Recycling Orientalist Clichés

Woman in hijab mural. Paris, 2010.

It goes without saying that the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi is a crime that no offense can excuse. Yet those who perpetrated the killings (purportedly jihadists, who planned the killings in advance) probably number in the dozens, and felt plenty justified.

Likewise, it is worth remembering that those burning flags and attacking embassies in response to the risible but provocative movie the Innocence of Muslims amount to a fractional portion of the 1.6 billion members of the Islamic faith.

Protestors aggregately number (at most) in the tens of thousands, those among them indulging in violence far less still. Those stirred into indignation by a controversial cartoon in French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo last week similarly represent only themselves. To suggest otherwise would be to engage in intellectual dishonesty.

A salutary reminder of the above occurred the day after US Libya Ambassador Chris Stevens’ death. Protesters gathered in Benghazi to express their repulsion at the murderous groups who had ended the lives of four Americans the night before. Banners read “thugs and killers don’t represent Benghazi nor Islam”; video footage that appears to show that some protesters tried to save Stevens’ life should prompt even the most prejudiced to rethink their initial impression of events.

What’s more, barely covered enough given its relevance to this month’s events, extremists believed to be associated with the attacks in Benghazi were driven out of the city by angry crowds.

Yet in the Western media echo chamber, while condemnation of the initial killings and subsequent violence has been universal, there’s been a reluctance to explicitly acknowledge that such incidents do not implicate all Muslims. Newsweek‘s tasteless recent cover, for example, helped to stir bitterness rather than equanimity. The twitter-lampooned headline “Muslim rage” was complemented by a photograph of cartoonishly apoplectic Arabs. The cover story, written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali carried the sub-headline “How I survived it, how we can end it“- invoking a “them” versus “us” paradigm that fails to differentiate between Hirsi’s oppressors, a few thousand angry protesters and Islam. Needless to say, images of apologetic crowds or compassionate Libyans decorate no major American magazines.

In accordance with the prevailing mood, several respectable outlets have carried op-eds and commentaries that, in my view, have more in common with narrow polemic than objective analysis. There’s more than a hint of essentialism in the lazy use of umbrella terms like “Arab dysfunction” in relation to recent events, or constant reference to the collective character of “the Muslim world”.

A recent opinion piece in the Washington Post is an interesting case study in such insufficient analysis. In the article entitled “Why is the Arab world so easily offended?” Stanford Professor Fouad Ajami fumblingly attempts to diagnose “why violence keeps erupting” in the aforementioned, apparently monolithic “Arab world”. Ajami proposes that, among other things, the “injured pride” of Arabs is a powerful factor. This, he contends, has its roots in the vanished historical “greatness” of Arab civilisation (a process, Ajami explains, that began with Mongol invasions in the 13th century and continued with assaults by soldiers of fortune.) The West’s superior intellectual and military culture is likewise a perceived affront, he concludes.

The Daily Star. London, March 2009.

Aspects of Ajami’s analysis appear to differ little from certain passages in a famous twenty-two year old essay by the celebrated academic Bernard Lewis entitled “The Roots of Muslim Rage“. In the same text Lewis adumbrated the reductive “clash of civilisations” thesis that would be later taken up and developed so influentially by Samuel Huntington.

The analyses of Ajami et al conspicuously underplay or simply ignore the massive role that the vast human devastations resulting from western foreign policy have played in prompting anger and considerable radicalisation in the Islamic world. Ajami’s piece also omits to mention the West’s bygone but enthusiastic support for Arab autocrats such as Saddam Hussein or the deposed Hosni Mubarak as much it ignores “our” ongoing relations with the problematic House of Sa’ud.

All cultures, including those placed within the “western” and “Islamic” brackets, have legitimate grievances and internal shortcomings. In pockets, both westerners and Muslims have asked the question: “Why do they hate us?” about the other, particularly in moments of crisis. Yet, in the interests of truth, it is impossible to deny the fact that the lion’s share of destruction has been felt by large sections of the same “Muslim world” that mainstream media in the English-speaking world is so quick to collectively judge.

It is funny how the western press can be so inconsistent. When several families were murdered unprovoked in Afghanistan, it was virtually obligatory to needlessly emphasize the truism that the presumed culprit was not the embodiment of the American soldier. Similarly, we were reminded that Lynndie England, the US soldier who smiled as she was photographed humiliating naked Iraqis in Abu Ghraib where they were horribly tortured in droves did not represent her hard-working colleagues elsewhere in Iraq. No-one at home connected her actions – or those credibly accused of murder during the massacre at Haditha for that matter – with some fictional, culturally homogenized and attitudinally undifferentiated group called “Americans”. This principle naturally extended also to the UK troops who allegedly beat Baha Mousa to death.

No one in the West has been subjected to a sanctions regime that resulted in the deaths of at least half a million children according to UNICEF, as Iraq was in the 1990s (this, to contain a tyrant that Washington had once enthusiastically supported.) Neither have foreign politicians glibly stated that the human costs of the same were “worth it” despite the human toll being so grotesque that senior UN figures resigned in protest, later citing violations of the Geneva and Hague conventions. Nor have we been subjected to a war that precipitated the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives justified on the basis of a phantom threat. Yet writers like Ajami are content to talk of the centuries-old invasions and not recent history when they seek to condescendingly dissect Arab “volatility.”

As Patrick Seale wrote, the “vile film about the Prophet Muhammad may have been the spark which set Arab and Muslim anger alight, but it was only able to do so because of the large quantities of highly combustible material around.” While this justifies none of the violence or killings of the last week, any searching or intellectually rigorous analysis of “Muslim rage” would surely take the above into account.

While animosities between the Middle East and the West have deep roots, a clash of civilisations is hardly inevitable. In our shrinking but complex world, it is high time we dispensed with divisive narratives and concentrated on more urgent concerns. The threat of environmental catastrophe, for example, or an Israeli-Iranian war, may yet be willed into outbreak, with predictable consequences. Take your pick. There’s plenty of crises to contend with.

 Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit

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