Roots of Misconception:  The Legacy of Orientalism and the New World: Islam as the Other of A

Ibrahim Kalin

Posted Nov 1, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
Bookmark and Share

The Legacy of Orientalism and the American Context:
Islam as the Otherђ of America?

In the modern period by which I mean the 20th and the present century, the relation between the Islamic world and the West continues to be screened through inherited images and stereotypes. The depiction of Islamic societies as sensual, despotic, backward, underdeveloped, tribal, promiscuous, aberrant, irrational and mysterious collectivities have found their ways into the American popular culture. Such movies as Navy SEALS (1990), Killing Streets (1991), The Human Shield (1992), The Son of the Pink Panther (1993), True Lies (1994), and Executive Decision (1996) provide ample evidence for the persistence of monolithic and violent images of Arabs and Muslims. The uncontrolled use of stereotypes in the entertainment industry has a powerful impact on how ordinary movie-goers come to perceive hundreds of millions of people of Middle Eastern and Asian decent. Thinking through stereotypes and fixed identities creates the delusion of seen one of ӑem, seen em all,є and uniformed or misinformed readers hastily associate these wild images with what they read in the print media about the Islamic world, the Middle East and Muslims in general. To use Sam Keens analogy, the vilification of Arabs, which in the eyes of many Americans represents quintessential Islam because a great majority of them cannot tell the difference between an Arab and non-Arab Muslim, becomes a free ride for portraying the other as villains and extremists: ғYou can hit an Arab free; they are free enemies, free villains where you couldn֒t do it to a Jew or you cant do it to a black anymore.Ҕ(61)

These violent images have too often become props for the construction of Islamophobic political discourses. The narrative of political, militant and fundamentalist Islam, produced and sustained by an enormous network of writers, policy makers, journalists, and speakers, is no less damaging and insidious than their counterparts in the entertainment world. This narrative relegates the word Islamђ to political and military confrontation and has the debilitating effect of reducing the Muslim world to a subcategory of the Middle East conflict. Ironically, or perhaps we should say tragically, many people in Europe and America turn to Islam as a way of understanding the causes of the Middle East conflict.  This approach, perpetuated in Western media on a daily basis, reinforces the image of Islam as a distant and foreign phenomenon, as a violent and militant faith, and as a monolithic world prone to extremism of all kinds.(62) According to a survey conducted by the National Conferences in 1994, 42 percent of the 3000 Americans interviewed believe that Muslims belong to a religion that condones or support terrorism.Ӕ 47 percent accept the view that Muslims are anti-Western and anti-American.Ӕ(63) Until recently, this was the dominant view even among high school students in the US who have either never been exposed to Islam or presented with a distorted picture of it.(64) As it became exceedingly clear after 9/11, political realities of the Islamic world are now seen through the glass of cultural stereotypes and amorphous collectivities, and this has become part of the public knowledge about Islam and Muslims. In presenting Bernard Lewis book What Went Wrong, for instance, a unanimous reporter broached the subject by saying that ғsuddenly the world wants to understand the culture that produced those who one fine day chose to incinerate themselves along with some 3,000 innocent Americans. In fact, LewisԒ epigraphic statement from his book sums up this sentiment in a condescending language: “If the peoples of Middle East continue on their present path, the suicide bomber may become a metaphor for the whole region, and there will be no escape from a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression.”(65)  In spite of his fame and stature as an eminent historian of the Middle East, Lewis reinforces the image of Islam as a violent religion, this time with a scholarly bent.

The presumed confrontation between Islam and the West, already revitalized by Huntingtons ғclash of civilizations hyposthesis, was thrown into full relief after the tragic and deplorable attacks on New York and Washington.  Two main attitudes towards Islam have crystallized in the aftermath of September 11. The first is the resurfacing of the medieval descriptions of Islam as the religion of the sword, the Prophet as a violent person, Muslim societies as monolithic, violent and power-driven collectivities, etc. The second attitude is to identify Islam as a code of belief and action that is obstinately irrational, anti-modern, aberrant, rigid, religious, and traditional. As expected, all of these stereotypes and attitudes have been employed to account for the root causes of the current confrontation between the Islamic and Western worlds. The identification of Islam with violence and militancy on the one hand, and with intolerance and tyranny, on the other, is now a powerful image by which Islamic societies are understood and judged in the Western hemisphere. A typical example is Paul JohnsonԒs essay published in the National Review as a response to the 9/11 attacks. Johnson, who cannot even claim to be a lay reader of Islam but sees himself entitled to speak as an authority on Islamic history, argues that Islam is an imperialist religion Ӆ Islam remains a religion of the Dark Ages mainstream Islam is essentially akin to the most extreme form of Biblical fundamentalism Ņ the history of Islam has been a history of conquest and reconquest.Ŕ(66) Johnsons militant language is indicative of the extent to which the narrative of political Islam and terrorism contributes to the antagonistic representations of Islam as the other of the West. In a similar spirit, Francis Fukuyama claimed that ғIslam, by contrast, is the only cultural system that seems regularly to produce people like Osama bin Laden or the Taliban who reject modernity lock, stock and barrel. This raises the question of how representative such people are of the larger Muslim community, and whether this rejection is somehow inherent in Islam.(67)

