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.
…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.
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.
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.
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.
Said goes on to address the question of “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.
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.
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.
Islam” and “the West” are inadequate banners
Spectacular horror of the sort that struck
(and to a lesser degree New York ) has ushered in a new world of unseen, unknown assailants, terror missions without political message, senseless destruction. Washington
For the residents of this wounded city, the consternation, fear, and sustained sense of outrage and shock will certainly continue for a long time, as will the genuine sorrow and affliction that so much carnage has so cruelly imposed on so many.
New Yorkers have been fortunate that Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a normally rebarbative and unpleasantly combative, even retrograde figure, has rapidly attained Churchillian status. Calmly, unsentimentally, and with extraordinary compassion, he has marshalled the city’s heroic police, fire and emergency services to admirable effect and, alas, with huge loss of life. Giuliani’s was the first voice of caution against panic and jingoistic attacks on the city’s large Arab and Muslim communities, the first to express the commonsense of anguish, the first to press everyone to try to resume life after the shattering blows.
Would that that were all. The national television reporting has of course brought the horror of those dreadful winged juggernauts into every household, unremittingly, insistently, not always edifyingly. Most commentary has stressed, indeed magnified, the expected and the predictable in what most Americans feel: terrible loss, anger, outrage, a sense of violated vulnerability, a desire for vengeance and un-restrained retribution. Beyond formulaic expressions of grief and patriotism, every politician and accredited pundit or expert has dutifully repeated how we shall not be defeated, not be deterred, not stop until terrorism is exterminated. This is a war against terrorism, everyone says, but where, on what fronts, for what concrete ends? No answers are provided, except the vague suggestion that the
Middle East and Islam are what “we” are up against, and that terrorism must be destroyed.
What is most depressing, however, is how little time is spent trying to understand
’s role in the world, and its direct involvement in the complex reality beyond the two coasts that have for so long kept the rest of the world extremely distant and virtually out of the average American’s mind. You’d think that “ America ” was a sleeping giant rather than a superpower almost constantly at war, or in some sort of conflict, all over the Islamic domains. Osama bin Laden’s name and face have become so numbingly familiar to Americans as in effect to obliterate any history he and his shadowy followers might have had before they became stock symbols of everything loathsome and hateful to the collective imagination. Inevitably, then, collective passions are being funnelled into a drive for war that uncannily resembles Captain Ahab in pursuit of Moby Dick, rather than what is going on, an imperial power injured at home for the first time, pursuing its interests systematically in what has become a suddenly reconfigured geography of conflict, without clear borders, or visible actors. Manichaean symbols and apocalyptic scenarios are bandied about with future consequences and rhetorical restraint thrown to the winds. Rational understanding of the situation is what is needed now, not more drum-beating. George Bush and his team clearly want the latter, not the former. Yet to most people in the Islamic and Arab worlds the official America is synonymous with arrogant power, known for its sanctimoniously munificent support not only of US but of numerous repressive Arab regimes, and its inattentiveness even to the possibility of dialogue with secular movements and people who have real grievances. Anti-Americanism in this context is not based on a hatred of modernity or technology-envy: it is based on a narrative of concrete interventions, specific depredations and, in the cases of the Iraqi people’s suffering under US-imposed sanctions and US support for the 34-year-old Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Israel is now cynically exploiting the American catastrophe by intensifying its military occupation and oppression of the Palestinians. Political rhetoric in the US has overridden these things by flinging about words like “terrorism” and “freedom” whereas, of course, such large abstractions have mostly hidden sordid material interests, the influence of the oil, defence and Zionist lobbies now consolidating their hold on the entire Middle East, and an age-old religious hostility to (and ignorance of) “Islam” that takes new forms every day. Israel
Intellectual responsibility, however, requires a still more critical sense of the actuality. There has been terror of course, and nearly every struggling modern movement at some stage has relied on terror. This was as true of Mandela’s ANC as it was of all the others, Zionism included. And yet bombing defenceless civilians with F-16s and helicopter gunships has the same structure and effect as more conventional nationalist terror.
What is bad about all terror is when it is attached to religious and political abstractions and reductive myths that keep veering away from history and sense. This is where the secular consciousness has to try to make itself felt, whether in the
or in the US Middle East. No cause, no God, no abstract idea can justify the mass slaughter of innocents, most particularly when only a small group of people are in charge of such actions and feel themselves to represent the cause without having a real mandate to do so.
Besides, much as it has been quarrelled over by Muslims, there isn’t a single Islam: there are Islams, just as there are
. This diversity is true of all traditions, religions or nations even though some of their adherents have futilely tried to draw boundaries around themselves and pin their creeds down neatly. Yet history is far more complex and contradictory than to be represented by demagogues who are much less representative than either their followers or opponents claim. The trouble with religious or moral fundamentalists is that today their primitive ideas of revolution and resistance, including a willingness to kill and be killed, seem all too easily attached to technological sophistication and what appear to be gratifying acts of horrifying retaliation. The Americas and New York suicide bombers seem to have been middle-class, educated men, not poor refugees. Instead of getting a wise leadership that stresses education, mass mobilisation and patient organisation in the service of a cause, the poor and the desperate are often conned into the magical thinking and quick bloody solutions that such appalling models provide, wrapped in lying religious claptrap. Washington
On the other hand, immense military and economic power are no guarantee of wisdom or moral vision. Sceptical and humane voices have been largely unheard in the present crisis, as “America” girds itself for a long war to be fought somewhere out there, along with allies who have been pressed into service on very uncertain grounds and for imprecise ends. We need to step back from the imaginary thresholds that separate people from each other and re-examine the labels, reconsider the limited resources available, decide to share our fates with each other as cultures mostly have done, despite the bellicose cries and creeds.
“Islam” and “the West” are simply inadequate as banners to follow blindly. Some will run behind them, but for future generations to condemn themselves to prolonged war and suffering without so much as a critical pause, without looking at interdependent histories of injustice and oppression, without trying for common emancipation and mutual enlightenment seems far more wilful than necessary. Demonisation of the Other is not a sufficient basis for any kind of decent politics, certainly not now when the roots of terror in injustice can be addressed, and the terrorists isolated, deterred or put out of business. It takes patience and education, but is more worth the investment than still greater levels of large-scale violence and suffering.