've defended CAIR many times because while their national leadership has been inept and controversy-prone, the local state chapters do important work in compiling information about muslim civil liberties violations that would otherwise go unnoticed, as well as basic community outreach, humanitarian work, and of course damage control. MA can step in to fill the gap at the national level but probably won't be able to replicate CAIR's infrastructure on a state-by-state chapter level, at least not for a while. I don't see MA as being capable of doing the community outreach/open-mosque/interfaith yeoman's work, either. The ideal situation would be for genuine reform within CAIR and have these two organizations work independently, but cooperatively, towards the same goals.

My friend Shahed Amanullah recently mused on a number of ways in which CAIR might reform:

a) Change the name. It has the connotation of “American” and “Islamic” being mutually exclusive.
b) Be more selective about the civil rights issues that are taken up, because there are some times when people are just being jerks and not necessarily anti-Muslim. And some actions (i.e. the “flying imams” lawsuit) have ended up having a net negative impact on public opinion about Muslims.
c) Be more broad about the issues taken up. There’s more to being Muslim in America than the right to wear hijab and pray at work.
d) Explicitly reject all foreign funding, like MPAC has done since its founding.
e) Have at least one proactive/positive initiative (outreach, training, community building) for every aggressive one (i.e. lawsuits).
f) Take a different attitude towards the media - the current CAIR attitude towards the media is far too hostile and uncooperative, and it feeds on itself.
g) Push for the inclusion on younger/more diverse leadership, with special attention given to those who were born and/or raised in the US.
h) Focus on Muslim life in America, and leave foreign policy to other Muslim groups. Both are worthy causes, but the pursuit of both at the same time hurts the efficacy of each one.
i) Stop trying to be another ISNA (i.e. stop adding parallel programs that step on the toes of other groups, and stop positioning yourself as an umbrella group for all Muslims.). Focus on what you do best - defending civil rights of Muslims.
j) Thoroughly vet all staffers for anything in their past that can drag down the organization as a whole. (Not trying to discredit past work that people may have done, this is simply a cost-benefit analysis that weighs the skills one brings to the table vs. the obstacles it can place in the way of the larger org goals).

With the advent of MA, CAIR might as well outsource all or part of (b) above to them, as far as lobbying at the national level and engaging in PR work. Of course, at the local level, it's the data collected by local CAIR chapters that MA will need to have access to in order to make their case.

Overall, what CAIR needs is bold ideas and fresh leadership. I know the perfect man for the job as CAIR Chairman but he's already declined to be drafted :) Ultimately though the creation of MA bodes well for muslim-American organizations in general, as long as these orgs realize they are all on the same team and "representing muslim American issues" is not a zero-sum game.

painfully self-aware

More than a few people have brought the seeming hiatus in blogging here at City of Brass to my attention with alarm, asking if I have shuttered this site in favor of a sexier project (Talk Islam, which if you aren't reading, you SHOULD be).

However, while I admit to being distracted of late, nothing could be further from the truth. City of Brass is not going anywhere. Stay tuned, if you've stuck through te drought this long already.

FWIW, I am going to retire the Carnival of Brass, however, in favor of Talk Islam. More details later.