In the decades leading up to 9/11, many academics, policy-makers, and the so-called terrorism experts have repeatedly portrayed Islam as a religion that condones and produces violence on a consistent basis. The images of suicide bombers, hijackings, assassinations, street riots and uprisings, which have a profound impact on the European and American perceptions of the Islamic world, inform the coded language of ԑmilitant Islam, and their raison dҒetre is attributed in an astonishingly simplistic way to the religion of Islam or Muslim culture rather than to the particular political circumstances that have given rise to them. In some cases, religious elements have been openly brought into the debate to explain the anti-Western and anti-American sentiments in the Islamic world. In an interview given to Time magazine after his 1980 election, President Reagan claimed that Muslims were reverting to their belief that unless they killed a Christian or a Jew they would not go to heaven.Ӕ(68) Twenty some years later, the situation has not changed very much as we read in Pat Robertsons denouncement of Islam as ғa violent religion bent on world domination and Patrick J. BuchananԒs defense of America against Islam.Ӕ In one of his messianic talks, Robertson took issue with President Bushs assertion that Islam is a peaceful religion. Instead, Robertson argued that Islam is ғnot a peaceful religion that wants to coexist. They want to coexist until they can control, dominate, and then, if need be, destroy.(69) Echoing ReaganԒs remarks, he added that the Koran makes it very clear that if you see an infidel, you are to kill him,Ӕ the infidelӔ in the quotation being Jews and Christians. The same view was expressed in a more militant fashion by a certain Victor Tadros in an essay called Islam UnveiledӔ  ֑unveiling now becoming the buzzword for all those who have come to realize the ґtrue nature of Islam. Presenting himself as ґArabic/English translator on the internet pages of the Texas Christian University where the piece is posted, Tadros reveals his wisdom of unveiling by saying that

Most of the Western nations are unaware of the fact that the spirit of Islam is one of enmity, hostility and Holy War (Jihad) against both Jews and Christians. There is no other religion but Islam, that commands, in a crystal clear and emphatic way, its true-blue followers to kill both Jews and Christians and destroy their properties.(70)

One can easily discard such views as grossly exaggerated and fanatical, having no value and relevance for the mainstream views concerning Islam. It is, however, a strong indication of the widespread misconceptions of Islam, especially among conservative Christians in the US,(71) and does not appear to be confined to a few aberrant voices. After 9/11, for instance, evangelist Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of Bill Graham, called Islam ғa very evil and wicked religion and Rev. Jerry Vines, the past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, called the Prophet of Islam ԓa demon obsessed pedophile.(72) The presumed conflict between Islam and Christianity on predominantly religious grounds is conceived to be a struggle of the ԓCross over the Crescent, to use the title of Samuel ZwemerԒs famous book.(73) In a speech given on Dec 7, 2001, Patrick Buchanan, for instance, spoke on the survival of Islamђ as if speaking of an epidemic that needs to be eradicated. Upgrading Huntingtons ғclash of civilizations to a ԓwar of civilizations, Buchanan asked if

ԅa war of civilizations [is] coming? Clearly, not a few in the Islamic world and the West so believe, and ardently desire For no matter how many deaths of defeats we inflict, we cannot kill Islam as we did Nazism, Japanese militarism and Soviet Bolshevism [note the comparison between Islam and the evils of the 20th century] Ņ If belief is decisive, Islam is militant, Christianity milquetoast. In population, Islam is exploding, the West dying. Islamic warriors are willing to suffer defeat and death, the West recoils at casualties. They are full of grievance; we, full of guilt. Where Islam prevails, it asserts a right to impose its dogma, while the West preaches equality. Islam is assertive, the West apologetic about its crusaders, conquerors and empires. Don’t count Islam out. It is the fastest growing faith in Europe and has surpassed Catholicism worldwide as Christianity expires in the West and the churches empty out, the mosques are going up.(74)

While the title of another essay by Buchanan, ֓Why Does Islam Hate America, is a good summary of this kind of discourse,(75) the best and most-informed example of analyzing the contemporary Islamic world through essentialist categories and stereotypes on the one hand, and the narrative of confrontation, on the other, has been given by Bernard Lewis in his famous article ԓThe Roots of Muslim Rage, published almost ten years before 9/11. Purporting to be an account of the contemporary Islamic world, LewisԒ article sums up the main trait of Muslims with such words as rage, resentment, bitterness, revulsion, hatred, revenge, holy war against the infidel enemy,Ӕ struggles, attacks, hostility, and rejection. Lewis considers the problem of the Islamic worldђ, i.e., extremism and fundamentalism to be deeply rooted in its history and cultural preferences. Thus he locates the roots of what he labels as the Muslim rageђ in the cultural and civilizational realities of the Islamic world.

Clearly, something deeper is involved than these specific grievances, numerous and important as they may be—something deeper that turns every disagreement into a problem and makes every problem insoluble. ()
It should by now be clear that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilizations—the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both.(76)

Seen in this light, the history of Islam and the West becomes, in LewisŒ words, a long series of attacks and counterattacks, jihads and crusades, conquests and reconquests.Ӕ It is remarkable that such a prominent historian as Lewis should reduce at one stroke the 1400 years history of Islamic and Western worlds to attacks and conquestsђ and contribute to the monolithic perception of Islam as a menacing power bent on destroying Western civilization. Lewis attempt to summarize the present reality of the Islamic world in terms of rage and resentment against the West leads to gross generalizations and misrepresentations that one would normally expect only from an uninformed or deliberately misleading historian. Throughout this essay and his other works, Lewis looks at history through patterns and categories that culminate in his depiction of Islam and Muslims as immersed in rage, hatred, and a sense of revenge. This is not only to misunderstand the present conditions of the Muslim world but also to disinform and mislead the public at large into thinking that Muslims in the Muslim world, Europe and America are part of a larger force directed against the foundations of Western civilization. Furthermore, Lewis, like many of his followers, uses the blanket term ґIslamic fundamentalism to discredit and categorize all of the socio-political organizations in the Islamic world as militarist and terrorist structures. This becomes poignantly clear and alarming when Lewis presents his modern version of jihad as the ғholy war against the infidel West:

