Roots of Misconception:  Euro-American Perceptions of Islam Before and After 9/11 - INTRODUCTION

Roots of Misconception:  Euro-American Perceptions of Islam Before and After 9/11

Ibrahim Kalin
College of the Holy Cross

In the aftermath of the September 11, the long and checkered relationship between Islam and the West entered a new phase. A ubiquitous sense of suspicion and denouncement swept through the public sphere of many European countries and the United States. The attacks were interpreted as the fulfillment of a prophecy that had been in the consciousness of the West for a long time, i.e., the coming of Islam as a menacing power with a clear intent to destroy Western civilization. Representations of Islam as a violent, militant and oppressive religious ideology became a powerful discourse and tool of analysis extending from TV screens and state offices to schools and the internet. The narrative of fundamentalist Islam was revitalized to bolster a counterattack against religious fanaticism and terrorism. It was even suggested that Mecca, the holiest city of Islam, be nukedђ to give a lasting lesson to all Muslims. Although one can look at the widespread sense of anger, hostility and revenge as a normal human reaction to the abominable loss of innocent lives, its linkage to Islam and the subsequent demonization of Muslims is the result of deeper philosophical and historical issues.

In many subtle ways, the long history of Islam and the West, from the theological polemics of Baghdad in the 8th and 9th centuries to the experience of convivencia in Andalusia in the 12th and 13th centuries, informs the current perceptions and qualms of each civilization vis—vis the other. This paper will examine some of the salient features of this history and argue that the monolithic representations of Islam, created and sustained by a highly complex set of image-producers, think-tanks, academics, lobbyists, policy makers, and media, dominating the present Western conscience, have their roots in the Wests long history with the Islamic world. It will also be argued that the deep-rooted misgivings about Islam and Muslims have led and continue to lead to fundamentally flawed and erroneous policy decisions that have a direct impact on the current relations of Islam and the West. The almost unequivocal identification of Islam with terrorism and extremism in the minds of many Americans after 9/11 is an outcome generated by both historical misperceptions, which will be analyzed in some detail below, and the political agenda of certain interest groups that see confrontation as the only way to deal with the Islamic world. It is hoped that the following analysis will provide a historical context in which we can make sense of these tendencies in the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks and their repercussions for both worlds.

Two major attitudes can be discerned in Western perceptions of Islam. The first and by far the most common view is that of clash and confrontation.  Its roots go back to the Christian rejection of Islam as a religion in the 8th century when Islam first arose on the historical scene and was quickly perceived to be a theological and political threat to Christendom. The medieval European view of Islam as a heresy and its Prophet as an ґimpostor provided the religious foundations of the confrontationalist position which has survived up to our own day and gained a new dimension after 9/11. In the modern period, the confrontationalist view has been articulated in both religious and non-religious terms, the most famous one being the clash of civilizations hypothesis, which envisions the strategic and political conflicts between the Western and Muslim countries in terms of deep religious and cultural differences between the two.  The second view is that of co-existence and accommodation which has become a major alternative only in recent decades although it has some important historical precedents in the examples of Emanuel Swedenborg, Goethe, Henry Stubbe, Carlyle and others. Proponents of the accommodationist view consider Islam to be a sister religion and in fact part of the Abrahamic tradition, and prove, in the case of Swedenborg and Goethe, the possibility of envisioning co-existence with Islam and Muslims while remaining true to the word and spirit of Christianity. This position, which will be analyzed very briefly at the end of the essay, marks a new and important chapter in the history of Islam and the West with implications for long-term civilizational co-existence and understanding.

The first part of the essay will look at how Islam was perceived to be a religious heresy first by Christian theologians in the East and then in Europe. Such common views of Islam as the religion of the sword, the Prophet Muhammad as a violent person, and the QurҦn as a book of theological gibberish have their roots in this period. The second part will focus on late medieval and Renaissance views of Islam as a world culture pitted against the intellectual and religious dominance of Christianity. Although some of the late medieval and Renaissance thinkers saw Islam under the same light as they saw all religions and thus derided it as irrational and superstitious, they had a sense of appreciation for the philosophical and scientific achievements of Islamic civilization. This rather new attitude towards Islam had a major role in the making of 18th and 19th century representations of Islam in Europe and paved the way for the rise of Orientalism as the official study of things Oriental and Islamic for the next two centuries.  The third part of the essay will analyze Orientalism within the context of the Western perceptions of Islam and how it has determined the modern depiction of Islam in the Western hemisphere. Having provided this historical sketch, the last part of the essay will look in greater detail at how the modern language of violence, militancy, terrorism, and fundamentalism, used disproportionately to construct a belligerent image of Islam as the other呒, goes back to the early medieval perceptions of Islam as the religion of the sword. It will be argued that the concepts of jihd and dr al-isl奥m (the abode of Islam) versus dr al-harb (the abode of war) have been grossly misinterpreted and militarized through the meta-narrative of fundamentalist Islam to preempt the possibility of crafting a discourse of dialogue and co-existence between Islam and the West.

Roots of Misconception (Introduction and 4 parts), Ibrahim Kalin:

Euro-American Perceptions of Islam Before and After 9/11 - INTRODUCTION
From Theological Rivalry to Cultural Differentiation: Perceptions of Islam During the Middle Ages
From the Middle Ages through the Modern Period: The European Discovery of Islam as a World Culture
The 19th Century Perceptions of Islam: From the Pilgrim to the Orientalist
The Legacy of Orientalism and the New World: Islam as the Other呒 of America?

Originally published in “Roots of Misconception: Euro-American Perceptions of Islam Before and After September 11th” in Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition ed. by Joseph Lumbard (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2004), pp. 143-187

First published online at

This article may be found on the webpage of Ibrahim Kalin at 

Ibrahim Kalin is an Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA