Orientalism in Politics: Arab Spring and US Travel Ban

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20th May 2019 International Relations Reference this

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Orientalism: The Arab Spring and U.S. Travel Ban

President Donald Trump has continuously urged Arab and Islamic leaders to unite and contribute their share in the name of defeating Islamist extremists. He has made an impassioned plea about undermining terrorists all the while toning down his own harsh rhetoric about Muslims. This would indicate that the West, led by Trump is engaged with developing a people’s uprising throughout the Arab world that can be commonly referred to as an “Arab Spring”. The countries most involved in an Arab Spring would be Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. The West, led by Trump, has recently singled out Iran as a primary source of providing financing and support for militant groups. His words have resonated with the views of his Western backers and have delivered the unmistakable message to Middle East extremists: We want you out of influence. The president has not used the term “radical Islamic terrorism” in his exhortations, a signal that he has finally taken advice to use a more moderate tone in the region after using that unfortunate phrase often as a tool by which to galvanize the fledgling Arab Spring. But yet the US president displays a penchant for Orientalism in his thinking and that is evident in his attempt to whittle down very complex problems into convenient sound-bites. It is true that terrorism has spread all across the world. But the path to peace begins with the Arab Spring, a term given to the “wave of citizen revolts that are toppling, challenging or reforming regimes” (Khouri, 2011). Trump’s approach though contains elements that cannot be differentiated from that of classic approaches concerning Orientalism. The leader of the free world has told leaders from numerous Muslim-majority countries representing more than a billion people that their future is in their own hands. Trump declares: “A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and drive out the extremists. Drive them out! Drive them out of your places of worship, drive them out of your communities, drive them out of your holy land and drive them out of this earth” (Holland, 2017). The president’s actions and words concerning Middle East policy provided an opportunity to show his strength and resolve, and also demonstrate an unwitting incorporation of the tenets of Orientalism into his rhetoric. Orientalism can be defined as “a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, us) and the strange (the Orient, the East, them)” (Said, 1979). In contrast to the vested interest that the Western world has in propagating the Arab Spring, Trump’s domestic policies include the ongoing travel ban on predominantly Muslim countries.

The conflict between East and West is often simply portrayed as one between good and evil. That observations smacks of Orientalism in its most basic form. This is ideological conflict that exists, not conflict between civilizations. The desire to propagate the Arab Spring is clear in the rhetoric delivered in a forceful tone that Washington will partner with the Middle East but expected more action in return. But there is still much work to be done in the sphere of East/West relations. That means honestly confronting the crisis of Islamic extremism, and the Islamists, and Islamic terror of all kinds. The terror faced by many Muslims is definitely tangible and an affront to the notion of basic human rights. But Orientalism fans the flames of conflict. Islamist extremism is often responsible for this aspect of Middle Eastern instability. The term “Islamist extremism” refers to Islamism as a political movement rather than Islam as a religion, a distinction that the Western world sometimes seriously overlooks in its attempts to explain the frequent strife that makes the region so controversial.

The connection that Canada has with this ongoing issue constantly promoted by US President Trump aligns with oil prices and immigration. The fear of terrorism is something that Trump leans on to promote his security-obsessed right-wing ideology and political stance. It is largely responsible for his travel ban on Muslim countries. The fallout from this ban is painfully apparent in the human cost. Families are torn apart as they wait for clearance at major U.S. airports. This too becomes an illustration of the basic ignorance at the core of all forms of Orientalism. This has not gone unnoticed by many American citizens. They express their outrage and frustration with the US leadership by staging acts where they “stormed airports to protest Trump’s travel ban” (Ball, 2018).  Such actions have also tied as diversion from other issues plaguing the White House. Interestingly, these acts highlight the differences between the US and Canada in terms of attitudes towards religion. Whereas Canada interprets religious beliefs as mainly outlets for faith and prayer rituals, Americans understand religious identity as potentially holding a degree of violence or terrorism. The result of that belief is that millions of integrated American citizens who innocently hold Islamic beliefs merely as religious comfort are misidentified as terrorists by the Trump administration. This affects daily life for those who complete such everyday activities as using public transit; they are often in a heightened state of fear due to the overwhelming negativity that surrounds the reporting of terrorism-themed news and events. This is a direct consequence of the Orientalist approach to understanding the world.

