Posted on 3-August-2012
"There is in addition the hegemony of European ideas about the Orient, themselves reiterating European superiority over Oriental backwardness, usually overriding the possibility that a more independent, or more sceptical, thinker might have had different views on the matter.
"In a quite constant way, Orientalism depends for its strategy on this flexible positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the upper hand....
"There is nothing mysterious or natural about authority. It is formed, irradiated, disseminated; it is instrumental, it is persuasive; it has status, it establishes canons of taste and value; it is virtually indistinguishable from certain ideas it dignifies as true, and from traditions, perceptions, and judgments it forms, it forms, transmits, reproduces. Above all authority can, indeed must, be analyzed....
"To speak of scholarly specialisation as a geographical 'field' is in the case of Orientalism, fairly revealing since since no one is likely to imagine a field symmetrical to it called Occidentalism"
Edward W. Said, Orientalism.
A few weeks ago, Time magazine of the USA, an organ since the days of Henry Luce of the American Republican establishment, published a piece describing the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as an underachiever. This set not only the Indian political class but also large sections of Indian intelligentsia aflutter. India's main opposition political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), found in this an opportunity to criticise the Prime Minister. Spokesmen of the Indian National Congress counter-attacked by reminding the BJP of a similarly critical piece about its Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a few years ago. The Time magazine piece became the staple of discussions in the media and in private salons for a few days as had become the earlier piece about Atal Bihari Vajpayee drawing from him an acerbic reaction. Neither the Indian National Congress nor the BJP have shown such sensitivity to much stronger criticism of the two parties and their leaders in the national media. Very few asked two sceptical questions about these pieces: towards what end and why now. Nor have Indian politicians and diverse intellectuals looked similarly askance when specific Indian policies or chosen individuals in positions of power and influence have been picked up in the past for praise in the Time magazine or in similar western organs in the past.
When a few years ago a newspaper in Denmark published some cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammad in a manner considered offensive by many Muslims, there were widespread protests in many Arab countries and in non-Arab Muslim countries. There were sporadic acts of violence against Danish diplomatic and non-diplomatic offices in some capitals and some countries announced boycotts of different kinds against Denmark and other countries housing newspapers which reprinted those cartoons. There was no audience in the Arab and Muslim world for views about freedom of expression nor did anyone seem to consider the possibility that people who wrote and spoke irreverently about Jesus of Nazareth were conditioned to look similarly irreverently at other religious teachers. Around the time when Muslims around the world were incensed over these cartoons--whether the anger was genuine and spontaneous or churned up by some people was not entirely clear--I met an acquaintance of long standing who has spent more than half a life time talking and writing about the plight of Indian Muslims. I asked him why the furore over the cartoons. He said no Muslim could accept such offensive treatment of the Prophet. I asked him if Muslims could not have simply ignored the cartoons. He said that was hardly possible. I then asked him whether by paying so much attention to something printed in a not too well known newspaper published in a small country on the northern periphery of Europe, Muslims around the world were not giving too much power over themselves to those who made the newspaper. He did not stay to give me an answer. I have ever since wondered if the reactions in the Muslim world would have been as vociferous if similar cartoons had appeared in a non-western publication.
My third tale is actually a retelling of a story I have told elsewhere. Towards the end of 1974, Oxford University of the United Kingdom, began considering giving an honorary doctor's degree to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the Pakistani Prime Minister then. Being at the university at the time, spending the academic year of October 1974-June 1975 there, I took some detached interest in the matter. One of the university dons had told me that the university was anxious to give recognition to a man who had brought calm and stability to Pakistan after the trauma of the Bangladesh war. Pakistanis at the university were obviously supportive of the move--Bhutto's daughter, Benazir, was president of the Oxford Union Society that year. Bangladeshis at Oxford who looked upon Bhutto as having been in cahoots with the Pakistani army in its genocidal campaign in what was then East Pakistan protested. There were also a few street marches. During this period, a Bangladeshi whom I knew a little joined me in a lounge where with coffee and cookies I was leafing through some magazines. Perhaps thinking that as an Indian diplomat I would be sympathetic to Bangladeshi protests, he asked me what I thought of this matter. I told him I did not understand the controversy because I thought that for Bhutto, a democratically elected leader of Pakistan what should matter was what the people of Pakistan thought of him and not how a distant university appraised him. Thus in one stroke I might, in violation of all the tenets of my chosen profession, have caused offense to Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and such of the English in the lounge who could have overheard my conversation with the Bangladeshi. I was already quite aware that a university like Oxford rarely gave honorary doctor's degrees to foreign statesmen except in support of British foreign policy interests. I became fully aware of the value Third World statesmen put on such a degree when I read the acceptance speech of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when Oxford gave him an honorary doctor's degree in July 2005 (see Thank God for Britain). He said he was overwhelmed and went on to outdo any latter day singer of paeans of the British Empire.
The willing, even eager, acceptance of the opinions of persons or institutions of presumed authority in the West by Third World leaders--political and intellectual--is quite common. In his seminal work, Orientalism, with a few passages from which this essay starts, Edward Said has described how over the centuries, western scholars, writers, colonial administrators and politicians have defined the Orient, created representations of it, established canons of taste and institutions supporting those canons, so that the West has set itself up in a position of authority to express definitive opinions and judgments about the Orient and Orientals. Said's Orient can without much difficulty be expanded to include all of the Third World--the mechanisms which were used to underpin western notions of superiority over the Orient during the colonial period are used in modern times to sustain Western hegemony in the realm of ideas over the Third World, (be it Africa, the Middle East, the Muslim World, South Asia or the Caribbean), in the post-colonial period. To a great extent the West is able to sustain its sense of superiority over the Third World because Third World politicians, intellectuals and others in positions of leadership help that process. While it is difficult, as Said says, to imagine a field of specialisation such as occidentalism, it is possible to think of Third World attitudes that mirror Orientalism which I would call Occidentalism or, since there is not one cultural or civilisational unit called the Third World, occidentalisms. Thus western approval or disapproval of cultural practices, literary outputs, art, cinematography or indeed governmental policies acquire excessive importance in the minds of leaders of countries of the Third World, distorting their understanding of the cultural values and economic and social needs of their own people. Some of the strength of Orientalism would diminish if there were no occidentalisms. If the Third World exorcised itself of its occidentalisms, it would be able to make dispassionate judgments about the importance to it of a Time magazine article, or of the value for it of an Oxford honorary doctorate for its Prime Minister or of a Nobel Peace prize (see Apostles of Peace) for one of its citizens. It is only then that true decolonisation of the Third World will begin.