On Neo-Orientalism, Today
Ali Behdad and Juliet A. Williams
In this essay, we explore a phenomenon we call “neo-Orientalism”—a mode of representation which, while indebted to classical Orientalism, engenders new tropes of othering. Though predominantly a North American and Western European phenomenon, Neo-Orientalism is neither limited to these regions, nor is it merely produced by Western subjects. On the contrary, not only do Middle Eastern writers, scholars, and so-called “experts” participate in its production, but they actually play an active and significant role in propagating it. Secondly, unlike its classical counterpart, Neo-Orientalism entails a popular mode of representing, a kind of doxa about the Middle East and Muslims which is disseminated, thanks to new technologies of communication, throughout the world. We designate this mode of representation neo rather than new in order to signal the continuity between contemporary and traditional forms of Orientalism which Edward W. Said has carefully mapped. While the term neo-Orientalism designates a shift in the discourse of Orientalism that represents a distinct, and in ways novel formation, it nonetheless entails certain discursive repetitions of and conceptual continuities with its precursor. Like its classical counterpart, for example, neo-Orientalism is monolithic, totalizing, reliant on a binary logic, and based on an assumption of moral and cultural superiority over the Oriental other. To put the point more aphoristically, neo-Orientalism should be understood not as sui generis, but rather as a supplement to enduring modes or Orientalist representation.
Focusing for the most part on memoirs by Iranian women recently published in the United States, we sketch some of the salient features of neo-Orientalism in the United States. First, whereas classical Orientalists were commonly male European savants, philologists, established writers and artists, neo-Orientalists tend to be ordinary Middle Eastern subjects whose self-proclaimed authenticity sanctions and authorizes their discourses. Contemporary neo-Orientalists are not, however, merely “native informants” or “comprador intellectuals” as Hamid Dabashi and others have suggested, (1) but rather Middle Eastern women and men who use their native subjectivity and new-found agency in the West to render otherwise biased accounts of the region seemly more authoritative and objective. Second, in contrast to classical Orientalism’s apparent privileging of philological, cultural, and formalistic concerns over ideological ones, neo-Orientalism is marked by an unapologetic investment in and engagement with the politics of the Middle East. Neo-Orientalists such as Azar Nafisi not only maintain political affiliations with neo-conservative institutions such as Paul H. Nitze School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS), but in their writings as well, they pointedly criticize Islamic governments and unapologetically advocate regime change in Iran and other countries in the region. Third, in contrast with classical Orientalism, neo-Orientalism is characterized by an ahistorical form of historicism. While claiming to be attentive to historical changes in the Middle East, neo-Orientalists tend to mis-represent important aspects of recent events in the region while denying the neo-imperialist relation of the United States to the Middle East. Fourth, unlike the “will to knowledge” of classical Orientalism, (2) a journalistic pretense of direct access to truth and the real dominates the current form, as neo-Orientalists deploy superficial empirical observations about Muslim societies and cultures to make great generalizations about them. Fifth, the neo-Orientalist discourse is marked by a re-deployment of the trope of the veil as a signifier of oppression. Whereas in classical Orientalism, the veil functioned as a metonymy for the harem, portrayed as a mysterious and inaccessible space of eroticism and lusty sexuality, in neo-Orientalist discourse the veil has been re-fashioned once again into a symbol of Muslim women’s oppression and lack of civil rights and liberties. In the following, we briefly sketch some of the constitutive features of neo-Orientalism through an analysis of several recently published memoirs by Middle Eastern writers.
In his controversial and much-debated essay, “Native informers and the making of the American empire,” Hamid Dabashi lambastes what he calls the “comprador native intellectuals” whose role is “to package [the atrocities taking place in their countries of origin] in a manner that serves the belligerent empire best: in the guise of a legitimate critic of localized tyranny facilitating the operation of a far more insidious global domination—effectively perpetuating (indeed aggravating) the domestic terror they purport to expose” (5). Although one may readily agree with Dabashi’s general point that the such actors “feign authority, authenticity, and native knowledge” as the basis for their participation in the public discourse, Dabashi’s discussion of native informers nonetheless risks exaggerating the intentionality of these authors’ complicity with US imperialism by overlooking their agency as self-promoting, if not always self-made, immigrants who have capitalized on the post-9/11 thirst for knowledge about Muslim societies to empower themselves and realize their ambitious desires. The web page of Roya Hakakian, (http://www.royahakakian.com/), the author of Journey from the Land of No: A 22
Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran, provides a representative example of such self-promoting, immigrant entrepreneurship. On the site, she proclaims herself an authority on Iranian society and human rights, providing a long list of media appearances, past and future lectures, press releases, and professional affiliation to buttress her credentials as an expert. Crass though it may be, Hakakian’s web page suggests that far from being a mere cog or tool in the imperial machinery, she is an ambitious first-generation immigrant more interested in promoting herself and her work than “justifying the imperial designs of the US” as Dabashi has it.
