Cultural imperialism is not a new or foreign idea. For centuries the Western world has stood as a self-proclaimed beacon of enlightenment, as a giant under whose feet the rest of us must kneel and strive to please or else be deemed uncouth, backwards, barbaric. Only recently has there been any discussion of the possibility that maybe the West is wrong, and that difference is an idea to be celebrated rather than demonised. Your curly, frizzy hair? Beautiful. Your ‘odd- smelling’ food? Delicious! Your music, and history, and cultural experience? Wonderful, insightful and valid.
A class on race that I attended a semester or so ago required that we get into groups for an assignment. We were asked to critically analyse a set of readings, and then link what the readings were saying to the messages being communicated in a designated Malaysian film: Sepet, directed by Yasmin Ahmad. My group decided that each of our members should work on a specific reading, compile notes, and then communicate what they had found to the rest of the group once they were done.
Working with these people was eye- opening and disheartening. It became apparent that while university may teach students to think critically, this analytical inclinination does not extend to analysis of non-western texts. One particular reading was written by Gaik Cheng Khoo, an academic who grew up in Malaysia, but was educated primarily in Western universities in Western countries. Her arguments and perspectives on the effect of Islam on Malay tradition are accordingly tainted; she writes with a pen dipped in the ink of western political discourse. She claims that ‘many Malay women feel the necessity to wear the tudung (headscarf)’, that these women ‘claim the act of putting
on the tudung is voluntary’, and then, quite ironically, cites Judith Butler, a western theorist, to describe these women as ‘gendered “docile” Muslim bodies’.
Discrediting Muslim women who state continuously that their wearing of the headscarf is voluntary is a western practice, whether it be in the media or inside the westernised hive mind. ‘Docile’ to the west is not necessarily what ‘docile’ is in other cultures or religions, and in a non-western sense, ‘docile’ can just as easily refer to individuals who conform to western social pressures. Yet no matter how many times Muslim women say that it’s their choice to wear the scarf the West comes along to say that no, they must be lying as a result of their ‘oppressive’ religion. In instances where a particular cultural perspective is key to the construction of a piece, other perspectives must make room for it and seek to understand it for what it is, rather than imposing themselves onto it.
Even the idea of Islam as an ‘oppressive’ faith is a western construct, and Cheng’s argument falls into this trap. Saying that ‘Islam already imposes on Muslim bodies “constraints, prohibitions, or obligations” such as observing the five pillars of Islam’is a statement that is not founded in research. The constraining, prohibiting limits of the five pillars to which Cheng refers to include believing in God, praying five times a day, giving charity, fasting in Ramadan, and going to Hajj if you’re able to do so. These are not constrictions, they are not limits. To classify them as ‘strict regimes of regulated social behaviour’ is to make Islam seem like a 1984-esque situation, where Muslims lack individuality and the capacity to think. And if you’re thinking ‘but ISIS!’ then please stop, because the idea that ISIS even remotely represents Islam is a western construct too, and only serves to prove my point that westernised ideals govern our thoughts and render us incapable of thinking for ourselves.
Unfortunately, a lot of work still needs to be done before we can shed the westernised predispositions that we’ve consciously or subconsciously taken on. As it is, we latch on to a mainstream, westernised frame of thinking, and use that both to govern our way of producing thoughts and our way of communicating them. Not only is this reductive, but it runs the risk of encouraging westernised views of non-western art, culture, and history, and in doing so, removes a lot of the value and significance of those non- western modes of expression. Just as I would not be qualified to comment on the cultural happenings within a Korean text, so too is the West unqualified to speak on non-western cultural artefacts before at least understanding exactly why and how the text was made in the way it was.
More recently, I was in a class where we were discussing the Middle-Eastern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The Al-Hamlet Summit. I got increasingly uncomfortable as the class progressed. According to my classmates, the corrupt Claudius dressed in a burqa was supposedly an affirmation of the West’s excessive demonisation of the veil. And the end of the play, in which Hamlet adopted the quintessential radicalist attitude of the Islamic terrorist, was perceived and discussed as an assertion of Western views of Islam as a religion capable only of inciting political and social crime.
These western assessments of a non- western text were not only reductionist, but also wrong. In a readily available TEDx talk, the director Al-Bassam explicitly states that he was trying to challenge the corrupt Middle-Eastern politics which censors the kind of art and cultural expression that challenges and deviates from the government’s status quo. He thus posits art, his art and specifically, his adaptation of Hamlet, as an instigator and catalyst for his vision of an ‘open society’, in which sectarianism and fear associated with cultural, religious, and political divisions can be reconciled and different people can understand one another. The ‘representations [we make] of ourselves’, he says, can ‘help create solutions to [social] fear without reactionism, because it is reactionism that not only allows people to think in extremist ways, it’s also reactionism that, I think, feeds the fear that eats up the society itself ’.
His text is one which sought to ‘put the English-speaking spectator inside the Arab spectator in Kuwait and Tunisia’, but which failed to ‘fascilitate that cultural leap into such unfamiliar territory’ because perhaps that audience, like the one in my class, could not discard their western predispositions for a moment and understand the significant difference and value in the non-western issues and ideas being presented.
Cultural imperialism is a very real problem, and when it occurs within the classroom it’s very scary. Societies are built from within classrooms, from the people whose ideas and perspectives go on to shape our world, and if those people are incapable of seeing this world through anything but the lens of one culture, then our society will continue to be built on ideas that are narrow, exclusionary, and imperialist.