Arturo Desimone recently wrote an article titled “On Orientalism”, inspired by a debate in Azerbaijan following the tragic suicide of a gay Azeri activist, which was censored by the website Meydan TV. Dissident Ali Novruzov, also from Azerbaijan, republished the deleted article with a version of the introduction below on his blog. Balkanist is republishing both the original article in its entirety preceded by a version of Novruzov’s intro.
The following piece, authored by Arturo Desimone, appeared on the Meydan TV website on 11 February 2014. The article was part of a discussion alleging that pro-democracy Azeri activists and writers were “orientalists”. The discussion was opened by Murad Gassanly, an Azerbaijani political exile who lives in the UK and is a member of the British Labour party. Gassanly accused Azeri activists and writers of being too pro-Western and too Eurocentric. Meydan TV, an independent Azeri media channel based in Berlin was hosting the discussions.
A group of political émigrés based in Western Europe were discussing whether pro-democracy activists were “orientalists” and excessively “pro-Western” in a country that is the part of the Council of Europe, the OSCE and the Eastern Partnership — with an Opera House in Baku and a democratic state with universal suffrage for both men and women since 1918.
However, Arturo Desimone’s piece was removed just one day after it was published. Meydan TV cited objections by Murad Gassanly, who claimed that Arturo Desimone didn’t exist at all, that the article was written by a personal enemy under a pen name, and that the article contained personal attacks and damaged his reputation. Caving in to pressure from Murad Gassanly, Meydan TV removed the article. Meydan TV claimed that there were statements in the article that “needed references”, that the author failed to provide them, and that Murad Gassanly had threatened to sue them under German law if the article remained online. So, Meydan TV backed down. Arturo Desimone, the author, was not informed, and learned about the whole affair from a discussion on a friend’s Facebook page.
Therefore, I have decided to republish the aforementioned article on my blog as a political statement that you shouldn’t try to suppress opinions just because you don’t like them, especially because in the Internet age it is largely fruitless as censorship has become obsolete. I post it not because I agree or disagree with the article, or because I have any animosity or friendship with anyone involved in the “orientalism” discussion. This is a freedom of speech issue — full stop.
In recent weeks the politically-engaged youth of Azerbaijan, both inside their country and in the diaspora of exiles and expatriates has been shaken up in polemics and debates. It started when a gay Azeri activist, İsa Şahmarlı, committed suicide. The tragedy of his death caused an outcry in Azerbaijan’s dissident movement, exile networks and the wider society. A young UK politician from Azerbaijan, Murad Gassanly, who is in the British Labor Party, issued a statement that such concern for homophobia in his home-country is uncalled for.
The Labor campaigner leveled the charge of Orientalism at the activists in Azerbaijan. According to Gassanly, Azerbaijan’s being an Eastern country means it has an entirely different path and culture, one in which ‘homophobia’ can somehow be endemic. Gassanly’s pronouncements on his country’s ”different path” is evocative of Third Way rhetoric which his party’s former chairman Tony Blair introduced into Center-Liberal mainstream politics just before concretizing the alliance with the US in its 2003 Iraq War endeavor. Third Way rhetoric before Blairism had been more frequently invoked by more esoteric radical right groups around the globe.
If anything, the supposition that an Oriental country is innately ”culturally homophobic” and finds natural expression of its non-Western identity through homophobic violence, the beating of women and other inferior behaviors, is an Orientalist conclusion. These seem echoes of the debates created within insular worlds of Western university departments, where it has long been argued that an exercise in overcoming Eurocentrism is to question rationality: many contemporary intellectual discourses that can be found within postmodernism and post-structuralism, innocently repeat the colonial fantasy that no country outside of Western Europe ever had a conservation, or a tradition of discussing rationality and reason within their culture.
An Oriental who is informed of both West and East, might know that Islamic, Indian and Far Eastern philosophy all have a highly valued place for the conception of rationality, and many centuries-old polemics as to what ”reason” really means. In Islamic traditions of philosophy, reason and mystical revelation do not exclude each other (this is to be found in the works of Mollah Saddra, or the much earlier Ibn Sinna who wrote “Unified Theory of Prophecy;” or al-Farabi, who was from the Caucasus and whose medieval ideas on the state seemed to favor a kind of republic )
The progressive’s idea that defending irrationality or deconstructing the importance of reason is a way of seeking alternatives to Eurocentric thought, has the very conservative implicit pre-supposition that rationality is Western, leading to the classically Orientalist belief, that only the Westerner is real and the West the only reality.
The political establishments in an East and in a South that have become alienated from themselves under the overwhelming domination of the world’s leading societies have tried to find an essential identity in glib, disturbing patriotisms. One need not travel as far as Baku: In Italy, Berlusconi had marketed an anti-German patriotism, stressing the Italian self-image of warm families gathering to eat spaghetti and trusting one another, unlike the cold, stingy and individualistic Germans.
