Guest post: Zakaria is self-orientalized

Originally a comment by veil_of_ignorance on A sneer too many.

I have now read this obscurantist, condescending, self-indulgent essay several times, trying to find some sentence, which resolves its apparent, more than prominent contradictions.

Many other commenters have already pointed out that Zakaria never mentions Islamism, never speaks of the heterogeneity of opinion in the Muslim community regarding CH, regarding blasphemy, regarding religion and politics; instead she speaks of Muslim opinion and Muslim subjectivity as if there was only one. All while permanently lamenting the fact that Muslims are ‘otherized’ in Western society, i.e. viewed as monolithic group and represented in malevolent terms. The irony of this was of course not lost on me; and it struck me that ‘otherization’ is crucial for Zakaria’s argument. While she is certainly opposed to the malevolence against Muslims in Western society [let’s call it negative ‘negative otherization’], she fully buys into the [positive] ‘otherization’ of the ‘cultural studies’ variety, which is justified with the concepts of postmodern différence or contextual epistemology or contextual schemes or whatever. If you take away the idea of collective Muslim otherness and special treatment as a group, her essay would fall apart. Zakaria is self-orientalized.

Zakaria talks a lot about subjectivity and moral aversion/moral hurt (I see these terms as mutually redundant and also see a large congruence with Martha Nussbaum’s concept of moral disgust). She then uses the poststructuralist / postcolonialist commonplace that moral judgments – in these concepts the ones made by Western liberals regarding free speech, by Walzer regarding FGM and by Touraine regarding cultural rights – are always informed by subjective or cultural sensitivities and that our “universal moral values” are in consequence hegemonically Western. The main argument of the first half of the essay is then – in my view – that while Western liberals are allowed to present their “objective”, “rational” (a.k.a. subjective and affective) ideas about moral issues such as free speech, Muslims are not able to do so without being called irrational and illiberal.

A general critique of this idea was delivered elsewhere, e.g. by Jürgen Habermas in 1981. Specifically, the problem with the ‘Human rights / liberal ideas / universal values / objective ideas are imperialist/racist/hegemonic’ is that they are themselves based on universal normative sentiments (that imperialism, racism and hegemony are morally objectionable) and on objective truth claims and thus create a problem of self-reference. Why should I give a shit that Muslim subjectivity is branded as irrational while Western subjectivity is not? The answer to that question must necessarily be linked to some kind of universalized, moral “truth”.

While Walzer’s and Tourrain’s writing might be poisoned by the language of disgust, they provide arguments in the end. Walzer for instance invokes the harm principle (as Nussbaum did to contrast the morality of disgust). Zakaria on the other hand never even tries to argue beyond her call for the recognition of Muslim subjectivity.

The main point here is however, that even if Zakaria’s idea about the implicit subjectivity of moral statements would be true, the way that we treat Muslim interlocutors in this debate is not extraordinary all. Whenever we argue and strongly disagree with somebody, we tend to question their objectivity, the consistency of their ideas, and so on. The racist lady in the subway that Zakaria describes in the beginning was acting correctly according to her own subjective ideas (otherwise she simply would not have acted that way). When Zakaria criticizes the behavior of that lady, she deems the subjective opinion of that lady irrational. This is what happens in everyday discourse all the time – simple as that.

So when Zakaria laments that Muslims are treated like this, she is arguing in favor of a positive ‘othering’ – i.e. of a privileged treatment of Muslim subjectivity (the concept of which is absurd in itself) in discourse. Self-othering is central to Zakaria’s worldview. Accordingly, she is not even able to see this debate beyond the Hungtingtonian West vs. Muslim antagonism. She is not able to see Westerners and Muslims as heterogeneous political interlocutors who are defined by more than their religious identity. While she clearly realizes that the CH cartoonists and the many journalists in the MENA region were killed by the same political actors, she is unable to make a link between both because that would require a rearrangement of the political fault lines beyond her narrow conception of ‘otherized’ identity.


  1. Emily Vicendese says

    Extremely well-written and insightful piece. Kudos to the author. However, is there something to be said for the claim that “positive othering” as a response to “negative othering” is sometimes justifiable? If subjectivity is at least partially socially constructed (I think most of us would agree that the way we see the world is in due in large part to socio-historical influences) then couldn’t it be the case that othering really does create othered subjectivities? For example, if girls and women experience a different social environment to boys and men, might not this create (at least partially) different subjective viewpoints to which subjects have privileged epistemic access? One might regret the processes that create such differences, but given that they have occurred and we are where we are, is there anything wrong with othered groups affirming their otherness, their differing group identity, rather than lamenting it? Especially othered groups which are not the dominant group (example “black consciousness” movements in the US). I am not committed to this view, I just want to think through the issues and wonder what others might have to say.

