In the two-and-a-half decades between the publication of his groundbreaking book Orientalism and his death, Edward Said spent considerable energy rejecting claims that his work is a defence of the “real” Islam.
Such an assumption, he wrote, “would simply be repeating the errors of Orientalism”. Said, who was avowedly secular and suspicious of religious movements, emphasised his critique as one that sought not to determine the correct view of Islam and the orient, since it was far too diverse to be distilled in such a manner, but to deconstruct it as it appeared in the Western imagination.
More than a decade after the death of the Palestinian-American academic, and nearly four decades after Orientalism spawned postcolonial studies, orientalism is still being misused and misunderstood, this time by the discourse around Islamophobia.
For several months now, perhaps more, I’ve been suspecting that our discourse on Islam and anti-Muslim sentiment is, if not wrong exactly, then certainly incomplete. As incidents of casual and institutional bigotry against Muslims and Arabs rise, so, too, does the defence of Islam itself – as opposed to the defence of Muslims targeted by this bigotry – as if by pointing out what Islam is and isn’t, this bigotry could be curtailed.
There are two main problems with this. The first being, how do you defend and define the “real” Islam when it is not a singular religion but a collection of differing interpretations, often in conflict with one another? The second is that focusing on defending Islamic theology and practice sidelines secular Muslims as well as non-Muslims who live in the Arab and Muslim world.
I’ve been writing about Islamophobia for several years, and with one or two early exceptions attempted to do so not to defend Islamic theology or practice but from a perspective of challenging Western, and other non-Muslim, assumptions and expectations of Islam. That is to say, by challenging the foundations of how the West talks about Islam rather than the increasingly dangerous practice of defending the “real” Islam.
This has much to do with my background in the Alawite community, a tiny sect often called an offshoot of Shiite Islam but which many Alawites claim has a unique origin. As such, there are aspects of mainstream Islam that are as removed from me as they are from Westerners. Concepts such as headscarves and face veils are not ones that apply to my experience of Islam. This does not make either experience better or worse, it just indicates that such differences exist.
In my naivety I did, in my earlier career, attempt to set the record straight on certain slurs made against Islam, such as the age of Muhammad’s youngest wife, Aisha. While the more conservative strains of Islam and the more rabid anti-Islam voices both insist she was only nine at the time of consummation, her age is widely regarded by Islamic scholars to have been somewhere between 14 and 19. Unsurprisingly, these attempts were met with derision by those invested in maintaining the status quo. The image of Islam’s founding prophet as a “paedophile” and “warmonger” is one that those who subscribe to an orientalist reading of Islamic history cling to in order to maintain their sense of moral superiority over Muslims. Conveniently, it is also one that fundamentalists insist on to retain their authority over women.
Scratch the surface and it is clear the slurs made against Muhammad and Islam come not from a misunderstanding of what Islam is, but from a racism that judges this particular religion in a way that ensures it can never redeem itself. A self-appointed Muslim representative who says on Australian television that Sura 4:3 is an instruction that men “use violence as a last resort” when dealing with recalcitrant wives is quickly taken as proof of Islam’s moral defectiveness. Meanwhile, exposés of widely sanctioned domestic violence in the Australian churches are rebuffed as poorly researched – despite being undertaken by one of Australia’s most respected journalists, Julia Baird – and passages in the Bible demanding non-virgins be “stoned to death” are dismissed as old laws superseded by the New Testament.
The double standard is clear. Attempt to explain interpretations of the Koran, and Westerners adamant they know better will scoff that you don’t understand the “real” Islam. Point out the far more violent passages in the Bible and they will retort, “No one follows that anymore.” Except, of course, when denying reproductive rights to women and marriage equality to same-sex couples.
In the face of such a double standard, setting the record straight is not only an exercise in futility, it is playing into the hands of those who seek to always keep Muslims on the backfoot. The only good Muslim is one who has not only ceased to practise Islam, but who loudly condemns it. It is one who chooses the occident over the orient.
