In “Orientalism,” Edward Said explored the Western culture’s representation of the “East.” He found that rather than facilitate a dialogue about the East, Western culture has used this construct to understand itself: The West as the opposite of the East, presenting the former as the stronger entity. Thus, Orientalism can be understood as the language of Euro-American cultural, and ultimately political, domination—almost as if to justify various forms of Western intervention, whether through books, movies, or full-on imperialism.
Indeed, Said noted a distinct link between imperialism and culture, which evolved as France, Britain, and the United States built their empires in the 19th to 20th centuries. If Said’s analysis might appear to be a mere academic exercise, the West has projected its Orientalism in all too many tangible ways. In the so-called “modern era” – which in the Middle East might be said to begin with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1799 – Orientalism has expressed itself through conflicts, facilitated by the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.
Because Western governments and weapons purveyors have encouraged conflicts for decades, the human rights and democracy cards ring most hollow.
Because Western governments (through their biased policies) and weapons purveyors have encouraged conflicts for decades, the human rights and democracy cards ring most hollow. Orientalism might be translated to “hypocrisy” in the form of Western platitudes in the defense of ordinary people (such as those George W. Bush expressed support for just as he was about to launch devastation upon Iraq in 2003).
The West exploited and deepened fractures in the Middle East, leveraging historical tensions whether its intensions were “peacekeeping,” “fighting terrorism,” “promoting democracy,” or everyone’s favorite, “defending human rights.” It is in that context that Hollywood actress Scarlett Johansson’s YouTube video statement, posted in December 2020, epitomizes “Orientalism.” In demanding the “immediate release” of four activists and members of the Egyptian NGO, Egyptian Initiative for Human Rights (EIPR).
Scarlett Johansson and EIPR
The four activists include Executive Director Gasser Abdel Razek, Karim Ennarah, and Administrative Manager Mohamed Basheer arrested in November 2020, and Patrick Zaki, an Egyptian student at the University of Bologna, who has been detained on charges of subversive propaganda since February 2020. Johansson noted that the four face false accusations and that their only crime was to have defended Egyptians’ dignity, adding that EIPR’s efforts represent a “shining light for democracy and freedom, not only in Egypt and the Middle East, but for people all over the world.”
Evidently, there is nothing objectionable about Johansson’s intervention. Anyone analyzing the circumstances of the four activists’ arrests (three have since been liberated) would likely agree they deserved to be freed. But, in the context of Egypt’s society, the support from Western celebrities (and governments) might cause more harm than good for victims of government repression.
It’s not surprising that EIPR attracted so much attention, given that Italian media gave ample coverage to the arrest of Patrick Zaki. Few Hollywood celebrities or G-20 governments, however, have expressed any dismay over the arrest of a belly dancer on charges of obscenity, as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s has encouraged a paradoxical degree of societal conservatism.
Western Activism as a Boomerang
This is not to suggest that the Egyptian government – whether under Mubarak, Morsi, or al-Sisi – has not violated human rights and repressed minorities. It’s just that the West appears to take a less than egalitarian approach as to which groups to protect. The West’s emphasis for Egypt cooperating in the proverbial war on terrorism and in guaranteeing regional stability as the basis of alliance, largely glosses over the issue of respect for fundamental rights. Certainly, the fate of Muslim Brotherhood members – and former President Morsi himself, arrested while Barack Obama was in the White House, and who died in Tora prison in 2019 – does not elicit the same compassion as other minorities, whose causes attract more sympathy from the West.
EIPR’s efforts are especially courageous, given that it operates in a strongly opposing social context.
Indeed, the situation in Egypt remains very serious: the government has suppressed dissent against journalists, as well as activists and members of human rights organizations, who do risk arrest. The aforementioned EIPR is one of these that also promotes LGBTQ rights. EIPR’s efforts are especially courageous, given that it operates in a strongly opposing social context – even though there’s no law that formally bans different sexual identifications in Egypt. Typically, since the early 1960s Egyptian law has prosecuted homosexual men with the charge of fujur, “prostitution” or “debauchery,” which has turned the government into the enforcer of political as well as moral authority. And the official media echoes the government’s condemnation. The al-Sisi government relies on invasive policing, which often violates Egyptians’ private sphere, also using social media to identify members of the LGBTQ community.
