Original artwork by Nadia Asfour

Internalization of Arab Inferiority: Perceiving Ourselves through the Eyes of the Other

Encountering Westerners in Beirut is just as common as facing traffic in Ras Beirut. Within these encounters, conversations take place, and certain things are taken away from these conversations. A particular notion that sticks is the following: Western society and ideals are better than the Lebanese or Middle Eastern society.

The internalization of Arab inferiority might seem like an abstract pretentious concept that remains within the realm of ideas rather than reality. On the contrary, daily encounters with Westerners are the pure manifestation of internalized Arab inferiority.

The idea that the West is far more advanced than Lebanese and Middle Eastern societies almost seems like it is engrained within the Arab consciousness. The glorification of the West, their progressiveness and their quality of life is only achieved at the expense of labeling Middle Eastern society as backwards, underdeveloped and inferior.

However, this perception of inferiority is not simply a logical conclusion inferred from the realities of the Middle East. Rather, it stems from a deeper problem that demonstrates that this mode of thought is not one-sided.

Said’s Orientalism

In his 1978 book “Orientalism”, famed postcolonial theorist Edward Said illustrates the origin of the Western perception of superiority through the concept of Orientalism. Said defines orientalism as the lens through which Western colonial powers, particularly Britain and France, used to describe the East or the “Orient”, now the Middle East and Asia. Rather than trying to understand the East, these colonial powers used words like “exotic” and “mystical” to depict and romanticize the East.

To the colonial powers, the “enigmatic” East differed from the “rationality and logic” of the Western world. This gave birth to “patronizing Western attitudes” that deduced that the Orient was inferior to justify itself as superior. Accordingly, the Orient or East was the ideal “other” of the Western world. In addition, the Western world did not only perceive itself as superior due to its “successful” imperial and colonial conquests.

On the one hand, Said speaks about this from a historical narrative that spawned orientalism, and on the other Frantz Fanon, one of Said’s influences, speaks about the internalization of inferiority from the colonized people’s perspective.

Double-Consciousness and Inferiority Complex

Frantz Fanon, a Martinique-born Marxist psychoanalyst, philosopher and revolutionary, coined the term “internalization of inferiority”, otherwise known as the Inferiority Complex in his 1967 book “Black Skins, White Masks”.

Writing within the context of French colonization in Algeria, he outlined the effects of colonialism on the psyche of the colonized peoples, specifically black men. Fanon stated that black men are only “black in relation” to “the white man” and exist within the confines of the West.

Anthropologist W.E.B. Du Bois also spoke about a similar phenomenon that relates to race and perceptions of inferiority in his 1903 book “The Souls of Black Folk”. Du Bois specifically used the term “double-consciousness” to explain the feeling of being black in the United State and defines it as the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of the other”.

This suggests that the black man not only sees himself through the eyes of the white man as inferior, but he has internalized this inferiority himself in relation to the other. Viewing the white man or colonizer as superior and as the ideal being, Fanon argued that the black man who perceives himself as a lesser being does everything to “emulate” the white man. As such, the black man is also alienated from his fellow black man as he also perceives them as lesser beings in comparison to the white man.  

Fanon reasoned that the only way and the first step towards freeing themselves from the inferiority complex, the oppressed must be able to recognize both the economic realities that have led to their oppression and their internalization of inferiority itself.

Internalization of Arab Inferiority

Arab societies have endured the Franco-British Mandate system, a distortion of colonialism, but nevertheless a system of oppression, exploitation, and occupation. Though all Arab nations have reached independence, with the exception of Palestine, the ideas of superiority and inferiority are still present within our consciousness as well as the historical narrative that altered our culture. It is prevalent in what we are taught and retaught and the way we perceive ourselves. We also tend to “emulate” westerners often in the way we speak and act. Internalization of Arab inferiority means that we see ourselves through the eyes of the Western world, as inferior, backwards and regressive. We also tend to project this on other non-Western peoples.

Our idolization of the West is especially reflected in Middle Eastern academia. We tend to favor Western academics over local ones to write about the Middle East, even though local academics would often be a better source of information for such purposes. Simultaneously, when Westerners come to the Middle East, their perception of our societies as exotic, traffic-ridden, traditional, chaotic and dangerous differs from Western society that is relatively tame and composed.

There is also an overarching theme of Western biases that converges towards patronization when speaking about these topics that seems to be inherited from the era of colonialism that dwindles within their consciousness, whether or not they intend to do. This does not mean to say that the colonial origins are the sole to blame for this inherited mode of thought. Rather, it is a combination of the lack of remedying the effects of colonialism as well as our own inability to recognize our Arab inferiority complex.

In order to begin the process of dismantling our internalization of inferiority, we must not wait for the Western world to reach a degree of enlightenment that transcends all relationships between the oppressor and the oppressed. Instead, we should initiate this process by consciously recognizing the forces that have led us to where we are here, today.