The diary of a Saudi man, currently living in the United Kingdom, where the Religious Police no longer trouble him for the moment.

In Memory of the lives of 15 Makkah Schoolgirls, lost when their school burnt down on Monday, 11th March, 2002. The Religious Police would not allow them to leave the building, nor allow the Firemen to enter.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Orientalism and Islamophobia 

Thanks to "Michael" for reminding me that today is the fifth anniversary of the destruction of the Afghan Buddhas.

Although Afghanistan is not Saudi Arabia, it's dear to Saudi hearts, because so many of our young men used to go to there to do "internships" with the Taliban. It was a sort of "wet dream" for the ultra-Wahabbi long-beards who thought that Saudi Arabia was "going soft". They could go over there, be really nasty to women, shout at men whose beards were too short, imprison soccer players for wearing shorts, the opportunities were limitless. It was Disneyland for Muslim zealots. Alas, no more.

It was also an opportunity for a practical demonstration of Islamic theology. You see, we don't believe in idols, so there are no idols in Islam. That's right, we don't worship idols. And when we say, as we have been saying a lot recently, "A Muslim should love Mohammad (PBUH) more than his own family", that isn't idolatry. Oh no. We are not worshipping Mohammad (PBUH) like some sort of idol. You do see the difference, don't you? Well, if you don't, I'm sorry, but I don't have time to explain that to you right now. Just take my word for it.

Anyway, not only do we not believe in Islamic idols, we also don't believe in your idols in your religion either. So when we can get our hands on them, we blow up your idols. Especially if they are seventeen centuries old. No matter that they are world cultural treasures. It's actually for your own good. Call it tough love.

If you still think that our heroic Taliban brothers in Afghanistan were only mindless vandals, then that's because you are "Orientalists and Islamophobes". That's the standard insult that we throw at people who criticise us. It's the Islamic equivalent of calling someone a "tree-hugging Birkenstock-wearing tofu-eating bleeding-heart liberal", or the equivalent for neo-cons. It's the "one size fits all" insult that means we don't have to be creative. Whatever happened to original insults? When Oscar Wilde was standing in a theatre foyer, the aggrieved father of Lord Alfred Douglas, his lover, came up to him and presented him with a cabbage wrapped up as a bouquet, which was his idea of insulting a homosexual. Oscar Wilde accepted it with a bow, smelt it delicately, and replied, "Oh how charming! Whenever I smell it, I will think of you!". Nowadays, Oscar Wilde would just call the Marquis of Queensbury a "Homophobe". It's the standard insult. One size fits all.

Which brings me on to a pet peeve. Because these words, "Homophobe", "Orientalist" and "Islamophobe" are totally meaningless, or have meanings totally different from that intended. Excuse this language geek getting all pedantic. If you are Mrs A, then this is when you roll your eyes to heaven and remind me about the cupboard that needs fixing. If you are not interested in semantics, you may prefer to click your way elsewhere.

OK, that just leaves me, the other geeks, and the people with broken mice. Where shall we start? How about Homophobe?

Homophobe; supposedly someone who hates homosexuals. Homosexual is itself derived from two Latin words, homo = man; and sexus = sex. Homosexual refers to "man sex". So far so good.

Homophobe seems to be derived from the Latin homo = man; and the Greek Phobos = fear (as in Hydrophobia = fear of water; Agrophobia = fear of open spaces). So that gives us "man fear" or "fear of man". Is that really what it was supposed to mean? Wasn't it supposed to mean "hatred of homosexuals"? The problem there is that neither the Romans, nor the Greeks, had a special word for Homosexual. Why should they? Having occasional sex with men was, for them, nothing unusual. We don't have a special word for a "man who likes marmalade" or a "woman who wears sunglasses", and they didn't have a word for a "man who sometimes has sex with men". So that's the first problem. The second problem is that phobos doesn't mean hatred, it means fear. The Greeks have a perfectly good word for hatred, which is misos, as in Misanthrope and Misogynist. So we could perhaps say Misohomist or something like that, but it would still just mean "hatred of men". So we're basically stuck with the homophobe who is afraid of men. Except they are not. Very unsatisfactory.

Similar problem with Islamophobe. Supposedly someone who hates Muslims. Except that it translates as "Fear of the Islam religion" which is not the same thing at all. There's no point in getting cross with someone for being afraid of theIslam religion, especially after 9/11; it's their choice, they aren't harming anyone, and in many ways it's more understandable than Hydrophobia. The proper insult for someone who hates Muslims would be something like Misomuslim. It's probably too late now to correct the usage. But whenever I hear someone use the "Islamophobe" word, it just reminds me of some little child using a big swearword when they don't know what it really means.

Slightly different case with Orientalist. To quote Wikipedia, it is....

....the study of Near and Far Eastern societies and cultures, languages and peoples by Western scholars. It can also refer to the imitation or depiction of aspects of Eastern cultures in the West by writers, designers and artists.

....and of course, the "Orient" refers to the East, anywhere from Turkey to Japan, and all points in between. It was "imitation or depiction" based on interest, on curiosity, and on fascination; there was nothing negative about it. Orientalist painters such as Dido (below) were drawn by the exotic, colorful and mysterious world, particularly of the Near East.

Anthropologists started to study the civilisations and culture; universities created departments called "Oriental Studies". Orientalism inspired literature (e.g. "One Thousand and One Nights"), theatre (e.g. "Salome", by our friend above, Oscar Wilde), and music (e.g. "Scheherezade" by Rimsky-Korsakov).

So why do people use the term "Orientalism" in a negative sense? Solely as a result of one ex-Palestinian academic writing one book in 1978. Edward Said wrote a book called "Orientalism", in which he managed to define "Orientalism" at least five separate times in five different ways, ranging from the simple and innocuous....

A way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient's special place in European Western experience.

....to the pseudo-colonialist....

A Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient

....and all points in between. For me, he was one of those academics who looked at an uncomplicated cultural movement through Arab-Marxist eyes and came up with a twisted global conspiracy. However it's the latter definition that is seized upon by those who want to use the term to beat their enemies. Except I don't think they really could explain how the painting above, or the book, or the play, or the music "dominates, restructures and has authority over the Orient". To me, that just sounds like the whining of people who choose to be "life's victims". I know I can't stop them using the word in that sense. But once again, they sound like small children repeating a word they don't understand but which sounds impressive.

OK, peeve over. Now I'll go and fix that cupboard.

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