Updated 22 Nov 2020


Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

In philosophy and literary criticism, the term ‘the other’ means an entity which is constructed to define the self. According to J. Miller in The Sage Encyclopaedia of Quantitative Research Methods, ‘the other’ is the opposite of the self. Both are perceptions though, constructed by an individual, community or the state. For example, the Nazis in Germany perceived the Jews as being racially inferior compared to the pure Aryan races. So the imperfect Jews were constructed as ‘the other’ to define the perfectness of the Aryans (white Germanic races). 

The self in this respect can be an individual or an ideology belonging to a perceived social, religious or political whole that can only be defined in contrast to ‘the other’ which is either explained as being inferior, different or even threatening to the whole. The nationalist idea which led to the creation of Pakistan was almost entirely based on this. Muslim nationalism in India could only be defined in contrast to Hindu majoritarianism (the other) which was explained as being ‘culturally different’ and politically threatening to the Muslim community of the region.

In the same way, Hindu nationalism cannot be defined without the construction of the Muslim other. The self in this context can only reassure and strengthen its perceived self-image by assuring the assumed dissimilarities of ‘the other.’

Scholars such as Edward Said and the postmodernist philosopher Michel Foucault severely castigated the self as an agent of conformity. To bolster the power and self-image of social and political conformity (of an ‘elite’), it demonised non-conformists as ‘the other.’ To Said, the act of European colonialists of imagining the colonised native as an uncouth, entirely sensual and overtly emotional being, was an act of enhancing the self-image of the superiority of the European self in contrast to the oriental other. 

In his 1961 book, Madness and Civilisation, Foucault argues that the conventional idea of madness was a ‘social construct’ imposed by a conformist elite upon those who refused to conform. Years later, Foucault went on to praise the 1979 ‘Islamic Revolution’ in Iran by deriding western powers for demonising Ayatollah Khomeini as ‘the other.’ According to the Lebanese author Kim Ghattas, in her book Black Wave, Foucault did not retract his support for Khomeini even when he established an authoritarian theocracy and ordered the execution of hundreds of Iranian men and women. 

‘The Other’ is used to define ‘the Self’ in its contrast. But ‘self-Orientalism’, ironically, looks towards assumed Western authority for validation

On the other hand, according to the critics of Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism,’ Said clubbed together a diverse array of colonised peoples of Africa and Asia as a homogenous whole and then defined this abstract totality in contrast to a ruthless European colonial set-up. In other words, to define a perceived homogenous self, he created ‘the other’ in the shape of a colonial European elite, which was dismissed, in a rather binary manner, as being an entirely evil entity. This is understood as ‘Occidentalism.’ 

This can imply that ‘the other’ is not always passive. But on occasions, rather ironically, it strikes back, not by overturning how it is being perceived and demonised by a conformist collective-self, but by actually becoming exactly that. Foucault praised Iran’s revolution as a ‘spiritual’ event which was not understood by the ‘non-spiritual’ West. He believed this was why the West was demonising Khomeini as being fanatical and mad. Yet, in response, Khomeini intensified this image of him as a way to differentiate ‘Islamic Iran’ from secular West. He moulded a collective Islamic self in Iran in contrast to a Western secular other. 

This often leads to what is known as ‘self-Orientalism’ or when ‘the other’ begins to behave exactly how a collective-self portrays and perceives it as being. The idea is either to own the characteristics and labels given to it by the collective-self and weave them into an aggressive ideology against the collective-self, or to own these labels and present them as being as superior as that to the collective-self. Khomeini owned the label given to him by Western governments of being ‘a fanatic’ and used it to intimidate the West, and on the other hand, normalise it as an ethos in Iran. Muslim radicals around the world followed suit. 

Things in this respect are even more intriguing in India. For decades, self-Orientalism in India meant producing cultural and spiritual products that were designed according to how ‘mystical, magical and spiritual’ India was perceived in the West. This ploy was good for business and public relations. But ‘the other’ was missing. This made Indians seem entirely passive and, as the historian Markus Daechsel demonstrates in his book The Urdu Middle-class Milieu in Mid-twentieth Century India, this image was problematic and too ‘effeminate’ for Hindu nationalists, especially compared to the ‘masculinity’ of some forms of Muslim nationalism.

After 2014, once Hindu nationalists gained an overwhelming majority in the parliament, they began to create a ‘masculine’ self-image and a collective-self in contrast to ‘the other’: i.e. The Indian Muslim community. Ironically, decades earlier, by creating a Hindu other to define his idea of Muslim nationalism, this is exactly what Jinnah was warning about. So, in a way, Hindu nationalists eventually decided to own and then flex the label that Jinnah gave them. That of being hegemonic and a threat to India’s Muslim community. 

Self-Orientalism is often used by tourism industries to cater to the ‘Orientalist’ perceptions of the West. But even if some practitioners of Self-Orientalism pose as being anti-colonial and authentic (as in being non-Western, or more spiritual), they are usually overtly conscious of how the West is perceiving them. During the 2013 elections in Pakistan, campaign commercials of Imran Khan’s centre-right party, the PTI, showed a Pakistani being gladly welcomed by an immigration officer (in a blonde wig), presumably in a European country. Here the post-colonial self was seeking validation from a post-colonial Western other. 

Sometimes ‘indigenous’ acts are performed just to gain traction from Westerners. Some believe more Muslim women voluntarily wear the hijab in western cities than they do in Muslim cities. In a 2003 interview the former chief of Jamaat-i-Islami, the late Qazi Hussain Ahmad, gave to Nawa-i-Waqt, he said there was nothing wrong in behaving or looking religious ‘because the West is more appreciative of this than it is by those Muslims behaving like Westerners.’

These are examples of how self-Orientalism looks towards the West for validation. In the last two cases, an image was adopted (of religiosity) to attract attention (and maybe praise) of ‘the others’ by confirming its perceptions of a ‘pious Muslim.’

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 22nd, 2020