Orientalism, vindicated – reflections on Trump’s "Muslim Ban"

May 22, 2017

 

If anything – if anything at all – Trump’s presidency offers plenty of opportunities to think about politics, or what we think we know about politics. The rise of virulent right-wing populism in America, which led to his election; the impact of institutional design, whereby electoral colleges transformed a lower number of votes at the national level to a majority at the federal level; and, for subjects more at home in this space, the framing – rather, re-framing – of old, but indeed evidently not so out of fashion, orientalist tropes.

 

The so-called "Muslim ban" seems even more absurd as the dust continues to settle. With the benefit of a few weeks hindsight, we begin to see Trump has granted us an opportunity to think about the continuing relevance of Edward Said's Orientalism.

 

Said’s work remains clearly a powerful theoretical lenses to make sense of what, scratching right below the surface, makes no sense at all. Let me explain: of course angry Trump would target Muslim countries----that was all predictable. What we need Orientalism for is to order the chaos and madness we see in Trump. It is to understand why, of all the Muslim countries on the planet, of all the Muslim-majority nations on Earth, Trump and his administration singled out seven (later updated to six) countries, from which there have been exactly zero (none, nada, zip) attacks against the United States.

 

This is Orwellian. It makes no sense until Said explains what Orwell told us is inexplicable. Once you've constructed and securitized Muslims qua Muslims as the number one national security issue, we are then able to understand how such a travel ban can make socio-political "sense" despite what raw, uncouth and uncooked data are saying: no “terrorists” coming from those countries ever attacked the US.

 

Here, we have the utmost securitization measure, i.e., a total ban on citizens from certain countries, being completely unrelated to what the citizens of these countries have ever (not) done. (Note the intentional double-negative, or, dare I say, "double-speak"?) 

 

So, we employ the framework of Orientalism, lest we lose our sanity. The seven countries seem to titillate, to stimulate, to elicit the darkest and most vivid pictures and imageries of violence, unrest, antagonism, fury and irrationality within Trump’s target audience (and within Trump himself, most likely). They are the "heart of darkness" in the contemporary United States----in ways that Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait cannot be, being either America's "stable allies" or "moderate regimes," or both.

 

Instead, Syria is now the North Korea of the Middle East, with its vicinity to Russia conjuring hard-to-forget memories of the Cold War. Sudan is as remote to America as its knowledge of it, and the utmost distance goes for the utmost aversion (the country who hosted Osama Bin Laden!). Somalia is pure anarchy, the land of Black Hawk Down, the relentless chase of the marines in Mogadishu, the failure of Clinton’s "humanitarian mission." Libya may have shed off Muammar Qaddafi, but memories of permanent defiance cannot be forgotten or, for that matter, forgiven. Plus, it looks an awful lot like Somalia. Yemen is the very bottom, the pit of the Arab world, a "total mess." Last but not least, Iran is the theocratic dictatorship, the synecdoche that kidnapped Americans for 444 days, and lured America into a shrewd and humiliating agreement over its nuclear program. Iraq is barely a country, but there were some civilized people there who translated the distant, foreign tongue for the imperial metropole during its civilizing mission in the desert. Therefore, the benign empire had to remove Iraq from its list of barbarians.

 

These places aren't filled with worshippers, soccer-moms, sports fans, foodies, television addicts, and everything else that makes people normal in our modern world. So, in this context, of course Trump's random, illogical ban is patterned and logical in the American imagination.

 

And so we ponder the momentous implications for millions of people of this set of dark images and warped representations, smothered in a tantalizing discourse: a discourse capable of bypassing reality altogether. That is how it is possible for a ban to target the feelings and intentions of millions that have never brought any harm to the US in order to stop the US from being harmed by these unharmful people. 

 

If we want to understand the demons agitating the souls and brains of US officials, at the highest levels, and of part of the public who put them there, look no further than Orientalism----vindicated, once again.

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