By Souhil Alouache
By Souhil Alouache
Fez – The current discussion about Islam, Muslim refugees, American Muslims, Donald Trump and his anti-Muslim bigoted rhetoric takes us back to the 16th Century play by William Shakespeare, Othello. The hero in this play is a Moor, a migrant in a foreign country, who joins the army of Venice and rises through the ranks to general.
During this period of time, the Ottoman Turks represent to the people of Venice and England a vicious rival that occupies their minds and souls. They are invariably portrayed as villains and viewed with intense suspicion and hostility. The Venetian elites send Othello to Cyprus to fend off the Turks, who invade the island. Othello leads his Christian army against the so-called “Muslim heathens” in Cyprus. After a fierce battle, the Christian army wins, destroying the Turks’ ships. Religion enters emphatically into this equation: the Venetians are Christian, and the Turks are Muslim. For the Venetians, the Turks are the abhorred enemy whom the Christians fought during the Crusades.
In this drama, Othello decides to marry a Venetian Christian woman named Desdemona, the daughter of a well-to-do man. Yet his decision is not welcomed by some, particularly his standard-bearer Iago. Iago hates Othello after Othello overlooks Iago for promotion, instead appointing fellow soldier Cassio to lieutenant. Othello is an archetype of honor, courage, loyalty, and commitment to principles. Despite this, he receives the opposite treatment in Venetian society. Iago, on the other hand, is a manipulative character who preys on honorable personalities. He masks his deceit with a façade of loyalty, is selfish in the extreme, and does not believe in love, conscience, or honor. He stands completely outside the sphere of ethics. His methods are cunning; he plots to put an end to Othello, the Moorish hero.
In such an environment of stress and conspiracy, especially with cultural and ethnic differences, Othello’s integration into Western society is not easy. Indeed, it is a perilous experience, and he discovers that despite his sacrifices and military service on behalf of Venetian society, he cannot break the entrenched negative stereotypes in the mind of the Western characters about Arabs and Muslims.
Othello, the Moorish immigrant, poses a plethora of questions about Islamophobia in Western societies: Is the fear from Islam and Muslims in general so engrained in the psyche of Western characters that it cannot be eradicated? Is Donald Trump just echoing Western skepticism about Islam and doubting Muslims as Iago and Brabantio did in the play? Is it believable that the fear of many centuries ago still exerts its influence on the Western consciousness? Is it fair to say that this racist propaganda is exclusively an issue of the past, or is it also evoked in the contemporary West? And is it therefore a character of the Western psyche?
An outstanding question the play poses is, “Who is the real enemy of civilization?” Is it the Moorish immigrant, Muslim-born Othello who defends a land that is not his against an army with which he shares a number of ties, including religious origin, culture, ethnicity, and history, or is it the European Christian, Iago, whose business is destroying a symbol of victory for the sake of his personal interests, driven by hatred and revenge, and exposing an entire people to war? These very same set of questions are applicable to Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East, and the Muslims in America contributing considerably to the realization of the “American Dream.”
We should keep bear in mind that among foundational factors of Western power, and American power in particular, is ethnic and cultural diversity. One must not forget that the Muslim community has done well despite the racism to which it is exposed. When a man like Donald Trump declares that “We have no idea who is coming into our country, no idea if they like us or hate us,” and calls for imposing a “total and complete ban on Muslims,” he makes himself a fascist, manipulating the fear of Islam that circulates through the blood of many Westerners.
From a discursive point of view, Donald Trump is faithful to the tradition of Orientalism and an excellent pupil of Flaubert, Disraeli, and Massignon. When he says “Muslims,” he is blindly homogenizing, leaving no room for difference. And this religious reference is also problematic; why did not he say Arabs? Or refer to nationality? Why did he define the entire issue by Islam? He also uses the present tense “are,” entailing a timeless group of people as being always somehow transfixed and etherized. The ethnographic present he used leaves no way to deal with the issue in some sort of creative and objective way.
These Muslims, against whom his campaign is mounted, are not at all respected or recognized for all that they have contributed to America. They are denied the recognition that many of them are soldiers in the American army and defending the country as the character Othello did for Venice four centuries ago, whereas Trump was raised in peace. Muslims serving in the White House working day after day to maintain the Constitution and serve the people are overlooked. Donald Trump’s discourse reflects a pathological enigma in the mentality of some Westerners, a mentality that is contaminated by xenophobia, and religious and ethnic bigotry.
This play is tightly connected to contemporary political debates and cultural phenomena. Othello is an attempt to communicate a central idea: that the West and the East, at least until now, are two irreconcilable entities characterized by a historical antagonism. It also points out that values of hostility, hatred, and exchanged fear will permanently be the formative and dominant rules in this encounter despite all calls for coexistence, denouncing violence, and initiatives taken for spreading tolerance that appear from time to time and which die immediately when faced up with the harsh historical realities and bloody political agendas exercised around the world in the name of civilization and spreading democracy, and too, when a fool like Trump launches the kind of statements.
Thus, those calls are only daydreams unless they experience a shift from the sphere of slogans and abstract sweet ideas to a daily life culture, unless they are extended from the academic platonic zone to the battlefield of politics and decision-making.
The existence of such a play discussing salient issues four centuries ago explains the continuity of false historical beliefs and triumphalist clichés, hardening attitudes, and demeaning generalizations. It also reveals the maintenance of exchanged negativity between two poles governed by power relations and hegemony. This astonishing congruence between the past and the present in the relation of the West and the East at the level of discursivity mirrors our failure as human beings in achieving any tangible progress. This is the case, because we are still occupied by the exact same debates, fears, and prejudices that Shakespeare portrayed centuries ago. Our conceptions about the other are naturally biased and are affected by the images and the discursive formations to which people’s cultural imagining is exposed.
Edited by Christopher Thomas.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial policy
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