The army is God’s army and the enemy is God’s enemy. The duty of God’s soldiers is to dispatch God’s enemies as quickly as possible to the place where God will chastise them—that is to say, the afterlife. In the classical Islamic view, to which many Muslims are beginning to return, the world and all mankind are divided into two: the House of Islam, where the Muslim law and faith prevail, and the rest, known as the House of Unbelief or the House of War, which it is the duty of Muslims ultimately to bring to Islam [Lewis does not explain where he derives this clause from]. But the greater part of the world is still outside Islam, and even inside the Islamic lands, according to the view of the Muslim radicals, the faith of Islam has been undermined and the law of Islam has been abrogated. The obligation of holy war therefore begins at home and continues abroad, against the same infidel enemy.(77)

In spite of his renowned scholarship, Lewis does not discuss the historical origination of the terms dar al-islam and dar al-harb, nor does he mention the other geo-religious divisions, such as dar al-sulh or dar al-ԑahd (the abode of peace and agreementӔ with which Muslim societies have an agreement of peace and where Muslim groups live as minorities under non-Muslim rule). By failing to observe these nuances, Lewis presents dӥr al-arb as an Islamic missionary concept.  But in reality these territorial divisions have entered Islamic law specifically to provide a blueprint for international relations and to regulate the legal and religious lives of Muslims living under non-Muslim rulers and sometimes as prisoners of war. In contrast to the Oreintalist view that dar al-harb means ԑabode of war, i.e., countries with which Muslims are in constant battle,(78) the classical sources of Islamic law use the term in the sense of what we call ґforeign countries today. War against such foreign countries is allowed only when the Muslim state is attacked and the bond of peace (sulh and ahd) is broken unilaterally.(79) Just as defining a country as ґforeign does not mean discord or conflict, the term dar al-harb, which is a legacy of the imperial era, does not mean war or battle.

Neither Lewis nor those who distort and misrepresent the concepts of jihad and dar al-harb, however, make an earnest effort to present a fuller picture of these Islamic concepts.  Thus their radicalized and militant readings are found not in the classical sources of Islam written in Arabic, Persian or Turkish, but mostly in Western works written in English, German or Dutch. It is not difficult to see how this skewed interpretation militarizes and demonizes the concept of jihad Җ an irresistible fashion before and especially after the September 11th attacks. The word jihad has now been equated with militancy and terrorism and is invariably translated as holy warђ in spite of the fact that the holy war tradition originates from the history of Christianity. Jihad, which is always mentioned with such words as fundamentalism, terrorism, hatred and revenge, is used to create a mass hysteria that invigorates the monolithic considerations of Islam. This view was voiced by such a prominent figure of the French intellectual scene as Jacque Ellul.  Shortly before his death, in his preface to Bat YeorҒs The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians under Islam, Ellul wrote:

it is most important to grasp that the jihad is an institution in itself; that is to say, an organic piece of Muslim society. Ņ The world, as Bat Yeor brilliantly shows, is divided into two regions: the dar al-Islam and the dar al-harb, the ґdomain of Islam and ґthe domain of war. The world is no longer divided into nations, peoples, and tribes. Rather, they are all located en bloc in the world of war, where war is the only possible relationship with the outside world. [italics mine] The earth belongs to Allah and all its inhabitants must acknowledge this reality; to achieve this goal there is but one method: war. The Koran allows that there are times when war is not advisable, and a momentary pause is called for. But that changes nothing: war remains an institution, which means that it must resume as soon as circumstances permit.(80)

Examples can be multiplied almost ad infinitum. In a book written to ґexplain the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City, Yossef Bodansky, staff director of the Republican Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare and the former technical editor of the Israeli Air Force magazine, defined jihad as the religious and social basis of an international terrorist infrastructure: ғIslamic terrorism has embarked on a Holy War Jihad ֖ against the West, especially the United States, which is being waged primarily through international terrorism.(81) A similar hysteria was expressed by Amos Perlmutter of American University in a more alarming and tantalizing way when he informed his readers about a ԓgeneral Islamic war being waged against the West, Christianity, modern capitalism, Zionism, and Communism all at once.(82) Lumping these divergent aspects of Western civilization into an essentialist whole, Perlmutter, with a remarkable flight of fancy, declares Islam as the other of the West and repeats what Ernest Renan had said in his 1862 inaugural lecture at the College de France: ԓThe Muslim is in the profoundest contempt of education, science, [and] everything that constitutes the European spirit (emphasis mine).(83)

