Israa Ghrayeb, a 21-year-old Palestinian woman, was beaten to death. Her family
claimed she had fallen from a second-floor window, but three of her male
relatives have since been charged with her murder. Her apparent “crime” in
their eyes was to post a video of herself having dinner with her fiancé and his
of a blameless young woman has provoked widespread outrage at the culture of
so-called “honour killing” in Arab and Muslim societies. But it has also caused
others to leap to the defence of those societies, arguing that misogyny and the
violence that accompanies it is a global affliction and not restricted to Arabs
It was the
late Palestinian-American academic Edward Said who first came up with the
concept of “Orientalism,” in 1979. Orientalism, Said argued, represents the
collection of stereotypes through which the West purports to “understand” the
Middle East. For anti-colonialists – close relatives of Orientalists – those
stereotypes are proof that the colonial powers failed to understand the people
they colonized. Honour killing is one of the stereotypes unjustly attributed to
Muslims and Arabs, so the argument goes. But it is no stereotype. Nor is it an
aspect of misogyny. It is, in fact, worse: it is a reality.
women are the main victims, honour killing falls under the Islamist concept of
“promotion of virtue and prevention of vice.” For many Arabs and Muslims, this
involves the restoration of some long-ago, supposedly perfect society that
exists only in their imagination. But the myth is used to justify killing
adulterers (of both sexes) or homosexuals or men who are perceived as
effeminate, such as the Iraqi teenager whose murder by stabbing was recorded by
his killer. “Emos” (short for “emotional”), young people who follow a
Western-derived trend, are another target, their tight clothes and body
piercings regarded as deviant. In Lebanon, a non-Druze man who married a Druze woman
had his penis cut off by relatives of the bride.
West, hate crimes are mostly racially motivated and at times homophobic in
character. But almost no Western country has vigilantes who take it upon
themselves to dictate what acceptable sexual behaviour is or what people should
wear or drink, in the manner of some Arab and Muslim societies. This type of
self-appointed “social policing” is a characteristic of Muslim societies and
varies from the strict – as in Iran and regions controlled by the Taliban or
ISIS – to the relaxed, as in Lebanon or Tunisia.
killing, therefore, is not part of the “toxic masculinity” that Western
Orientalists and anti-colonialists have ascribed to the Arab world. It is a
flaw in Muslim society and it can be rectified only if that society is prepared
to look inward at itself rather than blaming outsiders.
even Said himself was immune to Orientalism. After all, he was trained in the
West, he lived and worked in New York and his connections in the Middle East
were limited to an elite circle. He was as guilty of stereotyping the Middle
East as some of the people he criticized.
example, Said advocated sovereignty for the Arabs of Palestine. But sovereignty
is a European concept. Throughout their history, sovereignty for Arabs had been
connected not to land but to a ruler, to whom they pledged allegiance. Like
native Americans, Arabs considered territory to be a public utility, free and
available for all. Arab tribes used to roam with the seasons in pursuit of
water and greenery. When Britain and France refused to grant Abdulaziz Ibn
Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, control over territory in western Jordan and
eastern Syria populated by tribes loyal to him, the Saudi king got around the
problem by issuing Saudi passports to the tribesmen.
sovereignty, citizenship – these are all Western constructs. Applying them to
nations like Palestine was itself a form of Orientalism. The map of Palestine
was drawn by foreign powers from three provinces of the Ottoman Empire.
Palestine had never naturally evolved into a state, and it would not exist
today if it were not for the colonial powers that Said and his ilk despise.
globalization has given Orientalism a shake-up. Technology has spread
information wholesale. And with almost every human now able to connect with
another through social media, stereotypes have melted away. It is hard now for
a Westerner, no matter how insular, to retain the old image that prevailed in
the 1970s of Arabs living in tents and commuting by camel.
has also touched identity politics. Many Arabs and Muslims perceive US
Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar as their representatives in
Washington, a role both congresswomen are willing to play. The problem is that
their Arabism and their Islamism are modified by their American experience;
they are not like Arabs and Muslims born and raised in Arab or Muslim
societies, which makes Tlaib and Omar rather Orientalist, too. Like many
Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans, their understanding of Arab and Muslim
problems and how to solve them is as bad as the Orientalism that they detest.
colonialism and Orientalism won’t solve the problems either. On the contrary,
it will only conceal them behind global trends. The West might be able to offer
the tools – academic and otherwise – to enable non-Westerners to fix the
weaknesses in their societies and develop a self-governing method that may grow
into democracy. But to eradicate an abomination such as honour killing, Arabs
and Muslims must first acknowledge its existence and take ownership of it. Only
then will their perception of their own society cease to be Orientalist.
Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a
former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.
Headline: Arab world must acknowledge its own flaws
Source: Asia Times