Sophisticated Orientalism in the New York Times

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As part of the New York Times‘s coverage of the rising tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the paper included an article today titled “How Do Sunni and Shia Islam Differ?”  The piece described the 7th century schism in Islam in some detail, and summarized the differences in religious beliefs.  The implication is that this ancient historical information will help readers understand what is happening now.

This is sophisticated but still classic Orientalism: the belief that “Islam” (in this case, two types of “Islam”) has a timeless, unchanging essence that governs how its adherents will act in the present.

Enter Marc Lynch, the distinguished Mideast scholar at George Washington University who has also blogged and tweeted for years @abuaardvark.  In the Washington Post, Lynch gets straight to the point:

“The idea of an unending, primordial conflict between Sunnis and Shiites explains little about the ebbs and flows of regional politics.  This is not a resurgence of a 1,400-year-old conflict.”

Lynch goes to convincingly explain that Saudi aggressiveness, as shown by the January 2 execution of the Saudi Shiite cleric and activist Nimr al-Nimr, is motivated by political reality today, including the kingdom’s fear that it is weakening regionally after the Iran deal, and that its brutal intervention in Yemen has bogged down.

In some sense, the mistaken Orientalist explanation for Saudi behavior is less painful than Lynch’s interpretation.  If the monarchy’s rising hostility were truly deeply theological, you could at least say their religious passion meant they couldn’t help themselves. But the fact is the Saudi king coldly executed Nimr al-Nimr mainly just to gain regional strategic advantage.

Let’s try a thought experiment to see the absurdity of Orientalist analysis.  Let’s say Germany and France got into a dispute over the future of Europe.  Would the New York Times run a sidebar informing its readers about Martin Luther and the rise of Protestant Germany in the 16th century, and the religious differences with Catholic France?

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“thought experiment”……?

They (NYT) absolutely might. It wouldn’t be out of character. Edward SaidCerritos wrongly gave the liberal academy of the West the most negative interpretation of ‘orientalism’ that never existed previous to his tome. In the past there was an occident and an orient and the same amount of bigots and racists in both realms.

Orientalism is exactly what the NYT is proposing. James North gave a hypothetical example. Let’s go with some actual history: the 30 years war (1618-1648) that raged in Europe, especially in Germany. Nearly all the major powers in Europe were involved. The public justification for the war was religious: Protestant vs Catholic. However, Catholic France was aligned with the major Protestant countries. IMHO this proves that the French leaders were not motivated by religion, IOW… Read more »

How many times have you seen the terms Shiite Sunni split in the newspapers? I’ll answer for you, enough times that these terms deserve a definition. Now James North informs us that these terms don’t need a definition and if someone does define them then Mister North has his own definition for them: orientalists. Let us assume that Mister North is correct that the Saudi Iranian tensions have very little to do with the definitions… Read more »

I disagree with both, the NYTs and the WaPos explanation for the Saudi-Iranian spat. For the Saudi execution of Sheikh Nimr, I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that there was no much Saudi calculus behind it, but just blind sectarian rage, and maybe also a desire of revenge for the killing of Saudi-backed militant leader Zahran Alloush in an airstrike near Damascus. Regarding the underlining world view, I do believe that the Saudi… Read more »

It certainly isn’t enough to explain the doctrinal differences, but it shouldn’t be assumed that they are totally irrelevant to the social, political, and economic factors in the Sunni-Shi’i division. Historically Shi’ism arose as a rebellion against caliphs seen as corrupt (after the first four “righteous” caliphs) in the name of the original Islam, and in Sunni-dominated countries such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Lebanon Shi’ism still has this character as a rebellion… Read more »