The campaign to discredit Islam and thus deliberately widen the gap between Muslims and the West is not limited to the Islamic world proper. It has now been carried to Muslim communities in the US with a clear intent to preempt the possibility of Islam having a human face in America. Steve EmersonԒs documentary called Jihad in America: An Investigation of Islamic ExtremistsӒ Activities in the United States broadcast in 1994 was a major blow to the public image of jihad which in reality means inner struggle and fight for the good of the society but is now equated with terrorism.(84) Instead, EmersonԒs film depicted a dark and renegade world of terrorists, extremists, fundamentalists, and all the other stereotypes of the narrative of political and fundamentalist Islam. Emersons militant onslaught on Islam and confrontationist discourse implicated all Muslims in the US as potential criminals and his allegations carry clearly cultural and ideological biases against Islam and Muslims. To substantiate his imaginary scenario, Emerson, who became notorious for his bogus accusation that the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995 was an ґArab-Muslim terrorist attack, claimed that the so-called Islamic fundamentalists ғuse their mosques and their religious leaders to form the nucleus of their terrorist infrastructure.(85) In a more combative tone, Emerson declared his vision of the ԑMuslim hatred of the West: ғThe hatred of the West by militant Islamic fundamentalists is not tied to any particular act or event. Rather, fundamentalists equate the mere existence of the West its economic, political and cultural system֗as an intrinsic attack on Islam.(86)

In a similar vein, Samuel Huntington presents the resistance of the Islamic world to secular globalization as being equal to the rejection of democracy, human rights, equality, and the rule of law Ԗ the very notions that the so-called Islamists have been struggling to bring to their own home countries: Western ideas of individualism, liberalism, constitutionalism, human rights, equality, liberty, the rule of law, democracy, free markets, the separation of church and state, often have little resonance in Islamic [and other] Ӆ cultures.(87) Huntington mistakes the lack of electoral democracy in present-day Muslim and primarily Middle Eastern countries for the absence of a democratic culture, grossly ignoring the political realities and power structures in those countries. As shown by the work of Noris and Inglehart, based on a huge survey conducted in 75 countries, nine of which are Muslim, between 1995-2001,(88) HuntingtonԒs assumption that the idea of democracy does not exist in the Islamic world is unsubstantiated by the perceptions and attestations of common people in Muslim countries. As Esposito points out, these remarks point not so much to a clash of cultures and societies that can be justified on social or civilizational grounds as to a market for clash.Ӕ(89)

The labeling of Islam as a religion that condones and begets violence and terrorism against Muslims or non-Muslims is a creation of the narrative of militant Islam which has been thoroughly deconstructed by David Dakake in his essay Combating the Myth of a Militant IslamӔ in this collection. Proponents of such distortion refuse to admit the ubiquitous reality of violence committed in the name of religion. A cursory look at recent history reveals that violent and terrorist acts have been carried out in the name of all the major world religions including Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism. Reverend Michael Bray and the bombing of abortion clinics, Timothy McVeigh and the bombing of federal buildings in Oklahoma, David Koresh and the events that took place in Waco, Texas, the religio-political conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants in Northern Ireland, or the implication of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the genocidal killing and raping of more than 250,000 Muslims in Bosnia are but a few examples one can mention in relation to Christianity. Similarly, the killing of 38 Palestinians by Baruch Goldstein, a Brooklyn psychologist, upon entering the al-Khalil mosque in Jerusalem in 1994, the assassination of Israels Prime Minister Itzak Rabin by Yigal Amir in 1995, who belonged to an extremist Jewish organization, and Meir KahaneҒs justification of violence and terrorism in the name of Judaism are just few examples that one can mention in relation to Judaism.(90) Such examples underline an important facet of our modern predicament that goes beyond national and religious boundaries, namely the violent character of modern culture. It is obvious that none of these cases represent the majority view of Judaism or Christianity and expectedly no attempt is made to trace the origins of such violent acts to the religion itself or its history. The alarming fact is that this has not been the case with Islam. Moreover, as Joseph Lumbard shows in his study of the decline of Islamic intellectual tradition, the rise of militant views among certain groups in the Islamic world is closely tied to the degeneration of traditional Islamic values on the one hand, and the destructive forces of modernization, on the other. Therefore, the commonly held view that Muslim societies need to be modernized more to overcome the problem of intolerance and extremism is to put the cart before the horse. It is not the traditional beliefs and practices of Islam but their distortions and misrepresentation by the modernists that are the root of the problem and that need urgent attention.

Now, the fact that Islam is singled out among other religions or religious groups against which charges of violence and extremism can easily be brought up goes to show the extent to which we can become captives of our own history. In spite of the colonial period, the golden age of Orientalism, and the massive body of information about Islam and the Muslim world in Western institutions of learning, Islam is still perceived to be an alien phenomenon outside the religious and intellectual horizon of the Western world. The lack of knowledge and familiarity that had obstructed the study of Islam for centuries during the Middle Ages continues to be a stumbling block for the appreciation of the rich tapestry of Islamic culture and history. Furthermore, since the average Westerner is much more familiar with the Judeo-Christian tradition, he or she is in a better position to appreciate the diversity of that tradition and distinguish between the rule and the exception that proves it. In the case of Islam, we scarcely refer to a Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition whereby the historical unknowing of Islam may be undone and a more improved picture of Islam may be constructed.