It is undeniable that Germany is conquering and humiliating the South and East of Europe by way of what the German economist and writer Ulrich Beck has argued is a fourth German attempt at imperialism, expressed by the seemingly non-violent means of economic expansion through debtocracy and structural violence. It is very arguable that, as Beck maintains, much of this new form of colonialism has to do with the German and Nordic culture of Protestant attitudes, strictness and contracts, and a sense of superiority to the countries of Southern and Eastern Europe (A sense superiority towards the rest of the world is a distinct part of the German culture to this day, though it does not fit conveniently into their discourses of postwar apologetics and PR.)
The reality of an emerging neocolonialism by Germany did not change the idiotic and manipulative nature of Berlusconi’s patriotic propaganda which was a new front in his vast Pornocracia.
Germany’s retro-imperialism, and the cultural prejudices of Germanic countries towards East and South are a reality experienced by many and an underlying force behind the policies of economic subjugation, which have been humorously called “Merkevelianism” even though they are more far reaching and of older origins than the superficial, though exemplary political personality of Merkel. This does not make innocent Berlusconi’s attempt at a Southern cultural patriotism in awkward differentiation from the North of Europe.
Italy’s own North is quite identical, culturally, to this image of cold and disciplinarian mercantile North, and has been an even more formidable oppressor of Italy’s own South. Berlusconi’s trickery might have helped create a fictitious unity by way of conservatism to only further justify the oppression of one class and ethnos of Italians towards another. Merkel has also used the rhetoric of a “third way” and under her presidency there has been a return to legitimacy within Germany of the pride of being German and having traditional values (of course, alongside a blossoming consumerism) The revival in traditional German attitudes probably has much to do with the public discourse for the ”disciplinerung” of Greece, and their freedom to speak of Greece and its crisis in what are often ethnic terms.
Gassanli’s defense of homophobia as inherent to Azerbaijan’s popular culture and his calling Azerbaijan’s dissidents ”Orientalists” seems a stunning, prodigious contribution to the mechanism of public relations that justifies Northern European alliances with Azerbaijan’s treasured petroleum regime, as Azerbaijan under the Aliyev dictatorship is marketed as a rising ”financial miracle” in the Middle East. Gassanli in his statements shows qualities that are valued within Blairism: tact for businessman-like explanations, politically correct sales talk and public relations. A previous article on Median by Keli Cosby that defended this policy, cited the work of Homi K Babha’s far-from-original ideas on ‘hybridity”, that being between cultures becomes a form of power and capital for the colonized as he knows various codes. In an era when more individuals act and emulate the behaviors of corporations and states, perhaps it is worth considering that corporations and states seek their own power in what postcolonials call “hybridity.”
There is definitely a hybridity today between right wing parties who are meeting each other, learning from and imitating one another across the ancient barriers that were constructed between Orient and Occident, North and South, religious and secularist. This is visible in how the Third Wayism of a Labor Party is seeking to overcome contradictions and recognizes the Third Wayism of the Aliyev regime in Azerbaijan. If global capitalism has any specific ideology, it would involve mostly an authoritarianism of the Market: that the Market’s power and authority is not to be challenged or confronted, regardless of whether a country has democratic elections or a police state. In this aspect, neither the parliamentary democratic Labor Party in the UK nor the dictatorship of Aliyev in Azerbaijan is in any major way contradicting the essence of this business-power ideology. A politician graduated within the two cultures and systems might have a knowledge of the Western system as well as the internal weaknesses of both the culture of Azerbaijan and its promising young dissident movement. For Blairism, there is an obvious weakness in the dissident movement that includes recent exiles who has left the country because of threats.
The obvious weakness of the dissident movement that launched alternative education and activism projects, in the eyes of the majority of powerful political parties, would have to be their lack of Machiavellianism, and their lack of opportunism.
The dissident movement perhaps naively uses terms like ”Enlightenment” and does not polish its language or its thought according to ruling conventions of politically correct wisdom. Real political drives can be sublimated by participating in the aggression of the mine-field of politically correct identity politics the West have offered as a way to absorb and destroy those who would chance to become real opponents of the ruling system. Had the dissidents known how to conform in the satisfactory manner, it would have indeed been a sign of the kind of opportunism sadly preponderant in many “progressive” discourses in Western centers of power and academic institutions that prepare future coordinators of a prevailingly conservative order in society.
The use of “Orientalism” in this debate, and the fact that this accusation is called from Britain, presents an intelligent though unscrupulous weapon, a powerful propagandic tool which has been aptly named as ”the New Oriental” by the philosopher and writer István Aranyosi, a resident of Turkey, in a recent article in Boston Review.
