Thursday, December 06, 2007

So I'm sitting here at Singapore's glossy Changi airport, sipping a glass of champagne and wondering how on earth I’m going to kill the next two hours while I wait for a much delayed flight to board. As I’m often wont to do when bored at work, I’m drawn to a site to which I’m an occasional contributor, Desicritics

(note to self – is my interest can more than eponymous? Second note to self: well done on the self referential linking - in the end, the snake swallows its own tail)

And so I discover while browsing the site that, as always, there are spirited discussions currently underway, all of them peppered generously with impassioned (usually hysterically so) comments, around articles relating to Islam, Islamofascism, Islamophobia, Islamophilia, Islamo-fill your appropriate phrase here – ia, and of course, freedom of speech. There were the usual suspects of Iran, Iraq, Al Qaeda, the evil Revolutionary Guard (whether Iraqi or Irani is unclear) the evil Hamas, the evil Knesset, the evil Hezbollah, the evil Zionists, and of course, Rushdie.And all that frothing got me thinking deep and hard.

And I tried to figure what all this Islam vs. the rest of the world debate was all about. And while I don’t claim to have a solution, I think I had a (minor) epiphany…yes, even us heathens are allowed those once in a while.

So the epiphany goes like this. Some weeks back, I was trawling through a small privately owned bookstore in Berlin – there are so few of those left in England that its quite refreshing to go to a bookshop and not find it essentially resembling an intellectual equivalent of a Starbucks (“…I need a double tall sugar-free vanilla skinny latte, STAT, to go – hold the froth; if I wanted any fricking air in my coffee I’d have asked for a fricking appuccino – and throw in a skinny blueberry muffin, will ya….”)

Anyway… so I’m browsing through the anthropological sections, and find what proved to be an incredibly fascinating browse (far too fat to buy, unfortunately, but I have an order pending on Amazon). Written by Columbia academic Joseph A. Massad, the book was called “Desiring Arabs”, and deals with representations of Arab sexuality over the past two centuries. (This also being a privately owned bookstore - see paragraph above - they were kind enough to let me spend about 45 minutes perusing the book, and even got me a coffee while I was there; for those of you who're curious, it was NOT a double tall sugar-free vanilla skinny latte)

From what I could glean, the underlying premise of the book is incredibly Said-ian (Said-ist?) in approach and feel. It almost felt like this was our old friend Edward taking Orientalism and applying it to the specific context of human sexuality, and also discussing how Eurocentric constructs within art and literature essentialised the Arab within global discourse. There has either been a historic tendency to characterise the Arab as a sensualised hedonist, out to prey on virginal Europeans (both male and female) – a view that could be seen in the depictions of Arabs (and by extension, Ottomans) in the 18th and 19th centuries, and more recently as sexually repressed and deprived members of a conservative society out to prey on European liberalism.

Fundamentally, Mossad’s underlying premise is that whatever the contemporary view of the Arab, it has always been defined in contrast to the European. And over time, these definitions have tended to draw (often inaccurate) equations between Arab and Muslim identities. If ever there was a systematic process of othering, Mossad argues, this is it.

Point being, I hear you ask while suppressing (barely) a yawn…

Well the point is this – effectively, what we see today happening across the globe and what is characterised by some as a “clash of civilisations” is merely a continuation of a well established trend of defining the other. The only difference is that the definitions have morphed slightly. What was originally classified as “Arab” is now conflated with “Muslim”, and the creation of an “other” is accompanied by the essentialising of what has historically been a very diverse area.

Ironically, this othering has not been a one-way street. If for the European the Arab was to be viewed first as the overtly sexualised hedonist, and later as the repressed sexual regressee, then for the Arab the European was the uncouth barbarian, later on to be replaced as the imperialist. Both processes reduced the chances to create any commingling, and we have two groups actively defining each other by what they are not.

History has its own part to play in this complication. What is viewed in the West as “Muslim” fury could quite possibly have a lot to do with Arabs (and other non-Europeans) taking umbrage at what is subconsciously perceived as a continuation of the colonial project, but which takes the manifestation of an “Islamist” response.

Oh wait… I think they’re announcing my flight (… finally…) Part 2 to follow soon, I promise!

(Now where’s the fricking Starbucks when you need one?)