There’s been exponential growth in interest in Islam after the Sept. 11 tragedies. Academics, think tanks and publishers have rushed to fill bookstore shelves with their studies, each purporting to present the “truth” about the religion. It’s a response to a sudden, desperate need to educate ourselves about a people we’ve hitherto had little interest in, a desire to actually know something about those we see as attacking us. Sadly, though, the books themselves bear witness to other agendas. The images of Islam they produce are by turns overly simplistic or arcane.
Further, because we tend to treat information as neutral fact, we forget that representations of Islam these days are highly politicized. The images of Islam and the Arab world that our culture and our media produce give license to moral decisions. So far, they’ve tended to select and repeat those accounts that support our interests.
Books like these are thus repositories of the kinds of stock images and arguments that have been and will be offered up as we struggle with questions concerning the justice of retribution, political violence, and war. None of them give anything close to the neutral “truth” we’d like to imagine our moral decisions are based on. In the end, such books tell us more about ourselves–and the stories we’re telling ourselves–than they do about Islam.
Three recent volumes–Robert Spencer’s Islam Unveiled: Disturbing Questions about the World’s Fastest-Growing Faith, John L. Esposito’s What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam, and Lawrence Rosen’s The Culture of Islamdemonstrate both the range of voices and the problems found in such books.
Robert Spencer’s Islam Unveiled claims to be a brave, truth-telling analysis of Islam, exploring such hot-button questions as “Is Islam a Religion of Peace?” “Is Islam Compatible with Liberal Democracy?” and “Does Islam Respect Women?” The “hard truth” that Spencer punches out is that, contrary to public apologetics, Islam is not a religion of peace, does not promote sound moral values, debases women, and is incompatible with both democratic pluralism and science. In short, Spencer confirms every fear you’ve ever had about Islam and then some.
But Spencer’s study is not the critical, experienced account it claims to be. It’s intellectually dishonest, basing its representation of Islam on its worst examples while carefully shielding both Christianity and the West from comparable critique.
For instance, people have tried to resolve the question of Islam’s position on violence through the quotation of scripture. Spencer properly admits that both the Quran and the Bible are of several voices with respect to violence and even quotes some of the bloodier portions of the Psalms.
Then he states that “no modern Jew or Christian reads the stories and celebrations of Hebrew warriors as a guide for behavior in the present.” It’s a broad and frankly false statement, which shortly segues into an even bigger howler, that “Christians have developed highly refined methods of allegorical interpretation” in contrast to the literalism with which Islam regards the Quran–as if there were no comparable tradition of the inerrancy of scripture in Christianity.
The pieces of the puzzle become clearer once you dig a little into Spencer’s background. Type in a few keywords on the Internet, check out his publisher and current employers, and you find that the Free Congress Foundation, a Washington think-tank where Spencer’s an adjunct fellow, is mainly focused (in its own words) on “the Culture War,” in which “traditional, Judeo-Christian Western culture” fights “the cultural and moral decay of political correctness.” Encounter Books, his publisher, champions books that “have difficulty finding mainstream publication”–including fawning biographies of Clarence Thomas, anti-affirmative action advocate Ward Connely’s work or Paris Review editor Norman Podheretz’s nasty tell-all about New York Liberal Intellectuals. The Christian-Islamic Foundation, of which he is a board member, is a Catholic missionary organization.
At this point the hidden dynamic of Spencer’s project comes clear. While appearing to tell all about Islam, Spencer carefully projects onto Islam the face of religious intolerance and ignorance that secular America has, more recently, reserved for the Religious Right. In his reconstruction, Christianity long ago made its peace with liberal democracy and individualism, whereas Islam remains mired in religious superstition and violent sectarianism. Of course, Spencer’s presentation of Christianity is problematic; it obscures the Religious Right’s discomfort with secular pluralism. Far from “unveiling” Islam, Spencer actively tars it almost beyond recognition, painting it as the culture of religious intolerance, while affecting common cause with “we” modern Americans.
What vanishes under Spencer’s brush is Islam’s complexity. For instance, when he discusses Islam’s position on human rights or morality, he focuses on the historical treatment of women and slaves, and discounts the progressive dimensions of Muhammad’s social ideal.
The problem is no culture had progressive positions on women’s rights until the last century. And while there is a wide gap between the ideal of Muhammad’s egalitarian, decentralized, communitarian social vision and its realization, the same could be said with respect to many ideals–“love thy neighbor” and “justice for all” to name a few.
But Spencer isn’t really interested in that kind of nuanced truth anyway. He wants his readers scared of Islam so that we tolerate political violence against the threat it supposedly presents.
I wish I could say that John Esposito’s What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam offered a depiction of Islam that was truer. Unfortunately, Esposito’s book errs in the opposite direction, painting the kind of staid, politically correct image of Islam Spencer abhors. Esposito, a professor at Georgetown University and a legitimately acknowledged expert on the religion, ultimately offers us something akin to “Islam Lite.”
It’s not that Esposito denies issues of concern to a Western audience: In each chapter he boldfaces the key questions of culture, violence and relations with other religions and peoples that arise with respect to Islam.
Rather, the problem is that Esposito’s answers read like a bad textbook. He dryly reels off information, as if good facts alone could resolve the tensions between a religious and secular world-view. Indeed, the first third of the book is a textbook presentation of Islam akin to any one might find in a world religions class. Yes, Muslims believe in angels; yes, there is a difference between Sunni and Shi’a Islam.
This voice carries over to the later portions of the book where Esposito faces the question of jihad–religious struggle–as just another topic alongside others like why Muslims wear caps or how Muslims feel about petting animals. The effect is to subtly undermine the significance of our concerns about Islam and to mask any real moral difficulty we might have with a particular expression of the religious tradition.
In part, Esposito makes the mistake many do in this information-obsessed culture. He hopes that information alone is an antidote to terror and injustice.
But there is no such thing as “mere information.” Rather, form influences content: When information is simply presented as if it simply stood in some naked or indexable way, its meaning and force end up precisely naked–unrelated, out of context and abject.
Thus, when Esposito answers “Is Islam intolerant of other religions?” he ends with this:
“In many ways Islam today is at a crossroads as Muslims, mainstream and extremist, conservative and progressive, struggle to balance the affirmation of the truth of their faith with the cultivation of a pluralism and tolerance rooted in mutual respect and understanding.”
Well, thank God. Still, it’s not really an answer.
It’s also applicable to almost any community on the planet.
This kind of representation is only a short step away from the covert hate-speech of Spencer’s text. There is, of course, the positive inclusion of many facts Spencer chooses to ignore–diversity in Islam, and the historical conditions that produced its modern forms–but the assumption that Islam can be understood in these terms alone constitutes a different kind of cultural imperialism.
Indeed, both Spencer and Esposito represent Islam as an “other,” though they do this in different ways. Spencer paints Islam as the “other” of post-Enlightenment modernity–anti-democratic, barbaric, intolerant, violent. Esposito’s more academic approach has a different effect, making Islam into an object like any other that patiently awaits display (and consumption).
As is always the case, the “others” we produce make it possible for us to ignore conflicts and practices in our own society–generally so we can have our cake and eat it too. Spencer hides the very real tension between a Christian world-view and that of the modern pluralistic democratic state, hoping to be able to have his belief and access to state power. Esposito, on the other hand, essentially ignores the very real conflicts that exist between peoples, turning them into lists of features that, properly described, become manageable. Unfortunately, moral questions like who gets to eat or to prosper are not ones that can be managed by merely making lists.
In a larger sense, it may be the case that any nation or people defines itself in part by demonizing an “other.” Indeed, in Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West, Susan Buck-Morss argues that such demonization legitimates unilateral, lawless violence that otherwise would not be condoned. Her account focuses on the ways U.S. capital interests have, since the 1950s, legitimated the lawless violence of the free market–which otherwise would be reckoned as immoral, anti-community, and anti-family–through the specter of Communist terror.
By now there’s no question that we have found in Islam a viable “other” to replace the Soviet Union in this dance. Our leadership has explicitly redefined the profile of America against the specter of Islamic terrorism. We expressly legitimate lawless, unilateral violence–the detention of 70-year-old “combatants” in a war-that’s-not-a-war-that’s-a-war, the assassination and murder of “suspect” combatants–under the specter of this other.
Frankly, we’re not going to be close to understanding modern forms of Islam or the Arab world until we can be self-reflective about the violence–economic and inter-personal–that makes our own lives possible. This involves exploring the terms we use to construct ideas about the world.
This kind of complaint is the bread and butter of anthropologists who have, since the inception of the discipline, explored the theoretical problems of cross-cultural communication in part by actually spending time in the communities they write about.
Indeed, Lawrence Rosen, a professor of anthropology and law at Princeton University, begins his recent study, The Culture of Islam, by narrating an ordinary road trip taken with several Moroccan men to get legal advice. Rosen’s account of the trip explores the ways modern economic and social patterns have actually accelerated corruption in the Arab world, replacing older systems of reciprocity and inter-personal responsibility.
At last: This is the good stuff. We get an intimate view of the men, and Rosen is a friendly and insightful interpreter. Still, as is so often the case with anthropological studies, the focus of the text shortly shifts to anthropological theory itself, and a discussion of decades of academic discourse. From there on it’s a hard read for anyone whose life isn’t tied to the discipline.
This is too bad, since some of the problems we have understanding Islam and the Arab world are, in fact, linked to the ways we think about ourselves and others.
For instance, it is quite common to present the difference between Arab peoples and the West as one produced by a difference between tribal and modern modes of sociality. Rosen’s study suggests not only that the notion of tribe used in such discussions is flawed but also that the dichotomy is false and value-laden. They’re important ideas, but most people will not be able to follow Rosen through the twists and turns of 80 years of academic debate.
If they can’t they won’t get to the final pages of the book, where Rosen considers the case of Salman Rushdie, whose book The Satanic Verses (1988) triggered a storm in the Muslim world.
Rushdie’s case is often cited as an example of the authoritarian character of Islam. At the time, he was sentenced to death by Iranian clerics for blasphemy. Rosen’s analysis focuses on the ironies of this, arguing that this case actually demonstrates the ways the tradition itself adapts and changes. After all, the death sentence has lapsed mysteriously (at least to us), while the challenges Rushdie put to Islam continues to reverberate.
If you must read a book on Islam, don’t read Spencer’s. It’s hate literature, and will only feed the hate and fear within you. I could only read it in five-minute chunks before my blood pressure rose, making me too angry for a moment to see.
I wouldn’t read Esposito’s book either. It’s sort of like eating dry crackers: at best something to shove in your mouth, but not terribly nourishing.
While you might want to sift through Rosen’s book in a bookstore café for ideas, to really begin to understand Islam, however, you have to go beyond these books to the tradition itself.
Some places to start are an older biography of Muhammad, like Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources by Martin Lingus (Inner Traditions, 1987, 368pp., $19.95), and, ironically, the book chosen by UNC for its freshman seminar: Michael Sells’ Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations (White Cloud Press, 1999, 224 pp., $21.95). Written before the Sept. 11 attacks, this last is nevertheless is the first book I’ve ever read that has brought the poetry of the Quran alive. Perhaps that’s why UNC was so vehemently attacked for suggesting that students read it. Actually knowing something about Islam might make it harder to sustain the fiction that Muslims are an “other” we can only meet with violence.