Gladly Becoming The Other: The Oddities Of Self-Orientalism

Gladly Becoming The Other: The Oddities Of Self-Orientalism
In his hugely influential book Orientalism (1978), Edward Said — a founder of ‘post-colonial studies’ — demonstrated how the West had been concocting distorted views of Eastern cultures, especially ever since the 18th century. According to Said, ‘Orientalism’ was related to and informed by the West’s colonial politics and ambitions. To Said, Western portrayals of Muslims, for example, were a political exercise in which the non-Western subjects were viewed and explained narrowly to self-affirm the West’s cultural superiority.

Said lamented that the West presented Eastern subjects as ‘the Other,’ and/or as people and cultures operating outside the context of political, social and economic modernity. They were depicted as being ‘exotic,’ impulsive, emotional, dogmatic and irrational. And thus, ‘backwards.’

Said wrote that these were false portrayals. His ideas attracted the interest and attention of a large number of academics, some of who expanded upon them by claiming that many Easterners, after being derided for following ‘pre-modern’ cultures, begin to adopt Western notions of modernity and thus, undermine their own cultures.

Said’s insights prompted the creation of robust intellectual tools in the fields of sociology, anthropology and cultural studies, with which the depictions of the East and its subjects in Western cultural products were more objectively explored, and sometimes even denounced. But his ideas also came in for some severe criticism.

Edward Said

The most stringent critiques of Orientalism came from British historian Albert Hourani, British author R.G. Irwin, American scholar Nikki Keddie and, especially, the British-American historian Bernard Lewis. Lewis in his 1993 work Islam and the West and Irwin in Dangerous Knowledge argued that Said had treated the West the same way that he accused the West of treating the East.

According to Said’s critics, he saw the West as a monolithic culture, ignoring the different cultures and races which reside there. They also argued that Said cherry-picked his way through to develop his thesis, disregarding the fact that many Eastern cultures willingly adopt a variety of political, economic and social ideas introduced by the West. According to them, Said also ignored the more objective studies of Eastern societies by Western authors that had no such political agendas.
Scholars who agree with Margalit and Buruma believe that when the ideas in Orientalism began to be absorbed by certain segments in the East, they used them to justify attacks – sometimes violent – on anything they deemed ‘Western'

In 2004, the philosopher Avishai Margalit and Dutch author Ian Buruma published Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of its Enemies. They positioned it as an antithesis of Orientalism. They wrote that the roots of Said’s ideas lay in the manner with which some conservative and religious ideologues had opposed the emergence of secularism, liberalism and capitalism during the colonial era.

Margalit and Buruma understood Orientalism as a reductive attack on Western modernity. They posited that Orientalism’s “academic glorification” paved the way for its ideas to be adopted by “reactionary forces.” Scholars who agree with Margalit and Buruma believe that when the ideas in Orientalism began to be absorbed by certain segments in the East, they used them to justify attacks – sometimes violent – on anything they deemed ‘Western.’ They portrayed Western civilisation as being devoid of spirituality and morals, and only driven by pleasure, profit and exploitation.

Even though Orientalism as well as Occidentalism put forward some valid and perceptive observations, both can be criticised for being heavily invested in their favourite versions of colonial and post-colonial history. Both posit (in the case of Orientalism) and defend (in the case of Occidentalism) cherry-picked historical events, instead of exercising objective scholarship. Today, ideas embedded in Orientalism are faltering: not due to the manner in which they were critiqued by Margalit and Buruma, but mainly because they failed to provide a convincing alternative to what they were censuring.

If Western portrayals of the East were not to be believed, and nor should Western culture be treated as being superior and adopted, then what should be? If local/indigenous cultures and traditions need to be reinforced in the East, how were they to function in a world that has been dominated by Western economic and political systems and technologies for over two centuries? The situation in certain Eastern societies has come to a point that even science is now derided as a Western tool of oppression.

A decade or so ago, while attending Eid prayers at a mosque in Karachi, I heard a cleric declare that “science belongs to the West” and “spirituality belongs to the East.” By ‘East’ he meant Muslim societies. After the prayers, I approached the cleric to greet him for Eid. Once done, I reminded him that the ceiling fans, the beautiful yellow and green bulbs inside the mosque, and the mic that he used for delivering the azaan (call to prayer) were all products of science. To this, he replied, “Son, but what comes from within us is spiritual, and that is more important.”

“But Maulvi sahib, what does spirituality produce?” I asked.

He answered, “Better Muslims.”

“And what do better Muslims produce?” I asked.