Aranyosi chose the specific example of the accusers against Richard Dawkins, who charged Dawkins’ with being specifically an anti-Muslim racist rather than an all-round reactionary secularist pundit (he is obviously the latter). Aranyosi argued that “a significant part of what such bigotry usually involves—namely, viewing Muslims as a uniform, monolithic block, coupled with an attempt at racializing Islam—is more characteristic of Dawkins’s accusers.” The philosopher writes in a manner that strives and succeeds in echoing Edward Said more accurately than, for example, members of the Salafi pro-Saudi movement in the West who have begun to use Said as a new defense-mechanism by calling their critics “Orientalists” while they have achieved Salafism’s normalization by aligning it with the current pro-business (therefore, pro-Western) Islamism.
It is today necessary to redefine Orientalism. To some extent the Orient has ceased to exist. The triumph of the West, of the liberal market values, of consumerism, the worship of mediocrity, the ambition to enter management: this is universally present from Iran, to Pakistan, from the former Soviet countries to ex-communist China. Organized Islam has ceased to be a religion, replaced by marketing by Saudi Arabia’s new colonialism in the region. The more Islamism integrates into the Western economics and into the values of buyers, the more it pushes an oppressive morality in its schools and media and sets aside the great cultural legacy of Islamic art, literature and philosophy (all long forgotten by hipster Salafists who will angrily call out the ”Orientalists” among their critics and enemies, and certainly forgotten by the unofficial functionaries of insular regimes calling ”patriotism” and ”traditional values”)
The second Iraq war was a tragedy of immense proportions not only for its having devastated a country: Iraq of all the countries in the Arab world was then famous for its strong cultural life. Despite the state terror and abuses by Saddam Hussein, his regime was weak and nearing collapse; the population was educated and knew a secular life-style in which the culture was one of subversion. A popular saying, repeated by the singer and poet Kathem el Sahr, went that in the Arab world “books are written in Egypt, printed in Lebanon and read in Iraq” (perhaps a slightly patriotic sentiment)
According to Said, Baghdad’s subversive and vibrant secular counterculture had been the hope for a pro-democracy movement toppling a decadent regime in the Middle East. Baghdad was then the place in the Arab world literature, music and art as well as pro-democracy activist movements and discussion. This was of course before the second gulf war of 2003, which destroyed the hope of secular overthrow of the military Baathist dictator. Had it not been for the ”regime change” perhaps the Arab rebellions of 2011 would have started in Iraq and not in Tunis, which after the ruination of Iraq was the last remaining more literate country in the Arabic-speaking parts of the world, a country perhaps lucky to have no oil or natural resources of interest to the West.
Said had advocated that the Middle East also had a strong secular culture; that, for example, religious conformity and doctrines were not essential to Arabness. It was the Orientalist maintained that to be Middle Eastern was to be a religious fanatic of some form, ”culturally patriarchal”, homophobic and so on. Another important consideration when discussing Orientalism, is to address the question of how much of what is considered ”traditional” national culture of an Eastern country might have been recently constructed, or even developed under colonialism.
Today Orientalism has a new way of working, in that it employs the Oriental to perform Orientalism.
There are many sides to Edward Said’s legacy that need criticism, his considerable myopia had consequences that resonate today in the identity politics that has created a generally repressive and unfree way of simplifying and controlling discussions inside the realm of the universities. A rigid set of ”progressive values” which are really conservative, are presented as obvious, natural and unarguable. Identity politics has always existed, but gained a new form in recent decades, where an environment of anti-intellectualism is fostered and where it is seen as justifiable to refuse to read or take seriously the writers of recent centuries on account that they are merely ”dead white men.” An Arab poet like Palestine’s Mahmoud Darwish expressed profound appreciation for some dead white men such as Federico Garcia Lorca.
Today it is characteristic of academia to find a competitive appropriation and usage of identity politics to promote career or as a substitute for ideas. This insincerity and placebo politics has spilled over in the society outside the fortresses of learning, exemplified in the cunning PR of the British-Labor member from Azerbaijan who called dissidents ”Orientalists” for wanting to challenge the traditionalist values in their society.
Statement by Meydan TV head Emin Milli
Meydan TV has removed an article written by Arturo Desimone. We found out that references made to Murad Gassanly in that article could not be backed by any quotes, articles, links that could protect Meydan TV in the court. Murad Gassanly claimed that he never said or wrote thoughts that were given in that article as his words/thoughts and asked us to remove that article unless we want to face legal action in the court.
I have contacted Nijat Garayev who sent me Arturos Desimone’s article and asked him to provide us with proofs that those statements of Murad Gassanly really belong to him. Nijat Garayev could not find any proofs, so we decided not to run the article. [A part of the statement about one private person who engaged in online debates about this issue is removed by me.]
As a project operating under German legislation we can not publish anything that can be proved to be as groundless accusations damaging someone’s reputation. We can not afford facing such legal action against us in the German court. We are standing behind our decision and believe that we have not done anything compromising our integrity or the claim to be free and alternative media platform in Azerbaijan and about Azerbaijan.
Cover image courtesy of Russian Art and Books