The Utility of Islamic Imagery in the West

The Utility of Islamic Imagery in the West The long history of encounters between Western civilization and Islam has produced a tradition of portraying, in largely negative and self-serving ways, the Islamic religion and Muslim cultures. There is a lot of literature cataloguing (and sometimes correcting) these stereotypes. A growing body of critical literature examines the formation, utilization and perpetuation of images in the context of European conceptualization and colonization of the Muslim. Critics generally agree that Orientalist pursuits of knowledge are inextricably tied to colonial and imperial power, and that the West’s self-image has been cultivated in a binary relationship with Islamic culture.

The long history of encounters between Western civilization and Islam has
produced a tradition of portraying, in largely negative and self-serving ways,
the Islamic religion and Muslim cultures. There is a lot of literature
cataloguing (and sometimes correcting) these stereotypes.

It is not my intention to rehash this corpus here, though I do rely upon some of
the more important works. What I want to do instead is focus on a particular
dimension of these encounters, and examine why the West has consistently
constructed and perpetuated negative images of Islam and Muslims. My focus will
be on the utility of Islamic imagery in Western civilization.

Most people seem to be familiar with stereotypes and negative imagery of Arabs
and Muslims-indeed, some are so firmly entrenched that the consumers of these
images are unable to distinguish them from reality.

At the same time, many people have an idea how these images come about (books,
television, speeches). But by looking at the cultural history of Islamic-Western
encounters from the perspective of utility, I am able to locate the correlations
between imagery and political economy. Western image-makers, including religious
authorities, political establishments, and corporate-media conglomerates,
conceptualize for their consumers images of Muslims and/or Arabs in sometimes
amusing and other tunes cruel or tragic ways. Upon closer examination, these
images seem to serve essential purposes throughout the history of Western
civilization. At times these purposes are benign, at others quite sinister.
Often, there are tragic consequences for Muslims resulting from the
socio-political climate fostered by images. Focusing on the dimension of utility
can help to reveal some ties between imagery and action.

At the same time, I am aware that focusing solely on imagery misses the
important dimensions of intention and power. Though I reserve a careful look at
these dimensions for another study, I do recognize the need to consider here
some of those people who have the power to provide public conceptualizations of
Muslims, such as religious figures, academics, policy pundits, journalists, and
entertainment conglomerates. Drawing upon the historical and cultural catalogue
of assumptions and perceptions about Islam, these experts and spokespeople pick
and choose the appropriate images to serve their purposes. Many times, they are
seemingly unaware of using an image, which is indicative of how deeply
entrenched they have become. The stories of those with the power to present need
to be told, but they are beyond the scope of this article. Similarly, fruitful
research may also reveal the degree to which Muslims contribute to their own
images. That, too, I will reserve for another study. The purpose here, then, is
to suggest some of the broader utilitarian dimensions of Islamic imagery in the

A recurring theme in the present study is the idea of packaging the complexities
of Islam and Muslim cultures into easily comprehensible categories-good and bad,
beautiful and dangerous, desirable and repulsive – and I look at these in terms
of their utility in Western cultural history and political economy. Academic
culture is an important site to reveal the utility of imagery, since these are
the studies that inform policy makers and politicians; this is also where
Western ideas are introduced into native cultures. But it is also necessary to
focus on popular culture, especially news and entertainment, because this is
where many people in the West get their impressions of Islam and Muslims.

The ‘Other’ in Western Colonial Discourse

Images of the Other are prevalent in Western civilization, and have become
firmly ensconced in the discourse of colonization and conquest, whoever the
victims may be. Some images are rooted in Greek notions of barbarians, others
born of the Middle Ages. They have been carried through the Reconquista and
Inquisition, picked up during the age of colonial expansion, developed by
Orientalists in the 19th and early 20th century, and continue on into the age of
mass media and globalized political economy. But images don’t exist in a vacuum.
They have uses.

For example, in their invasion and colonization of the Americas Europeans
brought with them – in addition to muskets and cannons – a great deal of
cultural baggage, including rigid and preconceived notions of the Other. These
images, intertwined with religious and political conflicts, all found their way
into the new world, and eventually entangled Native peoples. In fact, historians
have shown that American legal traditions regarding Native peoples are based on
legal traditions of the Holy Roman Empire which were born of the Crusades
against Muslims. [1] For that reason, it will be instructive to spend some time
looking at images of Native Americans in the West.

