A Devil Theory of Islam

A Devil Theory of Islam

by Edward W. Said

This article appeared in the August 12, 1996 edition of The Nation.
July 25, 2000

Judith Miller is a New York Times reporter much in evidence on talk
shows and seminars on the Middle East. She trades in “the Islamic
threat” — her particular mission has been to advance the millennial
thesis that militant Islam is a danger to the West. The search for a
post-Soviet foreign devil has come to rest, as it did beginning in
the eighth century for European Christendom, on Islam, a religion
whose physical proximity and unstilled challenge to the West seem as
diabolical and violent now as they did then. Never mind that most
Islamic countries today are too poverty-stricken, tyrannical and
hopelessly inept militarily as well as scientifically to be much of a
threat to anyone except their own citizens; and never mind that the
most powerful of them — like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Pa
kistan — are totally within the U.S. orbit. What matters
to “experts” like Miller, Samuel Huntington, Martin Kramer, Bernard
Lewis, Daniel Pipes, Steven Emerson and Barry Rubin, plus a whole
battery of Israeli academics, is to make sure that the “threat” is
kept before our eyes, the better to excoriate Islam for terror,
despotism and violence, while assuring themselves profitable
consultancies, frequent TV appearances and book contracts. The
Islamic threat is made to seem disproportionately fearsome, lending
support to the thesis (which is an interesting parallel to anti-
Semitic paranoia) that there is a worldwide conspiracy behind every

Political Islam has generally been a failure wherever it has tried to
take state power. Iran is a possible exception, but neither Sudan,
already an Islamic state, nor Algeria, riven by the contest between
Islamic groups and a brutal soldiery, has done anything but make
itself poorer and more marginal on the world stage. Lurking beneath
the discourse of Islamic peril in the West is, however, some measure
of truth, which is that appeals to Islam among Muslims have fueled
resistance (in the style of what Eric Hobsbawm has called primitive,
pre-industrial rebellion) to the Pax Americana-Israelica throughout
the Middle East. Yet neither Hezbollah nor Hamas has presented a
serious obstacle to the ongoing steamroller of the anything-but- peace
process. Most Arab Muslims today are too discouraged and humiliated,
and also too anesthetized by uncertainty and their incompetent and
crude dictatorships, to support anything like a vast Islamic campaign
against the West. Besides, the elites are for the most part in
cahoots with the regimes, supporting martial law and other extralegal
measures against “extremists. ” So why, then, the accents of alarm and
fear in most discussions of Islam? Of course there have been suicide
bombings and outrageous acts of terrorism, but have they accomplished
anything except to strengthen the hand of Israel and the United
States and their client regimes in the Muslim world?

The answer, I think, is that books like Miller’s are symptomatic
because they are weapons in the contest to subordinate, beat down,
compel and defeat any Arab or Muslim resistance to U.S.-Israeli
dominance. Moreover, by surreptitiously justifying a policy of single-
minded obduracy that links Islamism to a strategically important, oil-
rich part of the world, the anti-Islam campaign virtually eliminates
the possibility of equal dialogue between Islam and the Arabs, and
the West or Israel. To demonize and dehumanize a whole culture on the
ground that it is (in Lewis’s sneering phrase) enraged at modernity
is to turn Muslims into the objects of a therapeutic, punitive
attention. I do not want to be misunderstood here: The manipulation
of Islam, or for that matter Christianity or Judaism, for retrograde
political purposes is catastrophically bad and must be opposed, not
just in Saudi Arabia, the West Bank and Gaza, Pakistan, Sudan,
Algeria and Tunisia but also in Israel, among the right-wing
Christians in Lebanon (for whom Miller shows an unseemly sympathy)
and wherever theocratic tendencies appear. And I do not at all
believe that all the ills of Muslim countries are due to Zionism and
imperialism. But this is very far from saying that Israel and the
United States, and their intellectual flacks, have not played a
combative, even incendiary role in stigmatizing and heaping invidious
abuse on an abstraction called “Islam,” deliberately in order to stir
up feelings of anger and fear about Islam among Americans and
Europeans, who are also enjoined to see in Israel a secular, liberal
alternative. Miller says unctuously at the beginning of her book that
right-wing Judaism in Israel is “the subject of another book.” It is
actually very much part of the book that she has written, except that
she has willfully suppressed it in order to go after “Islam.”

Writing about any other part of the world, Miller would be considered
woefully unqualified. She tells us that she has been involved with
the Middle East for twenty-five years, yet she has little knowledge
of either Arabic or Persian. It would be impossible to be taken
seriously as a reporter or expert on Russia, France, Germany or Latin
America, perhaps even China or Japan, without knowing the requisite
languages, but for “Islam,” linguistic knowledge is unnecessary since
what one is dealing with is considered to be a psychological
deformation, not a “real” culture or religion.

What of her political and historical information? Each of the ten
country chapters (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan) begins with an anecdote
and moves immediately to a potted history that reflects not much more
than the work of a name-dropping college sophomore. Cobbled up out of
various, not always reliable authorities (her pages of footnotes are
tainted by her ignorance, whether because she can only cite the
sources she already knows she wants in English, or because she quotes
only authorities whose views correspond to hers, thereby closing out
an entire library by Muslims, Arabs and non-Orientalist scholars),
these histories are meant principally to display her command of the
material, but actually expose her lamentable prejudices and failures
of comprehension. In the Saudi Arabia chapter, for instance, she
informs us in a note that her “favorite” source on the Prophet
Mohammed is the French Orientalist Maxime Rodinson, a redoubtable
Marxist scholar whose biography of the Prophet is written with a
bracing combination of anti-clerical irony and enormous erudition.
What Miller gets from this in her short summary of Mohammed’s life
and ideas is that there is something inherently risible, if not
contemptible, about the man whom Rodinson says was a combination of
Charlemagne and Jesus Christ; for whereas Rodinson understands what
that means, Miller tells us (irrelevantly) that she is not convinced.
For her, Mohammed is the begetter of an anti-Jewish religion, one
laced with violence and paranoia. She does not directly quote one
Muslim source on Mohammed; just imagine a book published in the
United States on Jesus or Moses that makes no use of a single
Christian or Judaic authority.

Most of Miller’s book is made up not of argument and ideas but of
endless interviews with what seems to be a slew of pathetic,
unconvincing, self-serving scoundrels and their occasional critics.
Once past her little histories we are adrift in boring, unstructured
meanderings. Here’s a typical sentence of insubstantial
generalization: “And Syrians, mindful of their country’s chaotic
history” (of what country on earth is this not also true?) “found the
prospect of a return to anarchy or yet another prolonged, bloody
power struggle — ” (is this uniquely true of Syria as a postcolonial
state, or is it true of a hundred others in Asia, Africa, Latin
America?) “and perhaps even the triumph of militant Islam in the most
secular” (with what thermometer did she get that reading?) “of all
Arab states — alarming.” Leave aside the abominable diction and jaw-
shattering jargon of the writing. What you have is not an idea at all
but a series of clichés mixed with unverifiable assertions that
reflect the “thought” of “Syrians” much less than they do Miller’s.

Miller gilds her paper-thin descriptions with the phrase “my friend,”
which she uses to convince her reader that she really knows the
people and consequently what she is talking about. I counted 247 uses
of the phrase before I stopped about halfway through the book. This
technique produces extraordinary distortions in the form of long
digressions that testify to an Islamic mindset, even as they obscure
or ignore more or at least equally relevant material like local
politics, the functioning of secular institutions and the active
intellectual contest taking place between Islamists and nationalist
opponents. She seems never to have heard of Arkoun, or Jabri, or
Tarabishi, or Adonis, or Hanafi or Djeit, whose theses are hotly
debated all over the Islamic world.

This appalling failure of analysis is especially true in the chapter
on Israel (mistitled, since it is all about Palestine), where she
ignores the changes caused by the intifada and the prolonged effect
of the three-decade Israeli occupation, and conveys no sense of the
abominations wrought on the lives of ordinary Palestinians by the
Oslo accords and Yasir Arafat’s one-man rule. Although Miller is
obsessed with Hamas, she is clearly unable to connect it with the
sorry state of affairs in territories run brutally by Israel for all
these years. She never mentions, for instance, that the only
Palestinian university not established with Palestinian funds is
Gaza’s Islamic (Hamas) University, started by Israel to undermine the
P.L.O. during the intifada. She records Mohammed’s depredations
against the Jews but has little to say about Israeli beliefs,
statements and laws against “non-Jews,” often rabbinically sanctioned
practices of deportation, killing, house demolition, land
confiscation, annexation and what Sara Roy has called systematic
economic de-development. If in her breathlessly excitable way Miller
sprinkles around a few of these facts, nowhere does she accord them
the weight and influence as causes of Islamist passion that they
undoubtedly have.

Maddeningly, she informs us of everyone’s religion — such and so is
Christian, or Muslim Sunni, Muslim Shiite, etc. Even so, she is not
always accurate, managing to produce some howlers. She speaks of
Hisham Sharabi as a friend but misidentifies him as a Christian; he
is Sunni Muslim. Badr el Haj is described as Muslim whereas he is
Maronite Christian. These lapses wouldn’t be so bad were she not bent
on revealing her intimacy with so many people. And then there is her
bad faith in not identifying her own religious background or
political predilections. Are we meant to assume that her religion
(which I don’t think is Islam or Hinduism) is irrelevant?

She is embarrassingly forthcoming, however, about her reactions to
people and power and certain events. She is “grief-stricken” when
King Hussein of Jordan is diagnosed with cancer, although she
scarcely seems to mind that he runs a police state whose many victims
have been tortured, unfairly imprisoned, done away with. One realizes
of course that what counts here is her hobnobbing with the little
King, but some accurate sense of the “modern” kingdom he rules would
have been in order. Her eyes “filled with tears — of rage” as she
espies evidence of desecration of a Lebanese Christian mosaic, but
she doesn’t bother to mention other desecrations in Israel — for
example, of Muslim graveyards — and hundreds of exterminated
villages in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine. Her real contempt and disdain
come out in passages like the following, in which she imputes
thoughts and wishes to a middle-class Syrian woman whose daughter has
just become an Islamist:

She would never have any of the things a middle-class Syrian mother
yearned for: no grand wedding party and traditional white dress with
diamond tiara for her daughter, no silver-framed photos of the happy
wedding couple in tuxedo and bridal gown on the coffee table and
fireplace mantel, no belly dancers wriggling on a stage and champagne
that flowed till dawn. Perhaps Nadine’s friends, too, had daughters
or sons who had rejected them, who secretly despised them for the
compromises they had made to win the favor of Assad’s cruel and
soulless regime. For if the daughter of such pillars of the Damascene
bourgeoisie could succumb to the power of Islam, who was immune?

Such snide accounts trivialize and cheapen the people whose houses
and privacy she has invaded.

Given her willingness to undercut even her friendly sources, the most
interesting question about Miller’s book is why she wrote it at all.
Certainly not out of affection. Consider, for instance, that she
admits she fears and dislikes Lebanon, hates Syria, laughs at Libya,
dismisses Sudan, feels sorry for and a little alarmed by Egypt and is
repulsed by Saudi Arabia. She is relentlessly concerned only with the
dangers of organized Islamic militancy, which I would hazard a guess
accounts for less than 5 percent of the billion-strong Islamic world.
She supports the violent suppression of Islamists (but not torture
and other “illegal means” used in that suppression; she misses the
contradiction in her position), has no qualms about the absence of
democratic practices or legal procedures in Palestine, Egypt or
Jordan so long as Islamists are the target and, in one especially
nauseating scene, she actually participates in the prison
interrogation of an alleged Muslim terrorist by Israeli policemen,
whose systematic use of torture and other questionable procedures
(undercover assassinations, middle-of-the- night arrests, house
demolitions) she politely overlooks as she gets to ask the handcuffed
man a few questions of her own.

Perhaps Miller’s most consistent failing as a journalist is that she
only makes connections and offers analyses of matters that suit her
thesis about the militant, hateful quality of the Arab world. I have
little quarrel with the general view that the Arab world is in a
dreadful state, and have said so repeatedly for the past three
decades. But she barely registers the existence of a determined anti-
Arab and anti-Islamic U.S. policy. She plays fast and loose with
fact. Take Lebanon: She refers to Bashir Gemayel’s assassination in
1982 and gives the impression that he was elected by a popular
landslide. She does not even allude to the fact that he was brought
to power while the Israeli army was in West Beirut, just before the
Sabra and Shatila camp massacres, and that for years, according to
Israeli sources like Uri Lubrani, Gemayel was the Mossad’s man in
Lebanon. That he was a self-proclaimed killer and a thug is also
finessed, as is the fact that Lebanon’s current power structure is
chock-full of people like Elie Hobeika, who was charged directly for
the camp massacres. Miller cites instances of Arab anti-Semitism but
doesn’t even touch on the matter of Israeli leaders like Begin,
Shamir, Eitan and, more recently, Ehud Barak (idolized by Amy Wilentz
in The New Yorker) referring to Palestinians as two-legged beasts,
grasshoppers, cockroaches and mosquitoes. These leaders have used
planes and tanks to treat Palestinians accordingly. As for the facts
of Israel’s wars against civilians — the protracted, consistent and
systematic campaign against prisoners of war and refugee camp
dwellers, the village destructions and bombings of hospitals and
schools, the deliberate creation of hundreds of thousands of
refugees — all these are buried in reams of prattle. Miller disdains
facts; she prefers quoting interminable talk as a way of turning
Arabs into deserving victims of Israeli terror and U.S. support of
it. She perfectly exemplifies The New York Times’s current Middle
East coverage, now at its lowest ebb.

In her lame conclusion Miller admits that her scolding may have been
a little too harsh. She then puts it all down to her “love” of the
region and its people. I cannot honestly think of a thing that she
loves: not the conformism of Arab society she talks about, or the
ostentatious culinary display she says that the Arabs confuse with
hospitality, or the languages she hasn’t learned, or the people she
makes fun of or the history and culture of a place that to her is one
long tale of unintelligible sound and fury. She cannot enter into the
life of the place, listen to its conversations directly, read its
novels and plays on her own (as opposed to making friends with their
authors), enjoy the energy and refinements of its social life or see
its landscapes. But this is the price of being a Times reporter in an
age of sullen “expertise” and instant position-taking. You wouldn’t
know from Miller’s book that there is any inter-Arab conflict in
interpretations and representations of the Middle East and Islam and
that, given her choice of sources, she is deeply partisan: an enemy
of Arab nationalism, which she declares dead numerous times in the
book; a supporter of U.S. policy; and a committed foe of any
Palestinian nationalism that doesn’t conform to the bantustans being
set up according to the Oslo accords. Miller, in short, is a shallow,
opinionated journalist whose gigantic book is too long for what it
ends up saying, and far too short on reflection, considered analysis,
structure and facts. Poor Muslims and Arabs who may have trusted her;
they should have known better than to mistake an insinuated guest for
a friend.


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