  2. says

    I had similar thoughts before as well as after reading veil’s comment. I suppose my boring thought boils down to “yes but you have to do it right.”

    It’s like the wrangling over the word “privilege” and related wrangles. The word can be useful, the concept can be useful – and on the other hand it can become just a rhetorical battering ram.

    Then again the truth is I found Zakaria’s piece so infuriatingly diffuse and unclear that I couldn’t tell what the hell she was saying. I didn’t have the patience to read it several times the way veil did.

  3. S Mukherjee says

    Zakaria mentions this Paris metro incident at least twice in her article as some kind of sign of ‘othering’ of Muslim people and whatnot, but she did not even confirm whether the woman was racist — all that happened was that the woman glared and uttered something that Zakaria did not understand (BTW, ‘teenage bride’, straight from Pakistan, married to this chap brought up in the US — what’s all that about?). Her husband said that French people did not like Muslims, and she accepted that as the explanation for the woman’s behaviour. How did she know it wasn’t because she was blocking a ‘priority’ seat, or had jumped a queue without realising it, or something like that.

  4. veil_of_ignorance says

    Emily, I was considering that question myself and I think we have to differentiate between several concepts. I will write some quick bullet points with probably not very matured ideas.

    (1) There is a difference between (a) positive discrimination and (b) positive ‘othering’. If we consider the most cited example for positive discrimination – affirmative action – the difference could be put to words like this: (a) affirmative action is ethically imperative because we believe in the fundamental equality of all human beings as moral and intellectual agents – as rational agents simpliciter (Kant) – and therefore, we must lawfully discriminate positively because society unlawfully discriminates negatively. (b) Affirmative action is ethically imperative because there are distinct ways of knowing in people of color, which are systemically marginalized in white academia. In the first case, positive discrimination is specifically targeted at counteracting social discrimination (which includes ‘othering’) while the second case is based on some concept of essentialist epistemological difference (which is ‘othering’ in itself).
    (2) When we think of the free speech debate, a difference analogous to (1) could be made between giving Muslim voices equal representation in the debate (which includes equal scrutiny) and giving Muslim “knowers” some kind of privileged status. Importantly, those two things are not the same: everybody here should for instance be well aware of the fact that especially liberal, secular and progressive Muslims, as well as ex-Muslims are underrepresented in many discourses about Islam while Islamist or conservative voices are overamplified by well-meaning liberals. The privileged access of Muslim “knowers” (i.e. a minority of reactionaries which are promoted based on idiotic concepts of fundamental epistemological and ethical differences between Muslims and non-Muslims) thus leads to a misrepresentation of Muslim voices in discourse and in consequence to the (self-) orientalization of Muslims.
    (3) Of course, our subjectivity is defined by our social status, economic status, our set of experience in life and our necessarily restricted point of view. And a Muslim person will make subjective experiences, which a white person has no access to. If “just” this is meant by privileged epistemic access, I agree. However, in my opinion, the concept of privileged epistemic access usually is used beyond ‘experiencing’ and extended into the realm of knowing. However, I don’t think that privileged access to e.g. moral truth claims can be derived a priori. The most we can do is give Muslim voices equal access to debate – but this is not what Zakaria wants.
    (4) There are many moral theories, which explicitly or implicitly try to consolidate or integrate various subjective points of view – for instance Rawls’ theory of justice or Habermas’ discourse ethics. None of them gives (or can give) any group’s subjectivity privileged moral status in debate. The problem is simply that privileged moral status is a bad moral premise; and as soon as you have derived the claim that a group deserves privileged moral status in ethical discourse, the ethical discourse is already over.
    (5) Away from all these abstract considerations, the big problem with the uncritical use of standpoint methodology is the fact that oppressed people’s subjectivity and identity is oftentimes shaped by their oppression. The prime example here is of course the debate about objectivity in feminism in the 1980s/1990s, where quite a few interlocutors argued that females have a special way of “knowing” – which included basically every patriarchal cliché about females as subjective, sensitive, illogical, spiritual and unsystematic thinkers in the book. The ‘otherization’ of females in society thus lead to the development of a female identity and female subjectivity which has internalized this ‘otherness’, and given their uncritical ideas of subjectivity and identity, some feminists went so far as to essentialize these ideas as something naturally female. With Muslim self-orientalization, the mechanisms were similar: due to widespread discrimination, Muslims in the West were not able to gain the same moral status, social status or social identity as their white counterparts. They were constantly exposed to orientalist images in the media, which depicted them as monolithic block of irrational, violent, and hyperreligious people. And they began to think: “It seems that as a Muslim, I must behave like this”. They thus created a false identity based on Western clichés. The problem is that all our postmodern, postcolonial and multiculturalist friends contributed to this process. In their empty fetishism of diversity, they promoted the most self-orientalized Muslims as examples of difference and gave them privileged access in media and politics – thus promoting the cycle of self-orientalisation. They declared any Muslim identity – since it is the identity of oppressed people – sacrosanct, no matter how much it was shaped and had internalised by Western discrimination. They were thus unable to see the Reislamisation as a political process, which was oftentimes forced by Western imperialist power. And people like Zakaria are the result.

