Sunday, December 13, 2009

Orientalism in the 'Çlash' theory


Maryam Sakeenah

Orientalism which is a perception or mindset for viewing cultures and peoples territorially, culturally or physically different has been deeply embedded in Western discourse vis a vis what it defines as the ‘Orient.’ While the roots of it can be traced from perhaps the very first interaction between the West and the Orient, it survives and thrives to this day. The highly influential post Cold War paradigm for international politics_ the theory of the Clash of Civilizations put forth by Samuel P. Huntington in his 1993 ‘Foreign Affairs’ article_ imbibes this Orientalist tradition of the West in its understanding and perception of the ‘non West’ as well as in the policy recommendations he offers to Western policy makers in dealing with the ‘threat’ from the ‘East.’ However, most of the Orientalist presumptions and attitudes in the ‘Clash’ theory do not have any real basis in objective reality and can be easily refuted. This undermines the value and objectivity of Huntington’s influential thesis.


A fundamental question at the heart of intercultural communication is how strangers who look and behave differently from oneself can be understood. Why is it that people have preconceived notions about those different from them_ questions that are not objective but coloured by subjectivity and often tainted with prejudice and bias? Each culture defines those outside of it as enemies who threaten it from without as ‘Others’ to be despised and fought. Although this is a general human failing, it is most pronounced and obvious in the case of the perception by the West of what is called the Orient or the world East of the Occident. Orientalism, then, is the lens through which the West has viewed the East or the Orient traditionally and historically, and continues to do so. It is the West’s framework to understand an unfamiliar people and their culture, often making them look different and threatening through a repertoire of Orientalist images and stereotypes.
In the proceeding pages, the roots of Orientalism, its evolution, its profound influence in Western discourse, rhetoric and policy and its presence in Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ theory will be examined.

Edward Said’s Magnum Opus on Orientalism by the same name can rightfully be called a masterwork in revealing the dimensions and vicissitudes of Orientalism. In his book, he defines Orientalism as consisting of “a body of ideas, beliefs, clichés or learning about the East at large in Western society.” It is in his words
“a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient’s special place in European or Western experience. The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe. It is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other. In addition, the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience. Yet none of this Orient is merely imaginative. The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture. Orientalism expresses and represents that part culturally and even ideologically as a mode of discourse with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies and colonial styles.”
Orientalism accorded certain fundamental, invariable characteristic traits to the Orient. Gradually the Orient, in the Western mindset, began to be identified with these accorded characteristics. The large body of Orientalist literature that came to the fore in the nineteenth century with the decadent Ottoman empire battling for survival against a rapidly mechanizing and voraciously expansionist Europe identified the prime characteristics of the Orient to be ‘sensuality, despotism, aberrant mentality, inaccuracy, backwardness’ as well as its ‘separateness, eccentricity, silent indifference, feminine penetrability, supine malleability;’ This was considered to be objective, valid and empirically inviolable.

All these traits considered intrinsically ‘Oriental’ make it obvious that the nature and status of the Oriental world, its values, culture and people, was little more than that of a passive subject to be studied, analyzed, perceived and interpreted. Said writes, “Every writer on the Orient... saw the Orient as a locale requiring Western attention, reconstruction, even redemption. The Orient existed as a place isolated from the mainstream of European progress in the sciences, arts and commerce.”

This Western lens to view the East tainted the Western perception of the people of the Orient, who were consequently ‘othered’ and alienated, and perceived as exotic curiosities to be studied by the superior post-Enlightenment Western mind:

