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Declaring War on Islam, by Edward Said   Post comment Printer friendly versionMore notes

Declaring War on Islam, by Edward Said
The Legacy of Sharm el Sheikh
Israel, Palestine, United States
Monday, May 24, 2004 03:04 GMT

Old article from Said, published in The Progressive, May 1996.


At a moment of considerable Anglo-Indian tension in 1926, the British missionary and intellectual Edward Thompson (father of E.P. Thompson, the great historian of the British working-class movement) published The Other Side of the Medal, a small book that dealt very critically with British colonial policy in India. One of the points he made in his eloquently anti-imperialist tract was that writings about India in English – even in so authoritative a source as The Oxford History of India – simply left out the Indian side of things; this, Thompson wrote, further deepened the irreconcilability between Indians and the British and made unlikely any hope of reconciliation and understanding between the two sides.

Most British historians of India, for example, described the famous "Mutiny" of 1857 as a vicious, terroristic attack on defenseless women and children, thereby converting the Indian into a savage barbarian to whom the only response was force. Thompson points out that for Indians the "Mutiny" was in fact an event in their struggle against the British, provoked by generations of punishing colonization, racist discrimination, and savage imperial repression of Indian independence.

Thompson was one of the first to grasp that when a great political and military power misrepresents the weak and the oppressed – as in "official" histories or declarations – even so relatively innocuous a thing as language can have a tremendously wounding effect. "Our misrepresentation of Indian history and character is one of the things that have so alienated the educated classes of India that even their moderate elements have refused to help the Reforms [of colonial policy]. Those measures, because of this sullenness, have failed, when they deserved a better fate."

Change Thompson's context and time, substitute "peace process" for "Reforms," Palestinians and Arabs for Indians, and Israelis for British, and you have an accurate account of the present impasse. Deliberately bloody and indiscriminately violent actions like the 1857 Mutiny or the recent bombings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are ugly, indefensible things: They sacrifice the lives of Israelis and Palestinians as they did Indians and Europeans: they induce more hatred and feelings of revenge; and, for the stronger party, they inevitably produce savage retaliation against the subjugated population. "Kill the Arabs” is a common refrain among ordinary Israelis, much as "Kill the Indians" was the chorus of 1857.

The bombs that killed sixty Israeli civilians were morally repulsive, quite aside from the fact that they were strategically unproductive. Cynical manipulations of religion are appalling: To kill children or bus passengers in the name of God is a horror to be unconditionally condemned, as much as one should also condemn leaders who send young people on suicide missions.

But the Israeli and American response has been obdurate and arrogant, with its sanctimonious choruses against terrorism, Hamas. Islamic fundamentalism, and its equally odious hymns to peace-making, the peace process, and the peace of the brave. To top it all, the grotesque display of bad faith, graceless posturing, and for Clinton and Peres, brazen electioneering that was the Sharm el Sheikh summit simply made the contradictions even more glaring.

Here were Israel and the United States, whose military record of colonial behavior in the postwar world is virtually unrivaled for its lawlessness, wrapping themselves in the mantle of moralism and self-congratulation, even as lumbering figures like Boris Yeltsin – who has been terrorizing Muslim Chechnyans for several years – were alowed to draw down some of the event’s counterfeit aura for themselves.

The fact is that the peace process has been an offense to the Palestinian spirit. Each declaration of its virtue, each resounding compliment paid to it, each parade and celebratory event has reminded Palestinians of how their history – as the native inhabitants of Palestine who were deliberately kicked off their own land, their society destroyed, the West Bank and Gaza kept under military occupation for twenty-nine years – has been ignored, violated, misrepresented.

Terrorism is bred out of poverty, desperation, a sense of powerlessness and utter misery. It signals the failure of politics and vision.

Israel has behaved with no understanding or magnanimity at all. It has conducted open war against the very people it now appears to be making peace with; it has violated even the niggling provisions of the Oslo accords; and it has shown its open contempt for Palestinian society and its leaders, not only by pretending that the Palestinian presence in Palestine never existed, but by continuing to intervene in Palestinian life, assassinating leaders at will, using its military might to destroy homes, shut schools, arrest and deport anyone it feels is a “threat" to its "security."

It is simply extraordinary and without precedent that Israel's history, its record – from the fact that it introduced terrorism against civilians to the Middle East, that it is a state built on conquest, that it has invaded surrounding countries, bombed and destroyed at will, to the fact that it currently occupies Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian territory against international law – is simply never cited, never subjected to scrutiny in the U.S. media or in official discourse (by Clinton and Warren Christopher, most notably), never addressed as playing any role at all in provoking "Islamic terror."

What has made the events of the past few weeks even more dreadful is that Israel and the United States, deliberately using the weapons of mass media, psychological warfare, and political pressure, have also been leading a campaign against Islam (with Iran as its main agent as the origin of terror and “fundamentalism.”

Consider the background. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union there has been an active, explicit search in the United States for new official enemies, a search that has now come to settle on "Islam" as a manufactured opponent. In 1991 The Washington Post leaked news of a continuing study in the U.S. defense and intelligence establishment of the need to find such an enemy: Even then, Islam was the candidate.

True, there are ancient rivalries between the West and Islam, and there has been a massive amount of rhetoric in the Islamic, especially Arab, world against the West, plus a whole array of parties, leaders, and ideological trends for whom the Great Satan is the United States as the West’s repulsive embodiment. In addition, recent bloodshed in Algeria, Sudan, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq – where one source conflict is a brutalizing manipulation of religion – has totally corrupted the Arab world's civil life.

