Course to explain stereotypes surrounding the East

11 de junho de 2016

São Paulo – The notion of the East as different, distant, and exotic first emerged in Western culture centuries ago. How that notion came into being and how the identity of the West evolved from that opposition is the object of the course O Ocidente e seus Avessos (The West and its Opposites), to be offered by the Institute of Arab Culture (Icarabe).

“It’s about stereotypes. A stereotype is an exaggeration that carries a huge rhetorical power. It takes root in the unconscious,” says the course’s teacher Plínio Freire Gomes, who holds a master’s degree in History from the University of São Paulo (USP). According to him, the image of civilized society developed in the West in opposition to the exoticism and barbarism that the East was always seen to represent. “This opposition is underpinned by antagonism, by a ‘me against them’ frame of mind,” Freire points out.

The concept of the East as a place of barbarians, Freire explains, first emerged in Ancient Greece, where Persians were thus called because they didn’t speak Greek. Afterwards, he says, the East came to be regarded as threatening, not due to language but to religion, and this led to the Crusades.

According to the professor, Western countries have regarded Arabs as exotic long before the United States September 11, 2001 attacks, which ultimately compounded the stereotype of Arabs as a people who constitute a threat of some sort.

“It all began after World War I, as the Ottoman Empire collapsed and Arab countries became British and French colonies. It was a bout of covert re-colonization that denied the sovereignty of those countries, and so they had to fight back,” Gomes remarks. According to him, this need to fight for sovereignty spawned a fierce nationalism that eventually had the region’s countries at odds with Western nations.

Major historical events symbolizing that fight, says Gomes, include the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956 by then-Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. The only connection between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, and the premiere route to Europe for Arab oil, the Canal was under British rule. As a result, the French and the British joined Israel in a military incursion into the Arab country.

In Iran, a non-Arab Middle East country, president Mohammad Mossadegh’s 1953 decision to nationalize oil in the country, which was also under British rule, culminated in the European country’s United States-backed interference in Iranian domestic politics. “The Easterners are the ones who escape control,” Gomes claims.

The professor notes that terror attacks are a fact, but that the East’s being viewed as closely connected with terrorism shows the exacerbation of stereotypes of the East as the representation of a threat. “Stereotypes never die. They take roots. Behind the terrorist, the idea of an infidel, exuberant East is conveyed,” he says. For Gomes, the only way to fight stereotypes is by getting to know the culture that is being stereotyped.

Gomes adds that terrorists will often use this image to their advantage, as a means of propaganda for their actions. “It turns into a mirroring game. The terrorists are aware of the imagery that they are menacing and barbaric, and that is exactly how they behave,” the professor says regarding widespread media coverage of attacks like the one on the French weekly Charlie Hebdo in 2015.

Gomes mentions the videos by the Islamic State radicals as another tactic used by terrorists to advertise their ideology and attract new members. “Their filming techniques and camera placement, the footage of soldiers standing in line, everything is an exact replication of [United States] Marine Corps enlistment videos,” he says.

Quick facts
Course 'O Ocidente e seus Avessos' (The West and its Opposites)
July 5, 12, 19 and 26 from 7pm to 9:30pm
Where: Livraria Martins Fontes bookstore
Av. Paulista, 509 – Bela Vista, São Paulo
Enrolments are open. Send an email to
Price: BRL 200 for Icarabe members; BRL 250 for non-members

Classes timetable:
1. O Oriente bárbaro e infiel
(The barbaric, infidel East)
Dos bárbaros no mundo greco-romano às Cruzadas
(From the barbarians of the Greco-Roman World to the Crusades)
2. O Oriente exuberante
(The exuberant East)
A expansão europeia e as novas categorias do exotismo oriental - o Império Otomano, a Índia, a China. O Orientalismo como arte e ideologia do homem branco
(European expansion and the new categories of Eastern exoticness – the Ottoman Empire, India, China. Orientalism as art and ideology of the white man)
3. O Oriente revolucionário
(The revolutionary East)
A Guerra Fria, a luta pela independência e a subversão da ordem mundial
(Cold War, the struggle for independence and the subversion of the World order)
4. O Oriente fanático
(The fanatic East)
A “guerra santa” e a “guerra ao terror”. Do 11 de setembro ao ataque contra o “Charlie Hebdo”
(“Cold war” and the “War on terror.” From September 11 to the Charlie Hebdo attack)

*Translated by Gabriel Pomerancblum