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This review is from: Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (Paperback)
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.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 29 Sep 2008, 20:03:33 BST
Mr. R. B. G. Harries says:
But Islam does have responsibility, its a totalitarain ideology, devoid of rationality thereby the actions of extremists do reflect its careless and anti-human qualities, the same goes with christianity. Its just that Islam has not reformed as much, thats why more attrocities of a fanatical type are committed by muslims. How can there be so many 'see no evil hear no evil' liberals when it comes to Islam, surely by your rational the fact that nazis turned taps of gas on the jews means that this all powerfull ideology of nazism has no stake in the blame? Hear suicide and murder are the same coin.
In reply to an earlier post on 11 Apr 2011, 20:49:51 BST
Marcos Schneider says:
So presumably you agree that nihilism, nepotism and callousness today can be attributed to the ideology of capitalism? Or is that just 'human nature'?
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