Osama and Orientalism: Where Islamophobes Meet Al-Qaeda

When Islamophobes want to demonize Islam, it is easy enough to take a passage from scripture and extrapolate all sorts of general ideas about how Muslims act, what they believe, or who they are in some fundamental way. Less egregious representations of Islam in the media can be similarly ill-founded, but both represent a new, and perhaps more polite, strain of Orientalism.

One of the key underpinnings of Orientalism is that knowledge is a form of power that can be used to define and control a group of people. A good way to do this is to ignore the people themselves and focus on texts and actions out of context. In a remarkable irony, it can be argued that the premises and approaches of an Orientalist study of Islam share a striking similarity to the al-Qaeda methodology of understanding Islam—which is part of the reason so many Islamophobes sound like they actually support Osama bin Laden, buying into his rhetoric. Of course, the success of the message is predicated on Muslims being unwilling or unable to respond to this framing, and they risk internalizing this way of thinking, Orientalizing themselves, allowing themselves to be defined.

I think one of the key statements on this subject comes from Edward Said, on the third page of his seminal work, Orientalism:

Taking the late eighteenth century as a very roughly defined starting point Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient—dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.

One of the propositions is that Orientalism is the study of people absent the people. It is the construction of a group identity predicated upon understanding their texts divorced from their own conceptions of those texts. A common way to dismiss Muslims who speak out against this marginalization is to say that Muslims are hiding their true beliefs to better insinuate themselves as sleeper agents. This kind of statement simultaneously undercuts any and all arguments that Muslims could make regarding their own tradition, and reifies Islamophobes as the true knowers of what Islam is.

For example, in January 2009, 300 Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow published a letter to President Obama in the Washington Post. One of the key lines is “Safeguard our shared… values of peace, pluralism, and cooperation.” However, a quick Google search turns up a number of criticisms of this letter as disingenuous. I consistently attend interfaith events where my understanding of Islam is claimed to be either wrong or not representative of what vast majorities of Muslims think. The basis for this claim is that what I’m suggesting is not what is being shown on CNN. What this does is construct a Muslim identity that creates a threatening “other,” based on their own readings of the Qur’an, or on information gleaned from the media.

One of the most important aspects of what I’m describing is what Carl W. Ernst calls scripturalism. In Following Muhammad, he says:

But the focus of many modern Protestant denominations on the Bible has led to the expectation that one can understand everything of importance of the other religious traditions if one knows what is said in the their scriptures. This concept of scripturalism is tempting, but it is a fallacy. It assumes that all scriptural verses are equally weighty, that there is no debate about their meaning, and that there as been no change over the centuries in the understanding of particular verses. It also assumes that every member of a particular religious group is equally certain to follow every prescription found in the holy book (or books). Can one predict the behavior of a Christian simply by taking a verse out of the Bible and assuming that it has a controlling influence over that person?

Orientalism, as it applies to religious texts, takes the Qur’an and tries to understand it through the lens of how one might understand the Gospels. Although most people would acknowledge that a Jewish reading of the Hebrew Bible is very different than a Christian reading of the same text, that same understanding does not apply to Muslim interpretations of their own tradition. This mistake, and sense of superiority, blinds them to the rich debate about revelation that exists in Muslim traditions, and creates a type of armchair theologian who is willing to read a text out of context and give a definite meaning of the text for all Muslims at all times. The fact that few of even the “experts” among these commentators have access to the Arabic text means that they are using someone else’s translation, which by definition is an interpretation. (For more detailed examples of this type of reader and representative text, please see this article).

The idea of reading the Qur’an absent any other background—and making one reading universal across time and place—is bin Laden’s methodology. It rejects historical and contemporary engagements with the Divine Word in favor of a supposedly perfect understanding of the text that resides only with that one person. People like bin Laden and Pat Robertson have a similar approach to the faith, and it shows in their polytheistic vision of competing Gods. This reductionist thinking allows Islamophobes to latch onto bin Laden as their intellectual guide, allowing him to explain Islam to them, and giving him an authority that he does not possess among Muslims. There should be no mistake: the vast majority of Islamophobes have become followers and supporters of bin Ladenism in deed, if not in name.

The Argument Against Reform

The grafting of one religion’s intellectual framework onto a different religion means that not only are there barriers to real dialogue, but that there is an assurance of misunderstanding. For example, many people will speak of a Muslim Reform. Such a call exhibits an ignorance not only of Muslim history, but also of Christian history. The Reformation was about moving the interpretive authority out of the hands of the priestly class and into a broad population. In the European context, this Reform eventually gave rise to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. The success of the Reformation was based partially on the intimate relationship the Church had with the State; the religious change was concurrent with the political change.

In the Muslim world, religious authorities have been traditionally separate from political authorities. Although there have been periods of intermingling, structurally they were never one in the Sunni world. In the 18th century, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, first master of the Wahhabi tariqah (order), is arguably the precursor to the modern Muslim Reformation. By moving the power away from the scholarly class and breaking tradition, the standard division between political and religious authority is bridged. The Muslim Reformation has happened, and bin Laden is the standard bearer.

Those who argue for further Muslim Reformation are in fact arguing for more Saudi Arabia-like states and more bin Ladens in the world. It is this basic ignorance of tradition that allows people to sound as though they are speaking for a “good,” when they are actually promoting the “bad.” It is not a Reformation we need, but a Renaissance, a rebirth of the scholarly class as arbiters of interpretation. Just as Abd al-Wahhab was condemned by his family (a family of scholars) for being outside the pale of Islam, so too is bin Laden. However, those calling for “Reform,” give no credit to the scholars, and thereby marginalize the best bulwark against the spread of his extremism.

Clearly neo-Orientalism has a negative impact not only on the Muslim community, but on the community subscribing to it. One example is the fact that Muslims have come out in large numbers to condemn violent extremism of every group perpetuating it. Every time someone asks “Why don’t Muslims condemn terrorism?” it is the result of this neo-Orientalist thinking that Muslims are one monolithic hive mind that are driven by one or two verses of the Qur’an. No one is asking for all Christians to apologize after every church shooting. No one is arguing that there is something in the Christian faith that causes its believers to commit mass murders in their own places of worship.

This kind of question comes from a privileged perspective, one that assumes its own priority. The vast majority of Muslims don’t speak English. The vast majority of Americans don’t speak another language. Should those condemning terrorism be speaking to people where this ideology is being spread, or to people who wish to feel self-important as they crawl into their caves of fear? A quick Google search shows many examples of Muslim condemnation of terrorism.

The deeper problem is that many Muslims, at least in the United States, are internalizing this Orientalism. The result is that the Muslim community is not fighting this fight as equals and partners, but instead act as mere bystanders. They remain frustrated, wishing to do more, but do not have the capacity to get involved. Their understanding of the faith can be defined as much by CNN as anything else.

The basic intent of Orientalism is to dominate and control. Those who are dominated are weakened, may internalize the domination, and are unable to challenge the dominator. Those who dominate are weakened in turn because there is no challenge to prevailing thoughts and structures. A power vacuum emerges, and it is from that breach that ideologues emerge. After all, what is an ideologue but a new dominator? What we need to understand now is that it is this structure of domination—this need for some to prove superiority over others—that enables extremism.