• Asia Khatun

Literature is Still Catering for The Orientalist Gaze

Photograph: Les Femmes Du Maroc by Lalla Essaydi


The neo-colonial nature of the Western world’s foreign policy regarding the Middle East has transformed from a difficult-to-manage endeavour into a lucrative source of endless capital. The deeply rooted cultural state of white European supremacy became a growing force after the events of 9/11, creating the War on Terror and ensuing almost two decades of Western subterfuge. The formation of this war simultaneously created a narrative where Islam and Muslims equated to being the terror, which began the normative global scapegoating of almost two billion people.


This narrative of stereotyping Muslims as the ‘Other’ and as terrorists has been reinforced by every medium, from print media to television to literary fiction – all of which come together in mobilising the minds of Western citizens as they elect their chosen representatives who carry out their foreign policy interests. Literature, in particular, is a form and an aesthetic that has been embedded within the idea of culture itself, helping shape and mould it into any desired fashion.


Raymond Williams, in Keywords, describes culture as being ‘three broad categories of usage’, two of which I believe highlight how culture is deeply connected to literature. The first being that culture is something that ‘describes a general process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development’, and the second being something that ‘describes the works and practices of intellectual and especially artistic activity’.[1] The two are intertwined in the sense that we have seen for the past two decades how ‘intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development’ regarding how the West sees Muslims and the Middle East has largely been shaped by widespread ‘artistic activity’, relating to how literature, amongst other mediums, has been utilised to sell specific stereotypical narratives.


Texts that harbour such narratives respond to a culture of ignorance that has been nurtured in the Western world regarding what has come to represent Muslims and how this impacts on the Western public’s views on neo-colonialism that masquerades as foreign policy.

Nadia Atia explains how:

The Middle East was “coined in 1902 by the noted American military historian, Alfred Thayer Mahan. […] Mahan demarcated a Middle East which he regarded as stretching from Arabia all the way across Persia and Afghanistan to the borders of today’s Pakistan”. The term was popularised by The Times’ correspondent in Tehran, Valentine Chirol.[2]


Mahan’s coinage is a simple example of how the Occident is able to homogenise a vast mass of various countries, and the power that it holds through the sustained popular and acceptable use of the terminology.


Homogenisation of this Other, particularly that which is perceived as Arab and Islamic, allows for an irresponsible pseudo-intellectual interpretation on these lands, enabling the mass adoption and production of the Oriental gaze. Reza Aslan clarifies further how:

The countries that stretch along the broad horizon of the modern Middle East – from Morocco to Iran, Turkey to Pakistan – speak different languages, practice different faiths, possess different cultures. Yet the literary landscape of this vast and eclectic region has been shaped by a common experience of Western imperialism and colonial domination.[3]


The existence and continued use of the term, the ‘Middle East’, is simply proof of the colonial transitioning into the neo-colonial within Occidental culture, and the way in which it has acquired global domination through its aggressive expansion.


Neo-colonialism is ‘The use of economic, political, cultural, or other pressures to control or influence another country; esp. the retention of such influence over a developing country by a former colonial power.’[4] When neo-colonialism is mentioned throughout this essay, I am specifically referring to how the United States of America and the United Kingdom, along with other Western countries, have been invading countries in the Middle East under the guise of spreading democracy in order to take control of resources, such as oil. Between the colonial period and the neo-colonial period, territorial expansion has become less overt as it has economically re-structured through the control of trade, which inevitably comes from the control of land.


The stereotypical depiction of Muslims within this sphere of domination is a key cultural factor in the West’s success in its colonisation of the Orient, particularly in current times. Edward Said, notably seen as the father of Orientalist theory, writes: ‘Orientalism is the ineradicable distinction between Western superiority and Oriental inferiority’[5] and we see this dichotomy being presented in contemporary literature. His argument centres around art, literature and culture from the eighteenth and nineteenth century but it is still significant today – the things that ail the Oriental now have merely jumped mediums and systematically re-structured themselves. Many of the Oriental tropes that Said identifies have embedded themselves into the mainstream production of culture; for example, we have seen the portrayal of the violent Muslim in every media, from the terrorists in Hollywood movies to novels that centre themselves around terrorist type characters.