“Alongwith all other peoples variously designated as backward, degenerate, uncivilized and retarded, the Orientals were viewed... having in common an identity best described as lamentably alien. Orientals were rarely seen or looked at; they were seen through, analyzed not as citizens or even people, but as problems to be solved or confined or taken over...Since the Oriental was a member of the subject race, he had to be subjected: it was that simple.”
A repertoire of images of the East as a mysterious place full of ‘marvels and monsters’ abounded in the literature of the nineteenth century which had little to do with direct, firsthand experience. Even Orientalist ‘experts’ fell victim to this tendency to present the Orient as a fantastical curiosity outside of History that was unvarying and stagnant.
One of the most strikingly invariable features of Orientalism through the ages is the Orientalist consensus on the predominant religion of the Orient: Islam. The ‘çonsensus’ is of inferiority, degeneracy and imposture. It runs as a constant underlying theme throughout Orientalist tradition with exceptions being few and far between. The roots of this trend fundamental to Orientalist scholarship go far back in time to the genesis of Islam itself.
From the very outset, Islam, under the leadership of the Prophet (PBUH) established a dynamic outreach across communities, religious groups and cultures. Islam fomented deep connections through interaction and contact with both Jews and Christians. The Prophet (PBUH)’s correspondence and interaction with the Roman monarch as well as profound association and connection with the Abyssinian king Negus is well documented, as is the religious freedom officially accorded by him to the Christians of Najran in the outlying regions of the Arabian peninsula. The first documented response from the Christian world to the Call of Islam, however, came as early as 50 A.H (672 C.E), from St. John of Damascus who wrote a refutation of Islam in the Greek language titled ‘Discussion between a Christian and a Saracen.’ In this St. John maintained that ‘the Ishmaelites had been led to idolatry by a false prophet taking his ideas from an Aryan monk.’ Following St. John, numerous other eminent Christian saints and scholars wrote critiques of Islam which form the core and the ethos of Orientalism. Among these saints are St. Thomas Aquinas who wrote the ‘Summary of the Doctrines of the Gentiles’ in which he attacked Islam and its followers as irrational, false and barbaric. Both the saints and their classical, foundational texts set the tenor for the future course of Orientalism. Today the West has an established ‘canon’ about Islam that has been standardized. This Orientalist ‘canon’ to interpret Islam has been called the West’s “Crusade Complex” by Sheikh Ali Tamimi. If one may generalize, there are, very broadly speaking, six primary fundamental suppositions about Islam contained in Orientalism. Briefly put, these are:
• Islam as a falsehood and a deliberate perversion of the truth.
• Islam as a religion of violence and the sword spread through persecution and destruction.
• Islam as self-indulgent, celebrating physical pleasures.
• The Prophet (PBUH) of Islam as unbefitting of spiritual leadership. A vast amount of literature attacking the person of the Prophet (PBUH) exists in the West’s Orientalist tradition.
• Islam as inflexible, regressive, monolithic.
• Islam as an expansionist political programme threatening the West.
Until the middle of the nineteenth century, Orientalist scholarship was grounded in the purely theological basis of Christian dogma. However, gradually with the rise of materialism following the Industrial Revolution and the zenith of the West’s temporal power manifesting itself in the Colonialist mission, Orientalism took on a more secular colour. Edward Said holds that Orientalism is created by an historical, institutional context and its present day form is embedded in the history of imperial conquest. In this sense, Orientalism becomes a ploy for military and ideological conquest of the Orient by the Occident. The question that hulks at the heart of Orientalism is ‘How do we understand the natives we conquer so we can subdue them easier?’ The process to ‘explain people who are different’ has gone on for a long time, and Orientalism formalizes it dangerously in that it represents itself as objective knowledge.
The first modern imperial expedition is important in the evolution of Orientalism. This was the conquest of Egypt undertaken by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798. It is interesting and important to note that Napoleon took alongwith his soldiers a number of artists, scientists, researchers, philologists and historians to ‘record’ Egypt in every conceivable way and to produce a ‘scientific survey’ of Egypt to be consumed by a European audience. These scholars produced volumes of Orientalist work which loudly bespeak the power and prestige of Europe on the doorstep of modernity, and use knowledge of the subject to subdue him and let it be known that ‘France can do to the Egyptians what the Egyptians cannot do to France.’
