By Habib Siddiqui
In 1978 Professor Edward Said’s book – Orientalism – was published. It was a groundbreaking critique of the West’s historical, cultural, and political perceptions of the East by the (late) Columbia University professor. Nearly four decades after its first publication, the book remains a modern classic. In this wide-ranging, intellectually vigorous study, Professor Said traced the origins of “orientalism” to the centuries-long period during which Europe dominated the Middle and Near East and, from its position of power, defined “the Orient” simply as “other than” the Occident.
In August 2003, nearly 23 months after 9/11, writing for the Al Ahram (weekly online), Professor Said wrote, “I wish I could say that general understanding of the Middle East, the Arabs and Islam in the United States have improved somewhat, but alas, it hasn’t.” He was referring to his seminal work, Orientalism.
The trillion-dollar question that we must ask today is: has the situation improved since 2003? The answer is provided by veteran journalist and author of half a dozen books – Abdus Sattar Ghazali in his book – Islam & Muslims in the 21st Century. He shows that our world is more divided politically and ideologically today than ever before even though we are more connected virtually via alternative electronic media.
American forces are still in Afghanistan, some 16 years after the country was invaded and occupied. Iraq is in a gargantuan mess since American invasion and subsequent occupation, defying world opinion including the UN, in 2003 with millions of displaced folks everywhere. Thanks to the neo-imperial manipulation, the country may eventually get divided along ethnic lines with Kurds getting their state in the north, creating further tension in the region, esp. with Turkey which has a sizable number of Kurds living in the east. Syria is under civil war where its majority Sunnis have been bearing the brunt of Assad’s mass murder. Millions of Sunnis have been forced to seek refuge in nearby countries, including western Europe. A new nemesis – Daesh (or ISIS), replacing Al Qa’eda – falsely claiming to be Islamic and religious – has appeared in the bloody scene to complicate the scenario further and resurrect old Orientalism with the fabric of Islamophobia. Like the RAND-robots in the USA, the ISIS-robots are doing their best to terrorize everyone, redefining the clash of civilizations – ‘us’ against ‘them.’ Not accidentally, the vast majority of the victims have been Muslims.
The extremist, ultra-nationalist and fascist forces are on the rise in many parts of our world (including the USA) and are even running governments in places like Austria, Poland, India, Myanmar, the Philippines, Hungary, Bulgaria and (arguably) the USA.
America has a new president in Donald J. Trump who purportedly wants to make America great again whatever greatness means to him. He won by stoking fear much like fascist leaders of the past. Many experts, thus, see him as a fascist-in-making. He has proven himself to be arrogant, confrontational, vulgar, rude, egotistic, self-contradictory and tweeter-crazy – just to name a fraction of his long list of depraved attributes that includes lying. He is also hostile to the Blacks, Hispanics and esp. Muslims. He wants to ban Muslims from immigrating into or taking refuge in the USA. Recently, he has decertified the Iran nuclear deal – a stupid proposition that is making every world leader nervous. Although he has replaced or removed some white supremacists from his inner circle of the White House advisers (e.g., Bannon and Gorka), Trump remains a very temperamental world leader and, as such, is the most dangerous person on earth who can do the greatest harm to humanity.
Sitting in the citadel of worldly power, surrounded by empire-dreaming neoconservatives and lunatics, the temptation to be a neo-Pharaoh in our age is often too great to rewrite history by ignoring the mere fact that history cannot be white-washed or swept clean like a blackboard so that “we” in the Christian Occident might engrave our future in ‘them’ – the non-Christian Orient – and impose our forms of life and culture, including polity, for these ‘lesser people’ to follow.
During the Bush Jr. era of ‘global war on terror’, esp. after 9/11, we heard the high officials in Washington and elsewhere speak of changing the map of the Middle East, as if ancient societies and innumerable peoples with their myriad sediments of history, which include countless histories – good and bad, great and ugly – and a dizzying variety of peoples, languages, experiences, and cultures, don’t matter and can simply be swept aside or ignored like rubbish, or tossed around like a pile of playing cards or peanuts in a jar. Haughty and irrational though it may seem, the sad fact is, as Ghazali shows in his book, there has not been any shortage of such ‘civilizational’ plans and attempts since the dawn of this new century.
Libya’s Gaddafi was lynched to death and replaced in 2011 turning the once stable, desert oasis, people’s republic into a failed and fractured state of two competing governments each vying for legitimacy. Egypt’s former dictator Mubarak had better luck, albeit replaced through a popular revolution that brought a civilian government – the first in Egyptian modern history – that was soon to be violently replaced in a military coup via courtesy of the corrupt regimes in the Gulf (namely, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and UAE). While murderous Mubarak’s death sentence was commuted to prison time to be ultimately released free, the popularly elected President Dr. Morsi and thousands of leaders and members of the Ikhwan-al-Muslimin are rotting in the prisons awaiting execution, with many already being executed, in Sisi’s Egypt – the new Pharaoh.
