Islam Through Western Eyes | The Nation


Islam Through Western Eyes

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Even if military aggression does not occur, the implications of all this are far-reaching. As mentioned earlier, Islam has uniformly appeared to Europe and the West in general as a threat. Today, the phenomenon is more in evidence than ever before because on the one hand there has been an enormous media convergence upon what has been called the emergence, return or resurgence of Islam, and on the other hand, because parts of the Islamic world--Palestine, Iran, Afghanistan, among other places--which have been undergoing various unequal processes of historical development, have also seemed to be encroaching upon traditional Western (more particularly American) hegemony. The views of the experts and of the media are nearly identical on this. Far from attempting to refine, or even dissent from, the gross image of Islam as a threat, the intellectual and policy community in the United States has considerably enforced and concentrated the image. From Zbigniew Brzezinski's vision of the "crescent of crisis" to Bernard Lewis's "return of Islam," the picture drawn is a unanimous one. "Islam" means the end of civilization as "we" know it. Islam is anti-human, antidemocratic, anti-Semitic, antirational. University scholars whose professional lives are tied to the study of Islam have either been willing collaborators with this state of things, or if they have been silent, their marginality in the culture at large further confirms the fact that in the United States at least, there is no major segment of the polity, no significant sector of the culture, no part of the whole community capable of identifying sympathetically with the Islamic world.

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
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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.

On the other hand, most of the Third World is now fully bathed in U.S.-produced TV shows, and is wholly dependent upon a tiny group of news agencies that transmit news back to the Third World, even in the large numbers of cases where the news is about the Third World. From being the source of news, the Third World generally, and Islamic countries in particular, have become consumers of news. For the first time in history (for the first time, that is, on such a scale) the Islamic world may be said to be learning about itself in part by means of images, histories and information manufactured in the West. If one adds to this fact that students and scholars in the Islamic world are still dependent upon U.S. and European libraries and institutions of learning for what now passes as Middle Eastern studies (consider, for example, that there isn't a single first-rate, usable library of Arabic material in the entire Islamic world), plus the fact that English is a world language in a way that Arabic isn't, plus the fact that for its elite the Islamic world is now producing a managerial class of basically subordinate natives who are indebted for their economies, their defense establishments and for their political ideas to the worldwide consumer-market system controlled in the West--one gets an accurate, although extremely depressing, picture of what the media revolution (serving a small segment of the societies that produced it) has done to Islam.

To the extent that Islam is known about today, it is known principally in the form given it by the mass media: not only radio, films and Tv but also textbooks, magazines and best-selling, high-quality novels. This corporate picture of Islam on the whole is a depressing and misleading one. What emerges is that Ayatollah Khomeini, Col. Muammar e-Qaddafi, Sheik Ahmad Zaki Yamani and Palestinian terrorists are the best-known figures in the foreground, while the background is populated by shadowy (though extremely frightening) notions about jihad, slavery, subordination of women and irrational violence combined with extreme licentiousness. If you were to ask an average literate Westerner to name an Arab or Islamic writer, or a musician, or an intellectual, you might get a name like Kahlil Gibran in response, but nothing else. In other words, whole swatches of Islamic history, culture and society simply do not exist except in the truncated, tightly packaged forms made current by the media. As Herbert Schiller has said, TV's images tend to present reality in too immediate and fragmentary a form for either historical or human continuity to appear. Islam therefore is equivalent to an undifferentiated mob of scimitar-waving oil suppliers, or it is reduced to the utterances of one or another Islamic leader who at the moment happens to be a convenient foreign scapegoat.