Following this, there developed a profound relationship between Orientalism and power politics. The doctrine of Orientalism (‘latent Orientalism’) lent strength to the West’s experience of its dominance of Eastern territories (‘manifest Orientalism’). Orientalists had a special and a very important role to play as advisors to governments and became ‘special agents of Western power as it attempted policy vis a vis the Orient.’
Orientalism underwent an important secular transition following the Second World War. Maryam Jameelah writes, “Prior to the nineteenth century, the bulk of Western literature attacked Islam. Since the end of the World War, the Orientalists’ Christian pretence has been almost entirely discarded in favour of pure, unadulterated materialism. Islam is no longer condemned because of its rejection of the Trinity, the Divinity of Christ or the dogma of the Original Sin.” This inaugurated modern Orientalism. A significant feature of Orientalism since World War II is the tremendously increased attention to the Arab-Muslim figure as well as to Islam. This went on as a steady stream until 9/11, but the spectacular fall of the Twin Towers made it step down from the domain of the intellectual elite and enter into public discourse and street talk. It is this subject today that is the media’s favourite theme.
Despite the evolution Orientalism has undergone, however, the polemics of Orientalism have varied little: “Books and articles are regularly published on Islam and the Arabs that represent absolutely no change over the virulent anti Islamic polemics of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.” Malaysian Professor Osman Bakar points out that the West has perpetuated its misconceptions and myths about Islam. :
“Ever since they watched it (i.e Islam) appear on the world stage, Christians never cease to insult and slander it in order to find justifications for waging war on it. It has been subjected to grotesque distortions, the traces of which lie still in the European mind. Even today there are many Westerners for whom Islam can be reduced to three ideas: fanaticism, fatalism and polygamy.”
The modern transition of Orientalism involved the transference of the disseminating authority from the former European colonial powers to the United States. While Britain and France had had direct experience of the Orient in their colonies, this could not be said about America. American Orientalism therefore, is based not on experience but largely on abstraction. It is also heavily politicized owing to the United States’ deep-seated interests in the Middle East as well as its massive support and firm alliance with Israel which serves and safeguards US interests in the region. This has had profound influences on Orientalism in America. American Orientalism has assumed a more virulent ‘Us and Them’ character that views Muslims as Enemies. U.S definitions in the context of the so-called War on Terror have been standardized as a global paradigm which consists of the ancient, core stereotypes of Islam prevalent in Orientalist discourse. This new framework to view the world has gradually acquired strength so that ‘even the unusual becomes routinised as new events are forced into existing frames of reference. Hence Muslims are ‘othered’ in a mediated world where simplistic notions of good and evil peoples finds currency.’
The impact that this has had on the news media and the representation of Muslims is immense:
“Islam and the activities of certain Muslims are very newsworthy subjects. Indeed, very few of the more significant news stories of the past few years have not included Muslims in some form or the other while very few of the stories ‘about Muslims’ over this same period have been about anything other than the War on Terror.’ It is in its climate of threat, fear and misunderstanding that the reporting of Islam and the Muslims is currently situated.”
This can particularly be noticed in the coverage and understanding of the Middle East-Palestine issue which is lamentably lopsided:
“No attention is paid to the fact that the occupation of West Bank and Gaza has been going on for forty years, and is the longest ever military occupation in modern history. The public is made to believe as if the only problem is Hamas terrorism that threatens Israel’s security. No attention is paid to the hundreds of thousands who suffer due to military occupation. It is no more possible for an American to know the truth about the Middle East... A lot else is going on in the Middle East that is not seen or understood by the West. The result of the media’s focus on one aspect alone presents Muslims as only one thing: Terrorists. When we see anyone fitting that description, we think of fanatics, extremists, fundamentalists and terrorists. This takes away the humanity and diversity of millions of human beings who live normal, decent lives.”
Predominant images in the news media regarding Muslims other than those of terrorism, are, according to Elizabeth Poole, those of ‘illegitimacy, criminality, violence, extremism, fanaticism, aggression and disloyalty. Religion is often given as an explanatory factor for behaviour and overall an official hegemonic viewpoint dominates.’
It is important here to analyze the representation of Islam in modern Orientalism as ‘Islamic civilization’ happens to be Huntington’s predominant concern in his milestone ‘The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.’ Maryam Jameelah sums up the prime assumptions about Islam that define modern Orientalism. Orientalists believe about Islam:

“That the Holy Quran is the work of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), that the hadith literature is forged; that Islam is a mere poitico-economic outburst by impoverished Bedouins rather than a religious movement, that Islam stifled the artistic creativity of the people it conquered; that Islam is nothing but the current practices of its present people; that it is superstitious, fatalistic, unscientific, unmodern and opposed to developed; that it stands in need of the same reformation Christianity underwent: that the best in Islam is Sufism with its individualism, anti-Shariah emphasis on the fallenness of man and his need for a master saviour, and the repudiation of the warlike and exclusivist Sunnism; and above all, that Islam stands on an inferior moral ground with its materialistic conceptions of paradise and low status of women, that its prohibition of interest is anti-industrialization, its puritanical and anti-alcohol ethic is against urbanization and modern liberalism, its dogmatism is anti progressive, and it drives its miserable and vanquished people into psychosis by teaching them that God is on their side and that He is the author of history_ all these falsehoods are current in practically every Western presentation of the religion, culture, history and civilization of Islam.”

Modern Orientalism establishes a vital link between Orientalist discourse and political policy making. Hence the influence of Orientalism in Western policy-making elite cannot be ignored. The Clash of Civilizations is a classic example here, because, owing to Huntington’s influence in the Pentagon, his hypothesis with all its baggage of Orientalism is fundamental to American foreign policy, as will become subsequently clear. The onus in Huntington’s work falls overwhelmingly on Islam. For his viewpoint on Islam, Huntington, in a classical Orientalist gesture, borrows from Bernard Lewis who embodies in his work the essence of modern Orientalism. Quoting Said again,

“the conflict between Islam and the West, gets the lion's share of Huntington’s attention. In this belligerent kind of thought, he relies heavily on a 1990 article by the veteran Orientalist Bernard Lewis, whose ideological colors are manifest in its title, "The Roots of Muslim Rage." In both articles, the personification of enormous entities called "the West" and "Islam" is recklessly affirmed, as if hugely complicated matters like identity and culture existed in a cartoonlike world where Popeye and Bluto bash each other mercilessly, with always the more virtuous pugilist getting the upper hand over his adversary. Certainly neither Huntington nor Lewis has much time to spare for... the unattractive possibility that a great deal of demagogy and downright ignorance is involved in presuming to speak for a whole religion or civilization.”

The very title of Huntington’s book is borrowed from Lewis’s “Roots of Muslim Rage” in which he tellingly remarked,

“It should by now clear that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilizations_ the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both. It is crucially important that we on our side should not be provoked into an equally historic but equally irrational reaction against that rival.”

Three years after Bernard Lewis’s Atlantic Monthly article, Samuel P. Huntington came up with a similar argument stating:

“It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”

While writing on the ‘faultlines between civilizations’, Huntington quotes the preceding extract from Bernard Lewis in order to substantiate the claim that a clash between Islam and the West is historical, permanent, irreconcilable and perhaps the greatest danger facing ‘our’ civilization rooted in ‘Judaeo-Christian values’.

Bernard Lewis’s perception of Islam through characteristically Orientalist lenses is self-evident when he marginalizes Muslims into a people who, “when the deeper passions are stirred, their dignity and courtesy toward others can give way to an explosive mixture of rage and hatred which impels even the government…to espouse kidnapping and assassination, and try to find, in the life of their Prophet, approval and indeed precedent for such actions”.

Clearly, Huntington picks from Lewis his idea that civilizations are monolithic and built on the duality of ‘ús and them’. Lewis sees the clash as the inherent human “way of distinguishing between themselves and others: insider and outsider, in-group and out-group, kinsman or neighbor and foreigner.” Lewis embodies in his work the essential traits of Orientalist tradition. As Huntington’s prime influence, Lewis’s Orientalism lies at the heart of the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ rhetoric. Edward Said writes,

“Lewis’s polemic is that of Islam not merely as anti Semitic but also an irrational herd or mass phenomenon ruling Muslims by passions, instincts and unreflecting hatreds. The whole point of his exposition is to frighten his audience and not let them yield an inch to Islam. Lewis tries to give the impression that Islam never modernized, nor did the Muslims. According to Lewis, Islam does not develop, and neither do Muslims; they merely are, and are to be watched, on account of the pure essence of theirs, which happens to include a long-standing hatred of Christians and Jews.”

Bernard Lewis believes that there are inherent qualities of Islam that cannot be reconciled with the West. Lewis’s influence cannot be dismissed as insignificant or slight. Said goes on,

“Lewis is an interesting case to examine further because his standing in the political world of the Anglo American Middle East establishment is that of the learned Orientalist, and everything he writes is steeped in the ‘authority’ of his field. Yet for at least a decade and a half his work in the main has been aggressively ideological, despite his various attempts at subtlety and irony. His work purports to be liberal objective scholarship but is in reality very close to being propaganda against the subject material. This, however, should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the history of Orientalism; it is only the latest_ and in the West the most uncriticized_ of the scandals of ‘scholarship.’”

Borrowing heavily from both Lewis and the whole repertoire of Orientalist literature on Islam, Huntington devotes a whole section to Islam having ‘bloody borders’ in his book. Through citing facts and figures of wars both historical and contemporary, he proves violence to be intrinsic to Islam in order to substantiate his earlier_ and much criticized_ claim that Islam had ‘bloody borders’:

“The relations between Muslims and peoples of other civilizations have generally been antagonistic; most of these relations have been violent at some point in the past, and many have been violent in the 1990s. Wherever one looks along the perimeter of Islam, Muslims have problems living peaceably with their neighbours. The question naturally arises as to whether this pattern of late-twentieth century conflict between Muslim and non Muslim groups is equally true of relations between groups from other civilizations. In fact, it is not. Muslims make up about one-fifth of the world’s population but in the 1990s they have been far more involved in intergroup violence than the people of any other civilization. The evidence is overwhelming... In the early 1990s Muslims were engaged in more inter-group violence than non Muslims, and two-thirds to three-quarters of intercivilizational wars were between Muslims and non Muslims. Islam’s borders are bloody, and so are its innards.”

