Malise Ruthven

  • Covering Islam by Edward Said
    Routledge, 224 pp, £8.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 7100 0840 6
  • Heart-Beguiling Araby by Kathryn Tidrick
    Cambridge, 224 pp, £12.50, July 1981, ISBN 0 521 23483 2
  • Inside the Iranian Revolution by John Stempel
    Indiana, 336 pp, £10.50, December 1981, ISBN 0 253 14200 8
  • The Return of the Ayatollah by Mohamed Heikal
    Deutsch, 218 pp, £9.95, November 1981, ISBN 0 233 97404 0
  • Sadat by David Hirst and Irene Beeson
    Faber, 384 pp, £11.50, December 1981, ISBN 0 571 11690 6

Edward Said is the first Palestinian to have stormed the East Coast literary establishment. His achievement has partly been the result of what his more paranoid opponents must regard as his uncanny sense of strategy. A Christian-born Arab long resident in the United States, he successfully scaled the ladder of English studies (hardly a quarter where Zionist sentries would be posted) before launching his brilliant attack on the citadel of area studies in Orientalism. This position could be occupied without much difficulty, since no one outside the interests directly concerned was eager to rush to the defence of institutions backed by the Government, big business or the oil companies. By the time his nationalist apologia, The Question of Palestine, came out, Said’s voice was too powerful to be ignored.

Covering Islam takes up the main theme of Orientalism, but with a more specific focus: the American media’s prejudiced and ill-informed coverage of the Iranian revolution. Like that of his compatriots, Said’s fire is sometimes rather wild. In his rage to demolish the clichés that have come to make up much of the conventional wisdom about Islam and Iran, he is inclined to overlook such nuggets of truth as lie buried within them. For example, it may be sloppy and misleading to describe Iranians as having a ‘martyr complex’, but one cannot deny that martyrdom has a central role in the religious and popular culture of the Iranian people, and that this has had some impact on their political outlook. Generally, however, Said’s targets are well-chosen and the questions he raises important, even if his answers are less than wholly satisfying.

The central theme of Covering Islam, as of Orientalism, is the affiliation of knowledge with power. A region, a collection of people or even a common religious tradition, must first be defined into existence before it can be subjugated and controlled. Classical orientalists, men like Snouck Hurgronje and Silvestre de Sacy, became the employees of colonial governments and put their knowledge to active, sometimes destructive use. Today’s orientalists continue to ‘speak for the Orient’ rather than letting it speak for itself. They present ‘Islam’ to their students, and thence to the wider public, as something monolithic and predominantly hostile. This ‘reductive and monochromatic’ account of an enormously varied and complex reality is passed on, suitably vulgarised and trivialised, by the mass media. In such a manner public opinion may be softened up to demand military intervention (‘Nuke Tehran’ buttons were displayed during the hostage crisis) or at least to accept such adventurist and dangerous expedients as the Rapid Deployment Force. As in all such veiled propaganda, double standards abound. Statements are made about Muslims or Islam which, if applied to any other religion or ethnic group, such as Judaism or Blacks, would provoke instant outrage or ridicule.

During the revolution and the hostage crisis, US television coverage of Iran epitomised these attitudes. Khomeini, medieval, despotic, wages ‘holy war’ upon the world in an attempt to drag his homeland back into the seventh century AD. The unstated assumption, of course, is that Westernisation equals modernity, and that developing countries must needs transform themselves into ‘mini-Americas’. Any country (excluding those under Communist control, which are already beyond the pale) which rejects Western (i.e. American) control over its government and institutions must by definition be obscurantist and backward-looking. The fact that the pro-Western Menahem Begin has been just as willing as Khomeini to mandate his actions by appealing to religious authority, or that all three Presidential candidates in 1980 claimed to be ‘born-again Christians’, is ignored in this context. In its popular image, ‘Islam’ is uniquely atavistic, its adherents uniformly fanatical.

In seeking to explain TV mythology about Islam, Said leads us back along the paths of academia to his habitual targets, the temples of area studies. Here we find, unsurprisingly, two familiar demons who by now have come to loom almost as large in anti-orientalist mythology as Khomeini in Middle America: Elie Kedourie and Bernard Lewis. Lewis is singled out for his smug and unthinking assumptions about ‘Western’ intellectual superiority. At the heart of his and similar attitudes Said discerns an epistemological naivety that would never be permitted in other fields of inquiry. Unlike most modern historians, literary critics and anthropologists, the orientalists continue to exhibit an almost complete lack of self-consciousness about the methodology of their field, its ‘knowability’ and the purposes to which their knowledge (which can only consist of interpretation) may be put. This he attributes to two factors: the marginality, or ‘willed irrelevance’, of Islamic studies in relation to the general culture; and a ready market for its products.

Generally speaking, Said’s argument is thoroughly persuasive, even if at times his approach is too polemical. As in Orientalism, scholars (such as Arberry, Watt or Hodgson) who do not fit the orientalist pattern are scarcely given their due. The broader argument that Islam is not something about which satisfactory generalisations can be made is pushed too far: the Quran and the Sunna (the Prophet’s practice as allegedly recorded in oral tradition) contain an irreducible core of positive teaching which, though variously applied in different societies, definitely constitutes a common element in the religio-cultural traditions of Asia and Africa. Islam can be defined, and needs to be understood, as the impact of a certain kind of vision, a vision which confers a unitary coherence upon the world’s manifold diversities.

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