Mandaean men await to be baptized on Kanshia uZahla, the Mandaean New Year. Courtesy of Neil Joseph Nakkash/MiC.

Since 1978, “Orientalism,” by late Palestinian-American academic Edward Said, has served as the basis for many academic courses focused on West Asia and North Africa. Widely considered one of the first works of postcolonial theory, it describes the West’s misperception and misrepresentation of the “Orient” — a term used by Westerners to identify Africa, Asia and their inhabitants in an exoticized and often disparaging way. But despite challenging Western academia and creating positive shifts within it, Said’s work also has major shortcomings that must be recognized, specifically regarding the narratives of indigenous minority groups in West Asia and North Africa. 

In “Orientalism,” Said describes the West’s harmful tendency of generalizing the “Orient” as one region with indistinct societies, cultures, structures and other qualities. This is most often done through art, as architectural styles and stereotypical clothing from one particular region appear in pieces meant to represent a completely different place. The generalization of different people groups and regions creates a false image of them, as their distinctiveness is erased. Further highlighting Orientalism’s harmful impacts, Said states, “the Orient and Islam have a kind of extra-real, phenomenologically reduced status that puts them out of reach of everyone except the Western expert. From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the Orient could not do was to represent itself.”

Everything Said stated regarding Western notions of Africa and Asia holds true. However, the irony behind Said’s argument lies in his own flawed conception of West Asia and North Africa. When describing the region, Said employs the terms “Arab World” and “Islamic World.” He often uses them interchangeably, failing to underscore the difference between the two. Noting this distinction is essential when challenging Western notions, which regard Arabs and Muslims synonymously despite one being an ethnic group and another being a religious group. 

Furthermore, not only did he employ the terms with minimal distinction, he also used them to represent a region with many non-Arab and non-Muslim identities. Minority groups such as Imazighen and Kurds typically do not fit the former category, those such as Arab Christians do not fit the latter, and others such as Armenians, Assyrians, Mandaeans and Yazidis fit neither of them. Nevertheless, they all natively reside in West Asia or North Africa, which Said mainly identifies with Arabs and Muslims. Uncoincidentally, the groups in the last category have faced the most erasure throughout history because not only are they misunderstood by Westerners, but they are also misunderstood by the larger, typically Arab and/or Muslim groups from the same region. Using the terms “Arab World” and “Islamic World” further contributes to this erasure, as they fail to capture the diversity of the region by assigning it to a single identity. 

Said’s disregard for minority groups in his works on West Asia and North Africa has contributed to misconceptions by majority groups from the region. Many fail to understand that “Orientalism” was written from an occidental perspective, meaning its target audience was Western, mainly white, readers, not minorities native to the region. When minorities discuss the marginalization, discrimination and oppression their groups have undergone in their homelands, many members of majority groups use arguments from “Orientalism” and similar works against them. For example, many will deny the distinct identities of minorities, accusing them of having their identities influenced by the West’s negative perceptions of Arabs and Muslims. Ignorant responses as such add to the irony, as minorities were not just affected by Orientalism like their majority counterparts, but also impacted by it to a greater degree due to the lack of knowledge and active erasure of their identities in the first place.

In particular, the case of the Assyrians provides a classic example of a minority group enduring oppression and misrepresentation from both Westerners and regional groups. As an ethnic minority that mainly practices Christianity, Assyrians have faced persecution for their ethnic and religious identities throughout history. Subsequent wars, ethnic cleansing and religious persecution in recent years have uprooted Assyrians from their indigenous homeland — regions of northern Iraq, southeastern Turkey, northwestern Iran and northeastern Syria. Today, the overwhelming majority of them live in the West, where they continue to face a lack of representation. In southeast Michigan, for example, Assyrians who mainly identify with their religious affiliation, Chaldean Catholic — an identification used as a consequence of the issues at hand — comprise a community of 160,000 people, possibly greater than the number of Assyrians currently in Iraq, which stands at as little as 142,000. For reference, approximately 500,000 Assyrians reside in the U.S.

One would expect more information to be available about such a large group in the diaspora, but to Assyrians this absence is not surprising. Much of the information about Assyrians online is inaccurate or deliberately divisive due to long-lasting impacts of ethnic repression in their home nations and Orientalist narratives pushed by Western missionaries.

During the Hakkari Masscares in 1843 and 1846 and the Assyrian Genocide of 1914-1918, in which upwards of 300,000 Assyrians were killed by Ottoman Turkish forces and allied Kurdish tribes, missionaries incited sectarian divisions within the group by only providing aid to Assyrians who were adherents of their sects. The group was separated based on religious classifications — Chaldeans, Nestorians and Jacobites —  which were largely determined by missionaries’ Orientalist views of Assyrians. For example, they derogatorily misclassified adherents of the Church of the East as “Nestorians,” a term used to describe followers of a notable “heretic” in Christology known as Nestorius. 

Divisions between Assyrians were further complicated under subsequent Iraqi regimes, which aimed to dissolve Assyrian identity. In the 1970s, Assyrian identity went unrecognized in Iraqi censuses to pressure them into assimilating by adopting the identities of the nation’s two largest ethnic groups, Arabs and Kurds. Those who rejected abandoning their Assyrian identity faced imprisonment, torture and other forms of oppression. Consequently, many Assyrians resorted to identifying with their religious classifications or with other identities to avoid persecution. Today, these labels continue to be used in the diaspora and even in academia, contributing to the erasure and revision of Assyrian identity. 

Although Michigan is home to the largest concentration of Assyrians in the diaspora, universities in the state, including the University of Michigan, provide no curriculum devoted to the group. The most the University provides is a course on Syriac language. And, in the case where universities in the West have provided curriculum about Assyrians, they have been filled with the same divisive and Orientalist inaccuracies Assyrians have been combating for decades now. For example, the University of California-Berkeley created a course focused on Assyrians in the modern era. Although this seemed to be positive news, members of the Assyrian community were outraged after reading the course’s description, which undermined Assyrian identity by putting it in quotations and only attributed the identity to adherents of the Church of the East. According to UC Berkeley’s curriculum on my ethnic group, I would not be considered a part of it due to my family’s religious affiliations. This is just a fraction of the absurdity Assyrians and other minorities have withstood simply for maintaining their oppressed identities.

The case of denial and misrepresentation is not exclusive to Assyrians; each of the aforementioned minority groups have withstood erasure at the hands of Western and regional forces. The Mandaeans, an ethnoreligious group indigenous to southern Iraq and southwestern Iran, have grown accustomed to assimilating and concealing their identity to avoid violence. Throughout history, people in the region have misperceived their beliefs due to myths about Mandaeans, which proved to be fatal as they were targeted for it. As was the case for Assyrians, the West contributed to the erasure of Mandaeans. European missionaries labeled them “Christians of St. John” and attempted to convert them, rather than attempting to understand the uniqueness of their religion and ethnicity.

Having been misrepresented and repressed by both regional and Western entities, minorities in West Asia and North Africa have a distinct struggle in which they are the most misunderstood of the misunderstood, and consequently amongst the most oppressed of the already-oppressed. Said’s failure to acknowledge this dynamic leaves his critique of Orientalism incomplete. As postcolonialism aims to describe the impacts of colonialism on colonized populations, it is almost haphazard to address colonialism while excluding those survivors such as Assyrians from the narrative. Decolonization cannot occur without addressing the struggles of the most marginalized, as it transcends simply removing occupying forces from a land. It includes dismantling perceptions produced under colonial rule such as the negative ones about minority groups in West Asia and North Africa.

MiC Columnist Neil Joseph Nakkash can be reached at nakkashn@umich.edu.