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The Utility of Islamic Imagery in the West

Dr Y. Progler
New York (USA)

The long history of encounters between Western civilization and Islam has produced a tradition of portraying, in largely negative and self-serving ways, the Islamic religion and Muslim cultures. There is a lot of literature cataloguing (and sometimes correcting) these stereotypes. It is not my intention to rehash this corpus here, though I do rely upon some of the more important works. What I want to do instead is focus on a particular dimension of these encounters, and examine why the West has consistently constructed and perpetuated negative images of Islam and Muslims. My focus will be on the utility of Islamic imagery in Western civilization.
Most people seem to be familiar with stereotypes and negative imagery of Arabs and Muslims-indeed, some are so firmly entrenched that the consumers of these images are unable to distinguish them from reality. At the same time, many people have an idea how these images come about (books, television, speeches). But by looking at the cultural history of Islamic-Western encounters from the perspective of utility, I am able to locate the correlations between imagery and political economy.
Western image-makers, including religious authorities, political establishments, and corporate-media conglomerates, conceptualize for their consumers images of Muslims and/or Arabs in sometimes amusing and other tunes cruel or tragic ways. Upon closer examination, these images seem to serve essential purposes throughout the history of Western civilization. At times these purposes are benign, at others quite sinister.
Often, there are tragic consequences for Muslims resulting from the socio-political climate fostered by images. Focusing on the dimension of utility can help to reveal some ties between imagery and action. At the same time, I am aware that focusing solely on imagery misses the important dimensions of intention and power. Though I reserve a careful look at these dimensions for another study, I do recognize the need to consider here some of those people who have the power to provide public conceptualizations of Muslims, such as religious figures, academics, policy pundits, journalists, and entertainment conglomerates.
Drawing upon the historical and cultural catalogue of assumptions and perceptions about Islam, these experts and spokespeople pick and choose the appropriate images to serve their purposes. Many times, they are seemingly unaware of using an image, which is indicative of how deeply entrenched they have become. The stories of those with the power to present need to be told, but they are beyond the scope of this article. Similarly, fruitful research may also reveal the degree to which Muslims contribute to their own images.
That, too, I will reserve for another study. The purpose here, then, is to suggest some of the broader utilitarian dimensions of Islamic imagery in the West. A recurring theme in the present study is the idea of packaging the complexities of Islam and Muslim cultures into easily comprehensible categories-good and bad, beautiful and dangerous, desirable and repulsive-and I look at these in terms of their utility in Western cultural history and political economy. Academic culture is an important site to reveal the utility of imagery, since these are the studies that inform policy makers and politicians; this is also where Western ideas are introduced into native cultures. But it is also necessary to focus on popular culture, especially news and entertainment, because this is where many people in the West get their impressions of Islam and Muslims.

The 'Other' in Western Colonial Discourse:
Images of the Other are prevalent in Western civilization, and have become firmly ensconced in the discourse of colonization and conquest, whoever the victims may be. Some images are rooted in Greek notions of barbarians, others born of the Middle Ages. They have been carried through the Reconquista and Inquisition, picked up during the age of colonial expansion, developed by Orientalists in the 19th and early 20th century, and continue on into the age of mass media and globalized political economy. But images don't exist in a vacuum. They have uses. For example, in their invasion and colonization of the Americas Europeans brought with them-in addition to muskets and cannons-a great deal of cultural baggage, including rigid and preconceived notions of the Other.
These images, intertwined with religious and political conflicts, all found their way into the new world, and eventually entangled Native peoples In fact, historians have shown that American legal traditions regarding Native peoples are based on legal traditions of the Holy Roman Empire which were born of the Crusades against Muslims [1].