It is also clearly in line with Bernard Lewis that religion is inherently conflictual and irreconcilable. Huntington emphatically states this hence: “Millennia of human history have shown that religion is not a ‘small difference’, but possibly the most profound difference that can exist between people. The frequency, intensity and violence of fault line wars are greatly enhanced by beliefs in different gods.” Huntington also borrows from Lewis and other Orientalists, his conviction that Muslim societies are backward, regressive and underdeveloped due to the fixity and primitive nature of the religious values of the Muslims. While Lewis seems to imply that Muslims all over the world are ‘in a rage over the West’s development’, Huntington believes the Western legacy of the French Revolution, Renaissance and Enlightenment gives it values that are in some way superior to peoples living under Ottoman or Czarist monarchies at that point in time. “The antiquated way of life of traditional Islamic society is held responsible for the weakness of the Muslim countries today with their poverty, ignorance, disease, apathy and backwardness. Therefore, the Orientalists conclude, the only road to progress is an uncritical adoption of Western secular materialism.” This engenders the belief in the superiority of Western civilization, a belief Huntington strongly adheres to, as exemplified by Dieter Senghaas:

“Thorough interpretations of civilizations are not given by Huntington, with one major exception. According to Huntington the essence of Western civilization is based on Greek rationalism, Roman law, Catholicism and Protestantism, the variety of European languages, the division of church and state power, rule of law, social pluralism, representative public bodies and individualism. With slight exaggeration he even argues that these characteristics are Western but not modern in the Western world. The essential characteristics of the West are much older.”

Both Huntington and Lewis, with all their views, were personalities extremely ‘listened to’ at the Council of Foreign Relations. “Lewis has been especially sought after in Washington since September 11th. Karl Rove invited him to speak at the White House. Richard Perle and Dick Cheney are among his admirers … And his bestselling book ‘What Went Wrong?,’ about the decline of Muslim civilization, is regarded in some circles as a kind of handbook in the war against Islamist terrorism.” In 2004, Time included Lewis in its list of 100 most influential scientists and thinkers, and Edward Said suggested that, “What made Lewis’s work so appalling in its effects was the fact that without any other views to counter his, American policy-makers...fell for them.” This is what draws the connection between Orientalist discourse spearheaded by the two writers and U.S foreign policy. Orientalist think tanks generate opinions and opinion leaders that are profoundly influential and have a say in U.S policy-making circles. There exist dozens of periodicals, most of them financed by state authorities, devoted entirely to the study of Islam, the Muslims and the Middle East that are essentially Orientalist in outlook and steer the course of U.S policy. Some of these are ‘The Muslim World’( Hartford, Connecticut), Middle East Studies (New York), The Middle East Journal (Washington D.C), Journal of the Oriental Society (New Haven, Connecticut) and American Near Eastern Studies (Chicago). The impact of this politicization and mainstreaming of Orientalism on Western society has been immense. It has encouraged pre-emptive policies of Western nations towards Muslim countries, ‘racial profiling, restrictions on immigration, illegal detention of Muslims without trial, validating current imperialist adventures of the US-UK and further excluding and disenfranchising Muslim communities.’

Ironically, however, despite the pervasive and deep influence of Orientalism in Western policy making and scholarship, the fact remains that Orientalist perceptions are not backed by any sound, real evidence and hence do not qualify as authentic scholarship at all. It is observable to a keen eye that

“one of the striking aspects of the new American attention to the Orient is its regular avoidance of literature. You can read through reams of expert writing on the modern Near East and never encounter a single reference to Literature. What seems to matter far more to the regional experts are ‘facts’... the net effect of this remarkable omission in modern American awareness of the Arab or Islamic Orient is to keep the region and its people conceptually emasculated, reduced to ‘attitude’, ‘trends’, ‘statistics’: in short, dehumanized.”