  5. Eric MacDonald says

    Excellent analysis of Zakaria’s self-pitying and self-othering piece. I have to admit that I also did not have the patience to read it more than once, and found it alarmingly imprecise. The problem with it seems to be that Zakaria cannot see that her voice is only one voice in a discussion about PEN’s decision to make an award to Charlie Hebdo. Instead, she seems to assume that, since her view is different (Muslim) from others (Western), she is somehow being discriminated against, when, as the voice of the (Islamic) other, her voice should be privileged.

    The story that she tells at the beginning is very revealing. Her interpretation of the woman’s point of view as being due to the supposition that the French don’t like Muslims, is carried straight through her analysis. As Ophelia says: How does she know what was in the woman’s mind who was, Zakaria believed, “staring” at her? And indeed, perhaps we should ask whether the woman was staring or not. Perhaps she was fascinated by the henna decorations on this teenager’s arms, seeing them as peculiarly exotic. Perhaps she even admired them but dared not say anything lest she offend.

    All sorts of interpretations are possible, but she allows only one, the one that allows her to make her point about the “Muslim subjective”. But if that is what her argument is about, then she in fact makes Alain Touraine’s point for him. She quotes from Touraine’s book Un nouveau pardigme, where Touraine argues that

    we can only recognize cultural rights on the condition that [others] accept our fundamental principles, that is to say, belief in rational thought and the affirmation of personal rights on which no society and no state has the right to infringe.

    Zakaria claims that Touraine does not explain what he means by ‘rational thought’ or ‘personal rights’. Whether or not this is true, Zakaria goes out of her way to avoid the use of rational thought and respect for personal rights, arguing instead about moral injury and the Muslim subjective, both of which could easily be used to inhibit the freedom of speech she claims to prize.

    The same goes for her other assumptions about what people who disagree with her are thinking about her contribution to what could clearly be an ongoing conversation. Instead, she brings it to an abrupt end by supposing that her voice is unwelcome, that she is indeed a foreign implant instead of a participant in a discussion where views will undoubtedly differ. The fact that she never mentions that the Charlie Hebdo event, the one that was being awarded for its journalistic courage, was an Islamist act, an act which raised serious questions about the compatibility between Islam and freedom of speech (which she claims to support), is significant. For if she does indeed support freedom of speech, then what precisely is her objection to the decision of PEN to make the award that it did – since she clearly thinks that her views should somehow be privileged over the views of those who made that decision?

    Indeed, her refusal to raise any of the issues that may have weighed with PEN in making this decision is a clear indication that she believes that the fact that the award causes “moral injury” (whatever that means) to Muslims is sufficient to make the PEN award an Islamophobic act. Her decision to use that contentious word is already an indication that she has a exceedingly loose grasp on what is meant by ‘freedom of speech’.

    Whether or not this is the result of postmodernism and the product of the idea of orientalism, as veil says, is a bit more speculative, and would require considerable effort to demonstrate, I suspect. But that, writing as a Muslim, Zakaria believes her view should be privileged, as against the Western hegemonic, colonialist mentality, exemplified by the PEN award, certainly uses a rhetoric that has become intolerably common in Muslim and Middle Eastern studies over the last two or three decades. Indeed, the Muslim voice is so often privileged in Western academic discourse, that it has become almost impossible to express the kind of alarm at Muslim incursions into academic life that seems to be warranted by the resulting general tendency to stifle criticism of Islam and its frequently violent expressions of a right to primacy.

  6. says

    S Mukherjee & Eric, on the woman staring on the metro – indeed – she could so easily have been just Someone Acting Weird On Public Transportation. Anybody who uses public transportation knows that’s not unusual, and that it can often be or seem personally directed…but in a totally random way.

    Maybe Zakaria wasn’t familiar with public transportation at the time, but you’d think she could manage to re-think the metro incident now. In fact she’s sort of acting like Someone Acting Weird On Public Transportation herself, delusions of reference division. “That woman was staring at me!!!” Maybe the woman was just staring blankly straight ahead.

    If what she means by “subjectivity” is that it’s reasonable to build large assumptions and arguments on an enigmatic encounter on a subway years in the past…then I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it.