“A place in Paradise,” he smiled.


In a 2017 essay, the Lebanese ethnologist and graphic designer Imad Gebrayel asked, “How can designers depict a national identity when the national identity itself is in question?” Being an Arab, he added, “Arab identity is shaped by Orientalism, moulded by colonialism and impacted by globalism. A unified Arab identity does not exist.” According to Gebrayel, “finding a single definition for an Arab cultural identity is highly problematic and unrealistic due to numerous contextual differences within the region itself, not to mention the divergence of conflicting systems of rituals, ethnicities and religions.”

This can be said about Pakistan as well. To paraphrase Gebrayel, the Muslim world has surpassed being Orientalised by the West, but has begun ‘exoticizing’ itself. This is a rather astute observation. It directly refers to what is called ‘self-orientalism.’ This happens when cultures that have allegedly been ‘Orientalised’ by the West become full participants in the process. Instead of leaving the act and imagination of portraying the East solely to the West, the East becomes an active participant in the exercise.

For example, if the West has developed a certain perception about an Eastern culture, the Eastern culture becomes a conscious or unconscious partner in this endeavour. In the 1960s and 1970s, when the colonial-era perception of India being a region of exotic spiritualists and gurus reached a peak in the West, many Indians became participants in strengthening this perception. It attracted tourism to India, and opportunities for Indians to set up ‘spiritual centres’ in Europe and the US. These centres operated like business enterprises, remitting dollars to the motherland. The perception also worked on a political level, because it suggested that Indians were ‘peaceful and spiritual people’ compared to their more aggressive Muslim neighbours in Pakistan.

Self-Orientalism: In the 1960s and 1970s, many Indian men claiming to be gurus and mystics reinforced the Western perceptions of South Asia as being an exotic realm of mystics and yogis. It was good for the Indian tourist industry and also generated financial benefits for the ‘gurus’

In the early 1970s, a young man, Uxi Mufti, son of the famous Pakistani intellectual Mumtaz Mufti, began constructing the building blocks of what would become Lok Virsa — a government-funded organisation committed to promoting the country’s folk culture. Having been a student in Prague, Uxi had seen how ‘Hindu gurus’ whetted the interests of thousands of Europeans and Americans. He advised the government to promote Sufism and Pakistan’s folk arts in the West. Indeed, across the 1970s, Pakistani folk singers and qawwals were sent to perform in Western countries. Both the Indian and Pakistani cases in this context were a curious mixture of Occidentalism and self-Orientalism.
I was told by a Turk that the ‘dervishes’ were simply salaried performers who had nothing to do with any Sufi orders. This was self-Orientalism enacted to draw financial benefits

They were Occidentalist because Indians and Pakistanis perceived Westerners to be ‘spiritually bankrupt’ after secularism had completely sidelined Christianity. They reached out to fill this void by delivering to the ‘empty Westerners’ forms of spirituality that were outside the more orthodox contexts of Hinduism and Islam, and thus more approachable. At the same time, both were self-Orientalising themselves as well, by appealing to the Orientalist idea of the South Asian Subcontinent being a region of exotic spiritualists and holy men.

This went on for decades, even though, ironically, societies in both India and Pakistan were increasingly becoming ‘fundamentalist’ and even radical in their religious beliefs. In 1985, when as an 18-year-old college student I first visited India, I met a group of Belgian and Dutch tourists who had arrived in Bombay from Pakistan. They said they were extremely disappointed to see that the people of both the countries were nothing like the ‘Pakistani Sufi masters’ and ‘Indian gurus’ that they had encountered in Amsterdam and Brussels. One of them complained that an Indian tourist guide had taken them to a guru’s place which was ‘clearly constructed to please white Europeans.’ He said the same thing about Thailand where there were Buddhist temples constructed precisely for this reason. There were Buddhist monks there, who were not real monks but employees of Thailand’s tourism department.

During a visit to Istanbul in 2007, when I saw a performance by the ‘whirling dervishes,’ I felt cheated. But I wasn’t the target audience. The target audience were the Westerners with more euros and dollars to spend. I was told by a Turk that the ‘dervishes’ were simply salaried performers who had nothing to do with any Sufi orders. This was self-Orientalism enacted to draw financial benefits.

Cover of a 1977 album of Pakistani Sufi music that was recorded for a Western audience

The creation of another self
Self-Orientalism is not just about dressing up to appease Orientalist perceptions to boost the tourism industry. It can also be about forming an identity for deeper reasons, even though the audience remains the West. Let’s take the example of Muslims in general, and of Pakistan in particular.