Years later after 9/11 intensified the Orientalist sway, Said wrote:
“The difference between today's pseudoscholarship and expert jargon about terrorism and the literature about Third World national liberation guerrillas two decades ago is interesting. Most of the earlier material was subject to the slower and therefore more careful procedures of print; to produce a piece of scholarship you had to go through the motions of exploring history, citing books, using footnotes--actually attempting to prove a point by developing an argument. Today's discourse on terrorism is an altogether streamlined thing. Its scholarship is yesterday's newspaper or today's CNN bulletin. Its gurus are journalists with obscure, even ambiguous, backgrounds. Most writing about terrorism is brief, pithy, totally devoid of the scholarly armature of evidence, proof, argument. Its paradigm is the television interview, the spot news announcement, the instant gratification one associates with the Reagan White House's "reality time," the evening news.”
The single greatest failing of Western scholarship, of which Huntington is a part, is the legacy of Orientalism central to it. Orientalism has utterly failed to lend objectivity to research, which is essential to make any piece of work credible. It is almost tragic that
“the principal dogmas of Orientalism exist in their purest form today in the studies of the Arabs and Islam, i.e, of the absolute, systemic difference between the West which is rational, developed, humane and superior to the Orient which is aberrant, underdeveloped, inferior. Second, that abstractions about the Orient are always preferable to direct evidence from Oriental realities. Third, that the Orient is incapable of defining itself and hence a highly generalized and systematic vocabulary for describing the Orient from a Western standpoint is inevitable and even scientifically ‘objective.’ Fourth, that the Orient is at bottom something to be feared or controlled by pacification, research and development or outright occupation, whenever possible.”
Said laments the fact that in the West, Islam is rarely studied, rarely researched and rarely known, which is painfully obvious in Huntington’s work. His assertions that Islam is violent, conflictual and irreconcilable are rejected everywhere by mainstream Muslim scholars and religious authorities.
The influence of Orientalism in the work of both Lewis and Huntington takes away objectivity and credibility from their work:
“Like Bernard Lewis, Huntington does not write objective and neutral prose, but is a polemicist whose rhetoric not only depends on a prior argument about a war of all against all but in effect perpetuates it. Far from being an arbiter between civilizations which Huntington wishes to be, Huntington is a partisan_ an advocate of one civilization above all others. He defines Islamic civilization reductively, as if all that matters about it is its anti Westernism, as if the other Muslims have nothing else to do but think of the West with hatred; all they think about is how to destroy the West and bomb it.”
Orientalism in Huntington and elsewhere, keeping in mind its tremendous repercussions on society and politics, has deeper, underlying motivations that need to be studied for a fuller picture. Maryam Jameelah, from a spiritual-philosophical standpoint, explains that the reason why Islam and Muslims have always been targeted in Orientalist discourse is because Islam ‘vehemently rejects moral relativity and staunchly continues to uphold the transcendent ideal. Contemporary materialism, on the other hand, assumes that moral and aesthetic values are limited to time, place and circumstance and continually subject to change in the course of human evolutionary progress.’
Edward Said, on the other hand, believes that “Orientalism is a construction fabricated to whip up feelings of hostility and antipathy against that part of the world that happens to be of strategic importance due to its oil, its threatening adjacence to Christianity and history of competition with the West. This is totally different from what to a Muslim living in its domain, Islam really is.” A number of other critics and commentators also subscribe to the same view that Orientalism has helped resurrect age old stereotypes of Islam for geo-political motives of the West in the Muslim world. The theory of the Clash of Civilizations has helped create a foe in the Western mind to replace the Communist arch-enemy after the Cold War. This is a foe that is rather familiar and easy to sell to the Western public because of the history of Orientalist stereotypes of Islam that abound in Western tradition. The West continues to employ an arsenal of images of ‘masses of people waving their fists, of utmost evil, frightening people conspiring to kill Americans’, and Huntington’s influential thesis officialises it, injects it into political policy. The purpose it serves is the same as stated by a newscaster commenting on the World Trade Centre bombings: ‘the threat of Muslims is an ongoing danger...’ Orientalism and its manifestation in the Clash of Civilizations theory uses Islam as a ‘convenient foreign demon to turn attention away from the West’s own iniquities’ and to justify the foreign policy direction that can best fulfil the national interests of powerful actors at the helm.
Eqbal Ahmed writes of the “mutilations of Islam by absolutists and fanatical tyrants who present the religion reduced to a penal code, stripped of its humanism, aesthetics, intellectual quests, and spiritual devotion.” And this "entails an absolute assertion of one, generally de-contextualized, aspect of religion and a total disregard of another. The phenomenon distorts religion, debases tradition, and twists the political process wherever it unfolds." Ahmed proceeds to present the rich, complex, pluralist meaning of the word jihad and shows that in the word's current confinement to indiscriminate war against presumed enemies, it is impossible "to recognize the Islamic--religion, society, culture, history or politics--as lived and experienced by Muslims through the ages." This is what the West as a whole and the theory of Huntington in particular has failed to do.
