The Reverse Orientalism of the Arab Spring

by Sarah Kendzior on 1/16/2012 · 13 comments

In 1978, Edward Said defined orientalism as “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” The Muslim world, he argued, is rarely seen as significant and complex in its own right, but derives its significance from its relationship with the West: a comparative framework that guarantees a delusory bias. The Orient is the West’s “surrogate and underground self”, an “Other” that allows the West to define its cultural identity while justifying its imperialist goals.

Though ostensibly meant to include the broader Muslim world, the theory of orientalism has never worked well with Central Asia. As I’ve previously noted, Central Asia is “not the “other” but the other’s “other” — Russia’s orient, a region whose history and political complexities are poorly understood even by some who proclaim to be experts; a region whose best-known ambassador is Borat. Unlike the Arab world, Central Asia is not demonized and degraded in the Western public imagination: it is disregarded. The region connotes nothing – except perhaps obscurity itself.

There is a certain irony, therefore, in the new identity that has been forged on Central Asia since January 2011: that of the Arab world’s aspirational doppelganger. Since revolution first broke out in Tunisia and Egypt, countless analysts have speculated about whether unrest would “spread” from the Arab world to Central Asia. Never mind that comparatively little has “spread” from the Arab world to Central Asia in recent years (hyberbolic claims of Hizb-ut Tahrir domination notwithstanding), or that Central Asians sometimes take a dim view of these revolutions, or that the Soviet legacy shapes Central Asian politics far more than anything taking place abroad. Instead, Central Asia is often presented as a Middle East in training: they are Muslims, they have oil, they have dictators, so their policies and protests must have the Arab Spring as their guiding impulse.

Central Asia is not unique in this regard. Hundreds of riots, rampages, strikes, skirmishes and complaints the world over have been labeled “the next Arab Spring” by analysts eager to understand not only where the Arab revolutions are going, but how they spread in the first place. What differs is that the social, political and cultural conditions of most revolutionary contenders are analyzed, whereas for Central Asia, they are assumed. Occupy Wall Street, for example, is often said to be influenced by the Arab Spring — because the protesters themselves have claimed this affiliation. Russia, to name a closer case, is said to be entering a period of political unrest — and the complexities of this situation, as well as its key players, are thoroughly debated. In contrast, few Central Asians have predicted uprisings in their own region. Most claim the opposite. Yet nearly every story about Central Asian politics carries a perfunctory reference to the Arab Spring, with the result that protests and policies that emerge in reaction to domestic strife – as was the case in Kazakhstan – are assumed to reflect and respond to events abroad.

In this way, Central Asia is a region subject to a strange sort of “reverse orientalism” – a region deemed meaningful only by virtue of its similarity to the Arab world. This is particularly unfortunate because, as Rami G. Khouri observes, “the popularity of the ‘Arab Spring’ term across the Western world quietly mirrors some subtle Orientalism at work, lumping all Arabs as a single mass of people who all think and behave the same way.” Much as the mainstream Western press often fails to distinguish between individual Arab countries, it also fails to distinguish between the Arab world and Central Asia, emphasizing broad, sweeping similarities – religion, resources, repression – while playing down the sharp differences in politics, social life and history that determine the likelihood of political change.

One could argue that focusing on these differences obscures the fact that seemingly stable regimes are falling fast. The number of dictatorships that have been overthrown in the past year prompts big questions: How do revolutions spread – if they can be said to spread at all? How does technology create awareness of dissent and revolt among disparate populations? How well does revolutionary currency travel? Answering these questions requires a comprehensive approach. But if one is going to speculate about the prospect of revolution in a particular place, then the political particularities of that place must be given equally serious consideration.

“The worst aspect of this essentializing stuff,” wrote Said, “is that human suffering in all its density and pain is spirited away.” Predicting a “Kazakh Spring” after an incident like the shootings in Zhanaozen trivializes both the struggles of Arab dissidents and the pain of Kazakhs who endured a serious, but unrelated, tragedy. Similarly, not every move a Central Asian dictator makes is in reaction to uprisings in the Middle East. Censorship and repression have a long history in Central Asia – yet they fail to merit media attention unless they are linked to a more popular plight.

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Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who studies politics and the internet in the former Soviet Union. She has a PhD in cultural anthropology from Washington University in Saint Louis and an MA in Central Eurasian Studies from Indiana University. Her research has been published in many academic journals and media outlets, including American Ethnologist, Central Asian Survey, Demokratizatsiya and the Atlantic. She is currently an instructor at Washington University, where she teaches a course called "The Internet, Politics, and Society." Follow her on Twitter.