What is lacking in Dabashi’s political analysis of Azar Nafisi and other native informers, and what we wish to briefly discuss here by way of elaborating our argument about the emergence of Neo-Orientalism, is a consideration of the distinctive discursive strategy whereby these writers claim authenticity and authority. Consider the following passage from Nafasi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: “Those of us living in the Islamic Republic of Iran grasped both the tragedy and absurdity of the cruelty to which we were subjected. We had to poke fun at our own misery in order to survive. We also instinctively recognized poshlust—not just in others, but in ourselves. This was one reason that art and literature became so essential to our lives: they were not a luxury but a necessity. What Nabokov captured was the texture of life in a totalitarian society, where you are completely alone in an illusory world of false promises, where you can no longer differentiate between your savior and your executioner” (23). Neo-Orientalist authority is an experiential form of authority, an authority construed and claimed not only through having lived in the Middle East, but also by having a “feel” for this particular society as a Middle Easterner, a kind of native sense of the people, their culture, and political situation. In contrast to her Western readers who are being informed about the region, Nafisi here portrays herself and the women of her reading group as capable of grasping the underlying ethos and neuroses of Iranian culture.
An appeal to experiential authority (3) is prevalent in all the recent memoirs by Middle Eastern writers. To cite another example, in the first pages of Journey from the Land of No, Hakakian quickly distinguishes herself from the Americans who speak or write about Iran by describing them as either “the misinformed, who think of Iran as a backward nation of Arabs, veiled and turbaned, living on the periphery of oases and fairly represented by a government of mullahs; and the misguided, who believed the Shah’s regime was a puppet government run by the CIA, and who think that Ayatollah Khomeni and his clerical cabal are an authentic, home-grown answer to unwarranted U.S. meddling” (11). In spite of her having left Iran soon after the 1979 revolution as a young teenager and never again having returned, Hakakian nonetheless fills the pages of her memoir with an account of “what life was like for women after the country fell into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists who had declared an insidious war against them,” seen from “the eyes of a strong, youthful optimist who somehow came up in the world believing that she was different, knowing she was special” (back flap of the book cover). The invocation of first-hand experience of Iranian culture by Hakakian and many other young Iranian authors living in America, such as Gelareh Asayesh, Azadeh Moaveni and Afschineh Latifi, to claim interpretive authority smacks of a crude form of identity politics in which ethnic or racial identity is considered to be in and of itself constitutive of knowledge about a particular ethnicity or race. Though as memoirs each book claims to be a unique account of a specific Muslim society, the authors nonetheless lay claim to knowing and understanding the region and its most common religion, a knowledge that far exceeds their actual contact or experience. In short, in these memoirs claims of experience are made in spite of an utter lack of concrete perception—the usual basis upon which claims of experiential authority are presumed to lie.