We are well past the point of being able to say whether the media or the experts or the governments or the mass audiences are to blame for this state of affairs. With very few exceptions, one is struck by the blinding uniformity of the picture. Perhaps it is true that the state of information that now exists on any subject is as standardized, and as low, as this one; and perhaps also it is true that whatever the experts, the special-interest groups, the manipulators touch they turn into flatness, ignorance and stereotypes. But we must be especially alarmed that whether Islam is depicted on television, or whether it turns up in school textbooks, or whether it appears in best-selling novels by high-class novelists, or whether it's learnedly discussed by an academic expert on Islam (who is still respected in parts of the Arab world), the picture is almost exactly the same. That does not mean that the picture is an inaccurate one; rather, it is a picture; it has the consistency of something made up, not of life; it portrays certain aspects of what Marshall Hodges has called the Islamicate world, but deforms them into a pattern that expresses certain things about a mass-media society, very little about what is referred to as Islam. What is crucially important about this presentation of Islam is the media's ascendancy, their intellectual and perceptual hegemony, over the whole thing, and since the media sell their product to consumers who prefer simplicity to complexity, the uniform image of Islam that emerges is constructed out of much the same material from which history, society and humanity have been eliminated.

What can be done? To begin with, what should be avoided is an attempt to alter, improve, beautify, make more appealing the image of Islam. Such an effort falls into the trap of believing that reductive images can be made substitutes for a very complex reality, and it ends up perpetuating the entire system of ideological fictions by which Islam is made to do service for Western designs upon riches, peoples and territories that happen to call themselves Moslem. A hard and fast distinction has to be made between serious consideration of the Islamicate world and nearly everything that passes for Islam in the media and in all but a few places in the culture. One cannot look for help in promoting serious investigative discussion of Islam--even as a subject of academic inquiry--among traditional Orientalists or within the normally constructed programs of Middle Eastern studies in today's Western universities. On the other hand, younger scholars and students can be extremely useful in carrying work beyond prejudices and constrictions of their elders. And, just as important, a serious interest in the problems of Islamic society and Islamic peoples is very likely to develop not among the Middle East experts, or media people who have a purported specialty in modern Islam, but inside segments of the population who have a wider and more serious view of human problems in general: men and women who are committed not to Orient and Occident but to the cause of human rights, rather than lobbyists who act on behalf of human rights when they are paid to do so; students of comparative literature rather than Semitic philologists who know nothing about other literatures and who care little for the contemporary world; genuinely enterprising sociologists who know something about theory and care a great deal about issues confronting concrete societies, rather than specialists in the Islamic mind or in a monolithic thing called Islamic society. Whatever the person, whatever the field of endeavor, I doubt that there can be any substitute for a genuinely engaged and sympathetic--as opposed to a narrowly political or hostile--attitude to the Islamic world. Indeed, I suspect that only if we get beyond politicized labels like "East" and "West" will we be able to reach the real world at all.

As for what the Islamic, and more especially the Arab-Islamic, world might do, this can be put very simply. There is no longer any excuse for bewailing the hostility of the "West" toward the Arabs and Islam and then sitting back in outraged righteousness. When the reasons for this hostility and those aspects of the "West" that encourage it are analyzed, an important step has been taken toward fighting it, but that is by no means the whole way. Certainly there are great dangers today in actually following, actually fulfilling this hostile image of Islam--and that has only been the doing, it is true, of some Moslems and some Arabs and some black Africans. But such fulfillments underline the importance of what still has to be done. In the great rush to industrialize, modernize and develop itself, the Islamicate world has been compliant about turning itself into a great consumers' market. To dispel the myths and stereotypes of Orientalism, the world as a whole has to be given an opportunity to see Moslems and Orientals producing a different form of history, a new kind of sociology, a new cultural awareness: in short, the relatively modest goal of writing a new form of history, investigating the Islamicate world and its many different societies with a genuine seriousness of purpose and a love of truth. But, alas, we must recognize that even with vast sums of money easily available, the Islamic world as a whole does not seem interested in promoting learning, building libraries, establishing research institutes whose main purpose would be modern scientific attention to Islamic realities and to seeing whether in fact there is something specifically Islamic about the Islamic world.

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