Fear evolved long before rational intelligence. Consequently, a creature who fears but cannot think very well will make many errors, and it is better for those errors to be false positives than false negatives. If a rabbit fears a rope because it thinks it is a snake, it will waste some calories running away. But if it mistakenly thinks a snake is only a harmless rope, it gets eaten.
Unfortunately, when our scattershot fear mechanism works in harness with our formidable rational capabilities, we waste far more than a few calories. Expensive weapons get built, innocent people become needlessly harassed or even killed, and cherished human rights get trampled, all to soothe an inflamed fear that was only partially caused by a real threat.
How can we protect ourselves from this kind of overreaction? One way is to acknowledge that our experience of The Other is heavily stained by our subconscious view of history, and the stories we have told ourselves about it.
Ever since Xerxes and Darius tried to invade Greece around the 4th century B.C., Western Europe has been haunted by the fear that a powerful empire from the East would invade and plunge the world into a second darkness. The movie 300 artfully (and somewhat creepily) connected this story to modern phobias by portraying 4th century B.C. Persians as wearing turbans, and the Persian emperor as a bejeweled half-naked quasi-African tribal chief. It also ignored the fact that life under the Persian Empire was arguably closer to modern democracy than the fascistic monarchy of the Spartans. The constant rhetoric about “freedom” from a king who deliberately flouted the rulings of the city council reminded me a lot of George W. Bush.
Orientophobia lives on in literature and foreign policy.
Both J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis’ the Chronicles of Narnia rely heavily on Orientophobic images derived from medieval literature.
The Orcs and Uruk-Hais who fight for Lord Sauron, the Dark Lord and primary antagonist in Lord of the Rings, have black curly hair, dark skin, gold earrings, and ride on “Oliphaunts.” They are patterned after European superstitions about the Mongols.
The great Calormene empire that lies south of Narnia is inhabited by people who have turbans, scimitars, dark skin, and a poetic speaking style patterned after the Arabian Nights. The Narnian “good guys” have fair skin, blond hair, and dress like medieval European knights and ladies. In The Last Battle, Calormene conquers Narnia, which eventually ushers in Judgment Day.
Both Lewis and Tolkein were careful to isolate these racist images from their historical context. Tolkien, sensitive to the dangers of racism against actual humans, mentions that the Oliphaunt riders must have been duped or misled by Sauron.
C.S. Lewis also created significant differences between his Calormenes and actual Muslims. The Calormenes worship a god called Tash, who was very like the polytheistic gods that Muhammad was campaigning against. He also permits a young Calormene prince to enter into paradise by having the Narnian God Aslan say “All the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.” This is arguably a patronizing view, but it is a step ahead of saying that the Heathen are all damned.
When the remains of the Islamic empires were colonized by the West, the Islamic images of Orientophobia faded into the background. Nevertheless, politicians and generals were still able to manipulate these fears for rhetorical effect.
After World War II, the Communists replaced Islam as the eastern Bugbear of choice, for it was clearly their intention to conquer the world.
Once Communism collapsed, however, there was something even scarier to fear: Nothing.
As the German philosopher Martin Heidegger pointed out, “Nameless Dread” (which he called Angst) is much harder to deal with than any particular enemy. For several years after the Berlin wall fell, the question kept hovering in the background “What do we need all of these weapons for?” The only answer was “Well, the world is a pretty dangerous place.”
And then we were rescued from Anxiety, and delivered into Fear, by 9/11. Here was our dear familiar enemy, The Evil Empire from the East, with all of the trappings we had been trained to respond to: the turbans, the beards, the violent attacks, the darker skin color. Pure Pavlovian training.
It is essential for the West to remember that because we have inherited this interlocking set of horror stories, our first reaction to this kind of crisis can rarely be trusted.
We must consciously remind ourselves that those two cruelly stupid young men from Chechnya are not Osama Bin Laden, and Osama Bin Laden is not Genghis Khan.
Teed Rockwell studied with Ali Akbar Khan for many years, and is the only person in the world to play Indian classical and popular music on his customized touchstyle veena. You can see and hear videos of his musical performances at www.bollywoodgharana.com.