on 10 October 2001
This book studies in depth the issue of how Islam is seen by the West. It uncovers the roots of the image created by western media and writers. It is a very valuable work for anyone interested in the relation between Islam and the West. It sheds the light on the issues that have contributed to a false portrayal of Islam. Mr. Said explains how western media and scholars cover any event related with Islam in a framework created by pre- conceptions, prejudices & political interests. He describes the way in which Western apathy towards Islamic civilisation as a whole (literature, law, politics, history, Art, sociology, etc...) has led to a narrow understanding of Islam. He goes on to clarify how this has led to one billion Muslims worldwide, representing different societies and cultures, being judged by the acts of small unrepresentative groups that most Muslims oppose. The west needs to understand that the problem is a political and not ideological one.
on 24 February 2006
This book is intended as an extension of the thesis first set out in "Orientalism" that a scholarly class of Americans, and to a lesser extent Europeans, presents a distorted and biased view of Middle Eastern cultures. This bias, Said argues, is so deeply ingrained that it has become part of our standard cultural baggage, and is a stereotypical background against which the Middle East is discussed in television, newspapers, journals and academic debate.
The amazing thing about this book is that it was first written in 1981! Years before the current upsurge in interest in "Islam", Said had detected a widespread acceptance of the "Orientalist" paradigm. The people and politics of the Middle East are largely characterised as being inspired by non-rationalist, and at times quasi-savage-like, inspirations. A central assumption guiding Orientalist thought, mercilessly criticised by Said, is that cultures in Muslim countries are politically, emotionally and even intellectually backward when compared to the "Western" standard which is considered to be several centuries ahead in general cultural maturity.
In a detailed analysis of several mainstream media sources, Said claims that the politics especially of Middle Eastern cultures is not portrayed as following standard paradigms for politics. The possibility of actions being taken as a result of legitimate (or even illigitimate) grievances, economic interest, defence of national autonomy, are a priori exluded. Rather attention is drawn to religious fanaticism, an incapacity to perceive reality for what it is, an ingrained cultural stubbornness. Said basically shows that even the most "expert" commentators on the Middle East follow this racist programme which is essentially rooted in colonialist attitudes which still prevail despite political decolonialisation.
What, Said asks, would be the consequences were one to portray say Judaism or black African cultures in the same light. He thus lays bare the double standards within out cultural viewpoint which permit, or even require Arabs and Muslims in general to be presented as a backward and fanatical cultural group.
Let's take an example. The massacre of Christians in Nigeria (February 2006) is hailed as a dangerous event, taken as a manifestation of the underlying tendency within "Islam" to violence and the defeat in battle of other cultures and religions. Even those who take pains to say that these are maybe extremists and we should talk to "moderate Islam" are guilty by Said's standards. What they are doing is creating the intangible notion of "Islam" and then reputing to it responsibilities, including that of having to control the actions of extremists who, by virtue of their Muslim faith, are assumed to fall under the control of this all-powerful "Islam".
We know the story, it's repeated day after way. But, Said reminds us, consistence would require its application in other contexts. But who in their right mind argued that the massacre of Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Catholics ("Croats") or Bosnian Orthodox Christians ("Serbs") could tell us anything about the nature of Christianity? Who in their right mind would have thought that the actions of the IRA could in any way be traced back to "Christianity" in the same sense that those of "Al Qaida" can be traced back to "Islam". Why do we think in this way about "Islam". In fact, what is "Islam", and how does it differ from "Christianity" or "Judaism".
This review cannot even pretend to do justice to this magnificent book. So many issues are touched upon by Said that it is impossible to list them all. But at every stage he invites us to think, and to challenge our cultural assumptions. Other interesting parts are his final chapter clearly inspired by the likes of Foucault, and his treatment of media analysis which offers a more nuanced view to that often cited as scripture by Chomsky followers. He does not want to impose on us his view of the world (although he would dearly love us to reject the Orientalist biases), but wants us above all to start thinking and to challenge assumptions inherent in the way the world is presented us by the media, by experts and by government.
This book is written by an intellectual and some parts are quite academic. But on the whole it is quite well readable and accessible to the general reader. To its credit it is short, yet at the same time offers a wealth of ideas with which to approach media treatments of "Islam".
Think about the "Islam" and "Christianity" opposition, and above all read this book.
on 7 November 2008
I think the review posted by A Customer on 24 Feb 2006 covers a lot of what I would have wanted to say about this excellent book.
We live in a period where there has grown up a new racism which is directed at Muslims. Whether we call this Islamophobia or Anti-Muslim racism is besides the point. What is important to understand where this racism comes from, what are it's causes and origins.
Those who seek to justify this racism will do so by blaming the actions of Muslims and will refer to 7/7, 9/11 and the Rushdie Affair. No-one doubts the importance of these events as milestones along the way to where we are today, but they are not the starting point. If they were the starting point, then it would not have been possible for Said to write this book in 1981.
For what Said does in 'Covering Islam' is point out and document the long history of how 'The West' sees 'Islam' and how this has largely been negative and driven, in modern times, by the needs of imperialism.
Thus it is with the modern rise in hostility to Islam. Said documents change occuring in the 1970's as the oil crisis, Israel-Palestine, Pakistan-Bangladesh, 'Death of a Princess' and Afghanistan grabbed the headlines and some commentators looked for commonality between these disputes and hit upon there being 'somehting wrong with' Islam as an explanation.
Then in 1979, came the Iranian Revolution in which the ally of The West, the Shah, was overthrown and an Islamic Republic founded in it's place. There was also the US embassy hostage crisis. The ideological response to this in the West, especially the US, was to explain the revolution in terms of the backwardness and barbarity of Islam. In other words, again, hostility to Islam and Muslims was serving the need of imperial power.
That this hostility borrowed directly from the tradition of orientalism that Said documented in his work of the same name just the year previously, demonstrates great foresight on Said's part.
I have to say that, much as I admire Said, I find reading him can be a little on the tough side and felt that 'Orientalism' had large parts which were a drag to read - even though the book was tremendously informative. That is not the case with 'Covering Islam' which is written in a much snappier, almost journalistic style and covers the bases covered in 'Orientalism'. It's an easy read and thoroughly recommended.
on 29 July 2016
Great book that helped to get me through my BA (hons) degree in Religious Studies and Philosophy. Great book with plenty of useful points. In particular, I think that understanding how the media has covered Islam in the past and present. The book also shows how the portrayal of Islam in the media was created by pre- conceptions, prejudices & political interests.
This is a must for anyone wishing to tackle the underlying features of Islamaphobia.
I hope my review has been helpful.