Dominant Western Perceptions of Islam and the Muslims
By Dr. Chandra Muzaffer
Is there American hatred towards Islam and the Muslims as alleged by some Muslims themselves? While hatred may be too strong a word, there is no doubt that the influential and articulate stratum of American and indeed Western society is guilty of a whole range of negative attitudes towards Islam and the Muslims. At one end of the continuum is ignorance compounded by prejudice; at the other end is aversion alloyed with antagonism.
These negative attitudes are deeply embedded in the Western psyche. From time to time, in the course of the last 1000 years or so, they have manifested themselves through religion and scholarship, folklore and literature, education and the media, domestic politics and foreign policy.
Starting from the 12th century onwards, the Church, for instance, through distorted translations of the Quran sought to disparage Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. There was a deliberate endeavour to tarnish Muslim history, to vilify Muslim society. As a result images of Arab despots and bloodthirsty Muslim tyrants gained a certain notoriety in medieval Europe. Unedifying images of this sort were often embellished by ugly portrayals of the wanton lust of lascivious Arab Sheiks wallowing in harlot studded harems. Even in the writings of illustrious European poets and playwrights - Dante and Shakespeare to Byron and Shelley - there were pejorative references to the Quran and the Prophet, to ‘Moors’ and ‘Saracens’. They became part of the regular intellectual diet of many a European student right down to the present.
The Islamic Threat
Today, the mainstream Western media portrays Islam or what it describes as ‘militant Islam’ or ‘fundamentalist Islam’ as a threat to the West. Writing in 1981, Edward Said notes, “For the general public in America and Europe today, Islam is ‘news’ of a particularly unpleasant sort. The media, the government, the geopolitical strategists, and - although they are marginal to the culture at large - the academic experts on Islam are all in concert: Islam is a threat to Western civilization. Now this is by no means the same as saying that only derogatory or racist caricatures of Islam are to be found in the West…What I am saying is that negative images of Islam are very much more prevalent than any others, and that such images correspond, not to what Islam ‘is’...but to what prominent sectors of a particular society take it to be: Those sectors have the power and the will to propagate that particular image of Islam, and this image therefore becomes more prevalent, more present, than all others”.
If anything, that notion of a ‘threat’ to the West has become even stronger in the nineties. As John Esposito, one of the few balanced non-Muslim American scholars on Islam put it in a recent book, “In some ways, the attitude of the West towards communism seems at times transferred to or replicated in the new threat ‘Islamic fundamentalism’”. He suggests that selective presentation of facts and biased analysis of Islam have contributed to this perception of the religion within mainstream Western society. “As a result,” he says, “Islam and Islamic revivalism are easily reduced to stereotypes of Islam against the West, Islam’s war with modernity, or Muslim rage, extremism, fanaticism, terrorism. The ‘f’ and ‘t’ words, ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘terrorism’ have become linked in the minds of many. Selective and therefore biased analysis adds to our ignorance rather than our knowledge, narrows our perspective rather than broadening our understanding, reinforces the problem rather than opening the way to new solutions”.
On numerous occasions, policy-makers and politicians in the West, particularly the United States, have exploited this ignorance, this narrow perspective to advance self-serving foreign policy objectives. In the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis, for instance, they used all the major American television networks and newspapers to whip up mass hysteria against ‘militant Islam’, the Shiites, Khomeini, the Mullahs, purdah and so on. 13 years later, following the February 26, 1993 bomb blast at the World Trade Centre in New York, one hears a similar - though far less strident - shriek about Islamic terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism. In spite of the flimsiest of evidence, American investigators, and more so the American media, have concluded that the blast was the work of Islamic fundamentalists, also known as ‘Islamic terrorists’. Though there are solid theories that implicate other groups - notably Israeli intelligence, the Mossad - in the bombing, the U.S. establishment had decided to put the blame on the Muslims. And, as the writer Jane Hunter points out “... in a society with very little understanding of the Middle East, there is a danger that all Arabs and Muslims will be stigmatised.”
