The Orientalist Narrative Distorting the Egyptian Struggle for Freedom

As a practicing Muslim Egyptian-American, it is common to have to explain (and often rationalize) my "way of life" to well-meaning acquaintances. Tiptoeing through these explanations, I must stress that while religion or culture affect many of my decisions, they are not sole determinants of my life choices. I also have to take painstaking care to qualify that not ALL Egyptians or Arabs or Muslims live their lives like I do, and that my answers DO NOT and CANNOT generalize to 2 million Arab-Americans or 3.5 million Muslims in the US, 80 million Egyptians a world away, or the nearly 1.5 billion Muslims globally.

Nevertheless, my interlocutors can't resist the temptation to twist and shape my explanations to fit the greater narrative they'll use to explain those "funny" or "peculiar" (for the PC among them) things that Muslims (all 1.5 billion of them) do. What's worse, if my data doesn't seem to fit into that greater arc of knowledge they have constructed from years of marinating in Fox news or MSNBC, it gets discarded, like a statistical outlier in their mental dataset. Although frustrating, my interlocutors aren't being bigoted on purpose, they're average folks who just don't know better.

Unbeknownst to them, they inherit a rich, scholastic tradition of ignorance. In academia, this practice has a pointed history. For centuries, scholars have attempted to twist and reinterpret the history and politics of Muslims, Arabs, and the Middle East around distinctly American or British narratives. Intellectual giants, like Edward Said and others, criticize the legitimacy of this approach, arguing that it fails to recognize the nuanced differences between "the West" and "the Muslim World" and that more critical, objective assessments of these differences are in order. They highlight a fundamental flaw of this kind of thinking, which they call Orientalism: it assumes that Muslims or Arabs are more motivated by their religion or culture than their Western counterparts, because these religions or cultures are not as well-understood by the Western mind as their own.

Just as my well-meaning acquaintances pigeonhole me, orientalists attempt to fit the history and politics of Muslims or Arabs into a greater arc that is dominated by cultural or religious stereotypes. For example, a classic orientalist construction would be equating Islam and terrorism--recently, Juan Williams, a liberal pundit, suggested that those in "Muslim garb" on airplanes made him nervous, implying that their overtly Islamic outward appearance would suggest them to be more likely to commit terrorist attacks. Rather than acknowledge heterogeneity in thought and behavior among practicing Muslims, this framing suggests that Islam, uniquely, is the driving force behind terrorism.

Orientalist framings have, expectedly, also come to dominate the public discourse about the most recent news from the Middle East. En masse, the Egyptian people are demonstrating unequivocally for their freedom. Their demands? Fundamental human rights that many of us take for granted every day--freedom of speech, equal protection under the law, freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention, freedom to peacefully assemble, and the right to choose their representatives. Under the brutal dictatorship of a shameless despot (who has milked his $70 billion fortune from the bread money of Egyptian peasants), they have suffered quietly for over 30 years.

American ideals should call us to support their freedoms, and those of oppressed peoples the world over. After all, we believe that all men are created equal, and that among their unalienable rights are those to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Frustratingly, however, our public discourse regarding Egypt has focused less on the noble American ideals with which we often describe ourselves, and more on comparisons between Egypt and Iran, or the role of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In lock step with the orientalist narrative, this racist framing of Arab and Muslim behaviors overemphasizes the roles of religion and culture in motivating the revolution we are witnessing and ignores the collective will of the Egyptian people to be free. Just like the synonymization of Islam and terrorism, our preoccupation with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood appeals to the orientalist need to explain the Egyptian struggle for self-determinism via religiously or culturally stereotyped explanations. In succumbing to this simplistic and misguided framework, we fail to acknowledge the will of the Egyptian people to reclaim their country and the legitimate grievances against which they demonstrate.

Although when I'm asked about my religion or culture, it may be annoying that questioners often seek to stereotype my answers relative to what they've seen or heard about Muslims or Arabs in the media, ultimately, this prejudiced tendency among individuals has little consequence on my daily life. But when we allow this inherently bigoted thinking to aggregate and take hold in our public discourse, it has real implications on the lives and livelihoods of those whose agency we distort. Abroad, we use this rationale to justify our fear of Egyptian democracy, just as it has been used at home to excuse our assault on the dignity and civil liberties of our Arab-American and Muslim-American neighbors.