Recently, a Twitter account called “Pakistan Travel Guide” tweeted an image of two young women in niqabs standing in front of the Shah Faisal Mosque in Islamabad. The tweet claimed that “Halal tourism could generate millions of tourists from the Muslim world.” This is a case of self-Orientalism enacted to attract financial benefits, but one that is a product of ‘identity politics.’

Identity politics, as one understands it today, first appeared in the US. It has come to signify a wide range of political activity and theorising founded in the shared experiences of injustice of members of certain social groups. It first emerged in 1977 among black feminist groups in the US. According to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, “Identity politics is based on the belief that some social groups are oppressed, making them vulnerable to ‘cultural imperialism’ (including stereotyping, erasure, or appropriation of one’s group’s identity).”

In Europe and the US, women, black, gay and transgender communities have been prominent exponents of identity politics. Muslim communities living in the West entered the fray in the early 2000s, especially after the 9/11 event. Indeed, the most immediate reason for this was the scrutiny that Muslims residing in the West were put under after 9/11. But some cultural movements that first emerged in certain Muslim regions from the mid-1970s onwards contributed a lot in building what Muslims in the West are using to advance their identity politics.
Jamal Malik and John Hinnells wrote that till the late 1970s, Pakistani and Indian Muslim migrants in the West were almost entirely immersed in European ways of life

For example, in Egypt, as the idea of secular Arab Nationalism began to wither away, especially after Israeli forces decimated the Egyptian military and air force in 1967, the once suppressed and sidelined Islamist groups began to resurface. They first constructed social movements in Egypt’s congested urban lower-middle- and working-class areas, and on the country’s university campuses. Mosques were built on campuses and the wearing of Western clothes discouraged. Students (mostly male) handed out niqabs and hijabs to female students.

This was Occidentalism because it viewed social modernity – once encouraged by Egypt’s Arab nationalist government – as devoid of spirituality and a way to discourage people from embracing ‘Islamic apparel,’ rituals, and thus, identity. Similar sentiments and social movements also began to emerge in Iran in the years leading up to the 1979 ‘Islamic revolution.’ However, such movements at the time were not present in Muslim communities residing in Europe and the US. In their 2006 book Sufism in the West Jamal Malik and John Hinnells wrote that till the late 1970s, Pakistani and Indian Muslim migrants in the West were almost entirely immersed in European ways of life. There were hardly any purpose-built mosques nor any urgency to acquire ‘Islamic attire.’ A majority of South Asian Muslim migrants were male.

A group of migrants from Pakistan arrive in the UK in 1968

According to Malik and Hinnells, most of these migrants had become integral components of the European working-classes. A lot of their time was spent working in factories, after which they would frequent pubs or brothels. Professor Emeritus Bichara Khader, in his essay for the 2016 anthology The Search for Europe wrote that Islamophobia in Europe and the US is often linked to migrants from Muslim countries that are seen as a threat to Western culture and security. But he added that migration was not an issue at all in the West till the early 1970s. Ever since the 1950s, thousands of Muslims from South Asia, South East Asia, the Middle East and North Africa had been arriving in various European cities. They were looking for work and higher wages. Khader writes that as post-War economies boomed in Europe, these migrants were seen as vital contributors to this boom.

According to Khader, it was only when the economies of Europe began to recede, especially after the 1973 international oil crisis, that the term ‘migration problem’ came into play. Yet, it was still not linked to a ‘Muslim problem’ as it is today. Khader wrote that the economic turmoil of the 1970s and early 1980s triggered riots involving migrants and locals, especially in England. These were explained as ‘race riots’ that involved white locals, black migrants from the Caribbean islands, and Muslim and non-Muslim Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshi. The reasons were economic. Neo-fascist outfits accused their government of allowing non-white migrants to steal “white jobs.”

It really wasn’t a clash of cultures as such. Or not yet.

According to Khader, till the early 1980s, Muslim migrants were not very public or exhibitionistic about their faith. For example, they were happy with a few basement mosques. But once settled, they began to marry women in their own countries and then brought them to Europe, even though it wasn’t uncommon for some to marry European women as well.

