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Covering Islam, by Edward W. Said
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Covering Islam, by Edward W. Said

Covering Islam could be called Orientalism, Part II. In Covering Islam, Edward Said continues his thesis that Western “Orientalists”, in the service of Western spy agencies and imperial governments—especially in the U.S.—distort and discriminate against Muslims, Arabs, and in general anyone with dark skin. His works, including Covering Islam, are a good counter to the torrent of anti-Islam propaganda coming out of Washington these days, and they deserve close reading, but unfortunately Said takes his case too far, and frames it in a shrill verbose style, with a resulting thesis that is strident, defensive, persecutorial, and ultimately unexamined and shallow. For example, Said accuses Western reporters of ignorance, ethnocentrism, cultural and racial hatred, and free-floating hostility to Islam.

But these apply as much if not more to Muslims who criticize the West when they presume that the West is Christian, or run by “whites”. Much of the Muslim world, in short, could be accused of a biased and uninformed “Occidentalism” more fairly than Said’s shallow charges of a biased Orientalism, reflected in the fact that virtually every book of any value published in Arabic, Farsi, or Turkish is eventually translated into English, while almost no books published in English are ever translated into these languages due to the total lack of interest on the part of the Islamic world in learning anything from the West short of how quickly to immigrate. Compare this to Japan’s eager absorption of absolutely everything from the West, followed today by China. Who then is the more “ethnocentric”?

Despite Washington’s global effort to dislodge the traditional structures that undergird traditional Islam waged by its military and intelligence agencies, there is in fact no Colonial Office in the U.S., and only a military complex that is none too intelligent since it is entirely divorced from the academic departments that in most other countries actively serve the national interests. In the U.S., academia are devoted to tearing down the national interest, so maybe it makes sense for the U.S. military to ignore them. But this runs directly counter to Said’s thesis. It is true that the military’s interest in Islam extends only to: Where are they? and How much ammunition do we have? But Academia is, in fact, pro-Islam if anything and in the U.S. is at total loggerheads with the government and military.

So there is little of substance in Said’s thesis, at least as he turgidly presents it. Moreover, he accuses his critics of being mere “shallow opinionated journalists,” but he himself is even worse—a mere English instructor who is surprisingly poorly informed about historical events, and, for an English professor, a surprisingly poor writer. He also repeatedly hysterically asserts that Western media is biased and ignores human rights. But the media is always biased. One chooses which media channel comports with one’s factional views and gets one’s news from that source; there is no “objective” source for news and none claim to be. And human rights in the sense of natural law has long been rejected by intellectual elites in the U.S.—only the vocabulary continues to be used by the media to delude the uninformed and hoi polloi. Human rights today are whatever the power-mongers say they are:  no more, no less. Said is (or was) part of this same academia.

So why the drama and outrage? In the end, Said’s position is that bias prevents the U.S. from learning the truth about Islam. But this is naive and backward. The fact is, with most Americans and Westerners in general, the more they learn about Islam, the less they like it. Despite his rejection of Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, the clash that has Said so worked up is in fact about fundamental values, not superficial bias, and stems from accurate information that Westerners find disturbing, not ignorance of Islam.

As for prejudice and dark skin, again Said strangely fails to comprehend that the U.S. is a global multilingual, multi-ethnic, and multicultural society, so ethnocentrism and racism are so rare that such attitudes are almost inconceivable in the U.S. today. So to label the U.S as “white”, whatever that simplistic superficial term is supposed to indicate, is a reductio ad absurdam. Covering Islam is worth reading if one has not read Orientalism, but if one has, then this book is redundant. —SiriusReviews.com

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