Anyone else is a threat, a suspicion, someone who can’t really be loyal to Australian values and who must be monitored for the first sign of treason, as Labor MP Anne Aly discovered on Anzac Day, when she was falsely accused of refusing to lay a wreath at a dawn service.
More recently, I have taken to challenging this view of a monolithic, monstrous Islam set on destroying Western civilisation by highlighting the many variations and practices within its realm, including my own family’s Alawite community. Again, not in order to promote one form of Islam or claim any particular interpretation as the “real” one, but to highlight the breadth of Islam’s diversity.
Like Said, I am secular. But I am a Muslim in that I come from that world, the one some in the West see as their opposite, and, regardless of my own ever-shifting relationship to faith, I remain an olive-skinned Arab-born woman with a Muslim surname who is as susceptible to a Muslim ban as any other. It is a belonging of which I am not only unashamed, but fiercely protective.
In other words, faith is immaterial to Islamophobia. Blanket suspicion of Islam is not really about what Muslims do and do not believe. It is a means of asserting “Western” values above Islamic ones, and is based on the predication that the two are inherently incompatible. Look at how routinely the claim that Muslims don’t condemn terrorism is repeated, despite copious evidence to the contrary.
This is difficult enough to counteract. More challenging still is the resistance from other Muslims and what I call well-meaning lefties to any attempt to disrupt this assessment of a monolithic Islam, whether by highlighting Islam’s diversity or by critiquing Islamist groups that are a bigger threat to Muslims than they are to the West. There is a problem when even criticising Wahhabism is dismissed as creating a bogyman or being Saudiphobic – despite this austere form of Islam being the ideology driving many so-called jihadi groups and, thanks to Saudi petrodollars, sweeping across much of the Muslim world, squashing local laws and customs in the process.
Closer to home, asking that the media start referring to specific sects and subsects when discussing Islam and Muslims, as I did recently in a piece for SBS, was dismissed as creating division rather than demonstrating diversity. Most peculiar is to be called Islamophobic and racist by white men who have converted to Islam but remain so ignorant of Islam’s plurality they use social media to denounce me as an interloper into their world.
What I see emerging is a complete annihilation of this very important distinction Said made between challenging derogatory assumptions about Muslims and Arabs, and defending Islam and Islamism.
Orientalism is still used interchangeably with Islamophobia. And if we define Islamophobia as hostility towards Islam based on racialised ideas of what Islam is or isn’t, then this makes sense. But the popular understanding of Islamophobia now regards any criticism of Islam or Muslims as Islamophobic, even if it is coming from other Muslims.
For example, because many attacks on the niqab are thinly veiled swipes at Muslim women, they are countered with claims that any and all objection to the face veil must be inherently Islamophobic. The problem here is many Muslims themselves warily regard the face veil as a sign of encroaching fundamentalism. Where do their concerns fit into the Islamophobic narrative in the West?
Ironically, this is exactly what Said warned against. We are now “repeating the errors of Orientalism”, because our current prevailing discourse resists any pluralistic depiction of the Muslim world. Reflexively defending the most visible forms of Islamic practice, be it niqabs or gender segregation, as if Muslim liberals, secularists and minorities either don’t exist or are Westernised and therefore irrelevant, perpetuates the misconception that only certain Muslims are authentic and marginalised. It stifles debate among Muslims and consolidates Islam as the eternal and binary opposite of the West. It ignores legitimate fears many Muslims have of rising fundamentalism and, most worryingly, it permits the erasure of smaller sects and subsects that make up the Muslim world.
Like orientalism itself, Islamophobia should not be reduced to a slur describing people with negative attitudes to Muslims, but as an analysis of how the West approaches Islam from a fundamentally derogatory perspective. To do otherwise transforms it from a structural issue to a problem of individuals.
Moreover, because there is no singular Islam, defending only those Muslims who fulfil Western leftist expectations of what Islam is necessarily comes at the expense of other Muslims and inadvertently creates that which it seeks to dismantle – the concept of a monolithic Islam.
Who gains from this? The extremes of orientalists and Islamists: the very groups Said spent much of his career opposing.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 5, 2017 as "Orientalism expressed". Subscribe here.