The passages from Hakakian’s and Nafisi’s memoirs quoted above also provide examples of the second characteristic of neo-Orientalism, namely an unapologetic investment in the politics of the region. In both of the above quoted passages, the authors quickly join their personal observations with statements about the political situation in Iran. Unlike traditional Orientalists who maintained at least the pretense of objectivity and scholarly disinterest in current affairs, neo-Orientalists perceive of their discourses as political engagements aimed at liberating the region from tyrannical regimes. Though we would not dispute the fact that many if not most Middle Eastern regimes today justifiably could be labeled oppressive in terms of a disregard for a range of civil rights widely regarded as basic in the West, nor would we take issue with the feminist claim that the personal is also political, we nonetheless find the convergence of personal observations and political statements in these narratives symptomatic of the ideological bent in neo-Orientalist discourse. Reading Lolita in Tehran is particularly remarkable as an example of neo-Orientalism’s investment in politics. As the subtitle of the book (A Memoir in Books) suggests, Nafisi’s text interlaces old-fashioned literary criticism of novels by such canonical Western writers as Nabakov, Fitzgerald, James, and Austin with her own and her students’ commentary about living in post-revolutionary Iran. Whether discussing literary texts or reflecting on the everyday practices of Iranians, Nafisi frequently interjects overtly political commentary into her remarks. Consider, for example, the following passage in which she is discussing Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and commenting on Gatsby’s imagination: “What we in Iran had in common with Fitzgerald was this dream that became an obsession and took over our reality, this terrible, beautiful dream, impossible in its actualization, for which any amount of violence might be justified or forgiven…When I left the class that day, I did not tell them what I myself was just beginning to discover: how similar our own fate was becoming to Gatsby’s. He wanted to fulfill his dream by repeating the past, and in the end he discovered that the past was dead, the present a sham, and there was no future. Was this not similar to our revolution, which had come in the name of our collective past and had wrecked our lives in the name of a dream?” (144). In spite of the fact that Nafisi considers The Great Gatsby “a non-political novel,” ridiculing one of her students, Mr. Nyazi, for considering it an expression of American materialism and consumerism, she ironically uses her interpretation of the novel to wage a political attack on the Islamic government of Iran (129). Now, one can be more forgiving, even approving, of Nafisi’s appropriation of the literary text for political critique, as Steven Mailloux (4) and Susan Friedman (5) have done so by claiming that “where you are does matter in reading Western classics,” were it not for the fact that, as John Carlos Rowe cogently reminds us, “Written by an Iranian immigrant educated and living in the United States and published only in English for Anglophone readers, Reading Lolita in Tehran primarily relies on its location within the United States.” (6) Indeed, to our knowledge, none of the memoirs by Iranian immigrants in the United States, or for that matter works by other Middle Eastern American authors such as Khaled Hosseni’s The Kite Runner, Yamina Khadra’s The Swallows of Kabul, and Saira Shah’s The Storyteller’s Daughter have been either translated or published in the Middle East, a fact that may owe to the complicit and contradictory nature of their political claims and critiques. That such neo-Orientalist texts are produced, published, and disseminated mainly in the United States and Western Europe suggests that their authors’ investment in politics must be understood not as an oppositional demand for human rights or democracy by a subaltern subject but in relation to the neo-imperial interests and interventions of the United States in the region. By this we do not mean that such works constitute “the locus classicus of the ideological foregrounding of the US imperial domination at home and abroad,” as Dabashi has claimed (3). Rather, these neo-Orientalist texts and their authors have been promoted in part to advance what Dag Tuastad, following Paul Richards, calls “the new barbarism thesis,” that is, “explanations of political violence [in the Middle East] that omit political and economic interests and contexts when describing violence, and present violence as a result of traits embedded in local cultures [of the region].” (7) Political critique in the works of neo-Orientalists such as Nafisi or Hakakian provides the moral authority that the United States government seeks to pursue its neo-imperial interests and interventions in the Middle East. This is not to suggest that such native intellectuals are being “actively recruited to perform a critical function for the militant ideologues of the US Empire,” as Dabashi speculates (5). Instead, the post-9/11 craving of the general public in the United States for “authentic” and “expert” information about Islam and the Middle East, combined with the market calculations of commercial publishers, create a fertile ground for the proliferation of neo-Orientalist discourses, discourses that in enabling the general consensus about what Muslim societies and people are, prove useful to neo-conservative elements in the US government in pursuit of their imperialist projects in the Middle East—e.g., the intimate relationship between Paul Wolfowitz, Bernard Lewis, and Azar Naifisi. True, some of these intellectuals like Nafisi have been recruited by conservative institutions such as SAIS, the Hoover Institution, and the Smith Richardson Foundation, but most of those Dabashi calls “comprador native intellectuals” are self-made and self-promoting Middle Eastern immigrants who have found a publishing niche in a cottage industry to gain fame and fortune.