For that reason, it will be instructive to spend some time looking at images of Native Americans in the West The American scholar Berkhofer carefully analyzes the rationale for images of the "Indian " Particularly striking is his observation that there is a dual image, of "good" or "noble" Indians and "bad" or "ignoble" Indians, and how this developed from pre-conception to image to fact He nicely summarizes the elements of the image: [2] generalizing from one tribe's society and culture to all Indians conceiving of Indians in terms of their deficiencies according to White ideals rather than in terms of their own various cultures using moral evaluation as description of Indians Berkhofer suggests that "since Whites primarily understood the Indian as an antithesis to themselves, then civilization and Indianness as they defined them would forever be opposites " [3]
He believes that while some researchers have uncovered one or another element of the Indian image, most have failed to put it all together. Images of Indians are usually treated by scholars in two ways Some have studied "what changed, what persisted, and why," while others studied "what images were held by whom, when, where, and why '[4] Some scholars see them "as a reflection of White cultures and as the primary explanation of White behaviour vis-a-vis Native Americans", while others see them "to be dependent upon the political and economic relationships prevailing in White societies at various times "[5]
While each approach is useful in its own way, I agree with Berkhofer's suggestion that any comprehensive understanding of Western images has to consider both aspects, asking not only what the images were and how they continue, but also who holds them and why He combines the two approaches into a useful and broadly applicable methodology for analyzing images and their utility Berkhofer's methodology helps us to ask questions like who benefits from these images, and how are they manipulated and perpetuated? I want to look at European images of Muslims in this framework, and consider in particular the way images change to suit particular historical circumstances

Framing the Ubiquitous Orient
A growing body of critical literature examines the formation, utilization and perpetuation of images in the context of European conceptualization and colonization of the Muslim [6].Critics generally agree that Orientalist pursuits of knowledge are inextricably tied to colonial and imperial power, and that the West's self-image has been cultivated in a binary relationship with Islamic culture The literature in this area is quite detailed, and there is no need to repeat all of it here What I want to do is first look briefly at some of the factors in the development and maintenance of this binary vision from the Crusades through the modern period, and then apply the same method to more recent examples
According to Norman Daniel, "luxury" and "bellicosity" formed a dual image of Islam in Medieval Western Europe This nexus is intertwined with a second ignorance and malice In considering how the dual image of Islam persists, Daniel suggests that in some cases the reason is ignorance and in others it is malice Ignorance and malice can work together, as in, for example, when a malicious campaign directed by state power toward a scapegoat is explained by using images that rely on the general ignorance of the state's subjects and constituents This is an important factor in the maintenance of imagery, especially in democratic societies, and I will return to it later.
Edward Said was one of the first to make explicit connections between Western colonization and images of the Muslim world Said shows how the discourse of Orientalism gave itself legitimacy, revealing that what Orientalists were really talking about was creating the levers of power Said's general premise is that knowledge is inextricably tied to power, and that pure scholarship does not exist Drawing upon textual criticism from selected British and French Orientalists of the 19th and 20th centuries, he summarizes the "principle dogmas" of Orientalism one is the absolute and systematic difference between the West, which is rational, developed, humane, superior, and the Orient, which is aberrant, undeveloped, inferior Another dogma is that abstractions about the Orient, particularly those based on texts representing a "classical" Oriental civilization, are always preferable to direct evidence drawn from modern Oriental realities
A third dogma is that the Orient is eternal, vmiform, and incapable of defining itself; therefore it is assumed that a highly generalized and systematic vocabulary for describing the Orient from a Western standpoint is inevitable, and even scientifically "objective". A fourth dogma is that the Orient is at bottom something either to be feared (the Yellow Peril, the Mongol hordes, the brown dominions) or to be controlled (by pacification, research and development, outright occupation whenever possible) [7]
After noting that these dogmas "persist without significant challenge in the academic and governmental study of the modern Near Orient," Said argues that "the Orient" is itself a constituted entity, and that the notion that there are "geographical spaces with indigenous, radically different inhabitants who can be defined on the basis of some religion, culture, or racial essence proper to that geographical space is equally a highly debatable idea." [8]
While there are numerous institutions in the West engaging in the study of the Orient, there are few if any in the Orient, and those are invariably run by Westerners (for example, the American Universities of Beirut and Cairo, or the Robert College in Turkey), and consequently, little if any study of the West is done by Orientals. Building upon the foundation of classical Orientalism, a new breed of Orientalist emerged out of Cold War concerns. Characterized by a fusion of classic Orientalism with post-World War II social science, the new discourse was put at the service of foreign policy makers who emphasized prediction and control.
