Special Report: Islam, Orientalism And the West

  • Share
  • Read Later

(2 of 3)

There were, however, great Orientalist scholars; there were genuine attempts, like that of Richard Burton [British explorer who translated the Arabian Nights], at coming to terms with Islam. Still, gross ignorance persisted, as it will whenever fear of the different gets translated into attempts at domination. The U.S. inherited the Orientalist legacy, and uncritically employed it in its universities, mass media, popular culture, imperial policy. In films and cartoons, Muslim Arabs, for example, are represented either as bloodthirsty mobs, or as hooknosed, lecherous sadists. Academic experts decreed that in Islam everything is Islamic, which amounted to the edifying notions that there was such a thing as an "Islamic mind," that to understand the politics of Algeria one had best consult the Koran, that "they" (the Muslims) had no understanding of democracy, only of repression and medieval obscurantism. Conversely, it was argued that so long as repression was in the U.S. interest, it was not Islamic but a form of modernization.

The worst misjudgments followed. As recently as 1967 the head of the Middle East Studies Association wrote a report for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare asserting that the region including the Middle East and North Africa was not a center of cultural achievement, nor was it likely to become one in the near future. The study of the region or its languages, therefore, did not constitute its own reward so far as modern culture is concerned. High school textbooks routinely produced descriptions of Islam like the following: "It was started by a wealthy businessman of Arabia called Muhammad. He claimed that he was a prophet. He found followers among other Arabs. He told them that they were picked to rule the world." Whether Palestinian Arabs lost their land and political rights to Zionism, or Iranian poets were tortured by the SAVAK, little time was spent in the West wondering if Muslims suffered pain, would resist oppression or experienced love and joy; to Westerners, "they" were different from "us" since Orientals did not feel about life as "we" did.

No one saw that Islam varied from place to place, subject to both history and geography. Islam was unhesitatingly considered to be an abstraction, never an experience. No one bothered to judge Muslims in political, social, anthropological terms that were vital and nuanced, rather than crude and provocative. Suddenly it appeared that "Islam" was back when Ayatullah Khomeini, who derives from a long tradition of opposition to an outrageous monarchy, stood on his national, religious and political legitimacy as an Islamic righteous man. Menachem Begin took himself to be speaking for the West when he said he feared this return to the Middle Ages, even as he covered Israeli occupation of Arab land with Old Testament authorizations. Western leaders worried about their oil, so little appreciated by the Islamic hordes who thronged the streets to topple the Light of the Aryans.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3