The West fails to acknowledge the debt it owes to Islam, the centrality of Islamic values in the heritage of Europe and the essential commonalities between the two. Said writes, “The West drew on the humanism, science, philosophy, sociology and historiography of Islam, which had already interposed itself between Charlemagne's world and classical antiquity. Islam is inside from the start...” So are values which the West claims to be uniquely its own, part of Muslim societies. Quoting from Chandra Muzaffar, “Today, some of the leading ideas and institutions which have gained currency in the Muslim world whether in politics or economics are imports from the West. Similarly, Islam impacted law and architecture, literature and culture...” It is an established fact that Western Renaissance from which the West traces its ‘énlightened’ ethos, was brought about in large part as a result of renewed contact between Islam and the West after the Crusades. Contact with Islam compelled Europeans to reconsider their values, ushering in free thinking and ending the suffocating absolutism of the Church. Values celebrated as ‘Western’ are in fact deeply intertwined into the ethos of human civilization_ a common heritage of mankind.
“That different civilizations are not inherently prone to conflict is borne out by another salient feature which Huntington fails to highlight. Civilizations embody many similar values and ideals. At the philosophical level at least, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Taoism among other world religions share certain common perspectives on the relationship between the human being and his environment, the integrity of the community, the importance of the family, the significance of moral leadership and indeed the meaning and purpose of life.”
Huntington’s assertion that Islam has ‘bloody borders’ seems to imply that Islamic civilization is intrinsically and perpetually in violent conflict with all other civilizations. He expands upon his contentious statement in his book in the following words:
“The relations between Muslims and peoples of other civilizations_ Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Hindu, Chinese, Buddhist, Jewish_ have been generally antagonistic; in fact, most of these relationships have been violent in the past as well as in the modern times. Wherever one looks along the perimeter of Islam, Muslims have problems living peaceably with their neighbours. The question naturally arises as to whether this pattern of late twentieth century conflict between Muslim and non Muslim groups is equally true of relations between groups from other civilizations. In fact, it is not. Muslims make up about one-fifths of the world’s population, but in the 1990s they have been far more involved in intergroup violence than the people of any other civilization. The evidence is overwhelming... Islam’s borders are bloody, and so are its innards.”
This thesis is objectionable on many counts. For one, it is simplistic and inaccurate, as a type of desperate defence of his insistence on Islam being ‘bloody.’ It is generalized and suggests that the reason Muslim societies find themselves in conflicts is not because of any other factors but that Islam itself is the problem. Besides, it seems to create an image of a sword-wielding barbaric, monolithic Muslim civilization bent upon the destruction of all and sundry, while the West and its allies cower with bated breath. This is far from reality and needs to be effectively refuted.
As for Islam being intrinsically bloody, it is enlightening to read what the basic sources and fundamental texts of Islam have to say on the matter:
In 628 C.E. Prophet Muhammad (SAW) granted a Charter of Privileges to the monks of St. Catherine Monastery in Mt. Sinai. It consisted of several clauses covering all aspects of human rights including such topics as the protection of Christians, freedom of worship and movement, freedom to appoint their own judges and to own and maintain their property, exemption from military service, and the right to protection in war.
An English translation of that document is presented here:
This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them.
Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because
Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them.
No compulsion is to be on them.
Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries.
No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims' houses.
Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God's covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate.
No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight.
The Muslims are to fight for them.
If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray.
Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants.
No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world) . (Rendered into English in ‘Muslim History 570-1950’, Dr. A. Zahur and A.Z Haq.)
In the second Khalifah’s time (Umar R.A), when Christian areas fell to the Muslims, Umar (R.A) wrote a public declaration:
The Covenant of Omar
In the Name of Allah, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate
This is an assurance of peace and protection given by the servant of Allah Omar, Commander of the Believers to the people of Ilia' [Jerusalem]. He gave them an assurance of protection for their lives, property, church and crosses as well as the sick and healthy and all its religious community.