However, with all the new techniques, as Said shows, most have not escaped the 4 dogmas of what we might call the orthodox discourse. Neo-Orientalists replace philology with a more anomalous expertise, which, like philology, is still based on language skills, but is more oriented toward strategic and business interests. This new Orientalism is practiced with an almost mystical authority by experts and Area Studies specialists who have mastered the necessary languages.
The usual rationale for continuing Orientalism is that "we" can get to know another people, their way of life, thought, etc. To this end, the new Orientals (many trained at the feet of the orthodox masters) are sometimes allowed to speak for themselves, but only to a limited degree. The Oriental becomes useful as a direct source of information, but the Orientalist still remains the source of all knowledge.
As a way to avoid reconfiguring Orientalist discourse in new contexts, and to diffuse pre-existing truths, Said recommends some questions to keep in mind when approaching the Other: [9] How does one represent other cultures? What is another culture? Is the notion of a distinct culture (or race, or religion, or civilization) a useful one, or does it always get involved either in self-congratulation (when one discusses one's own) or hostility and aggression (when one discusses the "other") ?
Do cultural, religious, and racial differences matter more than socio-economic categories, or politico-historical ones? How do ideas acquire authority, "normality," and even the status of "natural" truth? What is the role of the intellectual? Is he there to validate the culture and state of which he is a part? What importance must he give to an independent critical consciousness, an oppositional critical consciousness? Said concludes with a warning to guard against accepting handed down notions of the other, and incorporating them into one's work without first subjecting them to critical analysis.
Thierry Hentsch incorporates and complicates most earlier studies of Orientalism. [10] He believes that Western images of the Muslim world are projections of Western insecurities about Self onto the Other, and that as long as the Other is a mirror for the Self, there will always be conflict. I think this is becoming evident in the recent usage of images of Muslims and -Islam, built upon not only centuries of images but in particular upon very carefully constructed images of Arabs from the 1960s and 1970s. I will return to this in due time.
To Hentsch, Western images of a sensual yet violent Orient are self-telling myths. Like Bernal, [11] Hentsch believes that racist myths of Western supremacy were fabricated in the 17th and 18th centuries and projected backward to explain contemporary realities. As Said pointed out, collating these myths became the job of the Orientalists. But Hentsch's sweep is far wider and more inclusive than Said. He considers pre-Orientalist cultural factors, and brings his treatment right up to the 1990-91 Persian Gulf Oil War. Hentsch believes that the West's myth of the Orient will continue to serve its explanatory functions right on into the next century.
Hentsch's essential hypothesis is that the area we call the Middle East (which he defines as the nations from Morocco to Iran; Said's Orient) has been a self-reflecting mirror for Western civilization, in which the West defines itself by constructing an Other who is everything the West is not. Hentsch's thesis is that the "Orient" is an zimmense repository of our own imagined world" and that "we reveal ourselves through our way of seeing." [12] His "capital supposition" is that "any study of the Other is futile unless we first observe ourselves face to face with it, and in particular, unless we attempt to understand how, and why, we have studied and represented this self-same Other down to the present day." [13]
Speaking on ethnocentrism, Hentsch asserts that it "is not a flaw to be simply set aside, nor is it a sin to be expunged through repentance. It is the precondition of our vision of the Other. Far from offering us absolution, this precondition compels us constantly to return to our point of departure, if only to grasp the internal and external imperatives which shape our curiosity about the Other." [14] I want to continue with Hentsch's analysis, and look in particular at the genesis and continuation of images as they relate to the emerging European colonizing enterprise.

