Islam a continuation of Orientalism

This essay aims to provide an accurate picture of how today’s Western media purposely produce negative, culturally constructed views of Islam and the Muslims around the world. Islam is usually presented as being medieval, ‘backwards’, uncivilised and irrational as well as an obscure group of people who follow a heretical religion. Using the unfortunate events from September 11 2001 as the main context, the essay will try to demonstrate how these misconceptions in the media are not the result of these events alone, but more importantly history has shown it as part of an ancient myth, created culturally dating back to the enlightenment period. To clarify this assertion, we need to refer to Edward Said’s discourse on Orientalism. It illustrates how Islam was studied in the past compared to how it is shown today as the significant other. “In short; Orientalism, a Western style for dominating, restructuring over the Orient (Arab/Muslims in the middle east)” (Said: 1995: p3).

In order for us to understand and appreciate what Orientalism is, let us briefly cite Dr. Said in regards to this subject:¬†From at least the end of 18th century until our own day, modern Occidental reactions to Islam have been dominated by radical simplified type of thinking that maybe still called Orientalism… Dividing the world into two unequal parts, the larger “different” one called the Orient, the other, also known as “our” world, called the Occidental or the West. (Said: 1997: p4)

In general, but more specifically Orientalism is the study of Arab-Muslims and the Middle East. Western academic researchers and philosophers conducted theses studies during the Enlightenment period and beyond. Arguably, these researches are flawed for numerous reasons. In particular, the researches which were carried out are partial and biased because they were primarily prepared to demote Islam and to further the West’s interests; in matters regarding politics, social, economic to forcedly impose on the Muslim world its own secular values. The underlining assumption that Islam is deemed as a threat comes from the dominant Christian West due to the dark ages.

Islam in Europe was viewed as a ‘new’ monolithic religion and its unprecedented influence was threatening parts of the Christian world. Islam was its biggest rival. The Christian West in the dark ages was unable to profit from learning about the teachings of Islam. As a result, the unavoidable misconceptions about Islam were born. Its acceptance as a religion, coexisting side by side with Christianity; and its demand to be recognised was not an option that the Christian Europe could easily accept. The West’s own shortcomings meant that “so as far as the West is concerned, Islam represents not only a formidable competitor but also a late coming challenge to Christianity. Islam was believed to be a demonic religion of apostasy, blasphemy, and obscurity.” (Said: 1997: p5)

Let us dwell further into what Said says with regards to media in the present day and its impacts on Islam, about how these ideologies reflect Orientalist attitudes. He illustrates this using a Television Advert to show how the media constructs and instils ideological values, presenting it as being as an unknown evil:¬†… (Con Ed) ran a striking Television advertisement in the summer of 1980.

Film clips of various immediately recognisable OPEC personalities – Yamani, Qaddifi, lesser-known robed Arab figures – alternated with stills as well as clips of other people associated with oil and Islam: Khomeini, Arafat, Hafez Al Asad. None of these figures was mentioned by name, but we were told ominously that “these men” control America’s sources of oil. The solemn voice-over in the background made no reference to who “these men” actually are or where they come from, leaving it to be felt that this all-made cast of villains has placed Americans in the grip of an unrestrained sadism… for American viewers to feel a combination of anger, resentment, and fear. (Said: 1997: p3)

Said’s book makes a reference to the New York Times newspaper article on ‘Marx and Mosque” (pages 11-14). The article comments how Islam is incompatible in the West, whereas Said argues against this. He says that the information provided does not contain impartial or any balanced facts about Islam, yet the views made is likely to be accepted by many and taken at face value with little or if no concerns about its validity. This proves the mass media does not perceive ethical issues in an objective or balanced manner. Hence, it is easily alleged without the worry of public scrutiny.

To understand Said’s arguments better, it is crucial that we find our own examples from the media, showing unambiguous depictions of Orientalism in the 21st century. The use of coded language and the media’s constructed terminologies used in mainstream global News mediums, attempts to isolate the Islamic world. Post September 11 2001, President G W Bush use of the word ‘crusade’ in his speech about “…this war on terrorism…” (news: 2001: bbc.co.uk), was an explicit example reminding us of the early conflicts between the Christian West and Islam, highlighting that it still exists. What’s more, the media intensify this issue globally via the world wide mediums, especially with the advancements in technology. The Orientalist attitude becomes clear. The war is not only on the terrorists but Muslims as a whole. Either way, the use of the word on its own justifies their hidden political agenda.

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