Asef Bayat: Neo-Orientalism





Asef Bayat

Anecdotal stereotyping of ‘other’ peoples and cultures is neither new nor of course limited to the West. But things become more serious when stereotypical imaginations get articulated by systematic, ‘scientific’, and authoritative apparatuses of knowledge production. Orientalism, articulated by Edward Said, famously represents such a mode of knowledge production, as it opts to construct a totalizing image of the other as an object of prejudice and neglects differentiation within, and overlaps or exchange between the ‘Orient’ and the Occident. Here, I want to suggest that current globalization has added new dimensions to the Orientalist imagination, distinguishing it from its 19th and 20th Century articulation. Today’s ‘neo-Orientalism’ seems to be more entrenched, multi-faceted, and harmful than its predecessor; it has fed into what is currently called ‘Islamophobia’.(1)



The thrust of the so-called ‘Orientalism’ in the Saidian sense concerns the representation of the ‘other’ cultures, societies and histories, and how this representation reflects an exercise of power. In this sense, Orientalism refers to a discursive apparatus that produces knowledge as an instrument of power, as a means to establish or maintain domination.

In the classical 19th Century Orientalism, the Orient (and here my focus is on the Muslim Middle East) was presented as essentially monolithic, fundamentally static, and basically traditional society and culture. The Orient was then a ‘peculiar’ entity, a universe essentially ‘different’ from the West; it was exotic and feminine, irrational and emotional, despotic and basically inferior to the West. A fixed and unchanging Islam stood as the key determinant of the Orient’s culture and society. Engrained in the people’s psyche, such Islam shaped Muslim’s values and day-to-day conducts, ensuring a fundamental cultural uniformity and a spectacular historical continuity throughout the Muslim World. Writing on Indians, James Mill, for instance, suggested ‘No idea of any system of rule, different from the will of a single person, appears to have entered the minds of them’.(2) For Hegel, the Eastern ‘unreflective consciousness’ made plain that it was Europe that was ‘absolutely the end of history’ and Asia just the beginning.(3) At its core, the Orientalist paradigm was informed by the 19th Century theories of progress where the West was seen as the telos human development, whereas the East produced great civilization in the past but was destined to decline subsequently. This mode of presenting the Orient conveniently justified the Europe’s colonial rule over the ‘inferior cultures’.(4)

At this stage, Orientalist protagonists included such people as travelers, thinkers, novelists, philosophers, and colonial administrators. Some developed deep affection towards the Orient and mesmerized by its exoticism. But most remained ignorant about the inner diversity and texture of the Eastern societies. While they wrote about the East, few of them knew local languages, and they had little or no experience of on-the-spot observation. As Pierre Martino writing on the early French Orientalism noted ‘with a few exceptions, they had never travelled’ to the East;(5) many generally ‘believed everything they read’, considering ‘theology books and philosophical treatises [as] a precise reflection of real life’.(6) So, those classical Orientalists seemed to understand Muslim life largely in terms of what they extrapolated from the reading of the Quran, hadith, and other religious texts.

These Orientalists were operating at the time when the West and the East were still very distant in terms of time and space, with the main contact limited to trade, traveling, and mainly colonial encounters. It was largely the West that had outreached through the colonial expansion onto the East. This then was a ‘long-distant Orientalism’, one which depicted the East as an undifferentiated, stagnant and somewhat exotic entity. Even though the Orientals were ‘strange’, ‘emotional’, or ‘irrational’, they were still harmless.



But things seem to have shifted considerably. Of course many features of the classical Orientalism (such as the tendency to reify, superficial understanding, or homogenizing) continue to inform the narratives of the contemporary Orient. But much has changed. Today the protagonists consist mostly of think-tank people, politicians, journalists, the Hollywood, sound-bite experts, Christian preachers, and some in academic circles. And they are busy producing knowledge primarily about the Muslim Orientals not halfhazardly, but systematically through powerful institutions, with experts, money, media, and extensive venues of dissemination. The images of the Orient, now dominated by Islam and Muslims, reach out to the vast sectors of the Western population, shaping their ideas and vision of the Muslim East. Their influence extends beyond informing public opinion into the domain of foreign policy strategies and international relations. In this current neo-Orientalist imagination, the Muslim Orientals are not only trapped in archaic traditions, a frozen history and irrational behavior; they are, far from being exotic or benign, dangerous; they are threats to the cultural values, civilizational integrity, and the physical well being of the West.

Unlike the 19th Century when the West established a presence in the East through trade, travel, and Colonial ambition, the Orientals have now established a presence in the West as immigrants, refugees, students, or wealthy tourists and investors in real estates and corporations. They have become part of the social and cultural fabric of the Western nations. Yet the ‘natives’ look at them in apprehension as being here with us, in our backyard, menacing our well-being. Indeed, the image of being ‘invaded’ by the ‘high-fertility Muslims’ has assumed a powerful traction. A cursory look at the current immigration debate in Europe, including the island of Malta where I recently attended a study tour on boat migration from the South, would reveal the extent of panic amongst the authorities, the media and intelligentsia. So, unlike the long-distance Orientlaism of the 19th Century, ours seems to be an era of short-circus Orientalism—an imagination of the Muslim Orientals that is evidenced, not simply by reading Chardin’s travelogues or Flaubert’s novels, but by a supposedly hands-on experience of living with them. So, a Dutch columnist writing on the ‘traditionalism’, ‘deep religiosity’, or ‘non-modern disposition’ of Muslims can claim that we do not need to go to the Middle East; only a passing look at the neighborhoods and in streets would reveal the accuracy of such descriptions.

This is curious, because globalization and the movement of people are not just the narrative of incursion, anomy, or cultural detachment; they are also moments of cultural exchange and enrichment, indeed key elements in building cosmopolitan habitat. Proximity and interpersonal interaction are supposed to generate a cosmopolitan life-world where members of different cultural groups would have the possibility of sharing mutual experience, understanding, and trust–not just mistrust- between them. A study by Jytte Klausen, The Islamic Challenge: Politics of Religion in Western Europe showed that ‘secular Muslims’ in Europe– represented by thousands of influential individuals active in politics, media, business, religious, and civil society organizations– seem to have fully integrated as they have reached out to the majority culture, economy, and social settings to associate, intermarry and live a life like everyone else.(7) One would expect that the mode of life of this group would nuance and complicate the totalizing and stereotypical image of Muslims and Islam that the continent currently espouses. But this seems not to be the case. Rather, these Muslims are often ignored as if they do not count as a segment of Muslim population in the West. Precisely because of their ‘normal’ life, they are never subjects of media attention. More importantly, they are rarely taken as evidence to help the European mainstream to construct a more complex and multi-layered image of Muslims. Instead, all Muslims are lumped together in the image of either the very small groups of religious radicals who make the headlines, or that segment of benign, peaceful but subaltern Muslim migrants whose plebian habitus (their headscarves, beards, or prayers) seems to disturb white European sensibilities. I am referring to the first generation migrants who while striving to speak the European languages, to hold regular jobs, and to live a normal life, they are also oriented to practicing many aspects of their own home cultures—food, fashion, rituals, or private religious practices. In their attempts to survive, thrive, and be part of these foreign and often hostile societies and economies, these migrants feel compelled to restore and revert to their own immediate circles, the language and religious groups, informal economic networks, and communities of friends and status groups built in the neighborhoods or prayer halls. The very precarious status in the host society and economy compel them to feel at home on the margins.

The neo-Orientalist imagination finds in this Muslim subaltern the first-hand evidence to construct its prejudice and extend this to the entire Muslim world—an image that is backed up by the dominant media, the Hollywood, and policy circles. So, associating Al-Qaeda or ISIS violence with Islam, and then Islam with the scenes of veiled women walking in the streets of Amsterdam or Berlin instantaneously conjure up the image of Muslims and Islam as Europe’s cultural Other.

So while the unrelenting process of globalization has in reality turned Europe into a multi-ethnic continent, the mainstream Europeans have yet to acknowledge and come to terms with this historic shift. In reality, a multi-ethnic Europe means also a multi-religious citizenry; it means recognizing the reality of mosques, minarets, headscarves, even burqas in the public squares along with churches, temples, and synagogues. Whether we like it or not, aspects of ‘Eastern’ life has become a reality of Western world; and it may one day get indigenized in the same way that South Asian cuisine has become in England, or English cricket in India.



(1) Here, I am not speaking of orientalism (with lower case ‘o’) as the profession of those who produce knowledge about the Middle East and Islam; rather, I am referring to Orientalism (with capital O) in terms of the institution of knowledge production that is tangled in the exertion of power over the oriental ‘other’. Otherwise, many Western academics or journalists who write about the societies and cultures of the Middle East may critically depart from those who fall under Orientalism. In other words not all orientalists are Orientalist.
(2) In A. L. Macfie, Orientalism: A Reader (Edinburgh University Press, 2000), p. 11.
(3) Macfie, Orientalism, ibid. pp. 14-15.
(4) I am grateful to Professor Kenneth Cuno bringing this point to my attention.
(5) Macfie, Orientalism, ibid. p. 28.
(6) Ibid.
(7) Jytte Klausen, The Islamic Challenge: Politics of Religion in Western Europe (Oxford University, 2005).



Bayat_Asef - portraitAsef Bayat is the Catherine and Bruce Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies and Professor of Sociology and Middle Eastern studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Bayat had previously taught for many years at the American University in Cairo and served as the director of the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM) at Leiden University in the Netherlands, while also holding visiting positions at the University of California at Berkeley, Colombia University, Oxford, and Brown. He was awarded fellowships from the Ford, Guggenheim, MacArthur, and Open Society Foundations. Among his most recent books are Post-Islamism: The Changing Faces of Political Islam (Oxford University Press, 2013), and Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Stanford University Press, 2nd ed. 2013).



Banner Image: Marching women (artwork based on a mural in Cairo 2011).

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