Their churches shall not be occupied, demolished nor taken away wholly or in part. None of their crosses nor property shall be seized. They shall not be coerced in their religion nor shall any of them be injured. None of the Jews shall reside with them in Ilia'.
The people of Ilia shall pay Jizia tax as inhabitants of cities do. They shall evict all robbers and thieves.
He whoever gets out shall be guaranteed safety for his life and property until he reach his safe haven. He whoever stays shall be also safe, in which case he shall pay as much tax as the people of Ilia' do. Should any of the people of Ilia wish to move together with his property along with the Romans and to clear out of their churches and crosses, they shall be safe for their lives, churches and crosses, until they have reached their safe haven. He whoever chooses to stay he may do so and he shall pay as much tax as the people of Ilia' do. He whoever wishes to move along with the Roman, may do so, and whoever wishes to return back home to his kinsfolk, may do so. Nothing shall be taken from them, their crops have been harvested. To the contents of this convent here are given the Covenant of Allah, the guarantees of His Messenger, the Caliphs and the Believers, provided they pay their due Jizia tax.
Witnesses hereto are:
Khalid Ibn al-Waleed Amr Ibn al-Aas Abdul-Rahman Ibn'Auf Mu'awiya Ibn abi-Sifian. Made and executed in the year 15 AH. (Source: Tabri, ‘Tarikh Al umam wal Malouk’ )
A.K Brohi writes,
“As the Muslims fanned out of Arabia into Byzantium, Persia and India, large numbers of Jews Christians and Zoroastrians, Hindus and Buddhists came under their dominion. The same recognition granted to the Jews and Christians by the Prophet (SAW) personally was granted to every non Muslim religious community on the one condition of their keeping the peace. The case of Jerusalem was the typos of this Muslim tolerance and goodwill on the religious level as well as on the social and cultural” .
Thomas Arnold writes:
“Of any organised attempt to force the acceptance of Islam on the non Muslim population, or of any systematic persecution intended to stamp out the Christian religion, we hear nothing. Had the caliphs chosen to adopt either course of action, they might have swept away Christianity as easily as Ferdinand and Isabella drove Islam out of Spain, or Louis XIV made Protestantism penal in France, or the Jews were kept out of England for 350 years. The Eastern Churches in Asia were entirely cut off from communion with the rest of Christendom throughout which no one would have been found to lift a finger on their behalf, as heretical communions. So that the very survival of these Churches to the present day is a strong proof of the generally tolerant attitude of the Muhammadan government towards them”.
Brohi continues:
“Compared with the histories of other religions, the history of Islam is categorically white as far as toleration of other religions is concerned. Fortunately, we have on record many witnesses from those days of Muslim conquest to whom we should be grateful for clearing this matter once and for all. Michael the Elder, Jacobite Patriarch of Antioch, wrote in the second half of the twelfth century: ‘This is why the God of vengeance… beholding the wickedness of the Romans who, throughout their dominions, cruelly plundered our churches and our monasteries and condemned us without pity_ brought from the region of the south the sons of Ishmael, to deliver us through them from the hands of the Romans.’
“Barhebreus is the author of an equally powerful witness in the favour of Islam. Ricoldus de Mone Crucis, a Dominian monk from Florence who visited the Muslim East about 1300 AD, gave an equally eloquent witness of tolerance with the Christians. And yet, if the Muslims were so tolerant, the Christian persistently asks, why did their co-religionists flock to Islam by the millions? Of these co-religionists the Arabs were the smallest minority. The rest were Hellenes, Persians, Egyptians, Cyrenaicans, Berbers, Cypriots and Caucasians. Canon Taylor explained it beautifully at a Church Congress held at Wolverhampton. He said: ‘It is easy to understand why this reformed Judaism swept so swiftly over Asia and Africa. The African and Syrian doctors had substituted abstruse metaphysical dogmas for the religion of Christ: they tried to combat the licentiousness of the age by setting forth the celestial merit of celibacy and the angelic excellence of virginity_ seclusion from the world was the road of holiness, dirt was the characteristic of monkish sanctity_ the people were practically polytheists, worshipping a crowd of martyrs, saints and angels; the upper classes were effeminate and corrupt, the middle classes oppressed by taxation, the slaves without hope for the present or the future. Islam swept away this mass of corruption and superstition. It was a revolt against empty theological polemics; it was a masculine protest against the exaltation of celibacy as a crown of piety. It brought out the fundamental dogmas of religion_ the unity and greatness of God, that He is merciful and righteous, that He claims obedience to His will, resignation and faith. It proclaimed the responsibility of man, a future life, a day of judgement, and stern retribution to fall upon the wicked; and enforced the duties of prayer, almsgiving, fasting and benevolence. It thrust aside the artificial virtues, the religious frauds and follies, the perverted moral sentiments, and the verbal subtleties of theological disputants. It replaced monkishness by manliness. It gave hope to the slave, brotherhood to mankind, and recognition to the fundamental facts of human nature.’”