by Eugenio Chahuan
The September 11 attacks set into motion a profound and sensitive debate as the world realized that even the greatest power in the world can be vulnerable. The impact was felt far and wide, and Islam became the focus of attention in the media, in seminars, in forums, and in thousands of publications worldwide. Against the expectation of the many, religion does not seem to be on the wane; if at all, it is seeing a resurgence, coupled with an enormous capacity to mobilize and produce changes in various part of the world. There are the cases of Iran, the Philippines, Afghanistan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Ireland, the Balkans, Chechnya, and the U.S.A. — with Bush’s born-again Christianity.
Today, most political leaders are adopting an apocalyptic discourse. They talk of the struggle against evil; they speak in the name of God and try to impose their own laws and their perception of the good. The German philosopher and sociologist, Jürgen Habermas, pointed out in a conference that the September 11 attacks have led, in various ways, to the explosion of the tension between secular and religious societies. And the anticipation by some social analysts that the 21st century would start under the sign of a clash of religions, cultures, and civilizations seems to be materializing.
The Need for an Antithesis
The long-standing negative mental construct the West has of Islam and the Arabs has been intensified by the determining role played by the media these days, especially when they are in the service of colonial interests, military and economic expansionist ideologies, or a vehicle for the promotion of Western values, which necessarily calls for the demonization of the Other. This situation has been heightened in the wake of the collapse of the East-West system. It was a decisive turning point in the process of self-legitimization of the West which predicated its own identity upon an antithesis — Us/We as opposed to the Other/Them. The Gulf war (1990) that was orchestrated with a great deal of propaganda has since been used to breach the gap that was left by the unraveling of the Soviet bloc, replacing it by an even more radical one — Islam — generally seen not only as an antithetical ideology, but as an all-encompassing cultural antithesis to the West and its universal identity. In this sense Islam gets converted into the basis of anti-Westernism, anti-modernism, and anti-civilization all in one.
Bringing Western values to the Middle East?
The psychological necessity of the Us to create its identity through the confrontation with and the discrimination against the Other serves, in this case, a dual purpose. On the one hand, it promotes the chauvinistic, xenophobic propaganda against the Orient, Islam, the Arabs, as well as many others; on the other hand, Islam is presented as a threat to the security of the West. In creating the new antagonism East-West, rationality-irrationality, modernity-traditionalism by pitting the Us against the Other, the West is in reality negating the fact that it has since long been an authentically multicultural society. The danger of the present cultural discourse against Islam is that it is in essence a racist discourse that lumps together without distinction all persons of differing traits. The counterpoint is that such discrimination engenders a re-identification on the other side. By this is meant that the propagation of this erroneous dichotomy could serve dangerously as a self-fulfilling prophecy — those who perceive themselves as marginalized and are labeled as the new face of the enemy could be drawn into reconstructing their identity accordingly.
Occidental societies have formed a distorted perception of the Arab world. Fanaticism, terrorism, and the danger of an immigration invasion are features attributed to the Arabs and the Muslims, while the qualities and the rich cultural and scientific heritage of these people and their contribution to civilization are being ignored. The problem of Islamophobia is very acute in countries like the U.S., and in many European countries where attacks have been carried out against Muslims for the simple fact that they are Muslims, as representatives of this Other that is not accepted on their own territory.
A mirror construct is happening on the side of the Other that finds itself totally invaded by the West in all areas of life. The Arab East has its own perception of the occidental Other. They are different images, even contradictory to the extent that each has formed his/her specific concept of the Occident and the Other. For the West, the Orient can be many things, springing from the divergence of interests and/or cultural and political assessments. For some, it is a place of exoticism, a haven of spiritual peace to flee the tumult of civilization. For others it can be a place for exploitation, colonialism and domination; or the breeding ground of despotism, fanaticism and fundamentalism. A similar disparity in perception is to be found in the East. To some, the West is a civilizing and political model that is to be imitated in order emerge from a state of underdevelopment. It is also a font of scientific and cognitive knowledge that leads to liberation from the hold of traditionalism and fundamentalism. At the same time, the West also embodies the colonialist power as it sets out to subjugate the Muslim and the Arab, disparaging their values and exploiting their resources
No More ‘Mare Nostrum’
It has been argued by some, most notably by Edward Said, the denigration of Islamic civilization associated with Islamophobia is central to the concept of Western civilization. The ousting and marginalizing of Islam marks the debut of Western civilization and, thus, explains the depth and longevity of Western Islamophobia. In order to understand the Western vision of the Orient, it is necessary to go back in history. Christian Europe between the VII and X centuries was shaken to its depths by the repercussions of the Arab Islamic conquests. From this moment onwards, the Orient became identified with Islam. Its birth and rapid expansion modified to a large extent the political geography of the Mediterranean basin. The Mediterranean Sea ceased to be Mare Nostrum (“our sea”) and got converted into a place of confrontation between East and West. The Belgian historian and orientalist, Henri Pirenne wrote in 1935, “Along the shores of Mare Nostrum since then lay two different and hostile civilizations.”1
There were, then, two different worlds, two rivals who, since the outset, began their interactions on a belligerent footing. The Muslim Arab conquests were perceived as unjustified. The West was led into a defensive stance expressed in the denigration or the demonization of the aggressor; thus, the Muslim was termed as “devastator of cities,” “destroyer,” “hostage taker,” or “white slave dealer.”
