Sunday, February 24, 2013

Analysis of Dr. Edward Said's Orientalism: Imperial Media Influence


           The theory of Orientalism, derived by Dr. Edward Said, is centered on the stereotypical views of western civilization towards the cultures and people of the East, once under British Imperialism, from the regions of the Middle East to Africa, and India.  While negative stereotypes exist in western civilization towards people in Africa and India, and people of color in general, these two geographic regions take a backseat to the mental imagery of the Middle East within the minds of most westerners.  In modern Western society, especially the United States, the stereotypes that the mass population has subconsciously developed towards people in the Middle East, for example that Israeli Jews are often innocent victims and that all Arabs are raving terrorists  that are hell bent on murdering westerners, are predominantly consumed through the abundance of media and television entertainment.  During the era of British imperialism and military occupation just over a century ago, the equivalent of television media was the distributed printed written word.

Alfred Egmont Hake

                The Hake account of the General Gordon evacuation mission in Khartoum in 1885 is a prime example of skillfully bias reporting that paints the Arab people of Khartoum, in modern Sudan, as blood thirsty savages.  Without explaining that Sudan was under military occupation by the British Protectorate Egypt, and that General Gordon himself had previously held the Governor-Generalship of Sudan from 1876 to 1879 when he angered a good majority of the population by removing a pillar of the local economy by abolishing slavery, Hake opens his account by capturing his British audience by creating a British protagonist that must rescue “Europeans, civil servants, widows and orphans, and a garrison of one thousand men, one third of whom were disaffected” from troubled Khartoum [1] .  The Hake account is obviously pro-British imperialism in nature and portrays the foreign occupiers almost in a defensive light while portraying the indigenous uprising as an act of aggression.  This is a common media reporting tactic which is still in heavy utilization today.   Take for example the Hake account of the steamer that had a “volley was fired into her, wounding an officer and a soldier. The steamer returned the fire, killing five”.  Hake’s report here focuses on the volley being fired and the two injuries instead of the five Arabs killed by machine gun fire, reminiscent of modern news reports of stray missiles being fired from the Palestinian territories into Israeli fields, with an Israeli response of shelling the entire civilian infrastructure [2].  There is a pro-British political slant in Hake’s account that portrays all Arabs as barbarians, and these types of spins have been commonly used on citizens of imperialist empires and states as one of the heavy components of Said’s concept of orientalism.

Charles James Wills

                The same type of orientalism opinion shaping and stereotyping can be seen on a socio-cultural level within Wills’ account on the Persian Wedding in 1815.  Wills clearly plays on his British reader’s Christian indoctrination, and unfamiliarity of Islamic culture to paint an absurdly bizarre, and even twisted, perception of Islamic marriage and Islamic society.  There is no attempt at unveiling cultural relativity between Britain and Persia in Wills’ account, nor any attempt at understanding cultural history outside of Christian culture in Britain.  Wills reports the account from a view of complete British cultural superiority toward any colonial element that is different from that of the British Empire.

                Wills is quick to take subtle negative jabs at the modesty of the Islamic bride with his description of her dress “which hangs down like a long mask in front of the Persian woman's face, when clad in her hideous and purposely unbecoming outdoor costume: which costume, sad to say, is also an impenetrable disguise. In it all women are alike”[3].  I am certain that Wills, while recording his judgments on this wedding for future popular print, never considered that Muslim men and women in Persia may have regarded the immodest dress of British women in the same manner in which Wills was viewing their conservatism.  One interesting aspect of Wills’ account is his strong interest in the procedures of the marriage contract, and British readers must have viewed this process, through Wills’ descriptive opinions, to be exotic and barbaric economic bartering even though these types of marriage contracts are recorded as far back into history as the biblical Old Testament, a book regarded by British Christians as sacred.  Again, it is the printed report during this era in history, long before the technology of television, which shaped the minds of the British masses and created what Dr. Said would eventually term, a century later, Orientalism.

Colonel L. du Couret

                Couret’s report on judicial procedures in Arabia continues the trend of stereotyping and orientalism within 19th and early 20th century British media with an outlandish printed account on two particular judicial cases he witnessed during an Arabian court session he was privileged enough to view.  Instead of actually describing the most common judicial procedurals “of the women who complained of ill treatment on the part of their husbands; men who accused their wives of frailty; divisions of inheritance to adjust; thefts and frauds to punish”[4], which would have provided a realistic estimate of justice, social trends, and judicial sentencing in Arabian society for the British people to understand, de Couret provides his audience of media consumption with accounts on the two most irregular and ridiculous events of the evening and provides no information at all on regular the judicial structure, trends or procedures.  Instead of portraying an unbiased view of this foreign justice system to the British people, Couret relates the 19th century Arabian judicial court to “tales related to us in the ‘Arabian Nights’" which was originally written over five hundred years prior and enhancing the subconscious ideology of orientalism [5].

Closing

                Imperialist states often control the views of their subjects and people, through propagated media such as print in the 19th century and satellite television in the 21st century, in order to justify their own actions and create unfavorable images of the people being exploited or conquered.  Said’s concept of orientalism is a reality, but the term ‘orientalism’ is only applicable due to the historical power distribution of the geographic globe.  If certain historic events would have developed different results, power roles on the international stage could have been different and the same media instruments of imperialism might create cultural stereotypes that a person such as Dr. Said might term “Europeanism” or “Americanism”.   

 

Notes

1. Hake, Alfred.  The Death of General Gordon at Khartoum, 1885.  Islamic History Sourcebook, Fordham University.  Accessed on February 23, 2013 from  http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/islam/1885khartoum1.asp

2. Hake, Alfred.  The Death of General Gordon at Khartoum, 1885.  Islamic History Sourcebook, Fordham University.  Accessed on February 23, 2013 from  http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/islam/1885khartoum1.asp

3. Wills, Charles.  A Persian Wedding, 1885.  Islamic History Sourcebook, Fordham University. Accessed on February 23, 2013 from http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/islam/1885persianwedding.asp

4. Du Couret, L.  Justice in Arabia, 1890.  Islamic History Sourcebook, Fordham University. Accessed on February 23, 2013 from http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/islam/1898arabiajustice.asp

 5. Du Couret, L.  Justice in Arabia, 1890.  Islamic History Sourcebook, Fordham University. Accessed on February 23, 2013 from http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/islam/1898arabiajustice.asp

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