How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World

How the Media and the Experts
Determine How
We See the Rest of the World


This is the third and last in a series of books in which I have attempted to treat the modern relationship between the world of Islam, the Arabs, and the Orient on the one hand, and on the other the West, France, Britain, and in particular the United States. Orientalism is the most general; it traces the various phases of the relationship from the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt, through the main colonial period and the rise of modern Orientalist scholarship in Europe during the nineteenth century up to the end of British and French imperial hegemony in the Orient after World War-II and the emergence then and there of American dominance. The underlying theme of Orientalism is the affiliation of knowledge with power. The second book, The Question of Palestine, provides a case history of the struggle between the native Arab, largely Muslim inhabitants of Palestine and the Zionist movement (later Israel), whose provenance and method of coming to grips with the ‘Oriental” realities of Palestine are largely Western. More explicitly than in Orientalism, my study of Palestine attempts also to describe what has been hidden beneath the surface of Western views of the Orient—in this case, the Palestinian national struggle for self-determination.
In Covering Islam my subject is immediately contemporary: ‘Western and specifically American responses to an Islamic world perceived, since the early seventies, as being immensely relevant and yet antipathetically troubled, and problematic. Among the causes of this perception has been the acutely fell- shortage of energy supply, with its focus on Arab and Persian Gulf oil, OPEC, and the dislocating effects on Western societies of inflation and dramatically expensive fuel bills. In addition, the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis have furnished alarming evidence of what has come to be called “the return of Islam.” Finally, there has been the resurgence of radical nationalism in the Islamic world and, as a peculiarly unfortunate adjunct to it, the return of intense superpower rivalry there. An example of the former is the Iran Iraq war; the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and American preparations for Rapid Deployment Forces in the Gulf region make up an example of the latter.
Even though the pun in “covering Islam” will be obvious to any reader proceeding through this book, a simple explanation is worth having at the outset. One of the points I make here and in Orientalism is that the term “Islam” as it is used today seems to mean one simple thing but in fact is part fiction, part ideological label, part minimal designation of a religion called Islam. In no really significant way is there a direct correspondence between the “Islam” in common Western usage and the enormously varied life that goes on within the world of Islam, with its more than 8oo,ooo,ooo people, its millions of square miles of territory principally in Africa and Asia, its dozens of societies, states, histories, geographies, cultures. On the other hand, “Islam” is peculiarly traumatic news today in the West, for reasons that I discuss in the course of this book. During the past few years, especially since events in Iran caught European and American attention so strongly, the media have therefore covered Islam: they have portrayed it, characterized it, analyzed it, giving instant courses on it, and consequently they have made it “known.”
But, as I have implied, this coverage—and with it the work of academic experts on Islam, geopolitical strategists who speak of “the crescent of crisis,” cultural thinkers who deplore “the decline of the West”—is misleadingly full. It has given consumers of news the sense that they have understood Islam without at the same time intimating to them that a great deal in this energetic coverage is based on far from objective material. In many instances “Islam” has licensed not only patent inaccuracy but also expressions of unrestrained ethno centrism cultural and even racial hatred, deep yet paradoxically free-floating hostility. All this has taken place as part of what is presumed to be fair, balanced, responsible coverage of Islam. Aside from the fact that neither Christianity nor Judaism both of them going through quite remarkable revivals (or “returns”), is treated in so emotional a way, there is an unquestioned assumption that Islam can be characterized limitlessly by means of a handful of recklessly general and repeatedly deployed clichés. And always it is supposed that the “Islam” being talked about is some real and stable object out there where “our” oil supplies happen to be found.
With this sort of coverage has gone a great deal of covering up. When the New York Times explains a surprisingly strong Iranian resistance to Iraq’s incursion, it resorts to a formula about the “Shi’a penchant for martyrdom.” Superficially, phrases like that have a certain plausibility, but in fact I think they are used to cover a great deal of what the reporter knows nothing about. Not knowing the language is only part of a much greater ignorance, for often enough the reporter is sent to a strange country with no preparation or experience, just because he or she is canny at picking up things quickly or happens already to be in the general vicinity of where front page news is happening. So instead of trying to find out more about the country, the reporter takes hold of what is nearest at hand usually a cliché or some bit of 1ournalistic wisdom that readers at home are unlikely to challenge. ‘With approximately three hundred reporters in Teheran during the first days of the hostage crisis, and without a Persian-speaker among them, it was no wonder that all the media reports coming out of Iran repeated essentially the same threadbare accounts of what was taking place; in the meantime, of course, other events and political processes in Iran that could not easily be characterized as instances of “the Islamic mentality’ or of “anti-Americanism” went unnoticed.