Crucial to native intellectuals’ complicit investment in and critical engagement with the politics of the Middle East are what we have termed ahistorical historicism and the claim to journalistic truth, two of the most important discursive tropes of neo-Orientalism. One of the most salient features of neo-Orientalist discourse is an apparent tendency to historicize social and cultural practices in the Middle East. Consider the following passage in which Nafisi explains to her American readers the issue of veiling in Iran: “From the beginning of the revolution there had been many aborted attempts to impose the veil on women; these attempts failed because of persistent and militant resistance put up mainly by Iranian women. In many important ways the veil had gained a symbolic significance for the regime. Its reimposition would signify the complete victory of the Islamic aspect of the revolution, which in those first years was not a forgone conclusion. The unveiling of women mandated by Reza Shah in 1936 had been a contro versial symbol of modernization, a powerful sign of the reduction of the clergy’s power. It was important for the ruling clerics to reassert that power” (112). On the surface, this passage provides a compact history of unveiling and veiling in Iran. But read against the actual historical accounts of how the first Pahlavi king forced women to unveil and the post-revolutionary government imposed mandatory veiling, Nafisi’s remarks are anything but historical. A substantial discussion of veiling in Iran is beyond the scope of this essay, but we recall here a few basic facts by way of demonstrating the ahistorical form of Nafisi’s historicism. First, as Parvin Paidar has documented, (8) Reza Shah’s forceful and compulsory unveiling of women was not only resisted by most Iranian women whose access to education and socialization was ironically curtailed due to the Shah’s decree, but it also maligned independent socialists, liberal nationalists, and feminists who were fighting for women’s rights at the time as puppets of the tyrannical regime. Though couched as the signifier of modernization, the unveiling of women was a calculated measure by the dictatorial king to undermine the power of the clergy in Iran. The passage also makes it seem that the veil was a new imposition from above, disavowing the fact that the second Phalavi, Mohammad Reza Shah, had to lift the compulsory unveiling soon after his inauguration as the king in 1941 due to the strong public opposition, a move that enabled women to wear again their hejabs in public spaces. In fact, during the second Pahlavi regime, most women in Iran, with the exception of a very small minority in Tehran and a few other major cities, wore chador, the traditional full-length outer garment worn by Iranian women, a garment whose origin, it is worth mentioning, dates back to the pre-Islamic Achaemenid rulers who imposed it by way of protecting their wives and concubines from the public gaze. Moreover, what Nafisi’s passage leaves out is the fact that what enabled the imposition of mandatory veiling by the Islamic government of Iran were profound cultural and religious notions of modesty and piety among Iranian women without whose consensus mandatory veiling would have been difficult, if not impossible.
The ahistorical historicism finds its most problematic expression in the way recent memoirs by Iranians depict pre-revolutionary Iran. Consider the following example from the first section of Hakakian’s memoir titled, “Historical Note” in which she describes the late-Pahlavi Iran: “There indeed was an Iran perfectly at peace and on its way to a great future. The nation’s annual growth rate was roughly double the average of other third world countries, and per capita income was on the rise; so were student population and life expectancy. Education and health had improved. The infant mortality rate, malnutrition, endemic diseases, and illiteracy had been reduced” (5). This passage provides a glimpse into the way the historical claims of these memoirs romanticize, and indeed misrepresent, pre-revolutionary Iran as a modern and progressive society unburdened by religious backwardness and repression of a clerical regime. Some, like Nafisi, even distort historical facts by, for example, claiming that “When I was growing up, in the 1960s, there was little difference between my rights and the rights of women in Western democracies” (261). Others with less conservative credentials, like Moaveni and Hakakian, make references in passing to the Shah’s brutal intelligence service, SAVAK, or to Jimmy Carter’s support of the tyrannical regime, but these references are quickly pushed aside as the authors dwell on the repressive aspects of the Islamic Republic. None, however, entertains the idea that the quality of life has indeed become better in at least certain respects for many rural and working class Iranians after the revolution. In addition, the neo-Orientalists either repress or turn a blind eye to some of the important changes which have occurred since the revolution. For example, as Roksana Bahramitash, using the data from the World Development Indicator, reminds us, “infant mortality dropped from 131.20 in 1975 to 25.50 in 1999; life expectancy at birth increased from 49 for men and women in 1960 to 70 for men and 72 for women by 1999; and the illiteracy rate for young women declined considerably, from over 55 percent in 1970 to 8.7 percent by 1999.” (9) Our intent here emphatically is not to offer a defense of or an apology for the policies of the Islamic government of Iran, but rather to draw attention to the ways in which neo-Orientalists disavow certain historical facts in their narratives which purport to be authentic and objective representations of the Middle East. That one reviewer of Nafisi’s book ventures to speculate that “Reading Lolita in Tehran is probably the best introduction to Iran to be found anywhere,” (10) demonstrates the uncritical reception of neo-Orientalist discourses as factual representations in the United States and more broadly in the West.