In addition to the charges of militancy and terrorism, the current perceptions of Islam in Europe and the US are also paralyzed by two interrelated issues: lack of democracy and secularism in Muslim countries. As we have seen in the above quotes from Lewis and Huntington, it is argued that the absence of a civic culture to promote democracy, freedom, and womens rights is attributed to traditional Islamic culture, which is portrayed as oppressive, backward, irrational, patriarchal, etc. Although Lewis envisions no essential clash between the principles of Islam and the ideals and procedures of democracy, he nevertheless blames the ғIslamic fundamentalists for ԓexploit[ing] the opportunities that a self-proclaimed democratic system by its own logic is bound to offer them.(91) Gilles Kepel takes a more radical approach and argues for the essential incompatibility of Islam and democratic principles when he says that ԓthe rejection of even a chimerical notion of democracy is actually inherent in Islamic religious doctrine.(92) It is remarkable that Western observers such as Kepel should present a narrow and minimalist reading of the debate over democracy in the Islamic world that has been going on for the last three or four decades, and relegate it to the views of few extremist religious figures or movements that oppose the secular character of Western democracy, not the ideals of democracy itself. Although such criticisms do exist, they are mostly reactions to the way in which democracy is exploited in many Muslim countries to legitimate corrupt and oppressive regimes. Furthermore, the so-called anti-Western or anti-American sentiments arise from the open support given to these regimes by European countries and the US. As Michael Salla points out, ԓthe West is likely to provide military and economic support to the governments in question in order to crush Islamic militancy, while providing diplomatic cover for widespread political repression and human rights abuses.(93) A tragic example of Western double-standard on democracy in the Islamic world is Algeria where the US preferred, in the words of Robin Wright, a ԓpolice state to an Islamic democracy.(94)

At this point, the question of democracy in the Islamic world assumes two important dimensions: intellectual and political. The intellectual nature of the democracy debate is self-evident as many Muslim intellectuals and leaders, including the so-called fundamentalist or Islamists have been engaged in a critical and constructive dialogue with such issues as political participation, power-sharing, representation, governance, human rights, religious and cultural pluralism, minorities, etc. Looking at the debate in the last several decades, one can assuredly say that forging a non-secular definition of democracy and political rule that will not disfranchise traditional Islamic values is more than a mere possibility and taking place in various Muslim countries.(95)

As for the political aspect, it is obvious that both the presence and lack of democracy in the Islamic world has grave policy implications, and the European and American policies often make the issue even more complex and difficult. In some cases, the promotion of democracy, i.e., withholding support from ԑgood allies-bad regimes presents itself as a dichotomy because ғpushing hard for political change might not only disrupt the effort to promote peace but could also work against vital US interests: stability in the oil-rich Persian Gulf and in strategically critical Egypt.(96) Seen from this angle, supporting oppressive regimes becomes a rule of thumb in foreign policy decisions whose ideological foundations are supplied by the narrative of fundamentalist Islam and terrorism as discussed above. All we are left with then is either the messianic threat of Islamic fundamentalism or the ԑpolitical inability and immaturity of the Arabs who are, in the words of the movie Lawrence of Arabia (1962), ғa political naf in need of tutelage from a wiser Westerner.(97) By the same token, the question of Palestine is attributed to the undemocratic nature of the Arabs because the issue between Israel and the Palestinians, it is argued, is not occupation, it is not settlements, and it certainly is not Israeli brutality and aggression. It is the Arabs inability to live peacefully with others.Ҕ(98) Such statements, which are nothing short of racism but do not bother us because the Arabs are the free criminalsђ of the new world, permeate the American public debate over democracy in the Islamic world and cloud, to say the least, the lingering political problems of Muslim countries that cannot be understood properly in isolation from the global network of governments, international organizations, and corporate business interests.

Debate over the absence of secularism in Muslim countries presents a case similar to the question of democracy. Islamic claims to political rule and the unexpected successes of the so-called Islamists in such countries as Turkey, Malaysia, Iran and Algeria are usually explained as an anomaly that arises out of the lack of a secular tradition in the Islamic world. The Western style separation between church and state does not have any historical precedence in Islam, and the attempts to reconcile religion and politics are considered to be cases of religious extremism and fanaticism. By the same token, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Muslim world is attributed to the absence of secularism on the one hand, and the failure of secularist governments, on the other. Turkey is mentioned as an exception to the rule due to its program of secularism and Westernization launched in 1923 under the leadership of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic. In recent years, this has led to a lively debate over the so-called Turkish modelђ with its secularist, modern and pro-Western predilections that can be exported to other Muslim countries.

This view not only grossly simplifies the problem of secularism in the Islamic world but also presents a distorted picture in which any or all attempts to overcome the misdeeds of secularism are interpreted as turning the clocks back and obliterating the principles of democracy and human rights. As a result, the secularist regimes in the Islamic world are supported at all costs lest the threat of religious fundamentalism and fanaticism become a reality. This assumption, however, obscures the fact that the secular authority of the state in countries like Turkey is used as a shield against religion rather than guaranteeing the rights of various religious groups against each other and against the overwhelming power of the state. As Graham Fuller points out, Turkey is an example that merits consideration not because Turkey is ӓsecular; in fact, Turkish ԓsecularism is actually based on total state control and even repression of religion. Turkey is becoming a model precisely because Turkish democracy is beating back rigid state ideology and slowly and reluctantly permitting the emergence of Islamist movements and parties that reflect tradition, a large segment of public opinion, and the countryԒs developing democratic spirit.(99)

The power-driven and often crude application of secularism in such countries as Tunisia, Algeria and Turkey has been instrumental in disfranchising and radicalizing large segments of society in the Islamic world. Using secularism as a way of repressing Islamic norms and local traditions in the name of modernization, state-centered power elites have created chasms between the ruler and the ruled and further widened the gap between the forces of modernity and traditional beliefs and practices for the project of modernization has been enforced by oppressive and often corrupt regimes whose legitimacy is derived not so much from their constituency as their strategic alliances with Western governments. It is obvious that secularism as developed during the European Enlightenment with its non-religious and profane view of the world and society is not compatible with Islam or any religious tradition for that matter. Secularism as a philosophical project constructs the world in terms of a self-enclosed and immanent reality with a clear rejection of the transcendent. The humanist utopia that humanity will outgrow religion underlies much of the secularist discourse and criticism leveled against Islam and its revival in the 20th century as we read in LewisԒ presentation of our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular presentӔ as a point of contention between Islam and the West. The triumph of secularism, however, has been called into question and now, as we see in the work of Peter Berger and others, there is a new tide to de-secularize the world.(100)

True, the secular character of modern Western civilization is seen as a threat and area of confrontation in the Muslim world which remains by and large more religious and traditional than many other parts of the world. Exportation of modern consumerist culture, its popular icons, and the modes of behavior that come with them are perceived to have an eroding effect on the texture of traditional Muslim societies, and propel many to denounce the West as a materialist civilization. It should be pointed out, however, that this view of the West is not very different from that of a pious Christian living in Europe or in America who sees sex, drugs, violence, individualism, destruction of the family, school shootings, or the moral depravity of wanton consumerism under the same or similar light as a devout Muslim, Jew or Hindu. The difference is the deep culture shock that accompanies a non-Westerners perception of modern culture. It also needs to be emphasized that the primary target of anti-modernist and anti-Western discourse is not so much the West in and of itself but the West in the Islamic world, viz., what some have referred to as the ғmacdonaldization of the world, which poses a threat not only to people of the Islamic faith, but to local and indigenous traditions the world over. Tropes and commodities of modern Western culture become a source of contention when they are exported to traditional societies in the name of modernization, development, and globalization by regimes that lay claim to democracy and secularism. Paradoxically, when these criticisms are translated from the Islamic world back to the West, they are typically presented as bases for militant fundamentalism and anti-modernism while similar criticisms in the West are divested of any such militant or political connotations.

Finally, one should evaluate such criticisms of modernism and Westernization also against the backdrop of European colonialism and its enduring legacy in the Islamic world. As shown by Ejaz Akram in his essay included in this book, a good part of the anti-Western discourse to be found in the Islamic world today has its roots in the 18th and 19th centuries when encounter with Europe and the modern world meant carrying the brunt of imperialism and colonialism. The fact that more than 70 percent of the Islamic world was under European colonial rule in the second half of the 19th century has had a profound impact on how the contemporary Islamic world came to perceive the West as a colonial and enslaving power.(101) We see this clearly in al-JabartiԒs celebrated encounter with and testimony to the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt in 1798: for al-Jabarti and his fellow Egyptians, modern Europe was embodied not in new scientific discoveries or ideas of liberty and fraternity but in the violent reality of the invasion of Egypt, the cultural heartland of the Islamic world, by France, the seat of the French Revolution of 1789.(102) Furthermore, the defense of Muslim lands during the historic transition from the empire to the nation-states was undertaken by Muslim leaders and intellectuals who formulated their anti-colonialist struggle as jihad against the occupying countries of Europe and Russia.(103) Such concepts as ummah, jihad, and dr al-arb assumed a new geo-political meaning and became part of the modern Islamic discourse during the colonial period.  This fact should be kept in mind when analyzing their repercussions in the Islamic world today. For many of the so-called Islamist intellectuals and leaders, overcoming the socio-economic, political and intellectual heritage of the colonial and post-colonial periods is an ongoing struggle for Muslim societies to reassert their identities in a day and age in which the secularizing effects of modernization and globalization are felt throughout the world.(104)

In spite of the widespread perceptions of Islam as the menacing other of the West, whether conceived as Judeo-Christian, secular, or both, there is an alternative view that considers Islam and the Islamic world as a sister civilization to the West and as part of the Abrahamic tradition which includes Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Voiced by many European and American scholars and intellectuals, this view, whose full analysis we must leave for another study , takes the approach of accommodation, co-existence and dialogue as its starting point and vehemently denies the demonization of Islam through the narrative of Islamic fundamentalism, radicalism, and terrorism. The proponents of this view, such as Edward Said, John Esposito, John Voll, Bruce Lawrence, James Piscatori, Graham Fuller and Richard Bulliet, consider the Islamic world not as a monolithic unit but as a diverse, dynamic and multi-faceted reality. Rather than looking through the glass of fixed identities and stereotypes, they identify the problems of Muslim countries vis—vis themselves and the West within the context of their social and political circumstances. While admitting the existence of some radical voices in the Islamic world as a small minority, they see the Islamic vision of life as essentially tolerant, democratic, and not necessarily anti-Western and anti-American. Although they acknowledge that there are cultural differences between the Islamic world and the West, they do not conceive an essential(ist) clash between the two and see Islam as an intellectual and spiritual challenge rather than a military threat to the West.(105) They also stress the fact that most of the anti-American sentiment in the Islamic world emanates from the American foreign policy which adopts a double standard on the question of democracy in Muslim countries and especially in the Middle East, and provides an unconditional and one-sided support to Israel.(106) They also recognize the experience of Muslim minorities in Europe and the US as a valuable chapter in the history of the two worlds with tremendous potentials for the dialogue and co-existence of Islam and the West. It would not be a stretch to say that the sharp contrast between the confrontationalist and accommodationist perspectives represents a new chapter in the history of Islam and the West, both at the level of civilizational co-existence and policy decisions especially in the post-9/11 era.(107)

