Gatestone Institute, by Denis MacEoin, August, 15, 2015:
- Edward Said leaves us with the impression that all prejudice is only on the part of the West.
- To the traditionally minded, news of such things as man-made laws based on objective evidence, free speech, equal justice under law, democracy, elections, freedom for women, freedom of religion and respect for the “other,” and so on, may have come as a sort of horror. Despots recoiled from the very thought of democracy. Religious leaders fumed at secular education, the freedom to question and say what one liked, even about religion.
- “It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated; to impose its law on all nations and to extend its power to the entire planet.” — Hasan al-Banna’, Founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, 1928.
- The vast amount of what is called “Islamophobia,” however, is not that at all. Fair criticism is not phobic, responses to Islamic terrorism are reasonable reactions to violence.
- Based on news reports of Muslims murdering other Muslims and killing Christians, there is, ironically, probably more Islamophobia among Muslims for each other than there is from Westerners toward Muslims. There is also probably more “Infidelophobia” by Muslims toward non-Muslims than by non-Muslims toward Muslims.
- Again this year, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation held a conference calling for a universal blasphemy law — legislation it has repeatedly tried to pass for over a decade, with the help of U.S, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The aim is not to protect other religions (about which Muslims blaspheme without cessation), but to block any criticism of Islam.
- Sometimes it seems as if Islam ceases to be treated as just another religion and becomes a religion intolerant of all others and unduly protective of its own rights and privileges. In democratic states, Islam is evidently already the only religion that may not be criticized, even though criticism of religion has for centuries been a cornerstone of free speech and transparency that are essential elements in democracy. These freedoms really matter, yet not one Muslim country can claim to implement or protect them, especially freedom of religion.
On July 9th, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, within the Council of Europe, published its annual report for 2014. The report identifies a dramatic increase in antisemitism, Islamophobia, online hate speech and xenophobic political discourse as main trends in 2014. It also indicates that “Islamophobia is reported in many countries, counteracting integration efforts for inclusive European societies. According to the report the rise of extremism and in violent Islamist movements has been manipulated by populist politicians to portray Muslims in general as unable or unwilling to integrate and therefore as a security threat.”
This is, of course, troubling, and it is right for the Commission to treat it as a growing problem. But just how widespread is the issue, and to what extent is it readily identifiable?
Some claims of Islamophobia have their roots in the perception of increasing Muslim violence within Europe; some are based on existing racist attitudes, and some are derived from Muslim perceptions of victimhood and charged sensitivities. The latter is the main reason why defining Islamophobia is not as simple as describing anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant prejudice, or anti-black racism.
To understand this more clearly, it is necessary to slip back briefly to the past.
In 1978, Palestinian-American professor Edward Said (1935-2003) published a book, Orientalism, which changed the way many people thought about the Middle East and Islam. Said’s book, deeply flawed, nevertheless became a bestseller translated into thirty-six languages. Those of us who were the first to read it – teachers and students in Islamic and Middle East Studies – were taken in by its façade of intellectual impartiality and the sense we all had that it opened our eyes to our own work in an original way. It was, to use Thomas Kuhn’s celebrated phrase, a paradigm shift that changed our understanding of our researches and the meaning they had, for we were precisely the ‘orientalists’ Said so tartly scolded. Some of moved away in later years, but many are still mesmerized by that smooth prose and challenging flair.
It wasn’t long before Said’s appeal moved into other disciplines and to other regions far from the Middle East. Orientalism even laid the foundations for a new item on the academic curriculum: “Post-colonial Studies.” The subject, now taught in universities in many countries, has produced a vast literature, has its own academic journals and numerous associations and institutes. Said, like Franz Fanon, Gayatri Spivak, Derek Gregory and others, remains a core figure, andOrientalism a central text.
According to Said, Westerners, by virtue of not being Muslims, have always falsified and distorted their writings about Islam and Muslims. Said claimed to see deeply-ingrained prejudice in the works of French, British, Russian and other Orientalist scholars and writers. To him, Orientalism was (and is) a tool of the colonial powers, assisting their mission supposedly to administer and subdue the peoples of the East. Since former colonies have achieved independence, he contends that the former imperialists still exert pressure on the ex-colonies in order to control them. Israel is regarded by most Marxists, socialists, and even many liberals as an entity created to colonize the Arab Middle East and is often condemned, even by people who are supposedly educated and should know better, in abrasive terms as a malign extension of the West.
Perhaps the best-known sentence in Said’s book is: “[S]ince the time of Homer every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.” As Bernard Lewis has been heard to remark, “If that were true, the only reports of marine biology would have to be by fish.” But for Said and his followers, the world is divided between Western guilt and Eastern victimhood.
What is missing from Said’s work is any attempt to deal with the long history of Islamic empires, the conquest of, and permanent rule over, non-Muslim states and peoples, and the often distorted ways in which Muslim writers have sought to interpret and explain Christian, Jewish, Hindu and other worlds. Said leaves us with the impression that all prejudice is only on the part of the West.
Said continues to have admirers, most in academic departments of English or multicultural studies, but as time passes, more and more scholars are calling his views into question. Writers such as Bernard Lewis, Ibn Warraq, Efraim Karsh, and Robert Irwin have exposed a string of faults in Said’s narrative, from factual errors to staggering bias.
Despite his bias, distortion of facts, and openly documented deceptions, many of Said’s followers, who are unwilling or unable to do their own work, see him as an intellectual to students and teachers who adhere to an anti-establishment, anti-Western, and socialist world view.
For many, his book, Orientalism played a role in delegitimizing the West and furthering causes such as multiculturalism or anti-Zionism. In the meantime, however, not surprisingly, the book’s influence spread, into the Islamic world and the smaller world of Muslim communities in the West. Better-educated Muslims read and digested Said’s message, in a manner rather different from Western readers, many or most of whom were atheists and agnostics. For Muslim readers, Said’s message that the West was hostile to Islam became the first strong antidote to their sense of failure. Muslims saw themselves as backward but now believed they were the victims of a Western conspiracy to deny them the fruits of their great civilization. To disparage the West became, for many, a religious imperative.
For religious Muslims, it was becoming increasingly important to deal with the stresses caused by their economic, political, and military subordination to a flourishing West, coupled with their own lack of progress in the non-Muslim world and at home. The repeated defeat of multinational Arab armies by the “despicable” Jews of Israel stood, and for millions of Muslims still stands, as a symbol of their need to reassert themselves on the world stage — as Iran is trying to do today.