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Managing Orientalism in European Thinking About the Middle East

by Nikola Zukalová

Despite the decades-long debates and the forests of trees martyred for books on the subject, it seems that European thinking about the Middle East continues to be governed by deep-seated stereotypes. Misconceptions about the wider region have been fuelled by simplistic and sensationalist headlines in the media and propagated by decision-makers and social media pundits alike. Popular culture, including television, cinema, music and literature, has also contributed to such stereotypes and misrepresenting the region to the public. Of course, suggesting that all of Europe suffers from the same Orientalist blinders is equally dangerous. There are no prototypical intercultural exchanges that define European-Middle Eastern relations. For instance, France and the UK, as western/northern European colonial states have had very different experiences than, say, Cyprus, Greece and Italy which share the central/east Mediterranean with Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Egypt (etc). However, a quick survey of European opinions about the wider region reveals some important misunderstandings and stereotypes that need to be addressed. It is time to properly manage Orientalist views that dominate European public discourses on the Middle East. This short piece does just that—with a special emphasis on the Arabian Peninsula.

 

Among the more prevalent clichés about the region is the notion that locals are all Arab and Muslim living in an expansive desert environment, spoiled by oil wealth and comfortable with socio-political and religious fundamentalism. Prevailing opinions regard the region as an incubator of terrorism governed by despotic leaders, shielded from accountability by the so-called rentier system which functions only because of petrodollars.

 

The propagation of such opinions intends to mystify Europe by defining it as safe, developed, advanced, logical, civilised and democratic (etc) in contrast to the Middle East. Of course, Europe has seen its share of terrorism and political violence, extremism, hyper-nationalism and corruption but these features and legacies tend to be conveniently omitted from public discourses about the Middle East and serve to impart a tainted view of the region and its many cultural facets. Indeed, socio-cultural elements are intrinsically linked to the power dynamics between Europe and the Middle East and bleed into the political dimension. Even the widely accepted geographic term ‘Middle East’ is a misnomer reflecting a Euro-centric worldview that simplifies the region and establishes geographic, political, cultural and social borders. But it is essential to treat the region as Europe demands to be treated, as a set of unique ethno-political and cultural communities with distinctive histories and cultural attributes.

 

To be sure, the dominant ethnicity in the region is Arab. But Arabs are not alone and vast communities of Turks, Persians and Kurds together with numerous smaller ethno-religious groups, such as Assyrians, Arameans, Balochis, Berbers, Greeks, Jews, Mandeans, Maronites, Mazanis, Shabaks, Turkmens and Yazidis, speckle the human landscape. Assuming that a person is Arabic simply because they originate from the Middle East is culturally insensitive and produces resentment by undermining the sense of uniqueness most communities have. Ironically, many Europeans can be ignorant of others’ diversity while, literally, parading their unique national cultures despite often marginal differences.

 

A similar pattern emerges when discussing religion. Certainly, Islam predominates, however even it cannot be understood as representing a homogenous group due to the number of sects. And, in fact, the top five countries with the largest Muslim populations in the world — Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria — all lay outside the Middle East. Islam cannot be reduced to describing the Middle East. Apart from being the cradle of Islam, the region also birthed Christianity and Judaism, and contains significant numbers of Coptic Christians, Greek Orthodox Christians, Maronites, Zoroastrians, Bahaʼis and Druze among dozens of other. Unfortunately, attention is often paid to the ragtag clusters of fundamentalists used to paint a dangerously incomplete picture of the region in European public discourses.

 

Sure, the Arabian Peninsula states are awash in hydrocarbons, producing unimaginable wealth thanks to the world’s largest economies’ energy demands (notably the G7 states, Australia, China, South Korea and most EU members). In the early boom years, nearly all the oil producing states mismanaged their finances, using them to cover significant socio-economic problems and failing to adequately plan for the future. However, this is no longer the 1970s and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries invest their money into their societies—education, healthcare, modernisation and cutting-edge technology are increasingly defining the sub-region more than simple petrodollar spending. And, why wouldn’t they spend their wealth on development? It is a national prerogative to push for sustainable futures and the states’ key obligation is to use their wealth for their growth and meeting their populations’ needs. 

 

There will be no real progress in harnessing the vast potential of a truly functioning Euro-Gulf/Middle East relationship until the elephants in the room are addressed—and those start and end with the way the region is seen and then treated by Europe. Jesus may have coined the phrase ‘he without sin, stand up and cast the first stone,’ but it is first important to acknowledge the proverbial ‘sins’ that have been committed or risk mystifying oneself as much as the others. Managing European Orientalist instincts can only be managed by learning European lessons and understanding European legacies as they relate to the meta-narrative of Europe’s engagement with the Middle East—not through the fog of selective memory syndrome, those decontextualised historic snapshots that create seemingly insurmountable challenges along Europe’s frontiers and the false image of stability coursing through the European continent.