Races Debased and Unities Sundered:
In November of 1095, Pope Urban II initiated the first European attempt at colonizing the Muslim world-known in the West as the Crusades-by drawing this fateful picture: For you must hasten to carry aid to your brethren dwelling in the East, who need your help, which they have often asked For the Turks, a Persian people, have attacked them I exhort you with earnest prayer- not I, but God-that, as heralds of Christ, you urge men by frequent exhortation, men of all ranks, knights as well as foot soldiers, rich as well as poor, to hasten to exterminate this vile race from the lands of your brethren Christ commands it
And if those who set out thither should lose their lives on the way by land, or in crossing the sea, or in fighting the pagans, their sins shall be remitted Oh what a disgrace, if a race so despised, base, and the instrument of demons, should so overcome a people endowed with faith in the all-powerful God, and resplendent with the name of Christ Let those who have been accustomed to make private war against the faithful carry on to a successful issue a war against the infidels Let those who for a long time have been robbers now become soldiers of Christ Let those who fought against brothers and relatives now fight against these barbarians let them zealously undertake the journey under the guidance of the Lord. [15]
The Pope's words lay out many of the themes that would characterize this mass colonial movement East for the next two centuries In one reading of the Crusading venture, restless knights and small-tune princes are enticed by their lords with tales of land and wealth, in the hopes of turning their swords away from the increasingly nervous feudal establishment, or what the Pope calls the faithful brethren Landless folks and the poor-euphemized by the Pope as criminals-can also be turned Eastward with enticements of land and Divine forgiveness But what is most interesting here is that the Pope conceptualizes his Oriental Other in racial terms
The enemy, for now, is the debased races of Turks and Persians, and Islam is not yet a part of the Western conceptual matrix. There is also an overlap here with Christian treatment of Jews as the "instruments of demons", one of the key tenets of anti-Semitic white supremacy In Christian Europe, Jews and Muslims suffered the wrath of an increasingly rabid and intolerant resurgent Christianity, culminating in the expulsion of both from Muslim Spain in the 15th century, at the dawn of the expansionist age while this is not the place to trace this legacy in detail, this is also the period in which the religion of rationalism replaced Christianity, with the images of the other traveling full circle from Pope Urban's 11th century "debased races" to the Age of Enlightenment, with its biological explanation for colonization and genocide
As Hentsch shows, [16] the uses of Islam continued to change according to European internal and external political and economic situations In the 16th century, when Ottoman Empire was consolidating its control over Mediterranean trade routes, the resulting "rift" was projected back to the first centuries of Islam, making a contemporary economic problem seem to be the result of "age-old" conflict Any rift in the Mediterranean was there long before Muslims came on the scene There was never any trans-Mediterranean unity The Catholic Church, which inherited the decaying Roman Empire, soon split into its Eastern and Western branches Conventional history, such as is found in World Civilization textbooks, overlooks this and continues to frame Muslims for sundering the imaginary unity of European civilization
Religious imagery had its uses as well Christian disunity, which began long before Muslims came on the scene, was blamed on Muslim hordes that exploded from Arabia, forever sundering the unity of the Church When the Ottomans were at the peak of their power in the 17th century, European princes viewed them as a respected and powerful rival However, with the waning of Ottoman power, the Muslim world was seen as a place of exotic trials and espionage This newly exoticized Orient began to be loved for its objects, while its people were despised or belittled
By the 19th century, race-based explanations for colonization had fully re-emerged As Hentsch suggests, [17] some Muslims were considered by Europeans to be civilized according to their criteria, but this was explained by the presence of Aryan blood in some Muslim races In fact, as French travelers saw it, the problem with Persians was that, despite their pure Aryan roots, their blood was tainted because of mixing with lesser, darker skinned breeds Before continuing this trend into the modern period, I want to go back over this terrain and look at Christian and European obsessions and insecurities with sex and violence, and the ways they provided particularly fertile ground for images of Muslims.

Medieval Phantasms of Sex and Violence
And, if you desire to know what was done about the enemy whom we found there, know that in the portico of Solomon and his Temple, our men rode in the blood of the Saracens up to the knees of the horses (Daimbert, Official Summary of the 1st Crusade) [18]
Those amongst the Saracens are considered most religious who can make the most women pregnant they lie with their concubines and wives often in times of fast, because they suppose making love and desire are so meritorious, either to satisfy lust or to generate many sons to strengthen the defense of their religion. (Bishop Jacques de Vitry on the 5th Crusade) [19]
Count Roland gripped his sword dripping with gore he strikes his valiant blows, shivering shafts of spears and bucklers, too, cleaving through feet and fists, saddles and sides To see him hack the limbs from Saracens, pile them upon the earth, corpse upon corpse, would call to mind a very valiant knight. (Verse from the Song of Roland, 12th century minstrelsy) [20]
Nor did Mahomet teach anything of great austerity. . . indeed, he even allowed many pleasurable things, to do with a multitude of women, abuse of them, and suchlike. . . many Christians change and will change to the Saracen religion. (Dominican Friar Humbert of Lyons, c. 1300) [21] These quotes are instructive in their presentation of Western Christian foundational attitudes toward Islam. In Medieval Europe, the Popes began to use Islam as a proxy to convince backsliding Christians to return to the fold and to convince themselves that Christians were chaste, denouncing Islam as a sexually liberal and even licentious religion.