But this has to be seen along with the long history of imperial Western intervention in the Islamic world, the continued assault upon its culture and traditions as a standard feature of academic and popular discourse, and (perhaps most important) the frank disdain with which the wishes
and aspirations of Muslims, but_particularly Arabs, are treated.

There are now American and Israeli armies settled on Arab soil, but no Arab or Muslim armies in the West; few Arabs or Muslims in the West feel like anything except hated terrorists. Official Israeli discourse has taken advantage of all this. During the 1970s it was a staple of Israeli foreign-affairs jargon that Palestinians were always to be identified with terrorism. Now, in the same cynical and calculating manne, both Israel and the United States identify fundamentalist Islam – a label that that is often compressed into the one word "Islam" – with opposition to the peace process, to Western interests, to democracy, and to Western civilization.

I do not want to be understood as saying that all this amounts to a conspiracy, although I do think that there is active collusion between Israel and the United States in terms of planning, conceptualization, and now, since Sharm el Sheikh, grand strategy. What they both want is compliance: in effect, an Islamic and Arab world that has simply resigned itself (as many of its leaders already have) to the dictates of the Pax Americana-Israelica.

In my opinion. one can only obey such dictates as these: one cannot have a dialogue with them, since, according to their most basic underlying premise, the grand strategy regards Muslims and Arabs as fundamentally delinquent. Only when Muslims totally fall into line, speak the same language, take the same measures as Israel and the United States do, can they be expected to be "normal," at which point of course they are no longer really Arab and Muslim. They have simply become "peace-makers." What a pity that so noble an idea as "peace" has become a corrupted embellishment of power masquerading as reconciliation.

U.S. cultural institutions are trumpeting the "Islamic threat." Many of the authoritative foreign-policy institutions, journals, and newspapers of record have held symposia, published articles, and released studies proclaiming it. In addition, feature films as well as television documentaries have hyped the threat.

Judith Miller, among several others, is one of the leaders of the journalistic effort; Bernard Lewis and his students lead the so-called scholarly effort. Samuel Huntington’s famous article on the clash of civilizations put forward the much-debated thesis that certain civilizations are incompatible with the West, Islamic civilization being the central instance. Finally, the Fundamentalism Project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences has made Islam the preferred candidate for demon status in its study; both Jewish and Christian, to say nothing of Slavic or Hindu, fundamentalism get very little comparative attention.

By now the media equate Islam with terror and fundamentalism, so that no matter where a bomb goes off in the world, the first suspects are always Muslims and/or Arabs.

The word "Islamic" itself has acquired the bristling status of a frightening, irrational monster. Every article published about Hamas or Islamic fundamentalism or Iran – about which it is now impossible to speak rationally – describes an ahistorical world of pure despotism, pure rage, pure violence. all of it in some way targeting "us," a group of innocent victims who happen to ride buses or go about some harless daily business, unconnected with the decades of suffering imposed on an entire people.

There is never an indication at all that for centuries there has been one form or another of Western infringement directed against the land and peoples of Islam. Long articles by instant experts create the impression that Hamas flourishes gratuitously, or because of Iran, for no other ascertainable reason at all, except to attack Jews and the West. Few of those who fulminate against terrorism mention the occupation, or the constant attacks on Arabs and Muslims.

A few days ago the veteran French journalist Eric Rouleau appeared on a national TV program with the former head of the CIA, James Woolsey, and Geoffrey Kemp, a so-called terrorism expert. Kemp and Woolsey were asked by the moderator about the Sharm el Sheikh summit and both spoke with great effusiveness about its value. Rouleau tried three times to explain the "context" that produced Hamas, but the moderator never gave him a chance to say a word. All anyone wanted was proof that "we" were opposing Islamic terrorism and feeling good about it. Moreover, no one bothered to point out that Hamas’s quarrel with the "peace process" has from the beginning been advanced on nationalist, not Islamic, principles.

Thus Huntington's thesis – which in my opinion amounts to a blanket declaration of war against all civilizations that do not conform to Western values – is now being put into effect.


The worst aspect of all this is that the U.S.-Israeli strategy is turning Arab governments into collaborators in the effort against an ever-increasing number of their own people. I am not sure how many are conscious of this process, but I am certain it is happening.

On a popular level, the policy threatens to rob us of our memory and of our past, so that we will be faced with the choice of coming into the American fold, which humanly offers very little (the terribly compromised peace process is one reward), or of remaining outside, stripped of everything except the terrorist-fundamentalist identity and therefore subject to intimidation, boycott, and perhaps even extermination.

This is what makes the efforts of groups like Hamas so futile, since they offer no real resistance to the whole plan I have been describing. Instead, they cause the collective punishment that jeopardizes the interests of the majority of the people.

Peace and dialogue can only occur between equals, but the general condition of the Arab world has never been weaker or more mediocre: We have no institutions, no science, no coordination, no counter-strategy. Most people are now indifferent or despondent. The rise of Islamic militancy is a symptom of how deplorable things are.

There is no easy fix for our present predicament.

It falls once again to intellectuals and men and women of conscience to speak rationally of what is really before us as a people. We must avoid easy formulas, and misleading displays like the recent summit, which make hypocrites of us all. Analysis, dedication, and a decent realizable vision: That is what we need to build ourselves up to a position where we can truly engage in dialogue, where we can really show those who speak for the West and Israel that we cannot tolerate our present status either as angry religious terrorists or as compliant Red Indians.