By Jack Werner
“Every single empire in its official discourse has said that it is not like all the others, that its circumstances are special, that it has a mission to enlighten, civilize, bring order and democracy, and that it uses force only as a last resort.”
So wrote the late and deeply missed Edward W. Said in the 2003 preface of his renowned book, “Orientalism,” first published 25 years earlier in 1978. What concerned Said in “Orientalism” was the recurring imagery of the so-called “Near East” (so-called because Said never viewed the terms “West” and “East” as ontologically and epistemologically stable — the regions were rather “imagined geographies” based on a certain historical perspective).
For Said, there was nothing objective about our knowledge of the Middle East; it was created, maintained, financed and pursued for exercising power and control over a demarcated region and people.
“Orientalism,” then, was a corpus of knowledge, scholarly and now today part of the mass media, designed to craft a distinct image of Middle Eastern people — the strange, menacing and unreasonable Arabs, the Islamic suicide bomber, the sensual women of the East — all corresponding as threats posed to the “civilized” West, with its emphasis on democracy and freedom.
These social constructions were necessary fictions in order to create public support first for British and French colonialism; and second, at the conclusion of WWII and dawn of American Empire, for an expansive and hegemonic American foreign policy. Today, “Orientalism” still remains an integral part of U.S. international affairs rhetoric and delimits the conditions for possible statements, what French philosopher Michel Foucault called episteme, about the region as a whole.
In a recent speech to Congress, for example, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conflated Da’ish (ISIS) and Iran, as though they were two sides of the same coin.
“Don’t be fooled. The battle between Iran and ISIS doesn’t turn Iran into a friend of America. Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam. One calls itself the Islamic Republic. The other calls itself the Islamic State. Both want to impose a militant Islamic empire first on the region and then on the entire world. They just disagree among themselves who will be the ruler of that empire,” Netanyahu said.
Is there similarity between a small band of brutal militants who have seized control over incongruous sections in Iraq, routinely committing acts of heinous slaughter, and a nation-state who has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act and whose Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons?
What Netanyahu has effectively done is essentialize two fundamentally different groups of people on the single commonality that they generally belong to the religion of Islam. Ignore the fact that Iran decrees Shia Islam as its official religion in direct opposition to Da’ish and its radical version of Sunni Salafism, a vision no country in the region sees as legitimate.
Disregard the fact that Iran is currently leading the fight to retake Tirkit with Iraqi troops and U.S. oversight. Blatantly ignore the reality that Iran is not brutally slaughtering innocent people, and instead, is the forefront opposition to Da’ish. Then, and only then, can the absurdity of comparing Iran and Da’ish emerge as a logical deduction.
Further, the commitment of Iran to a nuclear free zone is not as suspect as Netanyahu alleges. Gareth Porter in Foreign Policy offers a vivid example.
When Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons, primarily mustard gas and nerve gas tabun, to kill 20,000 thousand Iranians during the Iraq-Iran War, Mohsen Rafighdoost, the minister of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) throughout the eight-year war, offered plans to create chemical and nuclear weapons in order to retaliate against Iraq. But the Islamic Republic’s first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, firmly persisted in his opposition to nuclear weapons.
“It doesn’t matter whether it is on the battlefield or in cities; we are against this. It is haram [forbidden] to produce such weapons,” he said.
Rafighdoost described his encounter again: “Imam told me that, instead of producing chemical or biological weapons, we should produce defensive protection for our troops, like gas masks and atropine.”
The great irony, of course, is that while Iran remained steadfast against using chemical and nuclear weapons, the U.S. intelligence community provided imagery and maps of troop locations for Iraq, fully aware of the intent to use sarin and mustard gas against Iran.
“The Iraqis never told us they intended to use nerve gas,” retired Air Force Col. Rick Francona told Foreign Policy. “They didn’t have to. We already knew.”
Orientalism has a distinct way of producing identities that are knowable, timeless and predictable—Netanyahu seems to say, “Don’t trust the guile Arabs, they are just waiting to trick us. They’re like all the rest.”
Netanyahu can make these outrageous comparisons because he knows the dominant framework — what Thomas Kuhn had called paradigm still remains Orientalism in America.
It is easy to dismiss the virulent racism of the early Western colonial project, proclaiming with a certain smugness, those men were “of their time” and that “we don’t have those problems anymore. However, that rhetorical gesture conceals rather than examines, the very real Orientalism that exists today — an Orientalism that garners standing ovations by the leading members of our Congress.
It should, of course, worry most individuals just how easily Netanyahu can come to America and speak with a historical Orientalist contempt against Iran and then be celebrated in American public discourse.
This is undoubtedly a strong act of war mongering, but it gains legitimacy through our own fears and prejudices, rather than through the truth.