The Utility of Islamic Imagery in the West: An American Case Study
By: J. A. Progler
Conventional American public discourse utilizes images of Islamic resistant movements as intolerant and predisposed toward violence. While many contemporary movements do have a strong anti-Western sentiment, it is often qualified and in any case is a fairly recent phenomenon. If Arabs and Muslims are extremists in anything, I believe that it is in the patience and tolerance they have shown toward persistent Western interventions until very recently. Islamic movements have much more important characteristics than intolerance and violence. A central concept is social justice. In the West, where it is fashionable to be anti-social under the pretense that socialism is obsolete, it is easy to overlook calls for social justice and fixate instead on violent struggle. But seeing social movements only in terms of violence, real or imagined, is seeing them only in terms that are important to a narrow set of strategic interests.
I became deeply interested in this line of research around the time of the Persian Gulf Oil War in 1990-91. I was amazed at how readily the government and the corporate news media were able to rally public support for that senseless and destructive war. I was sickened by the grotesqueness of the war and the way academic experts and journalists self-righteously mimicked each other’s stereotypes and biases in their inhuman depictions of “bad” Arabs and Muslims, while slavishly parroting the official public relations - fueled imagery of the “good” ones. I found it absolutely incredible that the persona of Saddam Hussein could be reworked from loyal proxy, during his murderous war against Iran, to Hitlerian demon after he became too big for his American britches. I thought to myself, Americans must be brain dead if they buy this. Many did. Not content with that as the sole explanation, I set out to see how imagery could be reworked to expedite a shifting political econony. This article is largely about what I found.
One of the points I have tried to make is that Western civilization maintains a shifting array of images about Islam and Muslims. These images can be called upon as needed to explain, justify or simplify complex political, social and economic problems, whether they be international or domestic.
1. The best comprehensive discussion on the lineage of Western legal thought from the Crusades through modern legal treatment of Native Americans is Robert A. Williams, The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: The Discourses of Conquest (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).
2. Robert F. Berkhofer, The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present (New York: Vintage, 1979).
3. Ibid., 29.
4. Ibid., 30.a
5. Ibid., 30-31.
6. For example: Norman Daniel, Islam and the West: The Making of an Image (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1961); Hichem Djait, Europe and Islam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985); Thierry Hentsch, Imagining the Middle East (Montreal: Black Rose, 1992); Edward Said, Orientalism, (New York: Vintage, 1979).
7. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1979).
8. Ibid., 301 and 322.
9. Ibid., 325-326.
10. Thierry Hentsch, Imagining the Middle East (Montreal: Black Rose, 1992).
11. Martin Bernal, Black Athena. The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1987).
12. Hentsch, op. cit., ix.
13. Ibid., x.
14. Ibid., xiv, emphasis in the original.
15. The passage appears in August C. Krey, The First Crusade: The Accounts of Eye Witnesses and Participants (Gloucester, Massachusetts: Peter Smith, 1958).
17. Ibid., and cf. Marshall Hodgson, Rethinking World History: Essays on Europe, Islam and World History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
18. In Krey, op. cit., 275.
19. In Norman Daniel, Heroes and Saracens: An Interpretation of the Chansons de Geste (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1984).
20. In D.D.R. Owen, ed., The Song of Roland: The Oxford Text (London: Allen & Unwin, 1972), 75.
21. In Daniel, 1984, op. cit., 70.
22. These quotes are from David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 179. Stannard provides a particularly useful overview of the relationship between sex and violence in Western colonial discourse, especially in the section on “Sex, Race, and Holy War.”
23. Karen Armstrong, Holy War: The Crusades and their Impact on Today’s World (NewYork: Anchor, 1992), 230.
24. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (New York: Vintage, 1990).
25. Ibid., 58-59.
26. Ibid., 230.
27. In Stannard, op. cit., 253, cf. Douglas Kellner, The Persian Gulf TV War (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1992).
28. This story, including a case study of Puritan violence toward Indians, is well told by Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest (New York: Norton, 1976).
29. Fuad Sha’ban, Islam and Arabs in Early American Thought: The Roots of Orientalism in America (Durham, North Carolina: The Acorn Press, 1991), 23-26.
30. In ibid., 20.
31. Ibid., 149.
32. Ibid., 183.
33. Henry Giroux provides a useful analysis of Aladdin and other Disney films as they relate to child development in America, in his essay “Are Disney Movies Good for Your Kids?” which can be found in the collection of essays edited by Shirley R. Steinberg and Joe L. Kinchloe, Kinderculture: The Corporate Construction of Cllildhood (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1997), 53-67.
34. Kellner, op. cit., 68-70.
35. For an explication of this thesis, see Joyce Nelson, The Perfect Machine: TV in the Nuclear Age (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1987).
36. Ward Churchill, Fantasies of the Master Race: Literature, Cinema and the Colonization of American Indians (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1992), 245.
37. There is a growing genre of conspiracy literature espousing this thesis in the US, which has been recently heightened by an Israeli scholar working on a Congressional task force under President Bill Clinton, Yossef Bodansky. See in particular his book Target America: Terrorism in the U.S. Today (New York: Shapolsky, 1993). The same book with identical text is marketed outside the US under the title Target the West.
38. This was reported by Reuters on 20 April 1995. All quotes in this paragraph and the next were taken from this report.
39. This was reported in a series of news releases by the Associated Press on 20 April 1995.
40. See, for example, Crescent Intennational 1-15 May 1995.
41. This was reported by Reuters 20 April 1995; for a fuller account of the media circus, see the July/August 1995 issue of Extra!, the magazine of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting).
42. For a representative sample of this work, see the following: Edmund Ghareeb, ed. Split Vision: The Portrayal of Arabs in the American Media (Washington, DC: The American-Arab Affairs Council, 1983); Jack Shaheen, The TV Arab (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1984); Michael W. Suleiman, The Arabs in the Mind of America (Brattleboro, Vermont: Amana Books, 1988).
43. Herman’s statements are taken from a piece he wrote in the November 1994 issue of Z Magazine.
44. Bernard Nietschmann, “The Third World War,” Cultural Survival Quarterly 11, no. 3 (1987).
45. The relationship between language and politics, and especially the struggle over normative issues, is nicely detailed by Franke Wilmer, The Indigenous Voice in World Politics: From Time Immemorial (London: Sage Publications, 1993).
Originally published at http://www.themodernreligion.com/index2.html