Conquest and Crusades
Why, one may ask, are Muslims stigmatised in this manner? Why is there so much bias and antagonism against Muslims within certain crucial segments of Western society? Part of the explanation lies in the Muslim conquest and occupation of parts of Western, Southern and Eastern Europe for long centuries. Though Muslim rulers were, by and large, just and fair to the Christian and Jewish communities under their charge, there was, nonetheless - and understandably so - a certain degree of resentment towards the alien conquerors. The infamous crusades which ended in the defeat of the Christian invaders of Arab-Muslim lands in West Asia also heightened European antagonism towards Islam and its followers.
It is a measure of the intensity of European antagonism that Western civilisation has consciously chosen to downplay, even ignore, the immense debt that it owes Islam and the Muslims. In almost every facet of life, from medicine and algebra to law and government, Islam had laid the foundation for the progress of medieval Europe. In the words of the distinguished Irish scholar-diplomat, Erskine Childers, “In every discipline upon which Europe then began to build its epochal advancement, European monarchs, religious leaders and scholars had to turn to Arab sources. When once any Western student of history manages to learn of this vast Arab inheritance buried out of sight and mind in Western historiography, the astonishment that the very facts of it do not appear in Western education is the greater because the proofs are literally in current Western language”. Childers describes the unwillingness of the West to acknowledge the intellectual inheritance of Islam as “a collective amnesia”.
However, what perpetuated this collective amnesia through the centuries was not just mere memory of conquest and crusades. The West was determined to block out Islam for yet another more important reason. This, in a sense, is at the root of contemporary Western antagonism towards Islam and the Muslims. It is the persistence of Muslim resistance to Western colonialism and neo-colonialism. At the height of Western colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, Muslim groups were amongst the fiercest opponents of alien subjugation. Even in preponderantly non-Muslim societies like India, Muslim elements were often the earliest to express their rejection of Western colonial rule. This is why Muslim freedom-fighters like Siraj-ud-daula and Omar Mukhtar and Syed Jamaluddin al-Afghani were often defamed and denigrated by the colonial authorities. Of course, there were a number of illustrious non-Muslim freedom-fighters too who incurred the wrath of the mighty colonial powers.
Oil and Domination
Since the end of formal colonial rule, Muslim societies are discovering that they are once again the targets of new forms of Western domination and control. This is primarily because most of the world’s oil reserves - the lifeblood of Western industrial civilisation - lie beneath Muslim feet. Controlling Muslim and Southern oil has been a fundamental goal of U.S. foreign policy for at least the last 4 decades. Anyone who dares to resist American control, or worse, challenges its hegemony, is at once branded as an ‘extremist’, a ‘radical’ or simply ‘a threat to peace and stability’. This was the fate of the Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadegh who for a brief but spectacular moment in 1953 nationalised his country’s oil. This has been the fate of the Iraqi and Libyan leaderships ever since they gained control of their oil in the early seventies. This is also the fate of the Iranian leadership which since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 has tried to exercise sovereignty over oil and other mineral resources. Whatever the ideological orientations of these leaderships - and indeed each of them relates to Islam in a different way - the West has decided that they are all Muslim militants and sponsors of terrorism. What the general public in the West and even in the East does not realise is that the conscious denigration of these leaderships has less to do with their misdemeanours (which do exist) and more to do with their assertion of authority over their one most precious natural resource.
The desire to control oil and the determination to perpetuate Western domination are, however, not the only forces behind the depreciation and disparagement of Islam and the Muslims. Zionism has also played a big part. Zionist attacks on Islam and Muslims, which began in the 19th century itself, became even more intense with the creation of Israel in 1948. With their disproportionate influence over Western media and Western scholarship, Zionists have been targeting specific aspects of Islamic theology and society - like the question of polygamy and the position of women - in order to discredit the religion and its adherents. They have also sought to depict Islam as a militant faith and Muslims as individuals prone to violence.