Islam was a provocation in many ways. It lay uneasily close to Christianity, geographically and culturally. It drew on the Judeo-Hellenic traditions. It borrowed creatively from Christianity — it could boast unrivalled military and political successes. Nor was this all. The Islamic lands sit adjacent to and even on top of the biblical lands. Moreover, the heart of the Islamic domain has always been the region closest to Europe.... From the end of the 7th century to the 16th century, Islam in either its Arab, Ottoman, North African or Spanish form dominated or effectively threatened European Christianity. 2
From the Military to the Religious
The East-West confrontation that took place as a result of the Arab expansion in the VIII century was mostly political, economic, and cultural. The conflict between Christianity and Islam so far did not exist. This was to occur later with the Crusades between the XI and XIII centuries. Since then the Moor is no more the military enemy of the West, but Islam is the enemy of Christianity. With the Crusades the virtual line between the Christian West and the Muslim East is drawn and does not disappear except on rare occasions. To the negative image of the Muslim is added a pejorative view of Islam the religion. Such an image was so extensively promoted throughout the Middle Ages that it now forms part of the Western collective subconscious.
Starting with the XIII century, the Orient began to lose some of its glory. The Muslim Arabs were eclipsed by the emerging Ottoman Empire. The changes henceforth determine the Western perspectives of the East. If the religious antagonism lost its edge, it did not disappear entirely, as Islam through the Turk became the impetus behind the many voyages to the Orient. The main purpose was, nonetheless, to reaffirm the intellectual supremacy of the West and its art of governance, so much so that the basis of conflict between the two worlds ceased to be religious as much as political and cultural.
With the XVII-XVIII centuries, the sense of superiority in the West gets coupled with technological progress. To the vital and progressive Europe is opposed the archaic and immobile East. The colonial act is thus seen as fully justified. In his Philosophy of History, Hegel incorporates this modern-primitive dichotomy, associating Islam and the Orient with the primitive world. Perhaps the most representative synthesis of the modern view of the East and Islam can be found in one of the discourses the French philologist and Orientalist Ernest Renan made at the Sorbonne in 1883, when he said that “Islam and the Muslim are incompatible with rationality.”3
Intolerance and Mental Inertia
This Orientalist position is based then on a reality underpinned by the superiority of the Western Us over the foreign, i.e., the Orient, Them. Its tenet is the binary opposition of two worlds, two styles, and two cultures. It is the dichotomy between, on the one hand, the Westerners who are rational, pacific, liberal, logical, and capable of entertaining real values, and, on the other hand, the Orientals who possess none of these values. The confluence of negative images facilitates the triumph of the racist message of the ultra-right in theU.S.A.and Europe. The lack of respect towards other cultures and the exaltation of the Western model constitute a clear expression of intolerance and resistance to dialogue. Thus, nothing is more legitimate than for the West to exercise a benevolent tutelage over these weak people — spreading democracy and “our way of life.”
This stereotyping is generated not only by a certain mental inertia to appreciate anything different, but also accomplishes an actively defensive function: the prejudices of today preserve and perpetuate the falsehoods of the past. The European colonial aggression in the Arab countries during the XIX and XX centuries have been justified by a series of arguments whose common denominator was the depreciation of the Other, and the negative view of the Arab today is an extension of the imperialist attitudes of a past not so far away,
The crises experienced by Arab societies today — economic political and cultural — run very deep and their solution is very complex. The violence, consequence of an accumulation of unresolved conflicts cannot in any way be attributed to cultural or religious causes, and even less to a so-called genetic disposition towards fanaticism making up the identity of the Arab. This notion of identity dynamics has been conveniently and indiscriminately used, often leading to confused and inadequate analyses of the many conflicts in the Middle East, and giving rise to a monolithic view of the Arabs and the Muslims among the political community, the media, and even in the world of academe.
Undeniably, Islamism is gaining ground today. But this could be viewed as a result of decades of exploitation, political frustration and discrimination. And this is what gives the Islamist movements their impetus. If the problems of today stem from a social origin and are getting reinforced by current economic and political processes, then their solution should be social, carried out on a genuinely transnational level through a policy of cooperation, especially in the economic sphere, and a sincere and balanced collaboration in the political domain. If the West is as rational as it claims, it should address the problems rationally and not through inadequate and inhumane means, as are armies and bombs.
Juan Goytisolo, the contemporary Spanish writer, has this to say about the situation: “The historical circumstances of the past forty years, the struggle against Western colonialism, the establishment of the Sate of Israel and the consequent expulsion of the Palestinians, the Lebanese civil war, and the Iranian revolution have all engendered situations of violence which place the Islamic world in bloc in the bench of the accused, as causing all the problems and ills that afflict the world. The Westerners seem to forget that their history and recent past does not qualify them to give lessons to anybody. Those who systematically denigrate Islam should be reminded that in this context there have never been bloody inquisitions such as ours, nor genocides of entire peoples such as those of the Amerindians and the Aborigines, nor the collective extermination of an entire people of the magnitude of Hitler’s Holocaust, nor the use of lethal weapons as in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”4
1. Henri Pirenne, Mahoma y Carlomagno. Alianza Editorial, S.A., 1997 (Spanish).
2. Edward Said. Orientalismo. Madrid: Debate, 2002. (Spanish), p. 74.
3. Ernest Renan, as quoted in Edward Said, Orientalismo (Spanish), p.134.
4. Juan Goytisolo, De la Ceca a la Meca. Madrid: Alfagara, 1997. (Spanish).