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.
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.