Blaming Islam

Article excerpt

Can Muslims successfully educate the world about the neoconservative's religion-building enterprise?

Blaming Islam for the lack of democratic and scientific development in Muslim countries is an old enterprise rooted in nineteenth- and twentieth-century European Orientalism. In the 1980s, Dr. Edward Said unmasked such notions within western academia and exposed its false premises. In his seminal "Orientalism" (Vintage Books: 1979), Said showed how Orientalist views of Islam were used to justify Europe's colonial ambitions in the Muslim world. This monumental work was pivotal to the eventual transformation of Middle Eastern studies in Europe and America, for it obliged academics to embrace more scholarly and objective methods.

Specialists who were intent on presenting Islam and Muslims in a negative light were unhappy with this positive portrayal, as were those who had always considered their work to be objective. Many were particularly disturbed by the rise of authentic voices presenting Islam as a vibrant religion and Muslims as people who share many of the West's values and concerns. Led by historian Bernard Lewis (Princeton University), they attempted to refute Said's work and defend Orientalism. But Said's thesis was profound, and the Orientalists never fully recovered.

The 9/11 tragedy provided a new momentum to the Orientalist scheme. Lewis once again led the effort to revive Orientalist notions by publishing "What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response" (Oxford University Press: 2002). Using subtle arguments, he blamed Islam and Islamic traditions for Middle Eastern societies' failure to develop and modernize like the West. This book has since been followed by an avalanche of similar articles and publications, mostly by neoconservative journalists and pundits who reinforce Lewis' thesis and even blame Islam for the rise of terrorism as well as the rising tension between the West and the Muslim world.

Today, the blame game is led by neoconservative pundits who often present Islam as the new villain to be confronted by American military power. They consistently present Muslims as incapable of democratic rule and as holding values that are antithetical to world peace and religious tolerance. To ensure that the academic community does not challenge their views, neoconservatives work hard to undermine academic freedom by intimidating scholars who present a balanced view of the Middle East. One instrument of this crusade is the appearance of such books as Martin Kramer's "Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America" (Washington Institute for Near East Policy: 2001), which is no more than a diatribe against Middle East studies in American universities. ["Washington Post," March 24, 1989, said founder Martin Indyk, now of the Brookings Institution, had positioned WINEP as an organization "friendly to Israel" that was doing "credible research."] Another one is Daniel Pipes' Campus Watch (www.campus-watch.org), an organization devoted to smearing professors who criticize American foreign policy and Tel Aviv's treatment of Palestinians. This campaign seeks to block free thinking on Middle East politics and to silence voices that challenge its members' perspective.

Although many anti-Islam writers and neoconservative pundits play on fear by publishing books for a general audience, other publications are directed toward policymakers under the cover of such institutions and think tanks as the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the RAND Corporation. This activity began in 1992, when Department of Defense staffers Lewis "Scooter" Libby and Paul Wolfowitz drafted the "Defense Policy Guidance" (quashed soon after it was leaked to "The New York Times"). This was followed more discretely and of more depth in "Rebuilding America's Defenses," a report published in 2000 by the Project for the New American Century. Libby, a former senior advisor of the conservative Hudson Institute and Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, is now under federal indictment [one count of obstruction of justice, two counts of perjury, and two counts of making false statements in the 2003 outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame]. …