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Liberalism’s Orientalist Fantasies About Islam

This is a long Facebook post one of my comrades made. It is targeted towards an Australian audience, but I think many of the lessons here translate to different contexts.

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I generally do not want to get involved in “debates” about Islam, because A) I prefer to analyze Middle Eastern affairs in terms of geopolitics and global alliances, and B) they are not usually done in terms of academic debate, but simply pure wankery in the midst of the ongoing cultural war. But after the London terrorist attacks, we see the same media cycle being repeated – Muslims having to come out and collectively condemn the actions, self appointed talking heads becoming “experts” on interpreting Islam for the Western world, and right-wing ideologues continue arguing for decreased civil liberties for Muslims, from banning hijabs to outright banning Muslim migration. Yet this nonsense has been going on for the last 15 years, with no end in sight. And sometimes, when you see arguments so stupid, you have no choice but to respond i.e. getting accused of being a anti-White racist for simply pointing out the roles European and US colonialism played in the Middle East.

We are living in an age which places personalities above actual ideas. An age where the medical views of a model can be placed above those of actual doctors. An age where a housewife’s views on Islam can be placed above those of Middle East scholars. An age where an Islamic hate preacher, despite being banned by his own community, is constantly being invited to talk shows and be presented as the “face” of Islam in the Western world. Media stereotypes are often recycled and repeated among society, building up socially constructed notions of the Orient, of the other. To many current right-wing critics of Islam in Australia, from Cory Bernardi to Pauline Hanson, Islam is more than a religion of various denominations and contradictions, but rather, a monolithic entity which remain unchanged for 1400 years. As such, the Sunni and Shia, the Caliphates and the Ottomans, the Hui Chinese and Bosnian Muslim, are all interchangeable disciples of this entity. Modern issues faced in the Islamic world, from poverty and corruption to religious extremism, are not seen as the results of capitalism and globalization, but rather as inherent problems within Islam, which somehow can be traced back to a book written millennia ago.

In his works, Edward Said noted that the Western media have tendencies to depict Muslims as “absolutist and unreasoning” and “culturally primitive”. Throughout the last century, Hollywood films have depicted Arabs and Muslims as either villains to be eliminated, or victims to be rescued, usually by the White, masculine, hero. This explains why the majority of Muslims depicted on screen are either lecherous oil sheiks or fanatical terrorists, unless the film is set in 1980s Afghanistan, where the same jihadists instead became valiant freedom fighters against communism. I remember when I was a kid, I imagine the Arab world being those of majestic towers and flying carpets, straight from Disney’s Aladdin. Come 9/11, they are back to being terrorists again on the big screen.

In this Orientalist fantasy, Muslims are not real people capable of independent thought, but rather cardboard cutouts, where religion is the end all to their daily lives. They are divided into the role of the “Good Muslim”, e.g. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who utterly rejects Islamic traditions while embrace the Western world and their Judeo-Christian cultures, allowing Western reactionaries to live our their White savior fantasies. On the opposite end, sits the “Bad Muslim”, e.g. Anjem Choudary and other religious fanatics, but also pretty everyone else, with nothing in between. As such, despite only accounting for 2.2% of the Australian population, with half non-practicing, Australian Muslims are not see as “true Australians”, but perpetual foreigners, ready at any moment to take over and impose Sharia law, class and ethnic divisions be damned.

All of the wars waged by the Muslim entities, from the early caliphates to the ongoing War on Terror, are retroactively revised as one continuous war between the “primitive” Islamic world, and the “civilized” Judeo-Christian world. The Prophet Muhammad is demonized as a bloodthirsty warlord, while Jewish warlords such as Joshua are celebrated in the Bible. This is in spite of the shifting alliances in the Muslim world, which often fought one another, and even making alliances with the Christian kingdoms – from the two century long French-Ottoman alliance, to the British alliance with the Saudis in overthrowing the Ottomans. In contrast, all of the blood spilled by the European kingdoms to gain the favor of the Pope, all of the American natives forced to choose between the book or the sword, are never blamed on Christianity alone. History is continuously being written and rewritten.

Nothing is mentioned about the Abbasid Caliphate, and its Islamic Golden Age, or the House of Wisdom in Baghdad which collected knowledge in medieval sciences and art, before the Mongols burnt it to the ground in 1258, which made the Tigris bleed with ink.

Nothing is mentioned about the Mali Empire, which traded in gold dust, and whose ruler, Mansa Musa, caused a small inflation with all the gold he brought during his pilgrimage to Mecca.

Nothing is mentioned about the Safavid Empire, which converted Persia to Shia Islam, and had an extensive legacy of art, including depictions of Muhammad in miniatures.

Nothing is mentioned about the Ottoman Empire, which had a relatively liberal culture, legalized homosexuality in 1858, and had an extensive catalogue of homosexual literature.

Nothing is mentioned about the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which carved up the Middle East between the British and French Empires, overriding ethnic divisions, and its impact on the Middle East can still be felt a century.

Nothing is mentioned about the anti-colonial movements post-World War II, built along Arab Nationalist lines, which the Western powers countered with fundamentalist Jihadis.

Nothing is mentioned about secular Muslims states like Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population, or even Afghanistan and Iran a few decades ago, where many lived Westernized lifestyles before foreign intervention.

As such, the Islamic world is never understood on its own terms, but purely through its interactions with the Western world. The backward practices of the Wahhabis, rather than seen as a product of a specific time or region, is depicted as representative of all 1.7 billion Muslims, and of Islam’s 1400 year long history. Are there solutions to the problem of terrorism? Yes, but bombing the Islamic countries back to the stone age, as advocated by right-wing ideologues, is not one of them, for real world politics do not operate on idealism, which is why the Saudis receive continued military funding despite sharing a similar ideology with ISIL, and why the very same Islamic terrorists the West fought in Afghanistan and Iraq are suddenly “freedom fighters” in Libya and Syria. But after all, for some, it is easier to rip hijabs off Muslim women, literally and figuratively, than actually doing anything significant, like stop consuming Saudi oil. Repeating “Islam is not a race” all day does not change the fact that a large majority of people attacked post 9/11 were Sikhs.

Rather than fighting terrorism by bombing people back to the stone age, then denying them rights to seek asylum, little is talked about the role of capitalism, which thrives on global inequality, or the ever expanding military industrial complex, which altogether fuel the specter of terrorism. The Western world is not always at war with Islam, for the target supposedly out to destroy the West rotated from the Yellow Peril, to the Red Scare, to the drug tycoons, and now, Islam. Among this mess, genuine Arab and Muslim voices are rarely consulted, except to be used to reinforce existing Western conceptions of the Orient, where war, terrorism, and poverty, rather than contemporary issues brought on by foreign intervention, are seen as the faults of the people themselves. A shooting in London or Paris becomes world news, yet bombings which kill hundreds in Baghdad or Damascus are simply just another “normal” day.

I do not profess to process long term solutions to terrorism, but instead of listening to self professed Western “experts” on Islam and the Middle East, how about talking to a Muslim or someone from the region for once? The Shias and Alawites who lived and died to fight ISIL in Iraq and Syria, or even the Kurds, Yazidis, or Christians doing the same? After all, these are the people who have to endure the very consequences of foreign intervention, having to live with the very stories we in the West only read in newspapers.