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alima_bissenova January 16, 2012 at 11:19 am

Thanks, Sarah, for the thoughts. Yes, I for one, am completely appalled by the interpretation of the “Arab spring” offered in the media. The bias – liberal, intellectual, orientalist just screams to me (perhaps, I am also oversensitive to this bias). I imagine it is very exciting sitting in comfortable places in front of the TV-sets (usually in the places where there is order and peace) to watch the “spirit of freedom” unfolding in the world almost in a Hegelian fashion. When I look at it, and here I might be representative of some people in Russia and Central Asia, I don’t see any “spirit of freedom” –all I see is a broken society, broken social contract, incitement and glorification of violence. The first instance of violence is usually widely covered, when it becomes almost an everyday affair (Here I am thinking of more than a hundred cases of self-immolation in Tunisia) then it becomes a part of life in the “backward” places…

Michael Hancock-Parmer January 16, 2012 at 11:27 am

Sarah, great article! I think you’ve done a lot of great work – but I think that more than finding Reverse Orientalism, you’re discovering the very real limits of a seriously over-estimated work of academic fiction written very much in the milieu of the Arab-Israeli military conflicts of the 1960s and 1970s. Said was very upset, understandably, but really had no idea what he was talking about regarding the academic study of the Arab World. There’s a book you might enjoy: For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies. In the US it’s published as Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents.

Said was not saying anything new, in my opinion, in pointing out that we have a hard time speaking accurately about the Other, because that’s the entire aim of the world of academia. Scientists and Scholars alike struggle with this – but Said’s answer seemed to be simultaneously, “Try harder! And Give Up!”

Sarah Kendzior January 16, 2012 at 5:26 pm

I agree with you on Said’s depiction of “orientalist” scholars. At one point in Orientalism he says their works have “an extreme level of generalization and with scarcely a mention of the differences between individual Muslims, between Muslim societies, or between Muslim traditions and eras.” Unfortunately, one could say the same thing about Said’s characterization of Western scholars, who he lumps together as uniformly bad. That said, I still recommend Orientalism as a thought-provoking, well-written book that remains relevant today — as do “Covering Islam” and Said’s other critiques on how Arabs and Muslims are portrayed in the West.

Mark January 16, 2012 at 10:28 pm

I agree with Michael,

Two imagined, but representative titles that make me yawn and press the skip button whenever I encounter them

1) Catastrophistan: The New Great Game in the Tinderbox of Terror

2) Silk Road Semantics and the Essentialization of Extremism: Problematizing the Neoorientalist “Discourse of Danger” on “Central Asia”

Garrison January 16, 2012 at 11:39 am

This is a very informative blog on an underrepresented region…thanks!

In regards to this post, it seems you are saying that Central Asia needs to be given a more sui generis status of categorical comprehension. While I share your concern over ignoring differences, protest movements in Europe, the US, and Latin America have evoked the Arab Spring as inspiration and perhaps also as a media attention tactic by activists, which should also not be ignored. In this case, it appears that opposition is not taking on this discourse, though, so media filtering is projecting a “Spring” logic where it does not belong, as if to perpetuate the optics of “Great Game” imperial interests and anxieties at a global level instead of a different scale that you are suggesting.

Instead of “reverse Orientalism,” I think Gyatri Spivak’s “strategic essentialism” works better because it connects essentializations to different projects. That said, the very nature of Orientalism is that the whole Orient can be addressed according to sameness, so it is not “reverse” at all.

Sarah Kendzior January 16, 2012 at 5:32 pm

I meant “reverse” in the sense that whereas once the Arab world was deemed significant for its difference, it is now deemed significant for its sameness. The “Arab Spring” is portrayed as a universally applicable model which other countries can emulate, a characterization which ignores the complexities of both the Arab events and other countries. I’ll look into the Spivak theory you mentioned — sounds interesting, thanks!

R.Duke January 16, 2012 at 12:00 pm

I don’t really see any reason to be appalled at the media’s interpretation of the events in the Arab world as an “Arab Spring.” All cultures interpret events in ways that make it easier for them to relate to, even Central Asian’s and Arabs do this it doesn’t need to be the subject of ire even if it doesn’t fully capture what’s happening. The truth is until we have protested or bled in these places we aren’t going to fully understand these events the way they do.

