By Roy Oksnevad
The seminary where I was teaching invited a convert to Islam to speak to the student body. This person has an impressive resume including a Master’s Degree in Islamic Studies from the University of Jordan’s Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World, Amman, Jordan, and a place as a founding board member for the CAIR Chicago Chapter. Her duties at the local mosque include being on the planning and program committee, interfaith committee, and public relations and outreach. In addition, she is co-host of a weekly online radio show, Conscious Creed. Sadly, only a handful of students showed up for the lecture.
She began by asking us what we thought about Muslims. The few who attended had positive experiences with Muslims. Not getting the response she was looking for, she then asked what image of Islam is portrayed in the media. She elicited the answer she wanted from the audience—media gave a negative image, particularly if you watch Fox News. Then she proceeded with her PowerPoint presentation that was to correct this negative image. She was surprised that I knew where the earliest mosque was located (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) and the location of the first mosque which no long exists (Ross, North Dakota).
As a woman and a convert to Islam, she wanted to portray that Islam is PEACE. I interrupted her presentation by objecting that presenting Islam as only a peace-loving religion was naïve and too simplistic. When she taught that Islam treats women with respect and fairness, I again objected. I told her that when I read the Hadiths (which has a whole section on women) and the Sira of Muhammad, there is another image that is portrayed. She then realized that she was not talking to an ignorant group concerning the topic of Islam. In frustration she accused me of being an Orientalist.
According to her definition of an Orientalist, I read Islamic texts through the eyes of Western imperialism with no understanding of what is being taught. I objected by saying that I am just quoting what Muslims have said and that I am not trying to spin it in the wrong light. I told her that her presentation of Islam did not take into consideration the complexities and realities of Islam. She went off-script trying to give some justification for Islam, which at this point didn’t make sense. The Islam she presented was a reconstruction of her version of Islam that didn’t have any root in historic Islam.
To give you some understanding of what she was alluding to when she called me an Orientalist, she was referring to Edward Said’s book, Orientalism, which sets out to prove that the concept of the Orient and the concept of the West are not stable entities, rather “… each is made up of human effort, partly affirmation, partly identification of the Other” (p. xvii). Said’s thesis is to show “… that history is made by men and women, just as it can also be unmade and rewritten, always with various silences and elisions, always with shapes imposed and disfigurements tolerated, so that “our” East, “our” Orient becomes “our” to possess and direct” (p. xviii). History recorded by Orientalists, according to Said, is from an imperialistic perspective which judges the Orient with Western standards and little consideration or feel from the Middle Eastern or Islamic perspective.
Said begins his onslaught against Western academic studies of other societies and cultures by accusing all academic knowledge as being “somehow tinged and impressed with, violated by, the gross political fact” (p. 11). Said levels the charge that Islam was studied as a cultural synthesis that was studied apart from economics, sociology, and politics of the Islamic peoples (p. 105).
Said considers the structures used by Orientalists as inadequate in truly understanding Islam; those structures being expansion, historical confrontation, sympathy, and classification (p. 120). He holds with disdain the work of Sacy, and accuses him of isolating texts and then doctoring them. Somehow the work of annotating, codifying, arranging, and commenting on texts is considered by Said as poor scholarship.
Under this scrutiny, Said perceives the Orient dehumanized and devalued (p. 127). Bat Ye’or, pioneering scholar of dhimmitude has said it best:
… he [Said] has endeavored to destroy the whole scientific accumulation of Orientalist knowledge of Islam and replace it with a culture of Western guilt and inferiority toward Muslims victims. The obliteration of the historical truth that he constantly pursued from 1978—starting with his book Orientalism—as well as his hostility to Israel, has prevented an understanding and the resolution of problems that today assail Europe and challenge its own survival. (Paper delivered at Christian Solidarity International’s 29th Annual Meeting at Paul Gerhardt Church in Munich, Germany, November 8, 2006).
In my opinion, Said is a classical deconstructionist who seeks to uncover and understand the underlying assumptions, ideas, and frameworks upon which Orientalism is founded in the West. What he fails to take into consideration is that all human works derive from a worldview built on certain assumptions. Earlier Orientalists wrote from a colonialist perspective, but over the maturation of time, scholarship has recognized its bias and made concessions. No one is truly objective. Said is unable to cite scholarly works from the Middle East on the West that even come to the level of the Orientalists. I feel this book has not added to scholarship, but has taken scholarship backward and muddied the waters in international relations between the Islamic world and the West.
Ibn Warraq comes to the defense of the West in his book, Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism. He argues that Said’s case against the West is seriously flawed. Warraq accuses Said of not only willfully misinterpreting the work of many scholars, but also of systematically misrepresenting Western civilization as a whole.
Coming back to our lecturer in seminary, she ended our time by asking if her presentation had changed our negative impression of Islam that was expressed at the beginning of her lecture. I reflected on that comment—we had positive images of Muslims. It was the negative reporting of Islam in the media that held a “negative” impression of Muslims, not us. No one shared that the presentation had changed their impressions. Afterwards I told her that she might have to update her presentation. It certainly didn’t connect with us, nor are we as naïve about Islam as we were just after 9-11.
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.
Warraq, Ibn. Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007.
Ye’or, Bat. 2006. Europe and the Ambiguities of Multiculturalism http://www.jihadwatch.org/2006/11/bat-yeor-europe-and-the-ambiguities-of-multiculturalism#