Neo-Orientalism and the Left

Neo-Orientalism and the Left

Imran Said
Imran Said

Stroll through the streets of major cities in Southeast Asia – whether it be in Malaysia, Vietnam, or Thailand – and you start to notice a new fad among Western tourists. It is referred to as ‘beg-packing,’ and involves primarily white Western tourists begging on the streets for money to fund their travels across the region. Some may sell small trinkets or busk for money. I encountered this persoally in the Little India area of Kuala Lumpur, where I watched a young dreadlocked white woman solicit change from passers-by with her kettle drums.

Beg-packers who depend on the charity of a poorer country to fund a luxury like travel have rightly received much derision on the Internet since the phenomenon was first reported. As one Malaysian writer noted: “I think that this kind of behavior shows how many people still look at the world with an orientalist view. They see Asia as an exotic place of spiritual discovery.”

According to the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said, ‘orientalism’ describes how Westerners have historically viewed the East (and basically any non-Western region) vis-à-vis the West. Such Western attitudes, however, are not and never were monolithic, and much of Said’s work has been discredited by other scholars as either simplistic or overtly polemical. Nevertheless, while the term is still used as a slur by many on the far Left, increasingly it is self-described progressives who are responsible for the most thoughtless and egregious examples.

The Left’s new (or old) kind of Orientalism romanticizes the Global South as a nirvana of spirituality and eccentric traditions in contrast to the banality and empty materialism of the West. It is both an exotic playground and a place crying out for salvation; its people are simple and forever the helpless victims of circumstance. Such a view treats what for many locals is a miserable, inescapable experience as something to be fetishized. Instead, the East becomes a place of self-discovery and experience – a place for wealthy narcissists and dilettante pilgrims to ‘find themselves.’

But the non-Western world is also a place in need of their assistance. In a 2013 article for The Independent entitled “The Tragic Rise of Gap Year Voluntourism,” Ritwik Deo sternly criticizes students who take package tours to the Global South for the purposes of humanitarian work. He warns that this cheapened form of charity can become a sort of White Man’s Burden, with today’s generation “thinking that it is their moral duty to intervene in the darkest stretches of the planet.” He warns that ‘voluntourism’ breeds “envy and contempt. It breeds smugness. It breeds boastfulness at cocktail parties.” It can also leave people under the misapprehension that they have gained some special expertise and insight into countries, about which they actually understand very little.

This Orientalism has clouded how many on the Western Left understand and approach minority cultures within their own societies. This has been particularly noticeable on the identitarian Left, which judges individuals primarily on the basis of factors over which they have no control, such as race, sex, or ethnicity, rather than character or values. Within this peculiar framework, minorities are treated as perpetually victimized but ennobled savages – peoples to be protected, coddled, and gawked at. They bring color, life, and exotic arts, crafts, and cuisine to an apparently soulless and culturally vapid West, as though their only value and purpose is to provide others with entertainment. Eastern cultures and religions are portrayed as inherently peaceful and wise compared to those found in the materialistic, hyper-rational, and warmongering West. But this only recalls a condescending 19th century colonial discourse which regarded Eastern peoples as feminized and residing in a mythical Edenic splendor unpolluted by the evils of modernity. Like the beg-packers, these leftists fetishize non-Western cultures, no matter how oppressive and miserable it may be to actually live in them.

Determined to preserve these cultures in their ‘natural’ state, this kind of leftism divides society into increasingly rigid ethnic and religious community enclaves, characterized by what is held to be most culturally ‘authentic.’ Those individuals within minority communities who do not toe the line – reformist Muslims, conservative blacks, or basically anyone who doesn’t feel sufficiently victimized – are denigrated as ‘native informants,’ ‘Uncle Toms,’ and ‘sell-outs.’ Not only do these leftists view the world increasingly through an identarian lens, they also take it upon themselves to judge how these identities are to be applied.

Recall the abuse suffered by British Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz for daring to speak to prominent neuroscientist Sam Harris in 2015 as part of a conversation about the future of Islam. For this transgression, Nawaz was subjected to a depressingly familiar catalogue of racist and dehumanizing slurs, including ‘lapdog,’ ‘porch monkey,’ and ‘native informant.’ This desire to find the most ‘authentic’ voice among minority communities often ends up hurting members of those communities the most, as it inevitably leads to the most reactionary and bigoted voices being hailed as the only ‘true’ community representatives, thereby perversely silencing more liberal elements. As Nawaz himself noted:

The pitfalls of “Am I Black Enough” are well-known. It is equally dangerous to disappear down the “Am I Muslim Enough?” rabbit hole. For the only winners in this gutter game of one-upmanship are ultimately the religious fanatics.

Even when the most toxic strands of these non-Western cultures erupt beyond the community to actively harm the wider society, many on the Left will only obfuscate or deflect. This is particularly noticeable in a common reaction to recent jihadist attacks in the West. Rather than confront the toxic subcultures found within ghettoized Muslim communities in Western cities and that promulgate the hatred of women, homosexuals, Jews, non-Muslims, and other minorities, many on the Left prefer to declare that it is the West which is always and everywhere at fault.

Following incidents of jihadi mass-murder that claim the lives of innocent citizens of all faiths in Western cities, the Orientalist Left point their fingers of blame, not at the perpetrators or at the doctrines they espouse, but at past and present Western actions in the Muslim-majority world. US actions in Iraq, for example, are believed to explain why a man who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State decided to murder 50 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando. The alarming prevalence of homophobia within Muslim communities – and its importance to Islamist ideology in particular – are, it seems, to be considered irrelevant. By the same token, Israeli policy in the occupied territories is blamed for the increasing frequency of anti-Semitic incidents perpetrated in Sweden, which have become so bad that children at a Jewish kindergarten in Malmo play behind bulletproof glass. Meanwhile, it is not Islamist blasphemy doctrines that explain why 12 people were murdered in the Paris office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, but the historical colonization of North Africa and France’s supposedly systemic racism.

What is striking is that the attitude of the Orientalist Left towards the non-Western world reflects the colonial pundits whose ideas they hold in such contempt. Both robbed the non-Western world of its agency and the capacity to decide its own destiny. It is the West which is the vehicle of history and Western actors alone who are considered to be moral agents. Should anything occur in the East, it is because Westerners caused it, either intentionally or not. The East is simultaneously exoticized and treated as a blank slate, its own ideologies and cultural views somehow both romanticized and irrelevant. Its peoples are inherently innocent and perpetually vulnerable, requiring outside salvation both in their native lands and their adopted Western homes.

During the dawn of the modern world, Europeans arrived on eastern shores with a vision of its societies as historically stagnant, its traditions as timeless and pure, and its peoples as victimized and noble. With a mixture of good intentions and ignorant condescension, millions of natives were oppressed and their societies ruined. The Orientalist Left should stop to consider whether their own good intentions are paving a new road to Hell.

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Imran Said

Imran Said is a freelance writer currently based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He has written on international security, history, and politics for several publications.