In September last year, right-wing media outlet OpIndia published an article titled, ‘Islamists in Middle East call for boycott of Indian products over Assam violence, urge Muslim countries to take action’.
This article, like others about West Asia that one finds circulating in India’s media landscape, uses the terms ‘Islamists,’ ‘Islamic countries,’ ‘Muslim world,’ and ‘Middle East’ as synonymous, constructing the region, and the people who live there, as uniformly Muslim and violent.
The image that comes to one’s mind upon reading this title is that of angry-looking men with beards carrying guns, similar to the portrayals of Taliban men in Afghanistan that one sees regularly in the international media.
This conflation of terms used to refer to the region indicates a larger problem in the portrayals of West Asia in India; be it in media, political reports, Bollywood, or academic scholarship. It reflects the presence of discourses about West Asia that are a combined product of the Hindutva ideology, Orientalism, and Islamophobia – all three of which are constructed in relation to each other. Unfortunately, Islam becomes the only lens through which to view the region, erasing the social and political diversity that lies within.
The messiness of terminologies
‘Middle East’ and ‘Islamic world’ (or their equivalents) are used recurrently in India, as well as globally, to refer to West Asia. The term ‘Middle East’ is used globally to indicate the region approximately covered by North Africa and West Asia.
One may thus ask – for whom is the region located in the east? And what is this ‘east’ that the region is in the ‘middle’ of?
The origins of the term lie in the 19th century British colonial administration’s division of its ‘east’ into the ‘Far East’ (east of British India), Near East (the area closest to Britain) and the Middle East (the area lying in between the Far East and the Near East). Varying definitions of ‘Middle East’ have included India as well.
The Middle East’s precise definitions were later debated in the United States as the region became a site of political and economic domination for the US government. The genealogy of the term, therefore, carries within it the history of political interests of those in power, especially Britain and the United States.
The term ‘Islamic world’, meanwhile, portrays the region as uniformly Muslim. It also constructs the region as having the highest concentration of Muslims in the world. Yet, a look at religious demographic data around the world reveals that around 60% of the global Muslim population lives in the Asia-Pacific and only around 20% lives in West Asia and North Africa. Indonesia has the highest number of Muslims in the world, followed by India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria.
The region clearly does not lie to the east of India and hence, many academics in India choose to use the term ‘West Asia’ instead. However, the choice of the term ‘West Asia’ suffers from many of the same ambiguities as the term ‘Middle East.’ ‘West Asia’ does not include, for instance, countries in North Africa (like Algeria and Tunisia) that are sometimes included in the definition of ‘Middle East’.
In addition, like in the case of ‘Middle East’, many Indian academics have also contributed to constructing the region as “predominantly Arab-Muslim,” both historically and in the present. This construction has two problems; first, it hides the ethnic and religious diversity of the region; and second, this discourse of homogeneity becomes a political tool – locally in the region to oppress its minoritised populations and globally to construct an Orientalised image of the region.
Let us take the case of Lebanon, for example. To say that it is “predominantly Arab-Muslim” hides the fact that the country is one-third Christian and has a diverse Muslim population (including Sunni, Shia, Alawite and Ismaili groups). It also hosts a significant refugee population from Syria, Iraq and Palestine as well as migrant workers from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and the Philippines; this non-citizen population gets easily ignored in mainstream demographic descriptions of Lebanon.
Orientalising West Asia
In his path-breaking book, Orientalism, published in 1978, Edward Said provides an opening into the study of the imaginations about the ‘Orient’ or the ‘East’ by the so-called West. Orientalism, for Said, is a way of thinking or imagining that represents the ‘East’ and the ‘West’ as inherently different from each other; its goal is to produce knowledge about the ‘East’ that justifies the West’s supposed supremacy in relation to this ‘East’.
The political interests behind Orientalist knowledge production are most clear when one traces the genealogy of discourses about women’s rights used by the United States government during its military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.
For example, the depictions of gender and sexuality, especially of harems, in Orientalist paintings in 19th century Europe were used to justify the project of colonialism; these depictions “continue to provide the symbolic vernacular for contemporary representations of Muslims,” writes Isra Ali, especially of Muslim women as requiring “saving,” which is then used to justify the violence of the War on Terror.
