Rejecting Westocentrism

By BOUTHAINA SHAABAN

In a meeting with a distinguished group of female Philippines journalists (editors, op- ed writers, major TV hosts) in Manila last week, I found out that their questions about the Arab world, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the conditions in Palestine, Iraq and Iran, are based on information obtained from western media.  I saw the surprise on their faces when I rephrased their questions from an Arab, or rather realistic, view of events on the ground, and as lived by the peoples of these countries.  A short while after the beginning of the meeting, I discovered that the journalists, who cannot be described as hostile to Arab rights and causes, do not know anything about the Arab perspective of any of the issues covered by western media which base their coverage on the Israeli versions of reality, terminology and view of things.

The first question was how I would compare the condition of Arab women with the achievements of western women in terms of rights, independence and freedom.  I was also asked whether all Arab women still wear all-covering gowns and about the ratio of men who marry more than one wife.  When a well-known political editor asked about our position towards Iran’s nuclear activities and the problems the west is facing with Iran, I asked her whether she knew that Iran was a signatory of the NPT which allows it to possess nuclear knowledge and peaceful nuclear power, while Israel is not a signatory of the NPT, possesses over 200 nuclear heads, occupies Arab land by force and kills Palestinians and expels them from their villages and cities on a daily basis and builds settlements on the ruins of Palestinian homes, history and civilization.
There was no question about the Gaza blockade which has turned into a policy of genocide in the 21st century which, South African lawyers acknowledge, has become worse than the apartheid that prevailed in South Africa in the 20th century.  Neither was there a question about the Goldstone report and the thousands of crimes committed by Israel in Gaza, nor on secret Israeli jails which have within their walls 3,000 Palestinians since 2000 and in which extremely serious crimes against Palestinian prisoners are committed under international silence.  Lawyers and the ICRC are not even allowed to know where there prisons are.  Israeli occupation troops use the most brutal methods of torture against prisoners, including physical abuse and rape.  There were no questions about Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes on a daily basis, building settlements on the ruins of these homes and turning the Palestinians into refugees on and outside their land.  There were no questions about the effects of the American occupation of Iraq which left over a million widows and more than two million orphans.
While I tried to answer questions with information and facts about Arab rights and the crimes committed by Israel since 1948 against Arabs as a result of a Zionist settler strategy, targeting intellectuals in Iraq and the disasters caused to the country as a result of brutal occupation, I acknowledged to the journalists that I do not blame them for the lack of facts in their questions because western media are the only conduit between east and west,
I wondered about what we all know about Afghanistan, for instance, and what is happening in it and in Pakistan except through western media.  What do Arabs know about China, India and Russia; and what do these countries know about Arabs except through western media?  In a moment of real dialogue, we agreed that this is the most dangerous thing about the international condition in the modern age.  We also agreed that changing this reality should be a priority for countries of the east and the south.
For instance, can one imagine that the most popular books in the International Islamic Book Fair, held in New Delhi recently, were about divorce, terrorism and banking?  If we take into account that most of these books have been written either in the United States or the United Kingdom, we realize the danger of reproducing the western evaluation and image of Islam and Muslims themselves, which means that they look at themselves, at their religion and culture in a western mirror.
What are we supposed to make of Barbie wearing the veil and chador on her 50th anniversary in a charity auction in Florence, Italy.  The rationale of the exhibition was that it was essential for girls throughout the world to feel free to express their real image.  The fact of the matter was  enhancement of  the image of the veil and chador as the only image for Muslim women, reducing them to an appearance considered by the west an evidence of injustice to women in the Muslim world and their inability to be effective, respectable members of their society.
Talking about the importance of cultural dialogue and the ignorance which characterizes people’s understanding of their civilizations and the events taking place on their land, Philippines specialists pointed out that Spanish colonialism which lasted over 300 years left no clear cultural influence which forces dependence on Spanish culture, while American colonialism, which lasted only 50 years, left cultural, educational and institutional dependence which is difficult to break.  It can be argued that neo-colonialism in the 21st century is cultural and western by nature, and that the Arabs, who, in the past, gave the world extremely important discoveries in all sciences are the most prominent victims of this colonialism.  The Arabic language is being subjected to unprecedented neglect, and local intellectual production which expresses the Arab condition and Arab issues in an attractive manner is at its lowest level. 
Regional groupings could be one of the effective responses to ‘westrocentrism’; and communication between these groupings in the future will be the real breakthrough out of westrocentrism and replacing it at least with a multi-polar world where countries of the world restore their status, sense of importance and their contribution to the progress and prosperity of humanity.  ASEAN has lifted visa restrictions between its member states and opened up free trade and active economic, cultural and political exchange between its countries.  Latin American countries are setting up a cultural, economic and political space resistant to American hegemony which used to consider the countries of Latin America its backyard.  Most countries of the world are waking up from their fascination with the English language and are restoring the prestige of their local languages in education and the production of culture and knowledge.  Look at Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, receiving Iran’s president despite western ire against this step which is a clear expression of self confidence and independence of western hegemony.
The question is: when will the Arabs see that their salvation lies in cherishing and protecting their language and producing science and knowledge in this language.  And when will they see that creating a regional bloc with the Arabs as a major player is the only salvation of the Arab future and integration into the new world order in which the countries of Asia and Latin America are gaining real independence intellectually, scientifically, politically and economically.
There is no doubt that real independence lies in abandoning the western mirror in which we misperceive ourselves and, instead, in communicating with others who share our goal in order to produce a future in which all components of human civilization flourish far away from westrocentrism based on extermination of indigenous peoples, pillaging the wealth of the planet for the benefit of western countries and pushing the rest of humanity into the cycle of poverty and inactivity. 
The thousand-mile-trip starts with one step; and the first step is to break this mirror and look instead in the color of the soil of our countries and the faces of our children, and expressing ourselves in our language and putting trust in our thought, causes and our capability to be real contributors to the prosperity of humanity and to the protecting of human freedom and dignity.
Bouthaina Shaaban is Political and Media Advisor at the Syrian Presidency, and former Minister of Expatriates. She is also a writer and professor at Damascus University since 1985. She has been the spokesperson for Syria and was nominated for Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. She can be reached through nizar_kabibo@yahoo.com