Orientalism and the Myth of Independence

Shahzada Rahim

In the nineteenth century more half of the world was colonized by the European imperial powers and according to historians like Eric Hobsbawm, it was the peak century of western colonialism in Africa and Asia: the largest continents by population. Moreover, the very industrial heydays across Europe were the result of colonization, that provided cheap labor, raw material and other resources for the industrial boom.

Though the purpose of colonialism was to capture foreign market for the consumption of their industrial productivity, the imperial powers justified it through a civilizing mission — which connotes that the colonized people are/were “savages”, backward and culture-less, so they must be civilized. Famous Palestinian-born American scholar Edward Said described this:

culture was historically used by the western authors to justify the colonial project and European so-called “civilizing mission””

The post-colonial scholars like Edward w Said , Albert Memmi and Frantz Fanon reconstructed the prejudicial writings of the European authors like Graham Greene, V.S Naipaul, and Joseph Conrad for stereotyping the Africans, Indians, Jamaicans and Chinese, who claimed that “they are barbaric, they must be dealt with with force and violence and they were not like us”. This is what became native-phobia, meaning dehumanizing the natives to the very end of the psychological subjugation.

Unfortunately, with the dawn of industrial age across Europe, imperial powers began searching for the foreign markets in order to feed their industrial progress. Though it was explicitly an economic thrust, it was wrapped in cultural narrative to justify their violent action across colonies.

In this regard, the British imperialists forcibly transplanted the institutions, that were not fit to conditions across the colonies — what famous British Historian Eric Hobsbawm while writing on imperialism argued: “the division of the globe by the European empires had economic dimensions”, mainly because, there was a moral bankruptcy and greedy appetite to colonize India and Africa. In history, it is believed that India and Africa provided enough capital for the industrialization in Great Britain but was never mentioned by the Eurocentric history.

On the contrary, in order to hide their moral bankruptcy and capitalist greed the Eurocentric authors have fictitiously portrayed the concept of “orient”. The creation of fake orient of cruel lipped princes and dusky slim-lipped maiden of ungodliness, fire and the sword has been brilliantly described by Edward W. Said in his famous book Orientalism.

In his book Said claims that “the purpose of such a false portrait was to provide moral, cultural and artistic justification for imperialism and for its underpinning ideology, that is the racial superiority of the Caucasian over the Asiatic” — that image was well-portrayed by western Authors.

For instance, in his stereotypical novel, Heart of darkness published in 1899, Joseph Conrad refused to accept the true portrait of African character – that they have independent lives and they are enjoying their civilization. This fake metaphorical portrayal dragged a lot of criticism from anti-colonial writers and historians. In his critique of Heart of darkness, Chinua Achebe described Conrad as the “purveyor of confronting myths”. According to another critique, Heart of Darkness projected African image as the ‘Other world’: the antithesis of Europe that makes it one of the renowned racist works.

Likewise, another Eurocentric propagandist Graham Greene portrayed colonized people as the lower humans by depicting them as flies, savages and madmen. In his dialectics Friedrich Hegel put forward the concept of “excluded middle”: the spectral presence of the liminal and subaltern groups, who slip between the two dominant antithetical categories. And, it was the Ravel hierarchy according to Jean Paul Sartre, which was the central pivot of the colonial ideology. Consequently, colonialism and neo-colonialism went very much wrong because it has been wrongly placed in the history of the Third World.

It was the west, which has Orientalized the east in their own terms and with their own colonial justifications. Jean Paul Sartre warned against the mystification of colonization, which has idealized the identity of indigenous people and it is a fact that it was initially supported by the mainstream Liberal ideology — what Sartre described as, “the pitiless reciprocity that binds the oppressor to the oppressed, their product and destiny. The colonizers have always relied on the myth of civilization in order to depoliticize its signifiers and to hide the truth”.

Though today we proudly claim to live as independent nations, we are still bound with our colonial past. The functioning institutions and the cultural bondage still make us as neo-colonized subjects, who are under psychological rule. In the Foucauldian context, we are still trapped in discursive practices and we are the product of materiality of these practices away from the historical totality.

Thus, our independence is still a myth because Orientalism still drives us away from colonial salvation.