In conclusion, it should be stated that the Western perceptions of Islam, which has been the main focus of this study, are as much a reflection of its view of the Islamic world as it is of itself, and the same holds true for the Muslim world. Both worlds, we may justifiably argue, see one another through the eyes of its self-understanding as they strive to come to terms with their own identity and their view of the other. The Muslim perceptions of the West are inevitably encoded in Muslim modes of self-understanding that have undergone a number of changes throughout Islamic history, generating new modes of perception and understanding towards the West. A Muslim堒s view of Christianity or Greek philosophy in the 9th century is not the same as his approach to modern science and technology in the 18th or 19th centuries. When we speak of continuities and discontinuities in the history of Islam and the West, we can do so only within the context of the perseverance or waning of such modes of self-perception and self-understanding. In this sense, the encounter of the Muslim world with the modern West, its science and technology, its military and economic might, or its worldview is also an encounter with itself, in that the Muslim worlds self-perception informs the ways in which the ґWest as a term of contrast and comparison is constructed in the Islamic world. Such burning issues as tradition and modernity, religiosity and secularism, revival of Islamic civilization, economic and political development in Muslim countries, and modern science and technology and their socio-philosophical challenges cannot be properly discussed in todayҒs Islamic world without taking into account the role played by the West in this process.

By the same token, the Wests encounter with Islam is a coming to terms with its own self-image. Ethnocentrism, universalism versus particularism and locality, representations of the other, the legacy of colonialism, globalization, human rights, pluralism, and the limits of modernism are only a few among the many issues that define the West in its relation to the non-Western world. In a day and age in which national and cultural boundaries are crossed over in a myriad of media, none of these issues can be discussed without attending to their meanings and implications for cultures and identities beyond the precincts of the Western world. At this juncture, studying Islam and its Western constructions is an exercise in looking at ourselves and our modes of perception as they are reflected in the images and categories by which we understand the ґother. Whether Islam is conceived to be a religious heresy, a theological challenge, a sister civilization, or simply an alien culture, we can no longer fail to see its relevance and urgency for the WestҒs self-understanding in the new millennium.
61. Sam Keen, Faces of the Enemy (Cambridge: Harper and Row, 1986), pp. 29, 30, quoted in J. Shaheen, Arab and Muslim Stereotyping, p.12.

62. Cf. Jack Shaheen, The TV Arab (Ohio: The Popular Press, 1984) and Arab and Muslim Stereotyping in American Popular Culture (Washington D.C.: Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University, 1997). See also Michael Hudson and Ronald G. Wolfe (eds.), The American Media and the Arabs (Washington D.C.: Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University, 1980).

63. J. Shaheen, p. 3.

64. Michael Suleiman, American Images of Middle East Peoples: Impact of the High Schools (New York: Middle East Studies Association, 1977), quoted in Fred R. von. Der Mehden, American Perceptions of IslamӔ in Voices of Resurgent Islam ed by John L. Esposito (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 21.

65. Jerusalem Post, April 7, 2002

66. P. Johnson, ӒRelentlessly and Thoroughly: The Only Way to Respond,Ҕ National Review, October 15, 2001, p. 20.

67. F. Fukuyama, The West Has Won,Ӕ The Guardian, October 11, 2002.

68. Quoted in Fawaz A. Gerges, America and Political Islam: Clash of Cultures or Clash of Interests? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 69-70.

69. The Washington Post, February 22, 2002, A02. This is as if taken verbatim from Renan: Islam was liberal [tolerant] when it was weak and was violent when it became strong.Ӕ LIslamisme et la science, (Paris: 1883), p. 18.


71. Another powerful myth often invoked to exclude Islam from the Judeo-Christian tradition is the stupendous idea that Muslims believe in a God other than what Jews and Christians believe. One may recall here the so-called ғmoon-god Allah story according to which Muslims worship the ԑMoon God, a pagan deity. This myth has been popularized by Dr. Robert Morey in his lectures and publications including The Moon-god Allah, Islam the Religion of the Moon God, Behind the Veil: Unmasking Islam and The Islamic Invasion: Confronting the WorldҒs Fastest Growing Religion.

72. Nicholas D. Kristof, Bigotry in Islam Ӗ And Here New York Times, July 9, 2002.

73. For Zwemer, who founded and edited the Muslim World for nearly four decades, and other missionary views of Islam in the modern period, see Jane I. Smith, ԓChristian Missionary Views of Islam in the 19th-20th Centuries in Zafar Ishaq Ansari and John L. Esposito (eds.), Muslims and the West: Encounter and Dialogue (Islamabad: Islamic Research Institute, 2001), pp. 146-177.

74. December 7, 2002 ԓComing Clash of Civilizations? at

75. March 5, 2002, at

76. Bernard Lewis, ԓThe Roots of Muslim Rage, The Atlantic Monthly (September 1990), pp. 47-60.

77. Lewis, ibid. See also LewisԒ Islam and Liberal Democracy,Ӕ The Atlantic Monthly (February, 1993), p. 93.

78. L. Massignon, La Crise de l’autorite religieuse et le Califat en Islam, (Paris: 1925), p. 80-81; E. Tyan, Institutions du droit public musulman, (Paris: 1954) Vol. II, p. 302; Majid Khadduri, War and Peace in the Law of Islam, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1955), p. 53 and 170; ibidem, “International Law” in Law in the Middle East, M. Khadduri and H. J. Liebesny (eds.), (Washington D.C.: Middle East Institute, 1955), pp. 349-370. Cf. also the Encyclopedia of Islam entry dar al-harbђ reprinted in Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam, ed. by H. A. R. Gibb and J. H. Kramers , (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, n.d.), pp. 68-69.

