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Islam Through Western Eyes | The Nation

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Islam Through Western Eyes

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The media have become obsessed with something called "Islam," which in their voguish lexicon has acquired only two meanings, both of them unacceptable and impoverishing. On the one hand, "Islam" represents the threat of a resurgent atavism, which suggests not only the menace of a return to the Middle Ages but the destruction of what Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan calls the democratic order in the Western world. On the other hand, "Islam" is made to stand for a defensive counterresponse to this first image of Islam as threat, especially when, for geopolitical reasons, "good" Moslems like the Saudi Arabians or the Afghan Moslem "freedom fighters" against the Soviet Union are in question. Anything said in defense of Islam is more or less forced into the apologetic form of a plea for Islam's humanism, its contributions to civilization, development and perhaps even to democratic niceness.

This essay, by the late Edward Said, from the April 26, 1980, issue of The Nation, is a special selection from The Nation Digital Archive. If you want to read everything The Nation has ever published on the Middle East, click here
for information on how to acquire individual access to the Archive--an electronic database of every Nation article since 1865.

About the Author

Edward W. Said
We mourn the loss of Edward Said, who passed away on the morning of Thursday, September 25, 2003. Edward W. Said, the...

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With the "war on terror" now official nomenclature, the
problematic conflating of ethnic, religious and "terrorist" identities
is now a matter of policy as well as media distortion. In a 1986 book
review, Edward Said argues presciently against the
dangerous "terrorism craze"--"dangerous because it consolidates the
immense, unrestrained pseudopatriotic narcissism we are nourishing."

This essay--Edward W. Said's first piece for The Nation from the magazine's May 30, 1966, issue--is a special selection from The Nation Digital Archive. If you want to read everything The Nation has ever published by Said, click here for information on how to acquire individual access to the Archive--an electronic database of every Nation article since 1865.

Along with that kind of counterresponse there is the occasional foolishness of trying to equate Islam with the immediate situation of one or another Islamic country, which in the case of Iran during the Shah's actual removal was perhaps a reasonable tactic. But after that exuberant period and during the hostage crisis, the tactic has become a somewhat trickier business. What is the Islamic apologist to say when confronted with the daily count of people executed by the Islamic komitehs, or when--as was reported on September 19, 1979, by Reuters--Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini announces that enemies of the Islamic revolution would be destroyed? The point is that both media meanings of "Islam" depend on each other, and are equally to be rejected for perpetuating the double bind.

How fundamentally narrow and constricted is the semantic field of Islam was brought home to me after my book Orientalism appeared last year. Even though I took great pains in the book to show that current discussions of the Orient or of the Arabs and Islam are fundamentally premised upon a fiction, my book was often interpreted as a defense of the "real" Islam. Whereas what I was trying to show was that any talk about Islam was radically flawed, not only because an unwarranted assumption was being made that a large ideologically freighted generalization could cover all the rich and diverse particularity of Islamic life (a very different thing) but also because it would simply be repeating the errors of Orientalism to claim that the correct view of Islam was X or Y or Z. And still I would receive invitations from various institutions to give a lecture on the true meaning of an Islamic Republic or on the Islamic view of peace. Either one found oneself defending Islam--as if the religion needed that kind of defense--or, by keeping silent, seeming to be tacitly accepting Islam's defamation.

But rejection alone does not take one very far, since if we are to claim, as we must, that as a religion and as a civilization Islam does have a meaning very much beyond either of the two currently given it, we must first be able to provide something in the way of a space in which to speak of Islam. Those who wish either to rebut the standard anti-Islamic and anti-Arab rhetoric that dominates the media and liberal intellectual discourse, or to avoid the idealization of Islam (to say nothing of its sentimentalization), find themselves with scarcely a place to stand on, much less a place in which to move freely.

From at least the end of the eighteenth century until our own day, modern Occidental reactions to Islam have been dominated by a type of thinking that may still be called Orientalist. The general basis of Orientalist thought is an imaginative geography dividing the word into two unequal parts, the larger and "different" one called the Orient, the other, also known as our world, called the Occident or the West. Such divisions always take place when one society or culture thinks about another one, different from it, but it is interesting that even when the Orient has uniformly been considered an inferior part of the world, it has always been endowed both with far greater size and with a greater potential for power than the West. Insofar as Islam has always been seen as belonging to the Orient, its particular fate within the general structure of Orientalism has been to be looked at with a very special hostility and fear. There are, of course, many obvious religious, psychological and political reasons for this, but all of these reasons derive from a sense that so far as the West is concerned, Islam represents not only a formidable competitor but also a late-coming challenge to Christianity.

I have not been able to discover any period in European or American history since the Middle Ages in which Islam was generally discussed or thought about outside a framework created by passion, prejudice and political interests. This may not seem like a surprising discovery, but included in the indictment is the entire gamut of scholarly and scientific disciplines which, since the early nineteenth century, have either called themselves Orientalism or tried systematically to deal with the Orient. No one would disagree with the statement that early commentators on Islam like Peter the Venerable and Barthelemy D'Herbelot were passionate Christian polemicists in what they they said. But it has been an unexamined assumption that since Europe advanced into the modern scientific age and freed itself of superstition and ignorance, the march must have included Orientalism. Wasn't it true that Silvestre de Sacy, Edward Lane, Ernest Renan, Hamilton Gibb and Louis Massignon were learned, objective scholars, and isn't it true that, following upon all sorts of advances in twentieth-century sociology, anthropology, linguistics and history, American scholars who teach the Middle East and Islam in places like Princeton, Harvard and Chicago are therefore unbiased and free of special pleading in what they do? The answer is no. Not that Orientalism is more biased than other social and humanistic sciences; it is as ideological and as contaminated by the world as other disciplines. The main difference is that the Orientalists use the authority of their standing as experts to deny--no, to cover--their deep-seated feelings about Islam with a carpet of jargon whose purpose is to certify their "objectivity" and "scientific impartiality."

That is one point. The other distinguishes a historical pattern in what would otherwise be an undifferentiated characterization of Orientalism. Whenever in modern times there has been an acutely political tension felt between the Occident and its Orient (or between the West and its Islam), there has been a tendency to resort in the West not to direct violence but first to the cool, relatively detached instruments of scientific, quasi-objective representation. In this way Islam is made more clear, the true nature of its threat appears, an implicit course of action against it is proposed. In such a context both science and direct violence end up by being forms of aggression against Islam.

Two strikingly similar examples illustrate my thesis. We can now see retrospectively that during the nineteenth century both France and England preceded their occupations of portions of the Islamic East with a period in which the various scholarly means of characterizing and understanding the Orient underwent remarkable technical modernization and development. The French occupation of Algeria in 1830 followed a period of about two decades during which French scholars literally transformed the study of the Orient from an antiquarian into a rational discipline. Of course there had been Napoleon Bonaparte's occupation of Egypt in 1798, and of course one should remark the fact that he had prepared for his expedition by marshaling a sophisticated group of scientists to make his enterprise more efficient. My point, however, is that Napoleon's short-lived occupation of Egypt closed a chapter. A new one began with the long period during which, under de Sacy's stewardship at French institutions of Oriental study, France became the world leader in Orientalism; this chapter climaxed a little later when French armies occupied Algiers in 1830.

I do not at all want to suggest that there is a causal relationship between one thing and the other, nor to adopt the anti-intellectual view that all scientific learning necessarily leads to violence and suffering. All I want to say is that empires are not spontaneously born, nor during the modern period have they been run by improvisation. If the development of learning involves the redefinition and the reconstitution of fields of human experience by scientists who stand above the material they study, it is not impertinent to see the same development occurring among politicians whose realm of authority is redefined to include inferior regions of the world where new "national" interests can be discovered, and later seen to be in need of close supervision. I very much doubt that England would have occupied Egypt in so long and massively institutionalized a way were it not for the durable investment in Oriental learning first cultivated by scholars like Lane and William James. Familiarly, accessibility, representability: these were what Orientalists demonstrated about the Orient. The Orient could be seen, it could be studied, it could be managed. It need not remain a distant, marvelous, incomprehensible and yet very rich place. It could be brought home--or, more simply, Europe could make itself at home there, as it subsequently did.

My second example is a contemporary one. The Islamic Orient today is important for its resources or for its geopolitical location. Neither of these, however, is interchangeable with the interests, needs or aspirations of the native Orientals. Ever since the end of World War II, the United States has been taking positions of dominance and hegemony once held in the Islamic world by Britain and France. With this replacement of one imperial system by another have gone two things: first, a remarkable burgeoning of academic and expert interest in Islam, and, second, an extraordinary revolution in the techniques available to the largely private-sector press and electronic journalism industries. Together these two phenomena, by which a huge apparatus of university, government and business experts study Islam and the Middle East and by which Islam has become a subject familiar to every consumer of news in the West, have almost entirely domesticated the Islamic world. Not only has that world become the subject of the most profound cultural and economic Western saturation in history--for no non-Western realm has been so dominated by the United States as the Arab-Islamic world is dominated today--by the exchange between Islam and the West, in this case the United States, is profoundly one-sided.

So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Moslems and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have instead is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression. I do not think it is an accident, therefore, that recent talk of U.S. military intervention in the Arabian Gulf (which began at least five years ago, well before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) has been preceded by a long period of Islam's rational presentation through the cool medium of television and through "objective" Orientalist study: in many ways our actual situation today bears a chilling resemblance to the nineteenth-century British and French examples previously cited.

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