A Pakistani wedding in Birmingham, 1978

Khader wrote that most of these women who came as wives were from rural and semi-rural areas of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Egypt, etc. They had been impacted by the aforementioned social movements. This development changed the settlers’ attitude towards their religion and cultural values. Whereas once they were fine with their small basement mosques, they now began to demand purpose-built mosques. The change in behaviour attracted an influx of Muslim preachers who began to set up shop in various European cities. They were particularly appealing to second-generation Muslim migrants, especially from families who had failed to be fully assimilated by European integration policies.
The many cultural products that a lot of Muslims began to acquire and admire, especially in Western countries, were pushed to them as expressions that were rooted in an ancient Islamic past which, apparently, modernity had conspired to erode. The truth is: a majority of these products were equally modern

This generation began to adopt ‘Islamic’ products and ideas popularised by Islamic evangelical outfits. They used these to invent an identity for themselves as Muslims in non-Muslim countries. As the presence of veiled women and mosques grew, this is when the ‘migration problem’ began to be seen as a ‘Muslim problem’, triggering episodes of Islamophobia.

The Iranian Revolution and Saudi Arabia played a major role in all of this. Social as well as political Islamist movements were bankrolled by the two countries in their respective Shia and Sunni domains of influence. The traditional black chador – that was made compulsory-wear for women in Iran after the revolution – was enthusiastically adopted by many Shia women in various Muslim and Western countries. The niqab and hijab that became compulsory for women in Saudi Arabia in 1980 were vigorously promoted through Saudi-funded governments and organisations in Sunni-majority countries as well as among the Muslim diasporas in the West. Men, too, were encouraged to adopt an ‘Islamic look,’ by letting their beards grow. Saudi Arabia also bankrolled the construction of mosques, not only in Muslim-majority countries, but in European countries and in the US as well.

The many cultural products that a lot of Muslims began to acquire and admire, especially in Western countries, were pushed to them as expressions that were rooted in an ancient Islamic past which, apparently, modernity had conspired to erode. The truth is: a majority of these products were equally modern. For example, according to T. Dawson in the anthology Byzantine women: Varieties of Experience, the niqab was originally a Christian garment worn by the women of the Byzantine empire. It was adopted by some classes of Muslim women when, in the 15th century AD, the Byzantine Empire fell at the hands of the Ottomans.

In her book Women and Gender in Islam, the Egyptian scholar Leila Ahmed wrote that it was a misconception that the practice of veiling was first introduced in the ancient Islamic world. According to Ahmed, the roots of niqab, hijab and the burqa can be found in how “elite women in ancient Mesopotamia and in the Byzantine, Greek, and Persian empires wore the veil as a sign of respectability and high status.” Therefore, the perception that the practice of veiling is rooted in some pristine past of Islamic history is not the creation of the West, but of Muslims.

The image of a veiled Muslim woman and a bearded Muslim man, for example, eclipsed the previous Orientalist depictions of Muslims as being part of ‘exotic’ and ‘mystical’ cultures. The new image reflected conservatism and expressions of high morality. This image got embedded in the Western mind from the 1990s, and especially after 9/11. It was also used by many Muslims in the West to flex their bit of identity politics that had become all the rage in the US and Europe.

Those who were aggressively building an identity by adopting a look deemed ‘Islamic’ were using it as an identity marker whose history was supposedly rooted in a ‘pristine’ past. To do this, they also made sure that a more immediate (and less imaginary) past was erased. In A Quiet Revolution, Leila Ahmad wrote that by the early 1960s, veiling in the Muslim world had receded so much that only a handful of women practised it. The tradition of veiling in most Muslim regions had begun to decline from the 1930s. According to Ahmad, by the 1960s, even women belonging to the “conservative lower-middle classes” had begun to discard it.

The British historian Stephanie Cronin in her book Anti-Veiling Campaigns in the Muslim World wrote that the unveiling was the result of a “modernist gender discourse” in the Muslim world. The discourse was triggered by the impact of European modernity in colonised regions. Local intelligentsias began to investigate the reasons behind the decline of their civilisations and the rise of the one that had colonised them.

Science, modern education, integrated economies powered by industrialisation and religious reform were identified as the main drivers of Western ascendancy. According to Cronin, Muslim nationalists wanted to provide the same to their communities. They immediately adopted economic and social ‘modernisation’ models developed by the ascending Western powers. One of the learnings that had emerged from the modernist gender discourse in the Muslim regions was that economic progress in the modern world required an educated workforce which could not exclude women.
Sadaf Ahmad related how a young member of Al Huda reacted to the type of clothes that her mother wore in the 1970s. The young woman was shocked and claimed that the women of her mother’s generation didn’t know much about Islam

This meant women had to attend educational institutions so that they, too, could become part of the workforce alongside men. This is one reason why the tradition of veiling began to recede. The modernist-nationalist governments in many Muslim countries posited that Islam was a progressive faith and that the idea of veiling in it was a metaphor for upholding modesty by both men and women. Between the 1920s and early 1970s, regimes in Muslim-majority countries such as Turkey, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and Albania actively discouraged veiling.

