The West has never had an easy time coming to terms with Islam or Islamicate societies. There was a long period, lasting more than a millennium, when the two were seen as existential threats. In order to mobilize the energy to contain and then roll back these threats–first from the ‘Holy Lands’ and Southwestern Europe and later from Southeastern Europe–European writers presented Islam as a Christian heresy, a devil-worshipping religion, Mahomet’s trickery, a militant and militarist cult crafted for Bedouin conquests. To this list of dark qualities the thinkers of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment added a few more. Now Islamicate societies were also seen as despotic, fatalistic, fanatical, irrational, uncurious, opposed to science, and inimical to progress. When Europe gained the upper hand militarily in the nineteenth century, this complex of Orientalist ideas would be used to justify the conquest and colonization of Islamic lands.
Starting in the nineteenth century, a small minority of European thinkers began to reject the standard Orientalist constructs of Islam and Islamicate societies. They began to look at Islam and Islamicate societies as they were described in Muslim sources; they wrote of Islamic achievements in philosophy, the sciences, arts and architecture; they emphasized Islam’s egalitarian spirit, the absence of racial prejudice, and their greater tolerance of other religious communities. Many of these Europeans who had chosen to give Islam its due were Jews who had only recently escaped from the ghettoes to enter into Europe’s academies. In part, these Jews were appropriating for themselves the achievements of another Semitic people. In calling attention to the tolerance of Islamic societies, they were also gently reminding the Europeans that they had far to go towards creating a bourgeois civilization based on humane values. Less charitably, one might say that the Jewish dissenters were undermining the Christian West by elevating its opposite, the Islamic East.
A second shift in the temper of Orientalism that began in the 1950s would become more pervasive. From now on, a growing number of mainstream scholars of Islam and Islamic societies would try to escape the essentializing mental habits of earlier Orientalists. This shift was the work of at least three forces. The most powerful of these forces was the struggle of the colonized peoples in the post-War period to free themselves from the yoke of colonialism. In the context of the Cold War, the political and economic interests of Western powers now demanded greater sensitivity to the culture, religion and history of the peoples they had denigrated over the previous four centuries. A show of respect for their subjects had now become a virtue in the writings of Orientalists.
The Orientalists were also being put on notice by the entry into Western academia of scholars of Middle Eastern and South Asian origins–including Phillip K. Hitti, Albert Hourani, George Makdisi, Muhsin Mahdi, Syed Hussein Nasr and Fazlur Rahman–who brought greater empathy and understanding to their studies on Islamicate societies. Edward Said too was a member of this group; his distinctive contribution consisted of his erudite and sustained critique of the methods of Orientalism. Said’s critique belongs also to a broader intellectual movement–fueled in part by scholars from the non-Western world–that not only debunked the distortions of Orientalists but also sought to remedy their errors by writing a more sympathetic history of Asian and African societies. In other words, during this period some sections of the West began to acknowledge with some consternation the racism and bigotry that permeated much of the social sciences and humanities.
Starting in the 1950s, Islam also attracted the attention of several spiritual explorers from the West who were led hither by their disappointment with the poverty of living spiritual traditions in their own societies. The deep understanding of Islam they acquired through association with authentic Sufis–Muslims who cultivated, in addition to their meticulous observance of the Shariah, the inner dimensions of Islam–allowed them to write several outstanding books on the metaphysical and spiritual perspectives of Islam, both as they are practiced by its living exponents and as they are reflected in the calligraphy, architecture and the still surviving traditional crafts of the Islamic world. The writings of Rene Guenon, Titus Burckhardt, Frithjof Schuon, Martin Lings, Charles Le Gai Eaton, among others, demonstrate conclusively that Islam offers an original spiritual perspective that is fully capable of supporting a deeply religious life.
Yet, running counter to these developments, a new Orientalism was also taking shape in the post-War era. It was not based on any strikingly new thesis about Islam. Instead, it was mostly a repackaging of the old Orientalism designed to renew a more intrusive dual US-Israeli control over the Middle East. Led by Bernard Lewis, the new Orientalists claim that the Islamicate world is a failed civilization. Among other things, they argue that Islamicate societies have failed to modernize because Islam’s mixing of religion and politics makes it incompatible with democracy; Islam does not support equal rights for women and minorities; and Islam commands Muslims to wage war until the whole world is brought under the sway of Islamic law. In short, because of its intransigence and failure to adapt to the challenges of modernity, Islam has become the greatest present threat to civilization, that is, to Western interests.