79. For some of the classical sources on the subject, see Ahmad al-Sarakhsi, al-Mabsut, (Istanbul: Dar al-dawah, 1912), Vol. 30, p. 33; Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, Ahkam ahl al-dhimmah, (Damascus: 1381 (A.H.), Vol. I, p. 5; and Ibn Abidin, Radd al-mukhtar, (Beirut: Dar al-kutub al-ґilmiyyah, 1415/1994), Vol. III, p. 247, 253. For an excellent survey of the classical sources, see Ahmet Ozel, Islam Hukukunda Ulke Kavrami: Darul-islam, DaruҒl-harb, Darul-sulh (Istanbul: Iz Yayincilik, 1998).

80. Bat YeҒors The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians under Islam (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985) from the Preface.

81. Quoted in Paul Findley, Silent No More: Confronting AmericaҒs False Images of Islam (Beltsville, MD: Amana Publications, 2001, p. 65.

82. The Wall Street Journal, 10/4/1984.

83. Ernest Renan, LIslamisme et la science, p. 3.

84. For full analysis of the traditional Islamic interpretation of Jihad see Dr. Reza Shah KazemiҒs Rediscovering the Spirit of JihadӔ in this volume.

85. The Wall Street Journal, 6/25/1993. After 9/11, Emerson added a new item to his attacks and defamations with his book American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us (New York: Free Press, 2002). For a similar approach, see Daniel Pipes, Fighting Militant Islam, Without BiasӔ City Journal (Autumn, 2001).

86. San Diego Union Tribune, 6/8/1993 quoted in P. Findley, p. 71.

87. Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), p. 258 quoted in John Esposito, Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 127.

88. Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, Islam and the West: Testing the Clash of Civilizations Thesis,Ӕ John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Working Paper Number RWP02-015, April 22, 2002.

89. Ibid., p. 126.

90. Mark Juergensmeyers work Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (Berkeley/London: University of California Press, 2000) contains much valuable material on modern justifications of the use of violence in the name of religion and shows the extent to which violence can take on various names and identities.

91. Lewis, ғIslam and Liberal Democracy, p. 93.

92. Gilles Kepel, The Revenge of God: The Resurgence of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in the Modern World (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), p. 194.

93. Michael E. Salla, ԓPolitical Islam and the West: A New Cold War or Convergence?, Third World Quarterly, December 1997, vol. 18, issue 4, pp.729-743.

94. Robin Wright, ԓIslam, Democracy and the West, Foreign Affairs (Summer 1992), pp. 137-8 quoted in Gerges, America and Political Islam, pp. 29-30.

95. There is an ever-growing literature on Islam and democracy, pointing to the vibrancy of the debate in the Islamic world. For a brief discussion of the cases of Malaysia, Indonesia and Iran, see John Esposito, Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 133-145. See also J. L. Esposito and John Voll, Islam and Democracy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); A. Soroush, Reason, Freedom, & Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of `Abdolkarim Soroush, translated and edited with a critical introduction by Mahmoud Sadri, Ahmad Sadri (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Azzam S. Tamimi, Rachid Ghannouchi: A Democrat within Islamism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); and Fatima Mernissi, Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World (Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co., 1992).

96. Martin Indyk, ԓBack to the Bazaar, Foreign Affairs, February 2002, vol. 81, issue 1, pp.75-89.

97. Quoted in Ralph Braibanti, The Nature and Structure of the Islamic World (Chicago: International Strategy and Policy Institute, 1995), p. 6.

98. The columnist Mona Charen quoted in Robert Fisk, ԓFear and Learning in America, Independent, April 17, 2002.

99. Graham Fuller, ԓThe Future of Political Islam, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 81, Issue 2 (March/April, 2002), p. 59.

100. Cf. Peter L. Berger (ed.), The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (Washington, D.C.: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1999). See also the essays by John Keane, P. Berger, Abdelwahab Elmessiri and Ahmet Davutoglu in Islam and Secularism in the Middle East ed. by J. L. Esposito and A. Tamimi (New York: New York University Press, 2000) and William E. Connolly, Why I am Not a Secularist (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

101. For a treatment of the 18th and 19th century Islamic movements within the context of European colonialism, see John Voll, ԓFoundations for Renewal and Reform in The Oxford History of Islam, ed. by J. L. Esposito (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 509-547. See also John L. Esposito, [/iThe Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 168-212.

102. Cf. al-JabartiԒs narration of the French invasion of Egypt and his cultural response to Napoleon in Al-Jabartis Chronicle of the French Occupation 1798: Napoleon in Egypt, tr. by Shmuel Moreh (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1997, 3rd printing).

103. Cf. S. V. R. Nasr, ғEuropean Colonialism and the Emergence of Modern Muslim States in The Oxford History of Islam, pp. 549-599.

104. Cf. Bruce B. Lawrence, Shattering the Myth: Islam Beyond Violence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), pp. 40-50 and Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, ԓIslamism: A Designer Ideology for Resistance, Change and Empowerment in Muslims and the West: Encounter and Dialogue, pp. 274-295.

105. Cf. my ԓDeconstructing Monolithic Perceptions: A Conversation with Professor John Esposito The Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs (April 2001), pp. 155-163.

106. For an analysis of these scholars from the point of view of US foreign policy decisions, see Mohommed A. Muqtedar Khan, ‘US Foreign Policy and Political Islam: Interests, Ideas, and Ideology’, Security Dialogue, Vol. 29 (4), 1998, s. 449-462.

107. For the policy recommendations of the accommodationist wing, see Gerges, America and Political Islam, pp. 28-36.


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


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?