The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.” Edward Said, Orientalism (1978)

If the West invented the Orient for itself, how much more Edward Said’s comments ring true for the newly created CyberOrient, the representation of people and cultures in the imagined intellectual space of an over-imagined Orient, politicized Middle East and diverse Islamic world. In the real world bombs go off, bullets tear apart flesh, buildings are burned and hatred is bred and spread on a daily basis. These same events can be simulated on the internet, but the real story is how this new technology fosters a virtual reality in which representation seemingly becomes as real in impact as the reality we live and die in. The virtual Middle East and Islam in cyberspace: this is the focus of the online journal CyberOrient, sponsored by the American Anthropological Association, the Faculty of Arts of Charles University, and the Centre for Theology and Religious Studies of Lund University.

The main purpose of this electronic journal is to provide a forum to explore cyberspace both as an imaginary forum in which only representation exists and as a technology that is fundamentally altering human interaction and communication. The next generation will take e-mail, websites, social media and instant availability via cell-phones as basic human rights. Internet cafes may someday rival fast-food restaurants and no doubt will profitably merge together in due time. Yet, despite the advances in communication technology real people in the part of the world once called an “Orient” are still the victims of stereotypes and prejudicial reporting. Their world is getting more and more wired, so cyberspace becomes the latest battleground for the hearts and minds of people everywhere.

The term “Orient” has largely disappeared from academic discourse, in part due to the seminal polemic delivered by Edward Said in his shotgun eulogy for Orientalism, but also because of critical advances in the disciplines that deal with real people. No one ever doubted the existence of the peoples and cultures represented as “Oriental.” The issue was always one of fair or objective representation rather than ontological skepticism. There were and remain flesh-and-blood individuals who identify as Muslims, Arabs, Palestinians and the myriad of options imaginable in a boxed-in corner of the globe that currently defies a uniform geographic name. Who speaks for them? How can they speak for themselves? What does it mean to speak at all in the unlimited echo chambers of Onlinedom? Increasingly, we can no longer turn back to Marx’s aphorism that “they” cannot represent themselves. In cyberspace there is nothing to do but represent. At the same time, despite hierarchies and creeping censorship, anyone can represent himself or herself on the Net. The medium in this case overrides the message.

Cyberspace is potentially infinite, but the focus here is on the domain that once would have been called the “Orient,” including the nearer variety that Edward Said and others have addressed. Far from being merely a land of sacred origins and valuable resources, the globalization of Islam as a political lynchpin in virtually all spheres of world interaction has made the issue one less of geography than of contested public space. Islam is as much an issue in Belfast as it is in Mecca, just as Christianity is as relevant in the Amazon jungle as in the Vatican. Being Arab, Iranian, Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian, Pakhtun ad nominem is no longer just a matter of administrative districting. Cyberspace transforms geography into a game board without national or ethnic borders that require visas. The term “CyberOrient” has been chosen for this online journal because it consciously captures the ambiguity and fluidity of this new virtual world of representation. The “CyberOrient” is nothing but our imagination. It can never be reality, even though it is having a profound impact on our shared reality. The interesting question is how it may give reality a run for the money.

There are in fact many questions to be explored. Here are a few, but you are invited to add your own:

  • What opportunities for representation has the Internet created in the Middle East and wider Islamic world, and how has it influenced popular culture, language and norms?
  • Does CyberOrientalism continue the East-West divide fixed in the colonial era by European political hegemony?
  • Does the proliferation of sites by individuals from various cultural backgrounds democratize political and religious behavior in the Middle East?
  • What does the Internet offer to groups who have not traditionally had access to an open public domain for expression, especially women and marginalized sects?
  • Does the wide range of views posted on the Internet foster tolerance and greater understanding on current issues of political and religious strife?
  • What is the impact of the virtual Islamic community on the practices of Muslims worldwide?
  • How does access to Internet cafes and global connections influence cultural norms in Middle Eastern societies?
  • How does an anthropologist conduct e-ethnography in cyberspace?
  • How is “culture” reinvented through the medium of cyberspace?

You are welcome to engage these issues and contribute to CyberOrient, the peer-reviewed open access journal.

Daniel Martin Varisco