Saturday, June 23, 2007

Orientalism in Australia: the Middle Eastern Mongrel

This morning I was enjoying myself at one of our local markets when my wife and I overheard some fellow market goers talking about a shopkeepers dog. Being the eavesdroppers that we are, my wife and I adamantly listened in. This group, the fellow market goers (I'll call them a group, I assume that's an appropriate collective noun for market patrons), some middle aged to elderly ladies, were discussing 'what was in the dog'. By this they were attempting to discern what 'breeds' of dog were present in this apparent mongrel. As an aside, the dog in question was a very healthy and happy looking creature.

My wife and I were unable to listen in to the entire conversation as the group moved along but this got us talking. My wife is a Sociology/Community Development major so she's quite interested in a lot of the same concepts as I. We were both of the same opinion that this was a case of 'othering' or 'orientalism'. I put it this way: The group attempted to put the dog into a 'class', in a sense labeling the dog. This then allows them to discuss the value of the dog in relation to other designated 'classes', maybe in relation to the 'class' we would call 'purebred'. From this division of 'classes' and value distinctions we are left with a social system created entirely by the observer.

It is easy to observe a correlate 'racialisation' in the contemporary world, particularly Australia at present. We (I use this term loosely) assign characteristics to this 'other' no matter how diverse they may possibly be. I'll use the example of the Middle East here as it is particularly relevant. Middle Eastern people have been racialised in Australia in a very similar way to mongrel dogs. Despite their diverse social systems, religions, and ethnicities, they are lumped in to a socially constructed mongrel class. As Scott Poynting, Greg Noble, Paul Tabar and Jock Collins show in their recent book Bin Laden in the Suburbs: Criminalising the Arab Other (2004, p.49), 'Middle Eastern [has] become conflated with Arab, Arab with Muslim, Muslim with rapist, rapist with gang, gang with terrorist, terrorist with 'boat people', 'boat people' with barbaric, and so on...'. Now while all of these characteristics may not be applied to all Middle Eastern people all of the time most of them are. It is an interesting exercise to ask people on the street to define the Middle East. Most people point to a geographical area on a map, most of these people, however, disagree where the boundaries are. It is interesting, or perhaps sad, to see this though; many people will include India in their Middle East map and many Australians, and I can only assume people of other nationalities too, are loath to include Israel, although most do if they are pointing to a map that isn't labeled. You see Israel is geographically part of the Middle East but is ethnically separate, or so they say...(Maybe more on this another time)

But the entire Middle East is a diverse area. There have been, and continue to be, numerous religions present and the diverse social systems can be quite contrasting. Even throwing the label Muslim around is part of the same problem, mongreling this Middle Eastern other. The Middle East is a 'Western' Orientalist experiment gone wrong; because the diversity was never recognised, even to this day, the Middle East is simply a mongrel.

Like the mongrel dog at the market today, the Middle East and the many and diverse people who reside there, and the many and diverse people who reside here in Australia, Australian citizens...people born here, people with Middle Eastern heritage, will never be fully valued. By making this statement I am in no way claiming that people who are from the Middle East, or who's ancestors were/are, are in any way to be thought of as a dog, I am simply saying that Australian society treats them that way, as a mongrel. We have created a single class of people from a diverse social group and assigned them characteristics that many of them have never possessed. Australia created the Middle Eastern other in our national psyche, it is not an organic feature of the world. Australia has created the Middle Eastern Mongrel.


Bean said...

I wonder then... is there a division between othering and pure ignorance? How much of orientalism is simplification through generalisation and how much is a lack of the ability to discern at all?

Simon said...

Of course there's a division, well at least I hope there is! 'Othering', unfortunately, has become a natural method of engaging with the world. What appears to be ignorance may in fact be a cultural legacy. One needn't know that one is sleeping for sleep to occur, similarly, one needn't know that one is 'othering' for 'othering' to occur. 'Othering has become something that many peoples just naturally do.