The Egyptian government (and others in the region) may target homosexuality because it diverts attention from chronic societal problems resulting from mismanagement, thus serving as the convenient role of scapegoat. Nevertheless, because freedom of sexuality is synonymous with the West (in TV, Movies, pop culture), the media and the authorities can present LGBTQ rights and related, otherwise purely personal matters, as Western ideals intended to degenerate local values. Therefore, they can be treated as a national security threat against national sovereignty. In turn, the NGOs that promote personal rights and freedom are treated as instruments of that interference.
But, until the big-name stars of Hollywood start to target the more macro injustices of the Middle East, such as Palestine, or the various wars and “democracy export” missions that Washington and its allies have “bombed” over the region, Western advocacy for human rights – legitimate though they are – will be perceived as Western interference and hypocrisy, even without manipulation from government-controlled media. Hollywood – of which Johansson is one of the most recognizable symbols – has long presented an alluring mask of the West with its democracy, human rights, technology, and wealth. And in so doing, for all of her good faith, Johansson’s appeal is yet another form of “Orientalism” – and all the more so, given the actress’ apparent failure to note the decades-long injustices that Palestinians suffer in their struggle for self-determination. Given the timing, Johansson might have chosen to reprimand her government’s decision to assassinate a scientist in Iran, or for fueling a war in Yemen – the poorest Arab country.
It would have been more genuine for Johansson and others in her privileged position to criticize the way her industry depicts Egyptians and other Arabs.
Furthermore, as a respected member of the Hollywood system, it would have been more genuine, including from a human rights perspective, for Johansson and others in her privileged position to criticize the way her industry depicts Egyptians and other Arabs. An effort in that regard might lead to significant changes; whereas, her appeal to release activists might be criticized as risk free self-promotion – or even narcissism. It is far more likely that the Egyptian government released the activists to establish a good relationship with incoming President Biden rather than reveling in star-struck awe.
And then there is the hard to disguise hypocrisy of many NGOs – heavily monitored but “enjoying” a modicum of government recognition – that tend to perpetuate Western values, if not outright cultural imperialism. Since the end of the Cold War, the West has used human rights more than direct political confrontation, as the pretext to impose the most egregious forms of domination in the Middle East.
Serge Latouche, in his seminal “L’occidentalisation du monde” (The Westernization of the World) shows that Western imperialism did not end in the 1960s with decolonization. Rather, it continued through other means – more cultural and economic than political. Human rights violations served as the casus belli for some of the bloodiest wars. The mechanism is simple: a targeted “dictatorial” government (the complicated history of which is ignored) is accused of violating some right, or some ethnic group.
In this regard, let us consider the wars and destructions waged against Iraq, Libya, and/or Afghanistan with the full cooperation of the media – liberal and otherwise. Modern imperialism simply uses the excuse of human rights to legitimize crippling economic sanctions (financial warfare) and then armed interventions against those countries, which fail to comply with Western values. Hence, NGOs and celebrity activists serve the purpose of present-day Don Quixote knights in search of causes to promote and evil monsters to defeat.
Modern imperialism simply uses the excuse of human rights to legitimize crippling economic sanctions and then armed interventions against those countries.
Ultimately, President al-Sisi and his despotic government reversed the democratization that the now ten-year-old Tahrir Square revolt heralded. Many of the demonstrators in Tahrir Square were representatives of Egypt’s middle and upper classes, a progressive minority, that include recipients of a Western education abroad or in the many foreign schools that help to perpetuate Western values. It was inevitable that this minority’s frail political organizations would be unable to defeat the well-organized Muslim Brotherhood in democratic elections.
However, the Brotherhood’s flawed, but legitimate democratic victory, presented a problem for the West – and for Israel. Thus, nobody in the West condemned the coup against President Morsi – as it should have been. Therefore, when the Scarlett Johansson’s of the world pronounce impassioned appeals for NGO activists, whom they’ve never heard of before, they should first ask: Whom does the dictatorship in Egypt benefit if not the West? Appeals for human rights and many NGOs, more than advancing the lofty goals they pursue, end up highlighting the Middle East’s contradictions and imbalances.