To Avoid Being Stereotyped, the Arab World Must Acknowledge and Fix Its Own Flaws

In August, Israa Ghrayeb, a 21-year-old Palestinian woman, was beaten to death. Her family claimed she had fallen from a second-floor window, but three of her male relatives have since been charged with her murder. Her apparent crime was to post a video of herself having dinner with her fiancé and his sister.

The death of a blameless young woman has provoked widespread outrage at the culture of so-called “honor killing” in Arab and Muslim societies. It has also caused others to leap to the defense of those societies, arguing that misogyny and the violence that accompanies it is a global affliction and not restricted to Arabs and/or Muslims.

It was the late Palestinian-American academic, Edward Said, who first came up with the concept of “Orientalism” in 1978. Orientalism, Said argued, represents the collection of stereotypes through which the West purports to “understand” the Middle East. For anti-colonialists – close relatives of Orientalists – those stereotypes are proof that the colonial powers failed to understand the people they colonized. Honor killing is one of the stereotypes unjustly attributed to Muslims and Arabs, so the argument goes. But it is no stereotype. Nor is it an aspect of misogyny. It is, in fact, worse: it is a reality.

Though women are the main victims, honor killing falls under the Islamist concept of “promotion of virtue and prevention of vice.” For many Arabs and Muslims, this involves the restoration of some long-ago, supposedly perfect society that exists only in their imagination. But the myth is used to justify killing adulterers (of both sexes) or homosexuals or men who are perceived as effeminate, such as the Iraqi teenager whose murder by stabbing was recorded by his killer. “Emos” (short for “emotional”), young people who follow a Western-derived trend, are another target, their tight clothes and body piercings regarded as deviant. In Lebanon, a non-Druze man who married a Druze woman had his penis cut by relatives of the bride.

In the West, hate crimes are mostly racially motivated and at times homophobic in character. But almost no Western country has vigilantes who take it upon themselves to dictate what is acceptable sexual behavior or what people should wear or drink. This type of self-appointed “social policing” is a characteristic of Muslim societies and varies from the strict – as in Iran and regions controlled by the Taliban or ISIS – to the relaxed, as in Lebanon or Tunisia.

Honor killing, therefore, is not part of the “toxic masculinity” that Western Orientalists and anti-colonialists have ascribed to the Arab world. It is a flaw in Muslim society and it can be rectified only if that society is prepared to look inward at itself rather than blaming outsiders.

Indeed, not even Said himself was immune to Orientalism. After all, he was trained in the West, he lived and worked in New York and his connections in the Middle East were limited to an elite circle. He was as guilty of stereotyping the Middle East as some of the people he criticized.

For example, Said advocated sovereignty for the Arabs of Palestine. But sovereignty is a European concept. Throughout their history, sovereignty for Arabs has been connected not to land but to a ruler, to whom they pledged allegiance. Like Native Americans, Arabs considered territory to be a public utility, free and available for all. Arab tribes used to roam with the seasons in pursuit of water and greenery. When Britain and France refused to grant Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, control over territory in western Jordan and eastern Syria populated by tribes loyal to him, the Saudi king got round the problem by issuing Saudi passports to the tribesmen. With dual nationality, they could continue wandering through the land as they had for generations.

Borders, sovereignty, citizenship – these are all Western constructs. Applying them to nations like Palestine was itself a form of Orientalism. The map of Palestine was drawn by foreign powers from three provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Palestine had never naturally evolved into a state and it would not exist today if it were not for the colonial powers that Said and his ilk despise.

However, globalization has given Orientalism a shake-up. Technology has spread information wholesale and with almost every human now able to connect with another through social media, stereotypes have melted away. It is hard now for a Westerner, no matter how insular, to retain the old image that prevailed in the 1970s of Arabs living in tents and commuting by camel.

Globalization has also touched identity politics. Many Arabs and Muslims perceive US Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar as their representatives in Washington, a role both Congresswomen are willing to play. The problem is that their Arabism and their Islamism are modified by their American experience; they are not like Arabs and Muslims born and raised in Arab or Muslim societies, which makes Tlaib and Omar rather Orientalist, too. Like many Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans, their understanding of Arab and Muslim problems and how to solve them is as bad as the Orientalism that they detest.

But bashing colonialism and Orientalism won’t solve the problems either. On the contrary, it will only conceal them behind global trends. The West might be able to offer the tools – academic and otherwise – to enable non-Westerners to fix the weaknesses in their societies and develop a self-governing method that might grow into democracy. But to eradicate an abomination such as honor killing, Arabs and Muslims must first acknowledge its existence and take ownership of it. Only then will their perception of their own society cease to be Orientalist.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.