  7. Eric MacDonald says

    Emily, you ask a very good question, since so much that we do or say is premised on subjective viewpoints. This may not answer your question, but I offer it as a possible response.

    First off, I do not think there is any question that there are different subjective viewpoints. Indeed, this is inevitable, since every point of view is different from every other (this is true just with respect to our visual field, for example, and is clearly multiplied in many dimensions). It is the “epistemic access” that I have some trouble with.

    Zakaria uses the idea of Muslim subjectivity (as if there were a unique subjectivity possessed by all Muslims to which Muslims, but not others, have immediate epistemic access). The insistence on such supposed subjectivities, and reference to them in justifying argument, would make rational argument and discussion virtually impossible. Indeed, this is what stymies practically every effort to speak intelligibly about the relationship between Islam and Western values, such as freedom of speech and the rule of (secular) law.

    To take a non-Muslim example, I think that Andrea Dworkin’s radical view that all “penetrative” sex constitutes rape (even though she contested that interpretation of her work) nearly derailed the feminist project, since it prompted a fair amount of male misogynistic backlash to the feminist project. The point about epistemic access to subjective states is that, to have any objective weight, it must find consistently resonating subjectivities in a reasonably large cross-section of society, with objective follow on effects which can then be discussed rationally.

    Zakaria presupposes that resonance, but she fails to make distinctions within her presupposed Muslim subjectivity, supposing implicitly that her subjectivity is somehow paradigmatic of Muslim subjectivity. She further fails to show that Muslim subjectivity, as she understands it, has consistent follow on effects with respect to rational argument, freedom of speech, and other values she claims to prize. Indeed, her argument does not follow the general canons of rational discourse, and presupposes a privileged subjectivity which there is little reason to suppose actually exists. She appears to think that that subjectivity can be harmed morally simply by offence prompted by the exercise of free speech, even though she claims to prize free speech, which implies that she thinks that Muslim subjectivity is sufficient to justify limitations on free speech. A rational defence of that position would have to go far beyond any assumption about privileged epistemic access to a point of view.

  8. Eric MacDonald says

    Mukherjee’s point (why did I miss it, I wonder?) hits the nail right on the head! I remember once taking the train from London to Oxford. Canadian trains do not have first and second class comparments (although I should have been familiar with the “class” system, since Indian trains have first, second and third class compartments), so I sat down in the first coach that pressented itself. I was certainly not dressed in a “first class” way, and I was stared at with obvious contempt, until someone kindly pointed out that if I had a second class ticket I should move down to a second class coach. I got no stares from the occupants when I did so.

    An interesting addendum to this story is that in my later years in India, first and second class compartments were not air conditioned, but there were some new third class coaches that were, so if was often an advantage to travel third class in hot weather, even though seating was not cushioned.

  9. johnthedrunkard says

    And why the amnesia over the question of Islamic ‘imperialism/racism/hegemony?’ They certainly are more recent than ‘crusaderism’ among Europeans. And Zakaria’s trope may be a reflection of them in itself.

  10. Eric MacDonald says

    Johnthedrunkard, there is no amnesia where I am concerned regarding Islamic imperialism/racism/hegemony. The crusades, brutal as they were, were no more brutal than other warfare at the time, and, while there may have been many divergent aims of the crusades (indicated by the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204, after Latin Christians had been massacred by Orthodox Christians, after the so-called Great Schism of 1054), the imperialistic drive of Islam made them a necessity to protect Europe from being overcome by Islam, quite aside from the recapture of Christian holy places, or the protection of Eastern Christians.

    That this is the case is evident from the fact that Spain (except for the Northwest) well on the way to being conquered by Muslims by the early eighth century, and Islam’s thrust into France was defeated as early as 732. Nor did the crusades probe deeply into what was then Islamic territory. The crusaders were not colonialists, but were responding to a genuine threat from growing Islamic hegemony over (formerly) Christian lands. This threat had been in effect for centuries to the (Eastern) Byzantine Empire, as well as the Balkans (including Greece), and was only finally defeated at the gates of Vienna in 1683. The number of Europeans sold as slaves in the slave markets of Islamic lands is reckoned in the hundreds of thousands, if not well over a million. Given that history, the idea that Muslim immigration into Europe and other “Western” nations may be perceived as an attempt (even a veiled attempt) to defeat European powers and values, is not ridiculous, as the Salafist movement very clearly indicates.

    The lack of Western Christian support for persecuted Christians in Islamic countries, where they have lived for centuries, is an indication of a serious failure of historical memory in the West. You can be sure that Muslims have not forgotten the Reconquista of Spain or the defeat of Muslim forces in 1683.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *