Tag Archives: Orientalism

Dressing Up Religious Identity the American Way

The versatility of clothing makes it a preferred means for constructing and negotiating identities; not only individual identities (just think of a teenager’s anxieties when choosing clothes!), but also collective ones.                                                                          -Jean-François Bayart

So I saw this article on Patheos.com a couple of days ago titled “Why Do Hindus Wear Turbans [Google Questions Answered]”. Ambaa “the White Hindu” points out that there seems to be quite the confusion on the cultural identification of those who wear turbans.   According to research from Stanford University, 70% of Americans ‘misidentify’ turban wearers as “Muslim (48%), Hindu, Buddhist or Shinto.”   However, this seems quite problematic.  Some Muslims actually do wear turbans and many people around the world wear turbans for all sorts of reasons not necessarily having to do with religious affiliation.

My issue lies in the religious identification vis-a-vis religious garb.  Despite all the good intentions of Ambaa or a similar article from the Huffington Post defending Sikhs from discrimination, they are actually just as much participating in the same system of essentializing an entire group by a peice of clothing.  The turban becomes the identifier for religion, the central and usually only important part of a groups identity, whether it be the turban identifying Muslimness by some or indentifying Sikhness by others.  Religion becomes the entire identity of the other.  I’ll try not to get into the irony of the Orientalism of “the White Hindu” (yes Orientalism despite her defending against Orientalism) who has self identified as a white woman of European descent and is “appropriating Indian culture” for her own (I don’t think she is appropriating Indian culture since, but see how I seamlessly make race rather than religion the means of identification of an entire group).  Perhaps religion as the primary indicator of indentity is a proverbial wink identifying us as Americans rather than saying something about the ‘other’.

This of course is only a problem if we think people are more than their clothing or their religion.  If that is the case, did you correctly identify the religion of the person wearing the turban in the photo at the top? If you guessed Christian you are right!


Extreme Views of Kali


          It is not hard to see how Kali can be viewed in a pretty negative manner. I mean, she’s got heads all over the place. I don’t know why, but I just recently remembered a Christian evangelical tract that I found somewhere more than ten years ago that portrays a pretty extreme view of the goddess Kali. I found a link to it here. Now most people would see this and see the very, very obvious (and frankly ridiculous) biases that are both explicitly stated and inferred. I was curious as to what would make someone think about Kali like this, apart from Indiana Jones, so I did some research (Googling…). It turns out that there are actually human sacrifices to Kali still occurring, albeit rarely.  Here is an instance of a murder I found that is relatively recent. As a father of a young child this is horrifying. Now as a rational human being I am completely aware that most of those who claim to be devotees of Kali are not murderers, but a very few are.

Stereotypically the Dalai Lama

When we think of the stereotypical Buddhist we no longer think of the members of the Buddhist Churches of America who were forced by the American government into internment camps during World War II.  Nor do we conjure up images of the white American officer Henry Olcott who was the first president of the Theosophical Society. Personally I prefer to imagine Richard Gere or  John Cleese as the stereotypical Buddhist (whatever that means).

Now instead we immediately think of the Dalai Lama. A week ago the Dalai Lama visited Emory University in an event boldly called The Visit 2013.   In comes the inevitable Huffpo blog written by Peter M. Wallace (a white male Episcopal seminarian for anyone who thinks authorship matters).  Wallace tells us about his experience from The Visit 2013. ( I can’t help but find this title humorous) Wallace, as an Episcopal seminarian, stereotypically outlines the “essential Buddhist concepts of awareness, discernment, and compassion,” because of course Buddhism is about peace and compassion. (I’m being a bit facetious here and don’t worry I’m Episcopalian so I am allowed to make essentializing blanket statements about them).

He also speaks of the Dalai Lama’s message as somehow not religious, but “universal” to appeal to “the cultural reality of the growing number of people identifying as ‘spiritual but not religious.'”  If you want a good read on the problems with the None category check this article.  I find this “secular” universal truth that somehow “transcends our concepts of religion” interesting.  This quite well illustrates the stereotypical American Orientalism experience of Asian religions as a sort of great ancient wisdom of the East.

Reza Aslan and Orientalism

For some reason I just keep getting into conversations lately about Reza Aslan’s now infamous Fox News interview.   Of course, after once again doing some reading from Edward Said’s Orientalism and Said coming up in conversations, something that always seems to come to mind is the idea that when we speak of the “other” we are often times speaking more about ourselves.

In the first few minutes of this radio interview, Reza actually talks about his particular faith experiences and how it led him to an interest in his studies.  So apparently talking about Reza’s own personal religious experiences isn’t explicitly faux pas.

Even in this interview with MSNBC, Reza seems to imply that it was about what he thinks as Fox News’ commercially driven anti-Muslim bias.  I would instead try to move past the insider/outsider politics that inevitably pops up and posit that the interview might have something to do with Reza’s own experiences and preconceived ideas about Fox News.  I’m not really in it to debate whether or not Fox News is racist, but I at least wonder if that’s all any of us can do when we speak about the “other.”  Does the “other” actually exist, or is it all ever just ideas we imagine constructed out of our own experience that we then just reify and reinforce through the politicsof language as Said might say.  Are we all and ever can be Orientalists?

If you are now wondering if the picture at the top says something about my own particular views on Fox News I would find that interesting.  To me it says more about the fact that I’m a Star Trek nerd. (Quark was my favorite character from my favorite Star Trek series Deep Space Nine afterall)  So I will leave you with this experience to further complicate your own construction of Fox.