Literature can mistakenly be seen as a passive form of indoctrination, but it is arguably the most active. As a universal format, literature allows there to be long term cultural influence – semantically shaping people’s views regarding a subject. Even in this modern wave of writers of colour who write from within the West for the West, the publishing field is largely dominated and institutionally run by Europeans, and this brings into question the type of common narratives Western readers are being sold about their Eastern counterparts. Take John Updike’s Terrorist, for example, The Guardian in 2006 reviewed the novel and stated that they were ‘impressed by John Updike's humane study of a young man's journey towards jihad’.[6] This in itself is a little odd because critically all that has been said is that Updike has managed to do the most basic of things: keeping a man humanised. It suggests that there is a sense of inevitability to the people who turn to these crimes, and that they are inherently violent.


Western society has increasingly become a hostile environment for Muslims despite all its apparent ‘advances’ towards equality. We see the same conversations about race and religion being had under the guise of debate in a progressive society, and being had repeatedly without any real acknowledgement of the problems of colonial influence, or any willingness to implement what the Other has to say. Just take a recent panel show discussion regarding an Islamophobic comment from Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary who suggested that the real threat on airplanes comes from single Muslim men. ‘The Pledge’ consists of a majority white panel who spend the entire time debating whether or not the Islamophobic comment is actually Islamophobic, continuing to ignore the opinions of the Muslim journalist that they brought on and having a useless debate on the racialisation of Muslims.[7] The inability to even accept that a comment such as this is racist and Islamophobic shows how white privilege functions in the media in deciding how Muslims are portrayed in a post 9/11 world.


Furthermore, the lack of BAME representation, let alone Muslim representation, within the publishing field is a clear-cut factor as to why society is consuming repetitive narratives that have similar socio-political aims in the way Muslims are perceived. The Bookseller claims that ‘of the thousands of titles published in 2016 in the UK, only a small minority—fewer than 100—were by British authors of a non-white background.’[8] It’s evident enough that in the UK alone, non-white voices are not being given a seat at the table, which is detrimental to the future of public perception regarding Muslims and Islamic culture.


From needing to liberate women from violent Muslim men to suggesting that Muslims are unable to function in a democracy due to their apparent fundamentalist tendencies, these novels have managed to replicate stereotypes that continue to have very real consequences when internalised by an audience.


Western production of “Muslim” literature is lacking in providing narratives that are not built for political agendas. When a majority’s perception is built around a minority’s truth it skews the reality of the world because no longer are those problems that do exist being paid their due diligence. Instead, the voices of the oppressed are simply co-opted to promote another oppressor’s propaganda in order for them to maintain their dominance and exploitation of the Orient.


By Asia Khatun


[1] Raymond Williams, Keywords, (1976; London: Fontana, 1988), p. 90. [2] Nadia Atia, World War I in Mesopotamia: The Britons and Ottomons in Iraq, (I. B. Tauris, 2015). [3] Aslan, Reza, ‘Introduction’, Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011), p. xxi. [4] ‘neocolonialism, n’, OED Online, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020) <www.oed.com/view/Entry/126019>. [5] Edward Said, Orientalism, (London: Penguin, 2003), pp. 41-42. [6] Jem Poster, ‘Paradise lost’, The Guardian, August 2006, <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/aug/05/shopping.fiction>. [7] Sky News, ‘Was RyanAir boss right over his terrorist comments?’, The Pledge, February 2020, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t6dj3JC_ox0>. [8] Sarah Shaffi, Publishing Seeks To Address Industry’s Lack Of Diversity, <https://www.thebookseller.com/news/publishing-seeks-address-industry-s-lack-diversity-426031>.