One of the faults of Orientalism is that it is an attempt at reducing what are often military campaigns and their relationships to desired democracy to a simple mathematical formula. Nations that undergo a military intervention are believed to be some 15% more likely to make democratic political systems a priority. And that is the type of linear thought that Orientalism seeks to incorporate. “That Orientalism makes sense at all depends more on the West than the Orient, and this sense is directly indebted to various Western techniques of representation that make the Orient, clear, visible, “there” in discourse about it” (Said, 1979). Therefore, we rely on our own Western-developed perceptions about what the Middle East is and isn’t. This is inherently dangerous though. Anger towards Western political ideologies run rampant throughout the Arab world. Up until relatively recently, suicide bombers were the norm and not the exception within many Muslim countries where the populace had grown tired of their leaders’ constant capitulation towards Western interests.

It is expressed that demonstrating the banner of support can be an unobtrusive technique for presenting or showing an enthusiasm for national issues taken up by outside influences. Yet definitely those at first encouraged by its appearance will wind up frustrated with an implied helping hand that yields no tangible outcomes. In such confused circumstances, it might inversely affect the individuals who eagerly welcome the ramifications of direct outside influence or mediation. It would be a tremendous break in confidence to leave the individuals who cheered a normal show of bolstered support in such a harsh glare. This can be considered as another reason to get Orientalism out of the minds of Western interference in the Middle Eastern ideologies. The so-called Arab Spring will do fine under its own steam and could probably benefit from an absence of US-led cheerleading. Slowly but surely, the Middle east is adopting the tenets of Western-style democracy. No longer is it true that “Islam is inherently antithetical to American democracy, and Muslims presumptively subversive and suspicious” (Beydoun, 2017).

Finally, it is startling to note just how complacent the North American public has become in its treatment of Trump’s Muslim country travel ban. The travel ban imposed on non-U.S. citizens was a shock to the system of these airports, where many tired, hungry, and stymied people where essentially left with no recourse whatsoever about being able to plan their own travel itineraries. The slight differences that exist in personal approaches to implementing such rules are often not in existence in US politics where the concept of shocking and awing seems to be coming more and more commonplace. A few scant years ago, at JFK airport in NYC for example, the “Islamophobia rising to the fore during the 2016 presidential campaign was not created by the candidates; rather, it was embedded in established American law, policies, and political rhetoric” (Beydoun, 2017). It is somewhat likely that President Trump may have requested that Canada obey the travel ban but here in Canada it is pleasant to believe that such short-sighted Orientalism does not pervade political and legal thought when it comes to law and policy.

In conclusion, it can be observed how Orientalism infiltrates Western thought and leaves us with the erroneous sense that the rest of the world needs some kind of leadership and correction that only we in the West can provide. The twin examples of the Arab Spring and the Muslim travel ban provide examples that illustrate the dangers of including Orientalist tendencies into our collective political and legal consciousness.  The topics are lightning rods for controversy and the basic ignorance that becomes inserted to them through Orientalism is the reason for this. Orientalism, it can be concluded, leads to a fundamental sense of Islamophobia. This unfortunate premise can be defined as “the presumption that Islam is inherently violent, alien, and unassimilable . . . and the belief that expressions of Muslim identity are correlative with a propensity for terrorism’’ (Beydoun, 2017). It must be said that such fear should not be allowed to permeate political thought in the world as it stands in 2018.

References

  • Ball, M. (2018). Redder. Bluer. Trumpier. America Is About to Be Even More Divided. Time. Retrieved November 2018 from http://time.com/5448815/midterms-2018/
  • Beydoun, K. (2017).‘‘MUSLIM BANS’’ AND THE (RE)MAKING OF POLITICAL ISLAMOPHOBIA.
  • Holland, S. (2017). Trump tells Middle East to ‘drive out’ Islamist extremists. Reuters. Retrieved November 2018 from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-saudi-idUSKCN18H00U
  • Khouri, R. (2011). Arab Spring or Revolution. The Globe and Mail.
  • Said, E. (1979). Orientalism.

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