Running to stand still

Okay, so I admit it, I’ve done that thing you should never do on the internet – click on a link that you know will piss you off.  We all do it.  We all know we shouldn’t.  There are a few billion people on the internet, and you’re bound to disagree with a lot of them.  But sometimes it’s just impossible to resist.

So it was with me, when a conservative actor I follow on twitter posted a link entitled simply “Muhammad Hates Diversity.”  I couldn’t not read it.

What I found was a semi-incomprehensible op-ed by Ben Shapiro, one of America’s youngest professional talking heads[1], about Islam’s perception of the West.  I think.  It also mentions a shooting that took place in Oakland last week that is possibly related to a rapper, and there’s a strange turn at the end that somehow attempts to link America’s relationship to the Middle East, domestic abuse, and the kink community[2].  But the bulk of it seems to be about Islam’s perception of the West.

Mr Shapiro is, I think, attempting to argue that President Obama’s foreign policy is and will be badly received in the Middle East because he’s perceived to be Western, which Islam understands as fundamentally a bad thing.  There are any number of problems with that argument – President Obama’s foreign policy hasn’t been focused exclusively or even primarily on the Middle East, America’s standing abroad has improved considerably during his term, both in the Middle East and elsewhere, and many international thinkers and Muslim leaders have spoken positively of President Obama’s treatment of the Muslim world.

There’s also the larger problem with Mr Shapiro’s argument that the reason President Obama is destined to fail is that ‘the Muslim world isn’t as hung up on skin color as we are’.  Whilst it’s certainly the case that American perception of race is strongly tied to the history of slavery in this country, and so doesn’t work the same way overseas, I’ve never come across any culture or society that is completely blind to race.

It’s also true that there is a serious problem with human trafficking in many Muslim countries – many of those countries have corrupt governments, which is why so many of their people have been rebelling of late, and many are simply poor, which makes them an easy target for those involved in human trafficking.  However, the same is also true in central and south America, and it would probably seem ridiculous to most people to blame Christianity for human trafficking in those countries, so I don’t think we can blame Islam for human trafficking in Africa and Central Asia.  The fact is that human trafficking is an international problem, and will take an international solution, and at the moment, no one has the power or the interest to find one.

But the biggest problem I have with Mr Shapiro’s piece is that it was written this week.  This year.  That it’s been ten years since September 11th propelled Islam into the American consciousness, and someone can still write an op-ed about Islam with no citations, no particular cases or examples, just a lot of fear-mongering and vague references to ‘Islam’ and ‘the West’ as if either of these two monoliths actually exist.

As it happens, I suddenly have a lot of time on my hands – I submitted my final doctoral thesis earlier this month – and so I’ve been rereading Fred Halliday’s Islam and the Myth of Confrontation.  It’s a brilliant book, but part of what makes it an interesting read is that he wrote it in 1996, and so has an entirely different view of Islam than we have now.  He has a chapter on the Iranian revolution and another on the Gulf War, but Syria, Afghanistan, Egypt and the whole of North Africa are barely mentioned.  He also doesn’t know what to call the phenomenon he’s writing against – the term ‘Islamophobia’ isn’t in his vocabulary, and so he talks a lot about ‘anti-Muslim sentiment’ or ‘anti-Muslim interests’.  But because it’s pre-9-11, he can also write sensibly about Islamism, free of the hysteria and paranoia that has characterized so much of the scholarship produced in the last ten years.

And, as it happens, despite writing fifteen years before Mr Shapiro, he answers his concerns directly: ‘if there are myths about ‘Islam,’ they are ones invented and propagated not just in the supposed hegemonic world of Europe and the USA, but also within the supposedly dominated and oppressed arena of ‘Islam’ itself'[3].

The thing that Mr Shapiro is writing about exists – there are Muslim thinkers who claim that ‘the West’ is a demon to be slain – but it’s as much a myth as the belief propagated by some American thinkers that all Muslims are terrorists.  It’s a story that has been created and propagated for a particular agenda and for a specific purpose.  Part of the problem that we have faced in attempting to create any kind of real, lasting dialogue with the Muslim world is that for decades, these two myths have been feeding each other, and Mr Shapiro and his ilk are continuing this tradition.  They are ‘the West’ that conservative Muslim thinkers are rallying against – it’s not hard to assemble an argument that Americans want to wipe out Islamic practice based on their writing, and that’s exactly what’s done.

And so here we are, a decade and a half after Professor Halliday discussed the problem of this international myth-building, and a decade after September 11th, and it seems we’re still exactly in the same place.  And it starts to feel like I, and everyone in my field, are all just running to stand still.

[1] I am slightly amazed to learn he’s the same age as me.  Dude.

[2] In all seriousness, Mr Shapiro, if you ever end up reading this, please believe me that those three things have nothing in common except that there are vowels in all of those words.  Also, most victims of domestic abuse don’t ‘come back for more’, and certainly don’t ‘beg for the beating’.  People in the kink community are sane, stable, competent adults who are consenting to the actions carried out on them (or have the consent of the people on whom they are acting, depending).  Victims of domestic abuse are just that – victims.  They are having these actions forced upon them, often to the point of death.  It’s kind of an important distinction.

[3] Fred Halliday, Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (New York, 1996), p. 111.

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About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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2 Responses to Running to stand still

  1. Nahida says:

    America’s standing abroad has improved considerably during his term

    That’s probably a negative–any president of whom all these other countries WHO WANT TO DESTROY AMERICA! approve is only an indication of how terrible he is.

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