Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
Published On: Tue, Sep 15th, 2015

The Refugee Crisis and Orientalism

There was a time when the “Orient” was an exotic land that fueled the imagination of Christian pilgrims, swashbuckling travelers and steamboat tourists. Mark Twain satirized the tourists in his classic 19th century Innocents Abroad; Edward Said critiqued the academics who denigrated the people of the Near East and Islam in his polemic Orientalism. Said’s critique turned the term “Orientalism” into a pariah, influencing a generation of scholars in different disciplines.


The Orientalist bias that Said railed against may be less entrenched in the halls of Academe today, but it is all the rage in the public media. Conservative pundits treat Islam as though it has no other function than to inspire terror. Fundamentalist preachers are quick to suggest that a deal with Iran must be prelude to Armageddon. But, of course, no politician seems to have any qualms about selling billions of dollars worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia for its proxy war that is devastating Yemen. And then there is the refugee crisis.

Think back to 2003 just before the United States invaded Iraq to deliver Bush-league democracy and save the region (not to mention its oil) from a ruthless dictator. This was still the winter before the Arab Spring; all the other dictators (Assad in Syria, Mubarak in Egypt, Saleh in Yemen, Ben Ali in Tunisia and Qaddafi in Libya) except Saddam were thoroughly in control and some were receiving military aid from the West. Apart from those fleeing the Taliban in Afghanistan and the internal strife in Somalia and Sudan, there was only a trickle of refugees. Following the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, it is now estimated that up to 19 million refugees have fled their homes. Many, if not most, may never be able to return home. The numbers fleeing continue to increase as the crisis in Syria degenerates even further, while the neighboring countries of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have already absorbed several million Syrians on top of the Iraqis that came earlier. Other Arab countries, especially on the Arabian Peninsula, have refused to accept refugees for future citizenship or provide asylum apart from issuing temporary work permits. The number of refugees would be even greater from Yemen, which is currently under military assault, if there were no complete blockade of the country.

This summer one image of a dead Syrian child washed ashore on the tourist beach at Bodrum, Turkey went viral. By this time in the summer the amount of casualties of people crossing from Turkey and North Africa to Europe was already over 2,500, admittedly a small number compared to over 330,000 Syrians who have died in the fighting in the last four years. All of a sudden the violence in the Middle East, which is claiming thousands of lives, destroying heritage sites and homes and turning much of the region into a living hell, has come home to roost. Desperate refugees, mainly from Syria, are crossing the Mediterranean to seek asylum in Europe. While some have been welcomed, a number of countries have made it clear they will not absorb more refugees. Even Germany, which officially welcomed some refugees has called a halt, after 450,000 have arrived this year alone, by stopping trains coming from Austria.

This refugee crisis on Eurozone soil has brought old-style Orientalism once again to the surface, beyond the controversies over cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad and wearing the burqa. Slovakia’s prime minister, Robert Fico, has stated that his country will only accept Christian refugees since there are so few mosques. Saudi Arabia has offered to build a mosque in Germany for every 100 refugees now coming there, although housing and a job would probably be the better part of charity. There is talk of building walls to keep the refugees out. Europe is indeed being invaded, but the flow of refugees is as much the result of political failure by European and American leaders as due to the belligerents battling in Syria and Iraq.

The current refugee crisis is part of a much wider humanitarian disaster that the Middle East has not seen in ages, perhaps since the Mongol invasion destroyed Baghdad in the 13th century. The much lauded Arab Spring may have toppled long-standing dictators, but the level of insecurity has increased dramatically throughout the region. Exacerbating the aftermath of outside intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq has been the militant sectarian feud between Saudi Arabia and Iran with rhetoric that echoes the worst bias of past European Orientalism. The current proxy war that is devastating Yemen is a return to the binary thinking that justifies murder and destruction in the name of religion. The Western bias that sees Islam through the lens of jihad is no different than the use of jihad and martyrdom to describe the political violence funded and actively engaged in by Muslim countries in the Middle East. Indeed, we need to look beyond the limitations of a term like “Orientalism” to see that inhumanity has no geographical coordinates, even as an imaginary, but is unfortunately endemic to our species. And we can never flee away completely from the worst side of human nature.

About the Author

- Anthropologist and historian with 40 years of experience researching and working in Yemen. Varisco is currently the President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, Senior Fellow at the Annemarie Schimmel Kolleg of Bonn University, and an expert advisor to MENA Tidningen.

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