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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Examining the "filter"..., 23 April 2011
This review is from: Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (Fully Revised Edition) (Paperback)
Edward Said was a Palestinian Christian who was a Professor of English at Columbia University. He says in the introduction that this is the third in a series of books in which he examines the relationship between the world of Islam and the West, particularly the United States. The first in the series, and his most famous, is Orientalism, which is a dense scholarly work. The second is rather short, entitled The Question of Palestine. This one may be the most accessible and interesting to the general reader. It was written in 1981, still during the Cold War, but when American general interests were beginning to focus on the Islamic world due to the Iranian "hostage crisis." Since the vast majority of Americans have never been to an Islamic country, and few non-Muslim Americans have Muslim friends, how do they form their opinions of Islam and Muslims? In the pre-Internet days when this book was written, the media, meaning largely TV and the newspapers, along with some books, are the opinion creating, and sometimes changing, medium.

If it is bizarre, violent, misogynistic, it must be because of Islam. If the same actions, attitudes, or events occur in another context, they are not linked to some religious structure, such as Christianity or Judaism, or economic structure, say capitalism. It is a point Said makes repeatedly, with numerous examples: "Of course no one has equated the Jonestown massacre or the destructive frenzy produced at the Who concert in Cincinnati or the devastation of Indochina with Christianity, or with Western or American culture at large; that sort of equation has been reserved for Islam" (p 8). Said cites the lack of language proficiency as one of the problems in a herd-like view of the Islamic World. He quotes C. Wright Mills on men living in "second-hand worlds" in which "their images of the world, and of themselves, are given to them by crowds of witnesses they have never met and never shall meet."

A major portion of the book is devoted to the "Iranian hostage crisis" which started in 1979, and involved the holding of American embassy personnel in Tehran for 444 days. He quotes directly from the news media at the time, and notes that the motivation for Iranian hostility, specifically the 1953 CIA coup that overthrew their democratically elected government was virtually completely airbrushed out of the media's coverage. The author quotes from Flora Lewis, a NYT columnist at the time, who would say that the Arabic language is "rhetorical and declamatory, not intimate and personal," and even more outrageously, that the "Islamic mind" has "an inability to employ step-by-step thinking." As Said says: "...that would be considered either racist or nonsensical if used to describe any other language, religion, or ethnic grouping" (p 85). In another section, Said reports on the issue of extraterritorial juridical privileges enjoyed by the West in Iran: "Khomeini was able to say in 1964, `If the Shah should run over an American dog, he would be called to account, but if an American cook should run over the one has any claim against him.'"

In the final section, entitled "Knowledge and Power," Said nails again and again the "scholarly community" for the distortions in their supposedly rigorously factual work so that what is determined may be used as a mechanism for control over the people studied, or, as he expresses it: "Small wonder, then, that benighted non-European natives have viewed the scholars' `intellectual curiosity' with such suspicion, for when was a Western scholar ever in a non-Western country except by dint, however symbolic and indirect, of Western power over that country?"

Erudite and provocative, a delight to read for any American desiring to have a better understanding of those "who live on the other side of the river," to utilize Blasé Pascal's phrase. A definite 5-stars.

(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on November 10, 2010)
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