It is not difficult to understand why the massive Zionist propaganda machine has chosen to project Islam and Muslims in such a derogatory light. By presenting Islam as evil and Muslims as loathsome, the Zionists are, in fact, trying to justify their own illegitimate, immoral usurpation and annexation of Palestinian and Arab land. In other words, the aggressors, in their craftiness, are attempting to camouflage their violence and oppression by depicting the victims of their violence and oppression as the aggressors. This explains why those Palestinians and Arabs who resist Israeli occupation and subjugation - the real freedom-fighters - are invariably described in the mainstream Western media as ‘terrorists’ and ‘militants’.
It is quite conceivable that negative portrayals of Palestinians and Arabs resisting Israeli and Western domination may get worse in the coming years. This is partly because the main thrust of opposition sentiment to not only Western domination but also to local regimes which are in cohorts with Western powers, is now being channelled through the ideology of Islam. Indeed, Islam is rapidly emerging as the ideological rallying point for Muslims everywhere as they aspire for genuine liberation from the fetters of both local despotism and global authoritarianism. Given the prevailing perceptions of Islam within the major centres of power in the West, one can expect its political elites and opinion-makers to respond to Islamic resurgence with even more anger and antagonism.
This would be a real pity. For it can only lead to greater strife and conflict, exacerbated by all the prejudices and misunderstandings of Islam and the Muslims. As the Christian scholar, Karen Armstrong put it, in her analysis of Western-Muslim relations, “We in the West must come to terms with our own inner demons of prejudice, chauvinism and anxiety, and strive for a greater objectivity”. In the process, one hopes that the West will realise that if there is to be genuine peace and harmony between the West and Islam - and within the human family as a whole - those structures which allow the few who are powerful to dominate the many who are powerless would have to be replaced by new institutions that promote equality and justice for all.
At the same time, as the West evaluates itself, so must the Muslim world examine itself critically. The rise of Islam with all the emotional power it commands makes it incumbent upon us to ask some searching questions about certain Muslim attitudes and priorities. Is Islamic resurgence giving enough attention to some of the crucial challenges confronting the Ummah - challenges pertaining to poverty and hunger, disease and illiteracy? Have Islamic resurgents gone beyond rhetoric in addressing issues of education and knowledge, science and technology, politics and administration, economics and management in the alternative Islamic social order that they envision? Isn’t it true to some extent that Islamic resurgence as a whole tends to be pre-occupied with forms and symbols, rituals and practices? Isn’t there a tendency within Islamic resurgence to view laws and regulations in a static rather than a dynamic manner? Does the conventional position of Islamic resurgents on the role of women in society and the place of minorities in a Muslim majority state, accord with the fundamental values and principles of the Quran and the Sunnah? Isn’t it true that the exclusiveness of Islamic resurgence reflected in a variety of matters ranging from charity to politics is a betrayal of the letter and spirit of the Quran? Are Islamic resurgents, by insisting upon their interpretation of Islam, as the only correct approach to the religion guilty of promoting sectarian sentiments within the Ummah? Have Islamic resurgents themselves contributed, perhaps unwittingly, to the factionalisation and fragmentation of the Ummah?
Perhaps it is time that we conceded that there is also another side to the truth: that we Muslims are also responsible, to a certain degree, for the negative perceptions of the religion and the community in today’s world.
JUST is an international citizens organisation seeking to promote a global awareness and action leading to human dignity and social justice guided by a spiritual and moral vision of life and living. For further information on JUST, write to Dr. Chandra Muzaffer, Director, Just World Trust (JUST), PO Box 448, 10760, Penang, Malaysia, Tel: (604) 6565157. Web: http://www.jaring.my/just/
Originally printed at http://www.newdawnmagazine.com/Articles/Dominant%20Perceptions%20of%20Islam%20and%20the%20Muslims.html, and reprinted at TAM with permission.