Once the Europeans gained a foothold in West Asia, one of the areas of greatest concern was miscegenation. In the Crusader mind, even sex with one's own wife was a carnal sin; sex with an infidel woman was punished by "castration for the Crusader and facial mutilation for the woman." Muslim women were "viewed as defiled and wanton whores and seductresses." To Christians, Muslim ease with sexuality was seen as "offensively non-ascetic behavior." [22]
In fact, it seems that Medieval Christians could do nothing but condemn the Muslim appreciation of sexuality, and . . . therefore they attacked "Islam" as a religion that had been directly set up to encourage promiscuity and lust. . . Biographies of Mohammed by Christians describe the Prophet's sex life in a manner that reveals far more about their own sexual problems than about the facts of the Prophet's life.
The Koran was said, quite incorrectly, to condone homosexuality and to encourage unnatural forms of intercourse. One scholar claimed that the foulness of lust among Muslims was inexpressible; they were deep in this filth from the soles of their feet to the crown of the head. Soon the Church would accuse any out-group in Christendom of excessive and unnatural sexual practices and twelfth century Christians stigmatized "heresy" of Islam by cursing what they considered its sexual laxity. [23]
To really grasp the utility of this imagery, we need to look at sexuality in European history. In his discussion of human sexuality, Foucault describes Arab-Muslim societies as among those "which have endowed themselves with an ars erotica" in which "truth is drawn from pleasure itself, understood as a practice and accumulated as experience." [24]
Western civilization, on the other hand, possesses a scientia sexualis, the "procedures for telling the truth of sex which are geared to a form of knowledge-power strictly opposed to the art of initiations and the masterful secret." In the West, the confession is "one of the main rituals we rely on for the production of truth" and "Western man has become a confessing animal." [25] What needs confessing is the sin of enjoyment. European discomfort with sexuality in Medieval times gradually gives way to a new outlook, still rooted, as Foucault stresses, in the old insecurities, but now at least with an outward expression of enjoyment.
By the twentieth century, the alterity of sexuality has now been reversed, suggests Karen Armstrong, with the post-Christian West seeing itself as sexually liberated vis-a-vis a sexually repressed Islam: At a time when many people in the West are liberating themselves from the sexual repressions of their Christian past, Islam is constantly denigrated as a sexually repressive religion. We have completely reversed the old stereotype and not many people seem interested in the truth of the matter or wish to find out about Islam itself. They simply want to bolster their own needs against their long established counter-image: Islam [26] Sex and violence continue to be juxtaposed in disturbing ways in American culture.
For example, American pilots watched porno movies while preparing to carpet bomb Baghdad in the 1991 Persian Gulf Oil war, and they scribbled sexually explicit graffiti on the bombs, labeling them as "Mrs. Saddam's sex toy" or "a suppository for Saddam." [27] George Bush purposefully mispronounced "Saddam" (which in Arabic has a heavy accent on the last syllable) so that it sounded more like Sodom, evoking the Biblical city of wanton sexual depravity, and thus sodomy. A wartime propaganda book produced by an American public relations firm hired by the Kuwaitis was entitled The Rape of Kuwait, adding another facet to the highly sexualized justification for what amounts to a firebomb lynch-party of Iraqis reminiscent of the same charge leveled at African Americans to justify racist brutality. I'll come back to some of these themes in a moment, but I first want to consider further some unique elements of the American conceptualization of the Muslim other.
