Culture and Imperialism

by Edward W. Said

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Can anybody explain the notion of Edward Said regarding the role that media can play roles in facilitating imperialism? in short, what did he write about invasion and media?

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Edward Said (1935-2003) died only a matter of months following the U.S. invasion of Iraq earlier that year.  That he lived to witness what he considered yet another example of Western imperialism victimizing Arab and Muslim peoples would place a definite exclamation mark on his passing in September 2003.  Said had long argued, including in his landmark book Orientalism (1978), as well as in interviews and in other publications, that Western perceptions of the Middle East were severely distorted through the prism of occidental lenses.  Worse, he believed, was the degree to which Western media, especially in the United States, and especially with the introduction of television, portrayed Arabs and Muslims as inferior races to be subjugated and brutalized.  As he wrote in Orientalism,

“One aspect of the electronic, postmodern world is that there has been a reinforcement of the stereotypes by which the Orient is viewed. Television, the films, and all the media's resources have forced information into more and more standardized molds. So far as the Orient is concerned, standardization and cultural stereotyping have intensified the hold of the nineteenth-century academic and imaginative demonology of ‘the mysterious Orient.’ This is nowhere more true than in the ways by which the Near East is grasped. . .In the films and television the Arab is associated either with lechery or bloodthirsty dishonesty. He appears as an oversexed degenerate, capable, it is true, of cleverly devious intrigues, but essentially sadistic, treacherous, low. Slave trader, camel driver, moneychanger, colorful scoundrel: these are some traditional Arab roles in the cinema.”

Said firmly believed that a steady Western diet of dehumanizing images of Arabs on television, in films, and in books, both fiction and nonfiction, including stereotypes of Muslims as terrorists, was an essential precursor to the development of policies intended to marginalize and eventually subjugate and rule these culturally and racially inferior peoples.  In one informative interview, a link to the transcript of which is provided below, Said described the origins of his interest in “orientalism” and the manner in which Western perceptions of Arabs and Muslims influenced the policies pursued by the governments of these nations:

“My interest in Orientalism began for two reasons, one it was an immediate thing . . .the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, which had been preceded by a lot of images and discussions in the media in the popular press about how the Arabs are cowardly and they don't know how to fight and they are always going to be beaten because they are not modern. And then everybody was very surprised when the Egyptian army crossed the canal in early October of 1973 and demonstrated that like anybody else they could fight. That was one immediate impulse.

“And the second one, which has a much longer history in my own life was the constant sort of disparity I felt between what my experience of being an Arab was, and the representations of that that one saw in art.”

Edward Said was a controversial figure for his rejection of Western scholarship regarding the region from which he emigrated.  Born in Jerusalem before the creation of Israel, Said’s own perceptions were deeply influenced by his family’s place in the Palestinian diaspora, and he shares the Muslim view of Israel as a non-Islamic blot on the Islamic map of the world, a blot forced upon the Arabs by Western imperialist proclivities.  That is a view shared widely throughout the Muslim world, but especially in the Middle East.  Israel is looked upon by Arabs and Muslims as a manifestation of Western imperialism designed to provide countries like the United States a permanent presence in the region.  No consideration is given to the Jewish history in the Middle East, particularly in the region known as Palestine, and the fact that both Judaism and Christianity existed and were identified with Jerusalem and surrounding areas hundreds and, in the case of Judaism, thousands of years before the birth of Mohammed. 

Said repeatedly comes back to the theme of the mass media’s role in perpetuating myths designed to strengthen the West’s claim on Arab and Muslim lands, with the omniscient role of oil always resting right behind the curtain.  Not long before he died, with the U.S. Army newly-dominant in the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia, Said continued to lament the role of the media in influencing western perceptions:

“Today bookstores in the US are filled with shabby screeds bearing screaming headlines about Islam and terror, Islam exposed, the Arab threat and the Muslim menace, all of them written by political polemicists pretending to knowledge imparted to them and others by experts who have supposedly penetrated to the heart of these strange oriental peoples. Accompanying such war-mongering expertise have been CNN and Fox, plus myriad evangelical and rightwing radio hosts, innumerable tabloids and even middle-brow journals, all of them recycling the same unverifiable fictions and vast generalisations so as to stir up America against the foreign devil.” [Quoted in “Reclaiming Orientalism,” The Guardian (UK), June 19, 2008]

Something Said perpetually left unsaid, of course, was the prevalence in bookstores and libraries throughout the Middle East, as well as in state-owned television and newspapers, of virulently racist  images intended to dehumanize Jews and others.  Having traveled to the Middle East, I've seen for myself the depth of the racism endemic throughout that region, and the use of the media to perpetuate negative stereotypes.  There is no question, however, that Said drew linkages between Western media-generated images of Arabs and imperialist policies.

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