The Arab Spring – the popular Arab uprising against the autocratic and repressive regimes that was supposed to better the life of hundreds of millions of ordinary Arabs – was torpedoed by world powers (all paragons of democracy) and their client (undemocratic) states in the Gulf (except Qatar) that wanted to weaken the Arabs by letting them kill each other or maintain the status quo, respectively. Yemen and Syria are in a mess with hundreds of thousands killed and millions of people displaced from their bombed and burned out homes, towns, and cities.
The drone attacks by the US and NATO forces are a daily nuisance in some parts of the Muslim world traumatizing millions of innocent civilians, esp. children. None of the policymakers in Washington and Brussels is willing to discuss the consequence of such attacks until a suicide bomber blows himself up somewhere because of being self-radicalized through social media.
Seemingly, the life of an ordinary Muslim has become so cheap that no one cares about it any longer. Every new day is proving to be a worse day than the day before. Even Muslims living far away from the Middle East in places like Myanmar, the Philippines, China, and India are not safe from repressive, ultra-nationalist – or more correctly, fascist – governments who are exploiting the terror card to kill and evict Muslims from their ancestral homes.
In India, under the name of protection of the cow, Hindu vigilantes, and Hindutvadi fascists are lynching Muslims even on suspicion of herding, transporting, storing and eating beef. Taj Mahal, one of the finest examples of Islamic architecture that is visited by hundreds of thousands of international tourists each year generating hundreds of millions for the Indian treasury, was recently removed from an official booklet on the State of Uttar Pradesh’s tourist destinations. This comes on the heels of the State’s Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, declaring that the Taj Mahal does not “reflect Indian culture.” The monument’s Muslim-ness or Islamic character is unacceptable to the Hindu fascists of the BJP. Adityanath’s initiation into the broader Hindu Nationalist clique – which includes the militant Sangh Parivar/Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) and umbrella Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) – began with an act of iconoclasm. He was also an activist behind the Ram Temple that saw the demolition of the historic Babri mosque (a 16th-century house of worship built by the Mughal dynasty’s founder, Muhammad Babar) in Ayodhya.
If these be the new face of secular India under the rule of Hindutvadi fascists what can Muslims expect in Suu Kyi’s Buddhist Burma (Myanmar) in which they face extinction as part of a very sinister national project to wipe out Muslim identity! Denied of any right, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Muslim minorities, esp. the Rohingya, there are victims of a ‘slow-burning’ genocide that has seen in the last few weeks alone the forced exodus of more than 530,000 of this ‘most persecuted’ people to Bangladesh, let alone the wholesale destruction of all their worldly possessions. Their males, including children, have been killed, women raped, and properties looted before their homes, schools, shops, business centers, madrasas, and mosques are burned down.
As we have repeatedly seen in matters relating to Kashmir, Palestine, East Turkestan and Chechnya – just to name a few – when it comes to saving Muslim lives in harm’s way, the United Nations have failed them miserably. One can only wonder what stops the UNSC to take punitive actions against the savages inside Suu Kyi’s government and security forces for their crimes against humanity! Don’t the Rohingyas qualify for the R2P (Responsibility to Protect) that was unanimously adopted by all members of the United Nations General Assembly at the 2005 World Summit?
Do they have to be children of a ‘higher’ God to qualify for such protection?
What future awaits humanity, including the Muslims, in this age of social media and information superhighway?
Knowing the value of controlling the mind, as Ghazali duly notes, the return of orientalism is currently taking place more in popular literature than in academic works in the US and western Europe. The shock and impact of 9/11 have created a fertile ground for the proliferation of what can be called an alarmist literature that is filled with shabby screeds bearing screaming headlines and titles about Islam and terror. There is such a mushrooming of pseudo-experts, polemicists and pundits on Islam who cares to learn the truth about Islam and Muslims from its sources and writings of Islamic savants – like Rumi, Ghazali or Sa’di – and genuine experts or witnessing the lives of the pious believers!
While covering Islam and Muslims, the western media continue to apply negative images and characterization for Muslims to widen the clash of civilizations – ‘us’ against ‘them.’
Islamophobia has become a big business and is sold as an elixir these days by those who want to expedite the Armageddon. President Eisenhower’s fear of ‘military industrial complex’ is no longer a myth but has become a reality. Regional unrest is not only tolerated, but it is encouraged to solidify the control of all those involved with the war industry.
Ghazali quotes a Rand study (December 2004) that suggested that Sunni, Shiite and Arab, non-Arab divides should be exploited to promote the US policy objectives in the Muslim world.
For academics like Samuel Huntington, Islam is ideologically hostile and anti-Western; it is also a military threat due to Chinese (Confucian) arms supplies; Islam is bloody, with a long warring tradition against the West (the fact that Muslims have often been the victims rather than the perpetrators of violence from Bosnia to India hardly troubles him). As such, Huntington justifies military solutions to bring about the ‘desired’ result. Suffice it to say that Huntington’s entire argument about Islam and civilizations is full of contradictions and superficialities; it is also ‘culturally racist.’
According to Ghazali, “Islamophobia is systematically promoted and financially supported in the United States in the form of books, reports, websites, blogs, and carefully crafted talking points that are well funded by hate groups. The project of Islamophobia which has cost more than $40 million over the past ten years has been funded by seven foundations in the United States: 1. Richard Mellon Scaife Foundation; 2. Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation; 3. Newton and Rochelle Becker; 4. Foundation and Newton and Rochelle Becker Charitable Trust; 5. Russell Berrie Foundation, Anchorage Charitable Fund, and William Rosenwald; 6. Family Fund; 7. Fairbrook Foundation.”
Islamophobia has essentially become the neo-orientalism of the 21st century. Not surprisingly, the self-proclaimed Islamic expert Steven Emerson collected $3.39 million for his for-profit company in 2008 for researching alleged ties between American Muslims and overseas terrorism. Even American politicians are banking on it to draw bigoted supporters. “In late March 2015, Senator Ted Cruze appeared at the New England Freedom Conference with anti-Muslim hate group leader, Robert Spencer, a blogger whose work was cited approvingly by the Norway terrorist Anders Breivik. Spencer’s organization, the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), is the group behind controversial and provocative anti-Islam metro and bus ads,” Ghazali writes (p. 145).
Ghazali shows that 39 years after the publication Professor Said’s book – Orientalism – modern imperialism never ended. While its goal to maximize benefits remains the same, its method to achieve that goal, however, has changed. It wants division along the fault lines – territorial, tribal, ethnic or whatever – so that the Muslim world remain ever weak and goes back to the days of the pre-Islamic Jahiliya with never-ending wars while buying weapons to fight each other. As events have proven, the scheme of the neo-imperial masters and planners is working.
To schmooze, the Arabs and Muslims have been told that victimology and dwelling on the depredations of empire is only a way of evading responsibility in the present. “You have failed, you have gone wrong, says the modern Orientalist.” But such a narrative would exhibit only a serious amnesia about the reality of imperial intrusion that continues to work its way in the lives of Muslims who comprise roughly 23% of world population.
Paul Wolfowitz, the former US Deputy Defense Secretary, a leading neocon, confided on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003: “We need an Islamic reformation, and I think there is real hope for one.” Iraq became the first casualty of that experiment. But the conspiracy lingers!
The Rand Study, released on March 18, 2004, unveiled the neocons’ plan for global ‘revamping’ of Islam, which calls for a strategy to distinguish between Muslims with whom peaceful relationships and dialogue are possible.
As a result of the meticulously planned and organized onslaught against Islam, Professor Sa’id observed that the Muslim world has slipped into an “easy anti-Americanism that shows little understanding of what the US is like as a society… The worldwide protests before the war began in Iraq would not have been possible were it not for the existence of alternative communities all across the world, informed by alternative information, and keenly aware of the environmental, human rights and libertarian impulses that bind us together in this tiny planet.”
Is there then hope to defeat the merchants and profiteers of war through alternative media? One must, however, be reminded here that massive protest marches of millions of conscientious global citizens did not sway a bit the Bush Jr. administration from manufacturing lies and carrying out its planned war that killed nearly a million innocent Iraqis. As usual, the UN failed to slow down Bush Jr.
In spite of the evil plan of its enemies to turn our world into perennial war zones and killing fields, the Muslim world needs serious introspection by its genuine enlightened intellectuals that can diagnose its plethora of illnesses that had transformed it into a world of zeros with no voice in the global arena. The task is not easy though, as Ghazali reminds us of the peculiar way the political development has taken place in the Muslim countries that have created elite groups that care about only themselves in which there is no share for the ordinary masses. They are for self-aggrandizement and don’t mind selling the interest of the people and the country to the highest foreign bidder. No wonder the Muslim world has so many of these self-serving puppets, despots, and autocrats ruling its people who have no fear of accountability either to God or His creation.
Will that scenario change anytime soon?
Ghazali’s book is a treasure trove that delves into the problems faced by the Muslims of the 21st century. I strongly recommend it.