Today, the so-called ‘West’ does not have a monopoly over the production and use of Orientalist imaginations, that is, imaginations that have constructed a uniform ‘Muslim world’ intrinsically different and inferior from self.
While West Asia may not lie to the east of India, we can still see how Orientalist imaginations about West Asia circulate in the country, especially in the portrayals of the region in Bollywood films. For example, the depiction of 1950s Istanbul in the film Guru (2007) includes a belly dance performance by Mallika Sherawat which music label Sony Music Entertainment describes as “Turkish-inspired” and “sizzling.”
There are many similarities between the 19th century Orientalist paintings produced in Europe and the imagery one sees in this video; for instance, they both portray ‘Muslim’ women as having an excess of sexuality.
That a lot of the comments on Youtube on the video note its “good Arabic vibes” points to the fact that, in the Indian imagination, the aesthetic and the sexuality represented in the song get located in the ‘Arab countries’. It must be noted here that the Turkish language is different from the Arabic language and that a majority of Turkish citizens would not identify as Arab.
The hyper-sexualisation and fetishisation of Muslim women in India is a product of many of the same ideologies that produce the western Orientalist fetishisation of “women in the Muslim world”. In the Indian context, it marks the continuous desire of those in power to construct ‘Muslims’ as other and inferior.
I wonder if the tolerance for Muslim actresses and actors in the Indian film industry, even as Islamophobia is pushing Muslims out of many other sectors of employment, is a part of this Orientalist fetishisation of Muslim bodies in India.
These discourses construct West Asia in opposition to India, where India and its people are portrayed as victims of this collection of people and spaces dubbed the ‘Islamic world’. The connection between the construction of West Asia as ‘Muslim’, in opposition to India, is clear in the regular conflation of ‘Islamists of the Middle East’ with Muslims living in India, and their collective ‘targeted campaign against Hindus’.
While Muslim women’s bodies become sites for fantasies, ‘Islamists’ represent the construction of Muslim men as violent – a violence constructed as being directed towards Hindus as well as Muslim women. This discourse constructs Indians (and Hindus; both terms used synonymously) as victims of ‘Islamists’; thereby justifying the Indian state’s violence perpetuated against the Muslim community in India. Here, we see the influence of Hindutva ideology on constructions of the ‘Islamic world’.
Moving beyond this problematic discourse
While speaking about Tunisia, an Indian colleague of mine described it as a ‘Muslim country’. When I resisted this description, they pointed to demographic statistics that indicate that the Tunisian population is 99% Muslim.
The problem with this description is not that it is factually incorrect; rather, the term ‘Muslim’ in the Indian context comes with its own set of political and social discourses. To describe a country as ‘Muslim’ or ‘Islamic’ in India indirectly constructs it in opposition to Hinduism and, ultimately, India itself. Not only does this description construct this ‘Muslim’ country as different, but it also constructs it (indirectly) as inferior to India.
For example, after my colleagues describe Tunisia as a ‘Muslim country’, they usually ask questions like, “Can you go and swim at the beach there?” or “Can you wear a skirt there”, assuming that these are activities that I, as a woman, undertook with ease back in India. These questions indicate the assumption that women’s rights in ‘Muslim countries’ are uniformly absent, unlike in India, where they are assumed to be uniformly present.
I have been tempted many times to react to these questions by saying: “Women are free to do whatever they want in Tunisia!” There is a temptation to erase the complexity of places and experiences in reaction to questions that reflect hidden Islamophobic and Orientalist ideas about West Asia; this temptation is strong and ever-present among scholars and political figures fighting these ideologies.
To generalise the traits of a place or its people (for example, by saying that there are no issues with women’s rights in ‘Muslim countries’ or among ‘Muslims’) in reaction to Islamophobic and Orientalist generalisations puts us back in the same trap of essentialisation. For example, there is a desire to construct a discourse of the ‘good Muslim‘ in response to the discourses of ‘bad Muslims‘. In attempts to move away from Islam as lens to see West Asia, we end up using Islam as a lens all the same.
At the same time, the possibility of instrumentalisation remains when a more complex response to questions about West Asia is provided. To say that the question of women’s rights in Tunisia; in Lebanon; in Egypt is as complex and vibrant with debates as it is in India, risks the simplistic interpretation of “Yes, there are problems in Islamic countries.”