Red, White and Black

Edward Said on Islam and West: 30 years on
10 June, 2007, 4:49 pm
Filed under: Islam

Randomly surfing the internet yesterday I stumbled across an article by Edward Said, which I felt ought to be shared. The artilce is entitled “Islam Through Western Eyes” and it was written nearly 30 years ago. But that makes no difference as the it fits the bill of contemporary times perfectly. I am going to quote some excerpts here, but do read the whole article.

He starts by providing the historical Westerm impressions of Islam and exhibiting how they were influenced by the Orient-Occident lens. Said points out some home-truths about the portrayal of Islam and the Muslim world, about the fact that Muslim world is a consumer of Western version of Islam and about the ubiquitous role of the media is the sordid affair:

The Islamic Orient today is important for its resources or for its geopolitical location. Neither of these, however, is interchangeable with the interests, needs or aspirations of the native Orientals. Ever since the end of World War II, the United States has been taking positions of dominance and hegemony once held in the Islamic world by Britain and France. With this replacement of one imperial system by another have gone two things: first, a remarkable burgeoning of academic and expert interest in Islam, and, second, an extraordinary revolution in the techniques available to the largely private-sector press and electronic journalism industries. Together these two phenomena, by which a huge apparatus of university, government and business experts study Islam and the Middle East and by which Islam has become a subject familiar to every consumer of news in the West, have almost entirely domesticated the Islamic world. Not only has that world become the subject of the most profound cultural and economic Western saturation in history–for no non-Western realm has been so dominated by the United States as the Arab-Islamic world is dominated today–by the exchange between Islam and the West, in this case the United States, is profoundly one-sided.

So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Moslems and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have instead is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression.

…in the United States at least, there is no major segment of the polity, no significant sector of the culture, no part of the whole community capable of identifying sympathetically with the Islamic world.


On the other hand, most of the Third World is now fully bathed in U.S.-produced TV shows, and is wholly dependent upon a tiny group of news agencies that transmit news back to the Third World, even in the large numbers of cases where the news is about the Third World. From being the source of news, the Third World generally, and Islamic countries in particular, have become consumers of news. For the first time in history (for the first time, that is, on such a scale) the Islamic world may be said to be learning about itself in part by means of images, histories and information manufactured in the West.

In other words, whole swatches of Islamic history, culture and society simply do not exist except in the truncated, tightly packaged forms made current by the media. As Herbert Schiller has said, TV’s images tend to present reality in too immediate and fragmentary a form for either historical or human continuity to appear. Islam therefore is equivalent to an undifferentiated mob of scimitar-waving oil suppliers, or it is reduced to the utterances of one or another Islamic leader who at the moment happens to be a convenient foreign scapegoat.

What is crucially important about this presentation of Islam is the media’s ascendancy, their intellectual and perceptual hegemony, over the whole thing, and since the media sell their product to consumers who prefer simplicity to complexity, the uniform image of Islam that emerges is constructed out of much the same material from which history, society and humanity have been eliminated.

Said goes on to address the question of “What can be done?”:

To begin with, what should be avoided is an attempt to alter, improve, beautify, make more appealing the image of Islam. Such an effort falls into the trap of believing that reductive images can be made substitutes for a very complex reality, and it ends up perpetuating the entire system of ideological fictions by which Islam is made to do service for Western designs upon riches, peoples and territories that happen to call themselves Moslem. A hard and fast distinction has to be made between serious consideration of the Islamicate world and nearly everything that passes for Islam in the media and in all but a few places in the culture.

To dispel the myths and stereotypes of Orientalism, the world as a whole has to be given an opportunity to see Moslems and Orientals producing a different form of history, a new kind of sociology, a new cultural awareness: in short, the relatively modest goal of writing a new form of history, investigating the Islamicate world and its many different societies with a genuine seriousness of purpose and a love of truth. But, alas, we must recognize that even with vast sums of money easily available, the Islamic world as a whole does not seem interested in promoting learning, building libraries, establishing research institutes whose main purpose would be modern scientific attention to Islamic realities and to seeing whether in fact there is something specifically Islamic about the Islamic world.

He concludes:

That this distortion has occurred at all is a function of power, and in this instance style and image are direct political indices of power. Thus, we must concede that any drastic attempt to correct distortions of Islam and the Arabs is a political question involving the use and deployment of power.

7 Comments so far
Leave a comment

I think what Bernard Shaw said about muslims was just perfect statement,



Comment by nocturnal

Thanks for sharing the article
Please update your blogroll as I have moved to

Comment by Raza Rumi

Islam has been black listed becuase of all those who think they know islam best , but they actually use this beautiful religion for their own good and personal gain .. and those shouldn’t be called muslims .. true muslims are those who spread peace and not fear

Comment by maliha11

Very well-written article . The writer has idnetified few of the very important reasons of the decay of intellect n incompatibility of the Islamic world not forgetting to mention the Colonialists’-like attitude of the West particularly US.

Comment by Salman

We just launched a mega event with the name “I Still Love Pakistan Do You !” at, and would love if

you join up and spread the word around. we are inviting all the bloggers of Pakistan so hurry join up!

PS: this is not spam i visited your website personally to leave the message.

Comment by BuzzVines

i think for all those who call themselvs muslims just coz they have got muslim names should really go watch KUDA KAY LIA

Comment by hira khan

Excellent article, thanks for sharing. For those you haven’t, Orientalism is a must read.

Comment by Omar F Omar

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: