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UFPPC (www.ufppc.

org) Digging Deeper CXXIV May 24,


2010, 7:00 p.m.

Edward W. Said, Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine
How We See the Rest of the World, revised and updated edition (New
York: Vintage Books/Random House, March 1997). Original hardcover
edition published January 1981.

[Thesis. "[C]overing Islam from the dedicated to advancing Samuel


United States, the last superpower, is not Huntington's "clash of civilizations
interpretation in the genuine sense but diatribe" (xxxiv-xliii). Analysis of a radio
an assertion of power" (150).] exchange between Serge Schmemann of
the New York Times and Robert Fisk of
Introduction to the Vintage Edition the London Independent demonstrate
[dated 1996]. Since Covering Islam how these "can actually affect daily
was published, the spread of negative reporting" (xliii-xlvii). Their role has been
images of Islam has intensified (xi-xii). "very well analyzed" by Noam Chomsky;
Granted, there have been many Said hopes this book "will serve as an
"provocations and troubling incidents" antidote" (xlviii).
like the bombing of Marine barracks in
Lebanon in 1983, plane hijackings and Introduction [October 1980].
the 1988 explosion of Pan Am Flight 109 Covering Islam completes a trilogy that
over Lockerbie, Khomeini's fatwa against began with Orientalism (1978) and The
Salman Rushdie, the emergence of the Question of Palestine (1979). Its subject
Taliban, the bombing of the World Trade is "Western and specifically American
Center in 1993, and the rise of militant responses to an Islamic world perceived,
Islamism, while Muslims have been since the early seventies, as being
attacked by Westerners in Bosnia, immensely relevant and yet
Palestine, and Chechnya (xii-xv). "To antipathetically troubled and
most Americans, Islam was nothing but problematic" (l). The title puns on
trouble" (xv). But this generalization is journalist coverage and covering up the
"unacceptable" and "irresponsible" (xvi). truth (l-lii). Islam represents a special
Islam is often assimilated to case of a general Western predicament:
fundamentalism, which is then coming to grips with the postcolonial
assimilated to fascism or communism or world (lii-liii). Western élites are
totalitarianism and purveyed in mass nostalgic for lost hegemony (liii-lv). In
media (xvi-xx). This image has been put the West there is an anti-Islamic
at the service of Israel (xxi-xxii). Martin consensus (lv). "This book describes the
Peretz's The New Republic and Morton uses of 'Islam' for the West" (lv-lvi). All
Zuckerman's The Atlantic have promoted Western discourse on Islam is saturated
the negative image of Islam (xxii-xxiv). with politics (though specialists usually
The same hostility and reductionism is to deny it) and the sources of statements
be found in other media (xxiv-xxvii). must always be taken into account (lvi-
Alternative interpretations, emphasizing lx). Postscript [Feb. 9, 1981].
the importance of secularism in the Criticism of media coverage in the
Muslim world, are ignored (xxvii-xxix). aftermath of the release by Iran of the 52
Bernard Lewis, "[o]ne of the worst American hostages on Jan. 20, 1981 (lx-
offenders," produces "crude polemics" lxv). Carter's insistence that the
(xxix; xxxii; xxix-xxxiii). These ideas hostages were "innocent" is
"have come to a kind of apotheosis in the "extraordinarily symptomatic" (lxv-lxvi).
work of journalists like Judith Miller," The essentialism in Bruce Laingen's
analysis of a timeless irrational "Persian meanings . . . we receive" (45-46,
psyche" in an Aug. 13, 1979, cable to emphasis in original). C. Wright Mills (46-
U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, to 47). Western sources of meanings and
the neglect of the actual historical interpretations (47-49). The culture of
experience of Iranians (lxvi-lxx). Said American mass media and its pressure
advocates respect for experience, and toward a consensus that American power
compassion (lxx). is good (49-57). Maxine Rodinson on the
complexity of "Islam" (57-59). Albert
Ch. 1: Islam as News. I. Islam and Hourani on the difficulty of generalizing
the West. Orientalism identifies Islam about "Islamic history" (60-61). Social
as an essentially different other viewed and political complexities (62-65). Islam
with hostility and fear (3-5). Beginning in is rich in "interpretive energy" but like
1978 with the Iranian revolution, Islam America is too focused on the conflict
has more and more been viewed through between "'Islam'" and "'the West'" (66-
this prism (5-9). As a term, "Islam" 68). III. The Princess Episode in
denotes, but it also connotes (9-11), as Context. PBS's "Death of a Princess,"
an article by John Kifner of the New York broadcast on May 12, 1980—its context
Times demonstrates (11-12). Unlike and aftermath (69-76). PBS's "Jihad in
Europeans, Americans had had little America" (1995) (76-79).
direct contact with or interest in Islam
(13-16). Prior to 1978 most American Ch. 2: The Iran Story. I. Holy War.
scholarship on Islam was mostly The Iran hostage crisis is a good case for
antiquarian (16-19). Those involved with analyzing Islam in American media (81-
the contemporary world are inevitably 83). U.S. was portrayed as at bay, on the
drawn into the orbit of power—a defensive (83-86). Islam, and Shia Islam,
longstanding problem, which is the point were often implicitly essentialized even
of Said's notion of "Orientalism" (19-25). as ignorance of Islam was demonstrated
Orientalism involves a pretense of coolly by an inability to pronounce names (86-
superior rationality combined with 88). Coverage in the New York Times
imperial interests (25-28). Through the (88-94). II. The Loss of Iran. The
optics of modernization theory, Iran was "strangely unsatisfying" character of
viewed as exemplary; the view that the PBS's MacNeil/Lehrer Report (95-97).
religious revolution was regarded as Praise for an article by I.F. Stone, astute
atavistic was purveyed, often with Israeli and refreshingly free of simplistic notions
mediation, by policymakers, academics, (97-98). Joseph Kraft's paean to U.S.
and journalists (29-35). II. power in the Washington Post (98-99).
Communities of Interpretation. Islam The actual struggle for power in Iran,
burst on the journalistic scene with OPEC which does not fit with the notion that
in 1974 (36-41). Michael Walzer (41-42), Islam is monolithic and unchanging, was
Flora Lewis (42), and Samuel P. scarcely reported while it was happening
Huntington (42-43) critiqued. No one can (100-01). Exceptions (101-02). But
speak objectively about Islam, only about vapidness in reporting was the rule (103-
"communities of interpretation," for "[n]o 09). III. Unexamined and Hidden
one lives in direct contact either with Assumptions. Arrogance, aggressive
truth or with reality. Each of us lives in a hyperbole, euphemism, neglect of
world actually made by human historical context (110-22). IV. Another
beings . . . Not that truth and reality do Country. Eric Rouleau's reporting for Le
not exist. . . . But . . . we tend to Monde was vastly superior to anything in
disregard or minimize the extent to the U.S. (123-33).
which we depend for our sense of
reality . . . on interpretations and
Ch. 3: Knowledge and Power. I. The more persuasive and influential, in the
Politics of Interpreting Islam: West than any other 'coverage' or
Orthodox and Antithetical interpretation" (169, emphasis in
Knowledge. Orientalists have been and original). Intellectual specialization is
continue to be, as a passage by Bernard inevitable, but it is also subject to
Lewis shows, naively confident that they "common sense and critical assessment"
could achieve "knowledge" of Islam (135- (170). The "first act of interpretation
40). A team of experts commissioned by today" is to decide "whether to put
the Middle East Studies Association in intellect at the service of power or at the
1973 reached a very different conclusion: service of criticism, community, dialogue,
that area studies have political motives and moral sense" (172). Unless the
(141-43). In America and Europe, latter choice is made, "protracted
"negative images of Islam" prevail (144). tensions and perhaps even war" for the
Seminars held at Princeton from 1971 to West as well as, for the Muslim world,
1978 show how politically interested is "the prospect of many wars,
this discipline in the West (144-49). For unimaginable suffering, and disastrous
scholars venturing into the public eye, upheavals, not the least of which would
Islam becomes "in a sense a commodity" be the victory of an 'Islam' fully ready to
(150). Methodological self-consciousness play the role prepared for it by reaction,
