In the 1970s, Edward Said had observed that the unfavorable image of Islam in the West had shifted from being solely discussed and perpetuated within academia to becoming inherent in popular Western culture. He highlighted the main features of this phenomenon in his book “Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World,” which was not received with the same popularity as his other, more renowned book, “Orientalism.”
What this observation suggests is that the discipline of Orientalism, which was only developed during the 19th century, had systematically and cognitively come to an end under mounting pressure from epistemological standards for human sciences. The latter having radically shaped the way religious texts were read and classified, as well as the historical and anthropological dimensions of the phenomenon of holiness.
These narrow perceptions of Islam, which were mostly derived from medieval residue of religious conflicts, were thereby replaced with more moderate approaches that analyzed Islam according to its different semantic and symbolic contexts.
This cognitive shift had resulted in an increasing schism in the West between Islam as studied in academia on the one hand, and the Islam perpetuated in the media, in which stereotypes and misconceptions prevail due to the tragic state of affairs in the Islamic world, on the other. This was only further cemented by the 9/11 attacks, which made Islam a focal point of contemporary Western media.
What we wish to note, however, is that these negative stereotypes appear to be surrounded by three main political groups: neoconservatives in the United States, the Blitcons, as Ziauddin Sardar first referred to them, or the British literary neoconservatives in the UK, and finally French leftist intellectuals from the “nouveaux philosophes[New Philosophers]” group who have recently decided to switch alliances and support the new right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy.
As for neo-conservatives in the United States, they are a well-known group whom we needn’t delve into today, as we have thoroughly discussed their stances in this column before. What we would like to note about them today, however, is that most, if not all, originally belonged to leftist groups. These originally leftist neoconservatives are different from traditional conservatives in that their ideology is often more radical and revolutionary with regards to the American model of freedom, which they vehemently hold superior to all other models, and thus believe should be disseminated the world over, even if by forcible means.
It is from this perspective that they see Islam as a religion of a comprehensive nature that maintains a balance between religion and politics. This, to them, poses a threat to their proposed implementation of a pluralist democracy all over the world. To them, the rise of Islamism [political Islam] poses the number one threat to their top political interests and to the influence their government wields around the world.
The British literary neoconservatives, the most famous of which being Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan, have mainly focused in their published literary works on fanatical Muslim terrorists whose actions threaten humanity and civilization.
Ziauddin Sardar summed up their discourse in, what he called, three “one-dimensional Blitcon” conceits. They are, according to him, as follows:
1- The absolute supremacy of American culture; which emphasizes the supremacy of American ideas of freedom as opposed to all other Western concepts of freedom.
2- That Islam is the greatest threat to civilization as we know it, as exemplified by such novels as Rushdie’s “Shalimar the Clown”. The protagonist of this novel, Shalimar, turns from a loveable clown to a fuming terrorist whose only objective in life is building more mosques and shrouding women in their burka’as [outer garment worn by women to cover entire body and face]. Another such example is Amis’s “The Last Days of Muhammad Atta,” in which he explains Atta’s [who was one of the 9/11 hijackers] motivations: his supposed hatred of women, which was derived, according to Amis, from the Koran and Sunnah [prophetic example].
3- The need to impose American ideas of freedom and democracy on the rest of the world. Especially, they contend, the Islamic world which is the epitome of tyranny and intolerance in today’s world. These ideas are clearly displayed in the works of the three novelists, but are most candidly displayed in McEwan’s “Saturday” where he argues that in the fight for peace, one should side with torture, and exemplary punishment to counter “Muslim Nazis” who pose the biggest threat to Western civilization.
The neoconservative trend in France draws mainly on the 1970’s group “New Philosophers,” which was largely made up of intellectuals of Jewish descent (much like neo-conservative Americans). Their initial works focused on their defense of freedom and human rights, from a leftist perspective, which also comprised the defense of enlightenment values, unlike philosophical fragments or constructional philosophy which declared humans dead and made modern democratic societies into subjects of harsh criticism for their secret practices of oppression and exile.
However, leftists of the past, many of which influenced by the 1968 revolution, have leaned in recent years towards the conservative right. They are now known to defend the US’s policies in the Middle East, and have espoused a number of right-wing Israeli ideologies.
Some of the most prominent personalities of this trend are Bernard Henri Levy, Alain Finkielkraut, Alexander Adler, and Andre Glucksmann who attract wide media attention in some of France’s most important newspapers, radio stations and TV channels.
The views these men hold of Islam are based on two points. On the one hand, they judge Islam as it is practiced by the immigrant youth in France, and as such believe it is nothing more than unadulterated anti-Semitism that is a result of not having been completely integrated into society (while still defending Jewish altruism). On the other, they attribute terrorism to hostile and violent backgrounds that despise and reject modernity, and use religious verses to rationalize this hatred.
In conclusion, this new wave of Islamophobia in the West, though seemingly aggressive, lacks any solid backing. In fact, upon further inspection it appears to be nothing more than yet another stereotype created by the conservative left and perpetuated by modern popular culture.