According to Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism, the western perception of the Middle East is clouded systematically and structurally to the point that even actual experiences are casted in the same light of ‘mysticism’ and ‘strangeness’ of all past depictions, creating an oriental blind spot for many in the West. He specifically identifies this as being especially present for Europeans, for whom the Middle East has been the locale and source of much of their history, while Americans typically associate the Orient with the Far East.
However, I want to discuss specifically the impact of Orientalism upon the Western perception of Afghanistan and America’s 20-year war there which ended last year. The US first sent troops to Afghanistan following the attacks of 9/11 upon the twin towers to seek out and kill Osama Bin Laden, eventually doing so in 2011. However, the rest of the years were spent on a nation-building project to move Afghanistan from a Taliban-led religious state to one organized around a democracy, something which has obviously not been effective in the long run, given that the Afghan government backed by the United States fell in mere weeks following the official withdrawal of US forces.
However, despite the continuous efforts (or perhaps more aptly described as ‘failings’) of the US to build up the Afghan nation in a ‘democratic’ image over the past 4 presidential administrations, what remains striking is how the perception of the Afghan people has changed and not changed. Even with the continued interaction between the US and Afghanistan, the overall image of Afghanistan has remained as a place where conservative Islamic values hold sway and a place to be bombed indiscriminately, no matter who is fighting or why. This image has only been reinforced as American attempts to ‘civilize’ the nation have failed drastically, making it seem as if the Afghan people could never hold to western values and ideals for fundamental social, political, and historical reasons. The problem with this image, however, is that it lacks a lot of nuance. The nation-building first commenced by the Bush administration, for all of its flaws, has made progress in emphasizing women’s rights and increasing the literacy rate, and the apparent exodus of Afghans following the Taliban victory also seems to indicate that there is not as much appetite for Taliban rule as might be perceived.
Afghanistan is now wracked by a series of humanitarian crises, several of which are triggered by the freezing of government assets (now Taliban assets) outside of the country. It seems that American perception of Afghanistan has taken on a new dimension, being that since Afghanistan has proven impervious to change, we should take no efforts to do so. It will be interesting to see how Orientalism will continue to affect our views of the Middle East, for better or worse, as the region continues to develop and change.