Think Shakespear’s “A rose by any other name…” calling the Zhanaozen events the kindle for a Kazakh spring doesn’t change what actually happened and I’m not sure how it trivializes that suffering when all it is is a new hype word for revolution. It’s easier to say “kazakh spring” than to say to someone that Kazakhstan is going through a big social upheaval right now partially related to inequality, corruption, a broken psudo-democracy and a president for life.

I think Alima highlights this well when she says:

“I don’t see any “spirit of freedom” –all I see is a broken society, broken social contract, incitement and glorification of violence”

To us this is “the spirit of freedom” being able to control your own destiny when your authoritarian government has totally botched the social contract. Honestly, even the American Revolution can be described in such plain terms, just a bunch of pissed of locals who don’t want to pay taxes.

Central Asian experts must always strive for better interpretations and analysis of a region that is often neglected to be fully understood. But arguing over what to name these events is like arguing over the slightly better translation of a word.

alima_bissenova January 16, 2012 at 12:11 pm

R. Duke, I am not against the name itself…OK, it can be “spring” — in the “spring has sprung” kind of sense… I am against these simplification cliches that accompany the “Arab spring,” like “good protestors versus evil regime,” “democracy fighters” and other bla-bla-bla which fits well into the western vision of the world but does not correspond to the reality on the ground…

Even Zhanaozen events…the workers were not against the “authoritarian leader”…or the regime. In fact they were demanding the attention of the “regime” when they were saying, “Kyrymmen [the deposed akim] soilespeimiz, shal [old man, i.e. the president] ozi kelsin” I can assure you “a president for life” is not a problem for many…he can be there for 20 or even for 40 years as long as he does what people see as right…

alima_bissenova January 16, 2012 at 12:25 pm

what I am trying to say…that a commonly held view that all the people in the wold desire “freedom” in the Western sense — a truly representative parliament and president who is changed every 4 years is just NOT true :-)

we have to think of a more existential definition of “freedom”

alima_bissenova January 16, 2012 at 3:34 pm

OK, I will try to explain this once again…i.e. explain the point why the majority of the people of Kazakhstan might support Nazarbayev and might not desire to overthrow him in the collective pursuit of freedom… In order to solve some of the problems in the world (especially problems connected with incomplete modernization) a concentrated effort or concentrated power is needed…In this sense, Nazarbayev is seen not as “usurper” of power but as “enabler” to find solutions through the power he holds… People appeal to Nazarbaeyv and the regime (including oil workers, including people who lost their investment during the construction bust) precisely because he has a power to solve their problems, even (or they so thought) to raise their wages twofold or to re-employ 1,700 people when there are no jobs to fill. It is simple…people want to keep this power, which among other things, has a potential to “enable” them…

David January 17, 2012 at 8:41 am

Sure, so why not hold a free election? Then we can really measure his popularity…

AJK January 16, 2012 at 8:58 pm


As thought-provoking as always, thank you.

I agree with Michael to an extent; any time you bring Said into a piece, you’re going to have an audience fraught with preconceived notions of Said. I’m not sure if bringing him in helps more than it hurts.

But “The region connotes nothing – except perhaps obscurity itself.” Wow, that’s fascinating. I would add to this by saying that Central Asia exists as a way to say “Even here [event happened].”

Arab Spring? Even here, Facebook is used for protests.
US Mendacity? Even here, the US is propping up dictators.
Chinese domination? Even here, China is making inroads.

Central Asia is also used to globalize things by using your posit of obscurity to gawk at things that are really just facts of 21st century life.

opit January 16, 2012 at 9:01 pm

There’s a big ‘elephant in the room’ about ‘dialogue’ in foreign policy. Propaganda is institutional. Just check the back posts at Matt Armstrong’s ‘Mountain Runner’ at WordPress.
Back issues ? Yep. Matt is now promoted to official honcho for official ‘public diplomacy’ affairs.
I don’t know if my collections on Foreign Policy as War by Other Means make much of a splash or the Orwell-Huxley-UNESCO framing revelations noted in Perception Alteration do either : but focusing on young heroes and wise military leaders while completely obscuring the facts of what is actually happening well precedes accounts of America’s Indian Wars which told people little to nothing of the actual native tribes ideas and tribulations. Arab Spring is just more Crusader b.s. for the current era.
Here’s a more current sample of part of what I’m ‘on’ about

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