Constructing the “East”

My eye was caught by a story in yesterday’s Guardian under the headline “Indian swami’s dream inspires hunt for buried gold but yields bricks and bones”. The report details that officials in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh have invested 1.6m rupees (about £16,000) in looking for buried treasure beneath a nineteenth-century fort. Though this in itself might be newsworthy, the piece stresses that the search began after a swami (Hindu religious teacher) had the presence of the treasure revealed to him in a dream by the spirit of King Rao Ram Baksh Singh, hanged in 1858 after an anti-British uprising.

Also dominating the headlines, of course, are a series of images of David Cameron lecturing the Sri Lankan government on its human rights record, calling on the government to investigate war crimes, and for “magnanimity” towards the Tamils, including granting permission to sing their national anthem. In response, Sri Lanka’s media minister, Keheliya Rambukwella, said that “We are a sovereign nation. You think someone can just make a demand from Sri Lanka. It can be a cordial request. We are not a colony. We are an independent state.”

Though these stories seem very distant (one a light-hearted ‘and finally…’ sort of story, the other much more serious) they both reveal a certain set of attitudes to the East, characterised by Edward Said as ‘Orientalism’. Said argued that the ‘Orient’ is, and always has been, a construct of the West, for the West. The representation of the Orient, he argues, doesn’t rely on actual knowledge or understanding of the East, but is mediated through stereotypes and assumptions; as such, the East becomes ‘exotic’, ‘luxurious’, ‘sensuous’, ‘mystical’, ‘dangerous’ and Other. This mode of representation serves to reinforce “the ineradicable distinction between Western superiority and Oriental inferiority”.

Looking again at those stories in light of these claims shows this process at work. In both pieces the East is seen as ‘backwards’, because it does not conform to Western ideals (if not necessarily practices) of scientific enquiry and liberal values: the clear subtext is ‘they are not like us, do not believe what we believe, or view the world as we do’.

This difference is dangerous, but also an opportunity: the opposing methods of social and religious organisation must be contained, since their very difference threatens Western values (which present themselves as universal). The Other is therefore held up to ridicule, or accusations of barbarousness; these are, after all, much the same thing, as both allow the East to be dismissed, never challenging those Western ideas. At the same time, the stories allow us in the West to reaffirm our own values. Implicit in ‘they are not like us’ is ‘we do things better’, either through science, civilization, dedication to human rights or an open democracy that holds its rulers to account (I will leave the reader to judge how far any of those things are true). So in fact these are not stories about the East at all; what they mainly tell us about is the West.

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