and noncoercive contact, the orthodoxy, and desperation" (173).
preconditions of "knowing another
culture," have been lacking (150). In the Notes. 13 pp. Though the text has
U.S., scholars have formed an "old-boy been updated, no new sources appear in
corporation-government-university the notes.
network dominating the whole
enterprise" of studying Islam in a way Index. 12 pp. Like the notes, the index
that did not occur in Britain and France appears not to have been updated.
(150-54). The structure of the production
of orthodox knowledge of Islam and the [Acknowledgments.] 2 pp.
politics, pressures, and markets that
influence it explain how it is that About the Author. Edward Said was
academic experts on Islam reinforce born in Jerusalem. His B.A. is from
rather than challenge vulgar media Princeton and his M.A. and Ph.D. from
stereotypes (154-57). But there also Harvard. He taught at Harvard and Johns
exists an antithetical knowledge of Islam Hopkins but spent most of his academic
produced by (1) younger scholars who career at Columbia. He died in 2003.
are "more honest politically" (158), (2)
dissident older scholars like Hamid Alger [Additional information. Edward
and Nikki Keddie on Iran (158-59), and Said was born on Nov. 1, 1935. His
(3) radicals (159-61). II. Knowledge father was a U.S. citizen; his mother was
and Interpretation. All writing about born in Nazareth; both came from
human society "rests on judgment and Protestant backgrounds. He wrote some
interpretation"; to attain the status of twenty books, of which Orientalism
knowledge it must derive from (1978; new edition 2003) has been the
noncoercive contact and methodological most influential. He taught for forty
reflection (162-65). Some interest is years at Columbia from 1963 until his
always involved (165). Contemporary death on Sept. 25, 2003, at the age of
study of Islam glosses over this problem 67).]
(165-68). For reasons this book has
investigated, orthodox coverage of Islam [Critique. Said's powerful critique has,
has been "more diffused, has seemed alas, proved prophetic; his 1996 preface
predicted wars and upheavals that have Francis Bacon does not "doubt," he "in
since occurred. Covering Islam is fueled effect expresses all sorts of doubts." —
by a passionate resentment, and Said's Said often disguises his passions behind
prose often smolders covertly. The a pose of Olympian calm that is curiously
longtime Columbia professor relished the patrician for so radical a thinker. For
haughty genre of academic polemic, of example, the fact that he engaged in a
which this is an example. But Covering furious polemical exchange with Bernard
Islam (1981) is not as effective as was Lewis in the New York Review of Books
the better-researched Orientalism (1978) after the publication in 1978 of
in demonstrating the deep-seated Orientalism is never mentioned here, but
interestedness and bias of Western in Covering Islam Said takes revenge by
studies of Islam. By comparison it is insulting Lewis snidely (137) (in his 1996
impressionistic in its approach. — preface Said is more direct in his
Occasionally Said seems evasive, never criticism of Lewis [xxix-xxxiii]). — Said
mentioning, for example, the widespread downplays the role of specifically
resistance by Islamic authorities to the religious (Christian and Biblical) interests
study of the Koran with techniques of in driving Middle Eastern Studies,
critical-historical analysis. Of his own preferring to highlight Western state
background, he says only that "I myself interests (which were, granted,
am neither religious nor of an Islamic intertwined). — Said's updating of the
background" (45), despite his emphasis text did not extend to notes and index;
on the importance of perspective. — At thus the attribution of the origin to the
the level of syntax, a tic of Said's style is notion of a "clash of civilizations" to
to be oversubtle: for example, in the Bernard Lewis, an important point, is not
space of four lines on page 135 things sourced. On this subject see Alain
are not "flawed," they are "believed to be Gresh's article "À l'origine d'un concept"
flawed"; they are not "inaugurated," they in the September 2004 number of Le
are "considered to be inaugurated"; Monde Diplomatique (http://www.ufppc.org/us-a-
world-news-mainmenu-35/1265/).]