Akin to ahistorical historicism is the claim to journalistic truth which underscores the political project of neo-Orientalism. To be sure, some of the recent memoirs about the Middle East are written by journalists such as Azadeh Moaveni and Christopher de Bellaigue who use their experiences as reporters in Iran to tell their stories. But the journalistic will to knowledge is less a function of professional credentials than a discursive tendency that permeates virtually every account of life in the Middle East. Some of the passages quoted above may have already demonstrated what we have in mind in highlighting this tendency, but let us consider a representative example by way of briefly elaborating this trope: “Why, I wondered long ago, don’t the Iranians smile? Even before I first thought of visiting Iran, I remember seeing photographs of thousands of crying Iranians, men and women wearing black. In Iran, I read, laughing in a public place is considered coarse and improper. Later, when I took an oriental studies course at university, I learned that the Islamic Republic of Iran built much of its ideology on the public’s longing for a man who died more than thirteen hundred years ago. This is the Imam Hossein, the supreme martyr of Shi’a Islam and a man whose virtue and bravery provide a moral shelter for all. Now that I’m living in Tehran, witness to the interminable sorrow of Iranians for their Imam, I sense that I’m among a people that enjoys grief, relishes it. Iran mourns on a fragrant spring day, while watching a ladybird scale a blade of grass, while making love. This was the case fifty years ago, long before the setting up of the Islamic Republic, and will be the case fifty years hence, after it has gone” (1). This opening paragraph of In the Rose Garden of Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran by Christopher de Bellaigue offers an example of the way a journalistic form of empirical knowledge enables the regime of neo-Orientalist truth. Beyond his own initial intuition, or the photographs he had seen before his trip, or even his Persian Studies at Cambridge, it is de Bellaigue’s observation as a journalist in Iran that substantiates his claim about Iranians’ culture of mourning. Like the notion of experience discussed above, empirical observation constitutes not only authority but truth. It is in having witnessed personally the Ashura rituals in Iran that de Bellaigue is able to make truth-claims about the pathos of Iranian society. Individual observation here allows the neo-Orientalist to postulate his subjective claims as self-evident and to extract the truth about a society. Here the cultural dynamics of a complex historical experience is effaced in the service of a neo-Orientalist regime of truth. What is remarkable, indeed disturbing, is the leap from a specific observation or encounter in Iran to an enormous generalization about its culture. More symptomatically, de Bellaigue goes on to make assertions about the unchanging quality of Iranian culture, depicting it as a pre-modern, if not primitive, society incapable of changing its melancholic pathos. In sum, journalistic empiricism allows the neo-Orientalist to get to the heart of Middle Eastern societies, grasp their essential characteristics, and finally produce a generalized and generalizable cultural theory.
Juliet A. Williams
Associate Professor, Department of Women’s Studies at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles).
Professor of English and Comparative Literature and Chair of Comparative Literature Department at Juliet A. Williams, associate Professor, Department of Women’s Studies at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles).
* We Are Standing Outside Time, published on the occasion of the exhibition: THE STATE OF ‘IN-BETWEEN’ IN CONTEMPORARY IRANIAN ART, curated by Julia Allerstorfer, Atelierhaus Salzamt, Linz, Austria 2012
1)- Hamid Dabashi, “Native informers and the making of the American empire,” Al-Ahram, 1-7 June 2006, Issue No. 797. http://weekly.ahram.org/2006/797/special.htm.
2)- See Ali Behdad, Belated Travelers: Orienalism in the Age of Colonial Dissolution, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994).
3)- We borrow the term “experiential authority” from James Clifford who uses it to describe how authority is constructed in twentieth-century ethnography. See his “On Ethnographic authority” in Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art,” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), 21-54.
4)- Steven Mailloux, “Judging and Hoping: Rhetorical Effects of Reading about Reading,” in American Reception Studies: Reconsiderations and New Directions, eds. James Manchor and Philip Goldstein, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
5)- Susan Stanford Friedman, “Unthinking Manifest Destiny: Muslim Modernities on Three Continents,” in American Literature and the Planet, eds. Lawrence Buell and Wai-Chee Dimock, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).
6)- John Carlos Rowe, “Reading Reading Lolita in Tehran in Idaho,” American Quarterly, 2007, 258.
7)- Dag Taustad, “Neo-Orientalism and the new barbarism thesis: aspects of symbolic violence in the Middle East conflict(s),” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 24, 2003, 591. Though used in the context of the Middle East, Tuastad borrows the term from Paul Richards. See the latter’s Fighting for the Rain Forest: War, Youth & Resources in Sierra Leone, (Oxford: James Currey, 1996).
8)- Parvin Paidar, “Feminism and Islam in Iran,” in Gendering the Middle East: Emerging Perpectives, ed. Deniz Kandiyoti, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996), 51-68.
9)- “The War on Terror, Feminist Orientalism and Orientalist Feminism: Case Studies of Two North American Bestsellers,” Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 14, No. 2, Summer 2005, 233.
10)- Travel Book Review, May 24, 2007, http://roadjunky.com/article/720/reading-lolita-in-