In his book Orientalism, Edward Said points to negligent and ignorant depictions of the East as homogeneously inferior to the West. This imperialist outlook also projects Eastern culture (a concept vivid in the mind of the Orientalist) as exotic and religiously dangerous. In other words, according to Orientalism, the West displays all the healthy signs of a civilized and diverse society that balances and separates the secular and the spiritual. Furthermore, since the East (more distinctively the Middle East) continues to ignore the necessary changes that modernity demands, the West thrives in its capacity to adapt and make the needed changes, while the East remains entrapped in ancient religious ideologies that undermine the reality of a functional and efficient world.
I argue that these types of over-generalizations breed ignorance and hate, since the otherness of the other (those residing outside our cultural and geographical boundaries) rarely matches up with reality. As a result, concepts such as Jihad and religious extremism become associated with Islam, and the actions of a few belong to the group as a whole. In this analysis, I discuss some of the more prevalent misrepresentations of Islam and the issues that rise from our misunderstanding.
Roxanne L. Euben and Muhammad Qasim Zaman invite the reader to reflect on many of these generalizations attributed to Islam and the Muslim community[i]. The authors begin by pointing out that Islamism is not “terrorism” or “Islamic extremism,” as the media particularly depicts it following the unfortunate events of September 11th, 2001[ii]. Instead, Islamism can be understood as “the attempt to return to the scriptural foundations of the Muslim community, excavating and reinterpreting them for application to the present-day social and political world” (4). Based on this definition, Islamism not only differs from its stereotypical depiction, but it also seeks to adapt to the changes that modernity presents. Yet, since it seeks to return the “scriptural foundations,” Islamism is often depicted as narrowed, dogmatic, and inflexible. The authors suggest that diverse interpretations of religious sacred messages do not belong only to the West and argue that “just as the Torah and Bible lend themselves to at times radically divergent interpretations of what it means to be Jewish or Christian, the Qur’an and hadith are complex and susceptible to many different, and at times contradictory, enactments” (28).
Clearly some Islamists claim to have the authentic interpretation of the Qur’an, and most argue for the public implementation of the Shari’a; yet, Islamists do not agree on every single topic viewed through the Islamic lens[iii]. For instance, Qutb and Qaradawi (among the most influential Islamists in the Sunni world) both advocated for a return to the authentic form of Islam; yet, their views and interpretations often conflicted with one another. Qutb argued that he was able to enter “into the heart of Muhammad and to see Gabriel as Muhammad saw him” (25). As a result, his interpretation of the Qur’an was not above other interpretations, but instead reflected and manifested the purest form of divine knowledge[iv]. Qaradawi disagreed with Qutb’s claims of perfect divine understanding and argue that educated Muslims can interpret the true nature of Islam and find a common meaning. My arguments points to the differences within a particular Islamic inclination (Islamism) which displays diverse perspectives; therefore, how can one attempt to depict Islam as uniformly extremist when within the most extremist approach we find various levels of intensity?
Jihad, another concept often misinterpreted in the West requires further investigation. Through the media, one often understands Jihad as the religious duty to fight those against the Muslim world. This form of extremist ideology seeks to destroy those against the true faith and the true god; yet, Euben and Zaman point to other definitions of Jihad based on a historical understanding of the tradition. For instance, Nadia Yassine (Islamist) insists that Jihad “is the dedicated struggle against arrogance, particularly in its common form as the lust for power and domination” (43). Furthermore, in his essay “Jihad and the Modern World,” Sherman A. Jackson points to the political background that envelops the concept of Jihad. The author argues that the Qur’an clearly depicts Arabia in a general state of conflict as he explains that “behind the Quranic injunction to fight was clearly connected with the very specific necessity of preserving the physical integrity of the Muslim community at a time and place when fighting, sometimes preemptively, sometimes defensively, was understood to be the only way to do so” (14). In addition, Jackson reminds us that the rules of Jihad welcome diversity of religious thought since they represent revenue to Muslim communities[v].
As we look at our political and religious reality, one must take into consideration the historical, cultural, and sociological background that give rise to ideologies and stereotypical interpretations of divergent cultural groups. A critical analysis generates an understanding founded in the recognition that Jihad and religious extremism are not properties of Islam, but instead take place everywhere, including our own backyard.
[i] See Princeton Readings in Islamic Thought—Texts and Contexts from Al-banna to Bin Laden
[ii] The authors argue, “In the wake of the events of September 11th, 2001, the array of names for the phenomenon has only proliferated, thereby adding to the terminological confusion” (3).
[iii] The authors point out, “while Islamists share the conviction that particular institutions, practices, and norms need to be refashioned in light of immutable divine commands, this conviction often rests on quite different views of Islamic history and civilization, of contemporary Muslim societies, and , not least, of religious authority and its loci” (16).
[iv] Qutb states, “only someone who has lived ‘in the shade of the Qur’an’ can understand their plight and remedy it” (15).
[v] Jackson reminds us that “ the rules of Jihad stipulated that non-Muslims remained free to practice their religion upon payment of the so-called jizya, or income tax, in exchange for which the Muslim state incurred the responsibility to protect them from outside attack”