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Islam Through Western Eyes | The Nation

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Islam Through Western Eyes

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Why is there a rush to produce row upon row of functionally illiterate technicians--with each new generation more likely than its predecessors to be vulnerable to the media revolution in its worst excesses? This is the great question of the hour. If it is a fact that this is the general direction taken by the Third World countries that have recently gained their independence, it isn't much of a consolation to say confidently that the problem is not an Islamic one but a social and cultural one. Nor is the rhetorical attack upon neo-imperialism very convincing at a time when national governments and rulers openly espouse values that further the new style of imperialism without colonies. To say that this reflects a preoccupation with rhetoric and style at the expense of concrete substance is, however, not to have learned anything from what we have been calling the distortion of the Arab-Islamic image in the Western media. That this distortion has occurred at all is a function of power, and in this instance style and image are direct political indices of power. Thus, we must concede that any drastic attempt to correct distortions of Islam and the Arabs is a political question involving the use and deployment of power.

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...

Also by the Author

There is a racist premise underpinning the “peace process” that Arab lives aren’t worth as much as Jewish lives.

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."

Let me return to the power of the media in the current situation involving Islam. As the press comes to perceive an increasing number of Moslems as American enemies, rulers like Egypt's President Anwar el-Sadat (whose remark that Khomeini was a lunatic and a disgrace to Islam was repeated ad nauseam) have been made to seem like a more desirable Islamic norm. The same is true of the Saudi royal family, although what generally goes unreported as a result is a considerable amount of disturbing information and, in the case of Iran, this deepens the hostage crisis.

Since the Camp David agreements of 1978 there has been a consensus that Sadat is our friend in the region; along with Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel he has been openly proclaiming his willingness to become a regional policeman and to give the United States bases on his territory. As a consequence, nearly everything reported out of Egypt effectively makes his point of view seem like the correct one on matters Egyptian, Arab and regional. Egypt and the Arab world, in fact, now often reported with a view to confirming Sadat's pre-eminence; little appears about the widespread opposition to him. Exactly the same thing happened during the Pahlevi regime, of course, when, with the exception of Berkeley scholar Hamid Algar, no one paid the slightest attention to the potential of the Shah's religious and political opposition. Many of our political, military, strategic and economic investments today are made through Sadat, and by virtue of Sadat's perspective on things.

There are other reasons too. One is the Middle East's sensitive domestic aspects for this country. It is no accident, for example, that even after Watergate and the revelations about the Central Intelligence Agency (and even with the Freedom of Information Act), there have been no major discoveries concerning U.S. activities in the Middle East. This is surprising in the case of Iran, not simply because so many Americans were on the take from the Shah but also because of Israel's extremely close involvement with the United States there under the ex-Shah's regime. Savak was set up with the direct help of the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, and, as in so many other cases, the C.I.A. and the Federal Bureau of Investigation cooperated willingly with the Israeli secret services.

In addition, there is an increasingly influential new lobby in this country whose main function is to assure the U.S. public that the present Arab regimes in the Gulf are stable. Among all the reporters for the major networks and newspapers, in fact, only CBS's Ed Bradley noted on November 24, 1979, that all information about the November occupation of the Great Mosque in Mecca came from the Government and that no other news was permitted. Subsequently, The Christian Science Monitor's Helena Cobban reported from Beirut on November 30 that the mosque's seizure had a very definite political meaning, that far from being Islamic fanatics, the attackers were part of a political network having a secular as well as an Islamic program, pointedly directed at the political and financial monopoly held by the Saudi royal family. One month after her article appeared, the Saudi spokesman for the group, who had given Cobban the story, was picked up off a Beirut street and has disappeared; Saudi intelligence is reportedly behind the man's abduction.

With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, we are probably going to have an even more dramatic cleavage separating good Moslems from bad. We will undoubtedly be seeing ever more news hailing the achievements of good Moslems like Sadat, Pakistan's Zia ul-Haq and the Afghan Moslem insurgents--more equating of good Islam with anti-Communism and, if possible, with modernization. As for Moslems who do not serve our purpose, they will, as always, be portrayed as backward fanatics.

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