The new orientalism

The observation of young Muslims – once the principal drivers of the revolution – chanting angry slogans and burning flags, illustrated nothing more than the ashes of hopeful optimism, scorched by the flames of a volatile religious ideology

In light of recent protests by Muslims around the world, in reaction to the Anti-Islamic amateur movie ‘Innocence of Muslims’, the responses anticipated from western commentators were somewhat expected. Deemed as ‘anti-modern’, ‘barbaric’ and the ‘enemies of free speech’, the consensus amongst most major news outlets in Europe and the United States, seemed to be a unanimous confirmation that the post- ‘Arab Spring’ Middle East had failed to change the Muslim mentality.

Though some were subtler than others, the observation of young Muslims – once the principal drivers of the revolution – chanting angry slogans and burning flags, illustrated nothing more than the ashes of hopeful optimism, scorched by the flames of a volatile religious ideology. Indeed, no better is such disappointment reflected, than in the upcoming headline of Newsweek magazine, boldly entitled, “Muslim Rage”.
Yet, it might be these types of perceptions that prove a greater obstacle in our understanding of what we view as the ‘Muslim world’. It is certainly true that more confident and vocal Salafi groups hold a significant amount of responsibility in stirring up violence and hatred, especially amongst an empowered, but still impressionable youth.

Nonetheless, far from being the root cause, these Salafists occupy only a symptomatic position in relation to a much larger infection – one in which even in it’s first contact with the East, the Western world has failed to diagnose. ‘The Innocence of Muslims’ is more than just a film criticising the Islamic faith. Its crude depictions are not only directed at the Prophet Muhammad, but also extend to a revolting characterisation of ‘Islamic civilization’ itself – one which is moulded by barbarity, violence and overtly masculine sexual subjugation. In doing this, the film has revived the same ghosts that have haunted both prominent academics and Western policy makers in their approach to a still mysterious and elusive ‘Islamic World’.

In 1990, the historian Bernard Lewis, published an essay, entitled ‘The Roots of Muslim Rage’ in the Atlantic Monthly. In the essay, Lewis argued that ‘Muslim Civilization’ was stuck in a state of paralysis, trapped by sense of victimhood that largely derived from a multitude of successive military defeats and economic decline. The once great civilization, in Lewis’ view, could only look back at a nostalgic ‘Golden Age’, while it found itself confined in a seemingly inescapable inferiority complex – one in which dignity continually deteriorated through direct imperialism, and eventually, Western supported despotic rulers.

‘Muslim Rage’ in this sense, particularly in light of the Rushdie affair, was ultimately portrayed as proof of an anti-modern, inferior, and ultimately dangerous civilization it seemed justified for the wiser, secular West to contain. It was of course, Lewis’ contemporary, Edward Said, who had continually contested such claims. In the 1978 publication of Orientalism, Said had argued that a position such as Lewis’ simply assisted in cultivating images of a pathetic ‘Muslim peoples’, who ultimately required the West for its own good. Although Said remains a potent intellectual force in academia to this day, it was Lewis that was brought in from obscurity to the office of Dick Cheney, and it was Lewis’ view that played a fundamental role in developing America’s Middle East strategy during the Bush years.

If the revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East have taught us anything, it is the confirmation that perceptions of a backward, anti-modern Middle East do little to reflect the obvious realities. Yet, for all the openness and curiosity of its people, we should understand that the role of the Islamic faith, and the Prophet Muhammad, remains a central component in both practical organisation and communal identification- particularly in a climate where such beliefs have assisted significantly in dismantling heinous despotic regimes.

Yet, despite this early revival, it still seems too tempting for us to revert back to a toxic narrative entrenched in outdated ideology, where Muslims are rendered helpless by their own inadequacies and a ‘backward’ rejection of seemingly superior Western, democratic values. The continuation of such condescending beliefs, whether through artistic expression or public policy, will not just augment frustration and anger. Ultimately, it will do little to heal our already fragile relations with the post-Arab Spring region.


  1. “These Salafists occupy only a symptomatic position in relation to a much larger infection”

    You seem to imply that the extremist sects of Islam are not at the core of the cause of anti-Western sentiment but are not even the origin of such a movement, that instead it is the West’s image of Islamic states that is the cause.

    If this is what you are saying – and I hope it isn’t – then you are making a very strong statement over the causes of state-sponsored and group-driven terrorist attacks on Western culture and people over the last 30 years.

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  2. Hi Duncan,

    I would say that extremist Salafists exploit anti-western sentiment and use it to mobilise, than being the root factor. Having been in the M.E on more than one occasion, and having contacts there, I have gathered that salafist groups, and other extremist groups tend to exploit the same socio-economic conditions that say, the far-right do over here. I see it similar to saying that groups like the EDL aren’t the cause of right-wing anti-Muslim sentiment, but use it to exploit conditions that are already in place. Second, I assume your last paragraph is talking about terrorist attacks? I was talking more from a cultural standpoint, which I feel is much more complicated.

    I tried to argue here, that the way we see things in the M.E from the west ignores the reality of the dialectical exchange- in which case, we ignore how the region is portrayed, or reported on, and instead focus on events while ignoring the framework they exist in- something that Edward Saiid eluded to in ‘Orientalism’, and continued to do through activism. In the age of the internet and fast media production, its easy to conjure images that are not truly reflective of what actually is quite a modern region, and with more liberal-minded folk than you would think. Ultimately, what I tried to look at was how the notion of ‘Muslim rage’ was portrayed, and how ultimately, this is unhelpful in terms of analysis, simply because it ignores realities on a regional scale (where most muslims didn’t protest, let alone violently) and opts for the easier position of painting the Muslims as savage barbarians.

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  3. tl;dr : I’m implying that the salafists exploit socio-economic conditions of their respective nations, and justify their actions through the framework created through the ‘otherisation’ of Eastern society- ie. ‘The west see you as little more than savages and hence justify their attacks on you’.

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