Orientalizing the American Way:
Most of the literature on Orientalist pursuits focuses on European forms of Orientalism. Comparatively little has been written about the peculiarities of American Orientalism. The latter is worth careful attention, since the United States seems obsessed with becoming the leader in a unipolar world, and some official policy circles list Islam as a "new" but qualified threat to that supposed inevitability. 17th through 19th century American writings illustrates how Europeans who invaded North America believed that they were God's chosen people, that the land they were colonizing was the promised land, and that Native people's were God-less heathen who were to be driven from their homes and burned. [28]
Sha'ban points out that religiously driven settlers, Puritans in particular, imagined parallels between themselves and the wandering tribes of Israel. These early roots were bolstered by an emerging and increasingly strong, literal, and exclusive sense of a relationship with their God, who had ordained pre-United States settlers to be "a light in the West" that would shine over the rest of the world. This expansionary, violent, and millennial sense of a divine mission became known as "manifest destiny." [29]
In practice, manifest destiny initially meant bringing the "light" of American style Protestant Christianity to the rest of the world. Americans saw themselves as being placed in the "center of the world" by Providence in order to carry out a Divine mission, as a writer in the American Theological Review put it in 1859: Indeed, radii drawn from our eastern, western, and southern shores, reach almost all Pagan, Mohammedan, and Papal lands, or rather most of them can be reached by nearly direct water communication. [30]
The American missionary enterprise-the vanguard of manifest destiny- required information on "barbarians," "heathens," "savages," and "pagans," and especially "Mohammedans," "Turks," and "Saracens." Beginning in the early 19th century, particularly when manifest destiny turned cast as well as west, American writers took a strong interest in Islam and the Prophet. In various treatises, they dwell on the Prophet (upon whom be peace) as an impostor and portray Islam as a deviant Christian heresy.
Some of the very few instances where this does not apply tend to romanticize the Prophet as a hero, but these views also had at bottom the intention to defeat Islam and convert Muslims to Christianity. An equally important goal of 19th century religious writings on Islam, as Sha'ban notes, was to describe the alleged depravity of Islam in order to assert the imagined purity of Christianity, a tendency inherited from Medieval European Christianity. Commercial, diplomatic, and military contacts with Mediterranean Muslim lands, coupled with evangelical revivalism in the late 18th and early 19th century, led to a "shift of the American myth of God's Israel from the New World to the Holy Land." [31]
But the imaginary world of Biblical Zion constructed in the parlors and parishes of the United States soon had to be reconciled with the realities on the ground in Palestine. Unfortunately, this reconciliation did not entail rethinking the vision of Zion-it meant imposing that vision on Muslims and non-Protestant Christians who happened to be in the way of the American sense of Providence. Americans were also motivated in their dealings with Islam and Muslims by a complex amalgam of Oriental fairy tales. Making use of a body of literature largely ignored by other critics of Orientalism, Sha'ban takes a particular interest in Orientalism as found in popular American literature.
He notes that one of the most often printed books in the 19th century United States was a translation of the Arabian Nights. That collection of fables and fairy tales, often translated in the West subject to the sexual whims of the translator and marketed to titillate readers, was taken as an accurate portrayal of a timeless, exotic, and mystical East. Tales of harems, genies, and magic carpets found their way into most American homes and libraries. These stories often provided the criteria by which secular travelers to the East would judge their own experiences.
Sha'ban's detailed analysis of travel literature reveals that, time after time, American men traveling to the East were both aroused and repulsed by Muslim culture. One American traveler to Istanbul in 1858 was so mystified and aroused by a veiled Muslim woman that he offered $50 to buy her, but soon realized it was not possible since he "was no Mohammedan." [32] While often envying the Turks for their "harems," some travelers also looked for signs of distress so that they might heroically rescue "oppressed" women from the clutches of the Turkish "barbarians."
These expectations were founded upon what Sha'ban calls the "dream of Baghdad", and he aptly demonstrates that such dreams abound in early American Orientalism. This dream of Oriental splendour was picked up by Hollywood in its early years, with Rudolph Valentino epitomizing the Romantic lover in Arab garb. Similar Oriental fantasies permeated American entertainment all through the 20th century, ranging from cartoons like "Popeye meets Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves," to "The Adventures of Sindbad" and "Lawrence of Arabia," and right on up to the 1989 Disney Orientalist extravaganza "Aladdin.'

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