Between them, the activities of covering and covering up Islam have almost eliminated consideration of the predicament of which they are symptoms: the general problem of knowing and living in a world that has become far too complex and various for easy and instant generalizations. Islam is both a typical case and, because its history in the West is so old and well defined, a special one. By this I mean that like so much of the postcolonial world, Islam belongs neither to Europe nor, like Japan, to the advanced industrial group of nations. It has been regarded as falling within the purview of “development perspectives,” which is another mode of saying that Islamic societies were considered for at least three decades to be in need of rnodernization.” The ideology of modernization produced a way of seeing Islam whose apex and culmination was the image of the shah of Iran, both at his zenith, as a “modern” ruler, and when his regime collapsed, as a casualty to what was looked upon as medieval fanaticism and religiosity.
On the other hand. “Islam” has always represented a particular menace to the West, for reasons I discussed in Orientalism and re-examine in this book. Of no other religion or cultural grouping can it be said so assertively as it is now said of Islam that it represents a threat to ‘Western civilization. It is no accident that the turbulence and the upheavals which are now taking place in the Muslim world (and which have more to do with social, economic, and historical factors than they do unilaterally with Islam) have exposed the limitation of simple-minded Orientalist clichés about “fatalistic” Muslims without at the same time generating anything to put in their place except nostalgia for the old days, when European armies ruled almost the entire Muslim world, from the Indian subcontinent right across to North Africa. The recent success of books, journals, and public figures that argue for a reoccupation of the Gulf region and justify the argument by referring to Islamic barbarism is part of this phenomenon. It is no less remarkable that the times have seen the emergence into American fame of “experts” like New Zealand’s J. B. Kelly, former professor of imperial history at Wisconsin, one-time adviser to Sheikh Zayid of Abu Dhabi, now critical of Muslims and soft Westerners who, unlike Kelly, have sold out to the oil Arabs. Not a single one of the occasionally critical reviews of his book had anything to say about the astonishingly frank atavism of his concluding paragraph, which for its slicer desire of imperial conquest and its barely concealed racial attitudes deserves quotation here:
How much time may be left to Western Europe in which to preserve or recover its strategic inheritance east of Suez it is impossible to foretell. While the pax Britannica endured, that is to say, from the fourth or fifth decade of the nineteenth century to the middle years of this century, tranquility reigned in the Eastern Seas and around the shores of the Western Indian Ocean. An ephemeral calm still lingers there, the vestigial shadow of the old imperial order. If the history of the past four or five hundred years indicates anything, however, it is that this fragile peace cannot last much longer. Most of Asia is fast lapsing back into despotism, most of Africa into barbarism—into the condition, in short, they were in when Vasco da Gama first doubled the Cape to lay the foundations of Portuguese dominion in the East. … Oman is still the key to command of the Gulf and its seaward approaches, just as Aden remains the key to the passage of the Red Sea. The Western powers have already thrown away one of these keys; the other, however, is still within their reach. ‘Whether, like the captains-general of Portugal long ago, they have the boldness to grasp it has yet to be seen.
Although Kelly’s suggestion that fifteenth- and sixteenth- century Portuguese colonialism is the most appropriate guide for contemporary Western politicians may strike some readers as a little quaint, it is his simplifications of history that are most representative of the current mood. Colonialism brought tranquility, he says, as if the subjugation of millions of people amounted to no more than an idyll and as if those were their best days; their abused feelings, their distorted history, their unhappy destiny do slot matter, so long as “we” can continue to get what is useful to “us”—valuable resources, geographically and politically strategic regions, a vast pool of cheap native labor. The independence of countries in Africa and Asia after centuries of colonial dominion is dismissed as lapsing into barbarism or despotism. The only course left open, after what he characterizes as the craven demise of the old imperial order, is a new invasion according to Kelly. And underlying this invitation to the ‘West to take what is rightfully “ours” is a profound contempt for the native Islamic culture of the Asia Kelly wishes “us” to rule.
Let us charitably leave aside the retrograde logic of Kelly’s writing, which has brought him the respectful accolades of the American intellectual right wing William F. Buckley to the New Republic. What is more interesting about the outlook he presents is how blanket solutions to messy, detailed problems are immediately preferred to anything else, especially when they recommend forceful action against “Islam.” No one says what might be taking place inside Yemen, for example, or in Turkey, or across the Red Sea in Sudan, Mauritania, Morocco, or even Egypt. Silence in the press, which is busy covering the hostage crisis; silence in the academy, which is busy advising the oil industry and the government on how to forecast trends in the Gulf; silence in the government, which looks for information only where “our” friends (such as the shah or Anwar Sadat) direct us to look for it. “Islam” is only what holds the West’s oil reserves; little else counts, little else deserves attention.
