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Perceptions of Islam in the West

Sep 17, 2001 11:13 PM
by nos

>From :

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

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

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

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

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". 

Colonial Subjugation

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'. 

Islamic Resurgence

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.

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