In most other Muslim-majority nation-states where veiling was also in decline, regimes had left it to the women to decide, even though the need for them to get a modern education and enter the workforce was greatly emphasised.

A teacher with her students in Egypt in 1957

But this past is either actively erased or aggressively derided today. In her study of Al Huda — a Pakistan-based Islamic school for (mostly well-to-do) women — Sadaf Ahmad related how a young member of Al Huda reacted to the type of clothes that her mother wore in the 1970s. The young woman was shocked and claimed that the women of her mother’s generation didn’t know much about Islam.

Most probably, she believed that unlike her own generation which, apparently, has reclaimed its true identity, her mother’s generation was lost and too smitten by modernity. But in most cases, this so-called reclaimed identity is adopted so that it could be exhibited in public, especially in public spaces where the audience is largely Western. This identity had risen from the political and economic turmoil that many Muslim regions plunged into from the mid-1970s. When they resurfaced, they found a world that had supposedly entered a postmodern age where modernity, even in the West, was being questioned, and in which ‘multiculturalism’ was being championed. This meant that a non-Western community (in the West) didn’t have to completely immerse itself in the cultural values of the West, as long as it was tightly knitted to an integrated economy and remained productive.

But what happens when such an economy begins to struggle? A publicly asserted cultural identity (especially that of a diaspora) becomes much harder to be accepted, and it often comes under scrutiny, and is criticised for being purposely alien and outlandish.
The once conservative Arab monarchies and the Arab world as a whole have understood that a new disposition is required: one that is not priding itself to be separate or the Other, but attached to a global economy and its social requirements

After economies in Europe and the US began to come under stress in 2008, the intensity of complaints against ‘Islamophobia’ there increased. A majority of Muslims who had firmly adopted the identity that was first formulated by Iranian- and Saudi-funded programmes, and then solidified in the West by postmodernist ideas, found themselves in a quagmire. The way that they now looked or practiced their faith had been accepted by a multicultural West, but now that West was changing again.

In 2003, the former chief of the Jamat-e-Islami (JI), the late Qazi Hussain Ahmad, was quoted in the Urdu daily Nawa-i-Waqt as saying that Westerners now respect those Muslims more who have shunned Western values and adopted Islamic ones. To critique General Musharraf’s ‘Enlightened Moderation,’ he said there was nothing wrong in behaving or looking religious because the West is more appreciative of this than of those behaving like Westerners. This is a classic case of self-Orientalism, because here a subject had constructed a more ‘authentic’ new identity which had nothing to do with the unauthentic dictates of modernity or of Orientalism – but was still looking towards the West for validation. And yet, Qazi Sahib might have had a point.

During my experience as the media head of a British educational and cultural organisation between 2010 and 2015, I saw how the organisation kept using hijab-wearing women to depict Muslims. Yet, non-Muslims were never defined through the apparel of their respective faiths. A Hindu or a Christian, for example, were never shown in their ‘religious dresses.’ Nevertheless, the whole ‘Islamic look’ had turned into a caricature of sorts. And the identity based on it is now in trouble. We passed the Orientalist stage decades ago, but the era of the kind of self-orientalism that we concocted, too, is receding.

So, what next, then?

In Pakistan’s case, why can’t we reorient ourselves by embracing our diverse ethnic identities?

Sindhi Culture Day is an excellent example. The way it is presented in Sindh, it, of course, consciously avoids the terribly arrogant Orientalist image of the Sindhi culture and people that was sketched by 19th-century British colonialists such as Sir Richard Burton. And if you look closely, it doesn’t even go overboard in highlighting the self-Orientalism that it was bestowed with from the 1970s by romanticising its Sufi heritage. That, too, has run its course.

Sindhi Culture Day festivities

The Sindhi Culture Day now appeals more to Sindh’s pluralistic disposition, which is indigenous and yet able to seamlessly engage with modernity. Islam is an important part of it, but not the whole body.

The once conservative Arab monarchies and the Arab world as a whole have understood that a new disposition is required: one that is not priding itself to be separate or the Other, but attached to a global economy and its social requirements. It is about an identity in which Islam is a vital part, but not the whole body.

In 1967, this is exactly how the Urdu poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz had explained Pakistani culture.

The writer is a journalist, author, cultural critic, satirist and historian.