Given the current state of academic studies of Islam, there is not too much to be found there by way of rectification. In some ways the field as a whole is marginal to the general culture, while in others it is easily co-opted by the government and the corporations. Generally, this has disqualified it to cover Islam in ways that might tell us more than we arc other-wise aware of beneath the surface of Islamic societies. Then too, there are numerous methodological and intellectual problems that still need settling: Is there such a thing as Islamic behavior? What connects Islam at the level of everyday life to Islam at the level of doctrine in the various Islamic societies? How really useful is “Islam” as a concept for understanding Morocco and Saudi Arabia and Syria and Indonesia? If we come to realize that, as many scholars have recently noted, Islamic doctrine can be seen as justifying capitalism as well as socialism, militancy as well as fatalism, ecumenism as well as exclusivism, we begin to sense the tremendous lag between academic descriptions of Islam (that are inevitably caricature in the media) and the particular realities to be found within the Islamic world.
Yet there is a consensus on “Islam” as a kind of scapegoat for everything we do not happen to like about the world’s new political, social, and economic patterns. For the right, Islam represents barbarism; for the left, medieval theocracy; for the center, a kind of distasteful exoticism. In all camps, however, there is agreement that even though little enough is known about the Islamic world there is not much to be approved of there. What there is of value in Islam is principally its anticommunism, with the additional irony that almost invariably anticommunism in the Islamic world has been synonymous with repressive pro-American regimes. Pakistan’s Zia al-Haq is a perfect case in point.
Far from being a defense of Islam—a project as unlikely as it is futile for my purposes—this book describes the uses of “Islam” for the West and, though I spend less time doing it, for many Islamic societies. Thus to criticize the abuses of Islam in the West does not by any means entail condoning them within Islamic societies. The fact is that in many—too many—Islamic societies repression, the abrogation of personal freedoms, unrepresentative and often minority regimes, arc either falsely legitimated or casuistically explained with reference to Islam, which is doctrinally as blameless in this regard as any other of the great universal religions. The abuses of Islam also happen to correspond in many instances with the inordinate power and authority of the central state.
Nevertheless I believe that even if we do not blame everything that is unhealthy about the Islamic world on the West, we must be able to see the connection between what the West has been saying about Islam and what, reactively, various Muslim societies have done. The dialectic between the two—given that for many parts of the Islamic world the West, whether as former colonizing power or as present trading partner, is a very important interlocutor—has produced a species of what Thomas Franck and Edward Weisband have called “word politics,”5 which it is the purpose of this book to analyze and explain. The back-and-forth between the Vilest and Islam, the challenging and the answering, the opening of certain rhetorical spaces and the closing of others: all this makes up the “word politics” by which each side sets up situations, justifies actions, forecloses options, and presses alternatives on the other. Thus when Iranians seized the United States Embassy in Teheran they were responding, not just to the former shah’s entry into the United States, but to what they perceived as a long history of humiliation inflicted on them by superior American power: past American actions “spoke” to them of constant intervention in their lives, and therefore as Muslims who, they felt, had been held prisoner in their own country, they took American prisoners and held them as hostages on United States territory, the Teheran embassy. Although the actions themselves made the point, it was the words, and the movements of power they adumbrated, that prepared the way and, to a very great extent, made the actions possible.
This pattern is, I think, of very great importance because it underscores the close affiliation between language and political reality, at least so far as discussions of Islam are concerned. The hardest thing to get most academic experts on Islam to admit is that what they say and do as scholars is set in a profoundly and in some ways an offensively political con-text. Everything about the study of Islam in the contemporary West is saturated with political importance, but hardly any writers on Islam, whether expert or general, admit the fact in what they say. Objectivity is assumed to inhere in learned discourse about other societies, despite the long history of political, moral, and religious concern felt in all societies, Western or Islamic, about the alien, the strange and different. In Europe, for example, the Orientalist has traditionally been affiliated directly with colonial offices: what we have just begun to learn about the extent of close cooperation between scholarship and direct military colonial conquest (as in the case of the revered Dutch Orientalist C. Snouck Hurgronje, who used the confidence he had won from Muslims to plan and execute the brutal Dutch war against the Atjehnese people of Sumatra°) is both edifying and depressing. Yet books and articles continue to pour forth extolling the nonpolitical nature of Western scholarship, the fruits of Orientalist learning, and the value of “objective” expertise. At the very same time there is scarcely an expert on “Islam” who has not been a consultant or even an employee of the government, the various corporations, the media. My point is that the cooperation must be admitted and taken into account, not just for moral reasons, but for intellectual reasons as well.
Let us say that discourse on Islam is, if not absolutely vitiated, then certainly colored by the political, economic, and intellectual situation in which it arises: this is as true of East as it is of West. For many evident reasons, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that all discourse on Islam has an interest in some authority or power. On the other hand, I do not mean to say that all scholarship or writing about Islam is therefore useless. Quite the contrary; I think it is more useful than not, and very revealing as an index of what interest is being served. I cannot say for sure whether in matters having to do with human society there is such a thing as absolute truth or perfectly true knowledge; perhaps such things exist in the abstract—a proposition I do not find hard to accept—but in present reality truth about such matters as “Islam” is relative to who produces it. It will be noted that such a position does not rule out gradations of knowledge (good, bad, indifferent), nor the possibility of saying things accurately. It simply asks that anyone speaking about “Islam” remember what any beginning student of literature knows: that the writing or reading of texts about human reality brings into play many more factors than can be accounted for (or protected) by labels like “objective.”
This is why I take pains to identify the situation out of which statements arise, and why it seems important to note the various groups in society that have an interest in “Islam.” For the West generally and the United States in particular, the confluence of power bearing upon “Islam” is notable, as much for its component groups (the academy, the corporations, the media, the government) as for the relative absence of dissent from the orthodoxy it has created. The result has been a gross simplification of “Islam,” so that numerous manipulative aims can be realized, from the stirring up of a new cold war, to the instigation of racial antipathy, to mobilization for a possible invasion, to the continued denigration of Muslims and Arabs. Little of this is, I believe, in the interest of truth; certainly the truth of these manipulative aims is always denied. Instead we have the statements made and the aims served with a shroud of scholarly, even scientific expertise draped over them. An amusing consequence is that when Muslim countries donate money to American universities for Arab or Islamic studies, a great liberal outcry arises about foreign interference in the American university, but when Japan or Germany donates money no such complaint can be heard. As for the impact of corporate pressures on the university, that too is generally regarded as being in the salutary nature of things.
Lest I seem to conform too closely to Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic—that he knows the price of everything and the value of nothing—I should say finally that I recognize the need for informed expert opinion; that the United States as a great power is likely to have attitudes to and therefore policies for the outside world that smaller powers do not; that there is great hope for improvement in the dismal situation now prevailing. Nevertheless I do not believe as strongly and as firmly in the notion of “Islam” as many experts, policy- makers, and general intellectuals do; on the contrary, I often think it has been more of a hindrance than a help in understanding what moves people and societies. But what I really believe in is the existence of a critical sense and of citizens able and willing to use it to get beyond the special interests of experts and their ides reçues. By using the skills of a good critical reader to disentangle sense from nonsense, by asking the right questions and expecting pertinent answers, anyone can learn about either “Islam” or the world of Islam and about the men, women, and cultures that live within it, speak its languages, breathe its air, produce its histories and societies. At that point, humanistic knowledge begins and communal responsibility for that knowledge begins to be shouldered. I wrote this book to advance that goal.
Parts of Chapter One and Chapter Two have appeared in The Nation and the Columbia Journalism Review I am particularly grateful to Robert Manoff, who during his all-too- brief tenure as editor of the Columbia Journalism Review made it an exciting publication.
In the course of gathering material for sections of this book I was ably assisted by Douglas Baldwin and Philip Shehadé. Paul Lipari prepared the manuscript in its final form with his usual literate skill and efficiency. To Albert Said I am grateful for assistance given generously.
For intellectual criticism and wise observation I am indebted to many people, some of whom I never met, but who sent me ideas, studies, and commentary, all of which I have put to some use: Fred Halliday, Miriam Rosen, William Greider, Ervand Abrahamian, William Dorman, Mansour Farhang, Nikki Keddie, Melody Kirnmel, Charles Kimball, and Stuart Schaar.
I owe a special debt to my dear comrade Eqbal Ahmad, whose encyclopedic knowledge and constant solicitude have sustained so many of us during confusing and trying times. James Peck read the manuscript in one of its earlier versions and gave me brilliantly detailed suggestions for revision, although of course he is in no way responsible for its still remaining faults. I am pleased to acknowledge his indispensable help. Jeanne Morton of Pintheon Books copy-edited the manuscript with tact and vigilance, and to her I am most grateful. I should also like to thank André Schiffrin for his sagacity and his intellectual keenness: a courageous friend, editor, and publisher.

Mariam Said, to whom this book is dedicated, virtually kept its author alive during its writing. For her love, her companionship, and her are animating presence, my heartfelt thanks.


New York

October 1980


On January 20, 1981, the fifty-two Americans held prisoner in the United States Embassy for 444 days finally left Iran. A few days later they arrived in the United States to be greeted by the country’s genuine happiness in seeing them back. The “hostage return,” as it came to be called, became a week-long media event. There were many frequently intrusive and maudlin hours of live television coverage as the “returnees” were transported to Algeria, then to Germany, then to West Point, to Washington, and at last to their various home towns.

Most newspapers and national weeklies ran supplements on the return, ranging horn learned analyses of how the final agreement between Iran and the United States was arrived at, and what it involved, to celebrations of American heroism and Iranian barbarism. Interspersed were personal stories of the hostage ordeal, often embroidered by enterprising journalists and what seemed an alarmingly available number of psychiatrists eager to explain what the hostages were really going through. Insofar as there was serious discussion of the past and of the future that went beyond the level of the yellow ribbons designated as symbolic of Iranian captivity, the new administration set the tone and determined the limits. Analysis of the past was focused on whether the United States should have made (and whether it ought to honor) the agreement with Iran. On January 31, 1981, the New Republic predictably attacked “the ransom,” and the Carter administration for giving in to terrorists; then it condemned the whole “legally controvertible proposition” of dealing with Iranian demands as well as the use as intermediary of Algeria, a country “well practiced at giving refuge to terrorists and laundering the ransoms they bring.” Discussion of the future was constrained by the Reagan administration’s declared- war on terrorism this, not human rights, was to be the new priority of United States policy, even to the extent of supporting “moderately repressive regimes” if they happen to be allies.

Accordingly, Peter C. Stuart reported in the Christian Science Monitor of January 29, 1981, that congressional hearings were likely to be scheduled on “the terms of the hostage release agreement . . . treatment of the hostages embassy security . . [and as a kind of afterthought] future U.S.-Iran relations.” Very much in keeping with the narrowly focused range of problems explored by the media during the crisis (with few exceptions), there was no careful scrutiny of what the Iranian trauma has meant, what it suggests about the future, what might be learned from it. The London Sunday Times reported on January 26 that before he left office President

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