Friday, February 18, 2011

Orientalism and Western Fear and Suspicion of Islam

Sensual book cover of "Oriental Stories"
In his book Orientalism, Edward Said claims that the Western definition and representation of the Orient is inherently flawed. Because of a lack of contact and interaction with the Orient and a predominantly ethnocentric view, Western scholars of the past shaped and molded information about the Orient that was not entirely accurate nor congruent with reality.

Mainly in the 18th and 19th century, the idea of a sensual and mysterious Orient took hold of many writers and poets. The Orient was seen as an enigmatic place, but compared to Western standards it was defined as weak and “uncivilized.” Marx claimed that the Orient could not stand on its own feet and needed to be represented by the West.

Over time, the exotic representations in literature fired the imagination of the Western people, and they grew interested in the region. However, they were not looking to learn about the Orient but rather seek in it a confirmation of their own hypotheses supplied by scholars and embedded in an aura of the sensuous tales of Thousand and One Nights.

The same occurred to Napoleon whose passion for the Orient led him to conquer Egypt. Napoleon had respect for the Orient, but he was mainly misled by faulty ideas implanted from his bookish studies. In fact, he did not see Egypt as it really was, but rather as it used to be in its heydays of learning. 

Since the two views were not compatible, he attempted to “help” Egypt return to its height of learning of the glorious past. He thought himself the new Alexander bringing higher standards of life and freedom to the “primitive” people who had presumably lost touch with their own history.

Nonetheless, he tried his best to conquer Egypt in a peaceful manner by projecting Western intellectual and economic superiority claiming that the natives could reach the same level if only they embraced Western culture. 

To that purpose, he also implemented institutes and research centers to both gather information about the Egyptians as well as to influence the minds of the native people there, while many scholars collaborated on a book about Egypt that had a strong influence on Western thinking and opinions about the Orient.

As The Doors sing, “The West is the Best,” so Western structure and strategies were seen as the superior model for liberty and progress. Not unlike today's political climate and ideology, it was meant for the “good” of the native people, while their own opinions seemed to be irrelevant in the matter.

One of the problems of Orientalism, according to Said, is that these ideas about the Orient propagated themselves and have become an integrated part of how the Western world views the East. Despite technology and travel, these ideas are persistent and even immune to change. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the case of Islam.

In the history of religion, there have been various crusades against the Muslims. The Muslims conquered vast areas of Europe, and the Church feared such conquests as their own influence in the region was evaporating. However, there seemed to be little conflict with other religious groups, such as the Hindus or the Buddhists.

Part of an explanation might be that those Eastern religions were not as aggressive as Islam. Islam may have had a more aggressive agenda only to be paralleled by Christianity; both tried to expand through either missionary methods or full-out belligerent conquests. But there might have been another reason at play.

What strikes me as most interesting is that at heart both traditions are very close and have, by and large, the same origins and sources. This might have been a reason for the conflicts. By being very close in ideology, the Western world began to fear Islam. The ideology of Hindus of many gods, or Buddhists of no god at all, posed no problem because they were too removed from the belief system of the Western people.

Islam, on the other hand, had many characteristics in common. It would take less steps and adjustments for a Christian to embrace the Islamic faith, and vice versa. Because of this reason, the Western world preferred to ignore the similarities and accentuate the differences. In the past, both scholars and religious officials in the West claimed that Muslims disregarded the teachings of Jesus and had their own equivalent Savior in Mohammed.

This was simply not true. Islam, in fact, regards Jesus as a prophet. They do not see eye to eye with Christianity that Jesus is the son of God, which is to Muslim sensibilities an act of blasphemy since God cannot have or rather beget children in their view. Yet that Jesus is holy and his teachings exemplary is fully accepted by the Muslim faith.

Mohammed was considered the last prophet. He was holy in the sense that he was chosen by God and that he brought the holy book called Koran to the Muslim people. But he was in no way considered God or a deity to be worshiped. He was a prophet, nothing more, nothing less. He may have been higher on the scale of prophets because of what he brought to the Muslim people, but that did not change the fact that he was an instrument or mouthpiece of God.

Hence, the Western misinterpretation of Islam had its desired effects and consequences. People grew suspicious of Islam and feared it. They saw it as an exotic and alien belief system that endangered the Christian faith. Christians needed to be alert so that they were not engulfed by this “perfidious” and “treacherous” religion. In such an atmosphere no real dialogue could take place between the two religions.


John Myste said...

Bill Maher over-simplifies the issue by asking why their guys in funny hats want to kill our guys in funny hats when our actual beliefs are not that different.

You make a very good point in that religions with similar interests seem more likely conflict than those with different interests.

Another way to express it could be that religions with competing interests conflict with their competitors, which is basically what you implied. In the case of Christianity and Islam or Judaism and Islam, the Holy Land is another consideration, and an area of competition. Shiva and Buddha don’t need the Holy Land, but Jesus, Allah and Adonai do. Whose God gets to live there? If Christians would butt out of the Middle East and allow Israel to be eradicated, I think much of the modern conflict would subside. Neither Muslims nor Christians have denied the rights of the other to exist. They have simply denied the rights of the other to interfere (or proclaimed their rights to do just that, depending on which side you are on).

You will probably never speak to me again when I tell you this, but I sympathize with Israel’s situation, if not always their actions. Any land they give up, even land recently acquired, could lead to their annihilation, as those around them have repeatedly demonstrated the desire to annihilate them and they are very small. There is a real conflict over the Holy Land and who ultimately has rights to it. If the United States, which often claims the flag of Christianity, as if the Vatican did not exist, continues to support Israel, they are bringing Christianity into conflict with Islam. It is easy to mistake the political problems nations who call themselves Christians face with Christianity itself. Same for Muslim nations. Most of the modern conflict is not of one religion against another, but rather of one religious nation against another religious nation. The religions do not hate or fear one another so much as religious people hate or fear other religious people.

Arashmania said...

Well, John, I would still speak to you even if you were the Anti-Christ...

Politics has been one of the byproducts of religion, and in many cases the two are inseparable. The conflicts in the Middle East are for the most part political though.

When it comes to the case of Israel, it gets even more complicated as being Jewish
not only implies a religious statement, but it also refers to nationality, ideology, culture and politics.

From a religious point of view, you may be right. It is a fight for survival in the region. In fact, because of the implications of the Holy Land, many Christians are implicated as well. In political terms, however, some of the actions and decisions are questionable.

There has to be real dialogue and compromise on all sides to bring about lasting peace over there, and the whole situation needs to be dealt with delicately. In fact, if the Judeo-Christian triad finally sees eye to eye, accepts and looks past their differences, the world would be a much safer place.

Francis Hunt said...

I'm currently reading Constantine's Sword by James Carroll. In it, he uses the image of rival siblings and applies it to Judaism and Christianity. The same image can be extended without difficulty to include the third Abrahamic religion as well.

As John already commented, their very similarity and common roots have much to do with the conflict between them.

Jimmy Clay said...

I do have a slightly different thought on this. I think people like it when other people are like them, and dislike it when other people are not like them. So it's not so much that different religions are competing against each other in an economic sense. The dislike between religions is more comparable to racism. It is the "you are different so I will not like you" syndrome.

In India the Hindus and Muslims don't necessarily like each other any more than Christians and Muslims. So I'm not so sure how important the closeness of two religions really is.

jedilost said...

I agree with Jimmy Clay. The closeness of the religion doesn't really matter. It is actually a matter of conflict of interests, no matter what you believe in.