Iran and ‘opposite orientalism’
Orientalism, which emerged in the late 1970s in Western academia, is defined as the Western sense of superiority over the East. This includes stereotyping, patronization and distortion regarding the Middle East.
The concept in turn shaped new generations of highly educated people who began to feel that the East is the victim of the West. They started criticizing their own Western governments for imperialism, colonialism and suppression of Easterners, and for not respecting the cultural and religious authenticity of the Middle East. Soon, people avoided making comments that would characterize them as orientalist. Calling someone orientalist became an insult.
In studying orientalism, Arab nations were originally thought to be the victims of the West. But for some reason Western academia and media included Iran and began depicting it as a victim as well. It seemed easier to fit all Middle Eastern countries in one category. Pro-Iran “experts” were determined to spread this narrative in various sectors, including academia and think thanks. This gave Tehran a powerful tool to advance its parochial and political interests.
Iran is exploiting the issue via what I call “opposite orientalism.” The concept — rarely written about in media outlets, and of which many Western scholars are unaware — entails six conditions.
First, politicians, leaders, agents and “experts” of a country that is projected as a victim (in this case Iran) abuse their “victimhood” status and take advantage of a sense of guilt in some parts of the Western public. They exploit orientalism, constantly criticize the West and use it as a scapegoat for their aggressions and illegal actions.
Second, they suppress and dehumanize their own people. Third, they pursue imperialistic and colonial policies in pursuit of superiority and hegemony. Fourth, they stereotype the West. Fifth, they stereotype their own religious and ethnic minorities, and other religious and ethnic groups in the region. Sixth, they justify their actions in the name of cultural, social and religious authenticity.
Tehran and Western pro-Iran ‘experts’ have mastered using Western theories that are critical of the West itself. Tehran heavily relies on these ‘experts’ to influence Western public opinion. They are often successful in this regard.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
To buttress its arguments and advance its revolutionary values, Tehran and Western pro-Iran “experts” have mastered using Western theories that are critical of the West itself. Tehran heavily relies on these “experts” to influence Western public opinion. They are often successful in this regard.
This issue has become more widespread recently as Tehran began using Western-educated Iranians domestically as well, such as Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani, who are familiar with Western thinking.
Tehran also repeatedly invites Western “scholars” who harshly criticize Western orientalism and depict Iran as a victim or ignore its aggressions and abuses. Conferences and media outlets such as Press TV are filled with such commentators.
Victim or victimizer?
The ruling clerics repeatedly argue they are in power to make Iran independent from the West and its orientalism. Tens of thousands of people have been executed, and many tortured and imprisoned, for being labeled collaborators with orientalist Westerners.
Any Western criticism is attacked and depicted as part of an orientalist agenda (though Tehran is allowed to criticize the West and interfere in its politics). This has allowed Iran’s political establishment to consolidate its power and shape a new social order to control its population more easily.
In opposite orientalism, Iran is the victimizer and aggressor. It represses and dehumanizes its own people. The political establishment stereotypes, alienates and abuses ethnic and religious minorities. It justifies human rights violations as part of Iran’s cultural and Shiite authenticity. Tehran’s stereotypes have extended to other countries in the region and non-Shiites, such as Sunni Arabs. It is time for the West to take notice of opposite orientalism.
• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated, Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. He serves on the boards of the Harvard International Review, the Harvard International Relations Council and the US-Middle East Chamber for Commerce and Business. He can be reached on Twitter @Dr_Rafizadeh.