What makes this repackaged Orientalism new are its intentions, its proponents, and the enemy it has targeted for destruction. Its intention is to mobilize the United States behind a scheme to balkanize the Middle East into ethnic, sectarian and religious micro states, a new system of client states that would facilitate Israel’s long-term hegemony over the region. Ironically, the scholars who have dominated this repackaging of the old Orientalism are mostly Jewish, a reversal of roles that flows directly from the creation of a Jewish colonial-settler state in the heart of the Middle East. Once they had succeeded in creating Israel, the Zionists knew that its long-term survival depended on fomenting wars between the West and Islam. Zionism has pursued this goal by its own wars against Arabs and, since 1967, a brutal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza; but equally, it has pulled out all the stops to convince the United States to support unconditionally Israel’s depredations against Arabs.
The target of the war that the new Orientalists want to wage are what they variously call Islamists, Islamic fundamentalists, Islamic militants, Islamo-fascists, or Islamic terrorists. Whatever the term, it embraces all Islamicate movements–no matter what their positions on the political uses of violence–that appeal to Islamic symbols to mobilize local, national, and pan-Islamic resistance against the wars that the United States and Israel have jointly waged against the Middle East since 1945. These Islamicate resistance movements, which are both national and transcend national boundaries, have replaced the secular nationalists who, after failing to achieve their objectives, were co-opted by the United States and Israel to destroy the Islamicate resistance.
The events that have unfolded over the past few decades–the rise of the Islamicate resistance, the strategic cooperation between the United States and Israel, the new Orientalism, and the war that is now being waged against the Islamicate world–could have been foreseen, and indeed were foreseen, when the British first made a commitment to create a Jewish state in Palestine. An American writer on international affairs, Herbert Adams Gibbons, showed more acuity on the long-term fallout of Britain’s Zionist plans than the leading Western statesmen of the times. In January 1919, he wrote: “If the peace conference decides to restore the Jews to Palestine, immigration into and development of the country can be assured only by the presence of a considerable army for an indefinite period. Not only the half million Moslems living in Palestine, but the millions in surrounding countries, will have to be cowed into submission by the constant show and occasional use of force (italics added).” Even more prophetically, Anstruther MacKay, military governor of part of Palestine during World War I, wrote that the Zionist project would “arouse fierce Moslem hostility and fanaticism against the Western powers that permitted it. The effect of this hostility would be felt through the Middle East, and would cause trouble in Syria, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and India. To this might be ascribed by future historians the outbreak of a great war between the white and the brown races, a war into which America would without doubt be drawn (italics added).”  We are now living in the future predicted by Gibbons and MacKay. The Islamicate resistance has been slow in developing but now its has spread in one form or another beyond Syria, Mesopotamia, Egypt and India to the farthest corners of the Islamic world–and even into the Islamic diaspora in the West.
The challenge of scholarship is to define, locate, contextualize and debunk the New Orientalism. We constantly need to remind the world, especially the Western world, so mesmerized by the images flashing on the TV screens, that there is a long history of Western depredations–wars, colonization, slavery, exterminations, expropriations, treachery and hypocrisy–behind the images that disturb their hopes of peace founded on grave injustices.
History is the ally of tormented peoples; they can tell it as it was. It is the tormentors who deny their history; they have to make it up to deny the torments they have inflicted. They must speak constantly, unremittingly of the need to put down insurgencies, terrorist attacks, threats to world peace, and violence against the civilized order. We too must constantly revisit the history of Western depredations over the past four centuries to connect the world’s present miseries to this infamous history. Only a deepening consciousness of this history, constantly renewed, carries hope that the powers that use stealth to manufacture terror can be stopped.
M. SHAHID ALAM teaches economics at a university in Boston. He is author of Is There An Islamic Problem (The Other Press: 2004). He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© M. SHAHID ALAM
1.Herbert Adams Gibbons, “Zionism and the world peace,” in: Richard P. Stevens, ed., Zionism and Palestine before the Mandate: A phase of Western imperialism (Beirut: The Institute of Palestine Studies, 1972): 63, reprinted from: Century 97, 3 (January 1919).
2.Richard P. Stevens, ed., Zionism and Palestine before the Mandate: 47-48, reprinted from: Anstruther MacKay, “Zionist aspirations in Palestine,” Atlantic 216 (July 1920): 123-25.