The American scholar Berkhofer carefully analyzes the rationale for images of
the "Indian". Particularly striking is his observation that there is a dual
image, of "good" or "noble" Indians and "bad" or "ignoble" Indians, and how this
developed from pre-conception to image to fact He nicely summarizes the elements
of the image: [2]

1. generalizing from one tribe’s society and culture to all Indians

2. conceiving of Indians in terms of their deficiencies according to White
ideals rather than in terms of their own various cultures

3. using moral evaluation as description of Indians

Berkhofer suggests that "since Whites primarily understood the Indian as an
antithesis to themselves, then civilization and Indianness as they defined them
would forever be opposites." [3] He believes that while some researchers have
uncovered one or another element of the Indian image, most have failed to put it
all together.

Images of Indians are usually treated by scholars in two ways. Some have studied
"what changed, what persisted, and why," while others studied "what images were
held by whom, when, where, and why." [4] Some scholars see them "as a reflection
of White cultures and as the primary explanation of White behaviour vis-a-vis
Native Americans", while others see them "to be dependent upon the political and
economic relationships prevailing in White societies at various times." [5]
While each approach is useful in its own way, I agree with Berkhofer’s
suggestion that any comprehensive understanding of Western images has to
consider both aspects, asking not only what the images were and how they
continue, but also who holds them and why. He combines the two approaches into a
useful and broadly applicable methodology for analyzing images and their
utility. Berkhofer’s methodology helps us to ask questions like who benefits
from these images, and how are they manipulated and perpetuated? I want to look
at European images of Muslims in this framework, and consider in particular the
way images change to suit particular historical circumstances.

Framing the Ubiquitous Orient

A growing body of critical literature examines the formation, utilization and
perpetuation of images in the context of European conceptualization and
colonization of the Muslim. [6] Critics generally agree that Orientalist
pursuits of knowledge are inextricably tied to colonial and imperial power, and
that the West’s self-image has been cultivated in a binary relationship with
Islamic culture. The literature in this area is quite detailed, and there is no
need to repeat all of it here. What I want to do is first look briefly at some
of the factors in the development and maintenance of this binary vision from the
Crusades through the modern period, and then apply the same method to more
recent examples.

According to Norman Daniel, "luxury" and "bellicosity" formed a dual image of
Islam in Medieval Western Europe. This nexus is intertwined with a second
ignorance and malice. In considering how the dual image of Islam persists,
Daniel suggests that in some cases the reason is ignorance and in others it is
malice. Ignorance and malice can work together, as in, for example, when a
malicious campaign directed by state power toward a scapegoat is explained by
using images that rely on the general ignorance of the state’s subjects and
constituents. This is an important factor in the maintenance of imagery,
especially in democratic societies, and I will return to it later.

Edward Said was one of the first to make explicit connections between Western
colonization and images of the Muslim world. Said shows how the discourse of
Orientalism gave itself legitimacy, revealing that what Orientalists were really
talking about was creating the levers of power. Said’s general premise is that
knowledge is inextricably tied to power, and that pure scholarship does not
exist. Drawing upon textual criticism from selected British and French
Orientalists of the 19th and 20th centuries, he summarizes the "principle
dogmas" of Orientalism.

One is the absolute and systematic difference between the West, which is
rational, developed, humane, superior, and the Orient, which is aberrant,
undeveloped, inferior. Another dogma is that abstractions about the Orient,
particularly those based on texts representing a "classical" Oriental
civilization, are always preferable to direct evidence drawn from modern
Oriental realities. A third dogma is that the Orient is eternal, uniform, and
incapable of defining itself; therefore it is assumed that a highly generalized
and systematic vocabulary for describing the Orient from a Western standpoint is
inevitable, and even scientifically "objective". A fourth dogma is that the
Orient is at bottom something either to be feared (the Yellow Peril, the Mongol
hordes, the brown dominions) or to be controlled (by pacification, research and
development, outright occupation whenever possible). [7]

After noting that these dogmas "persist without significant challenge in the
academic and governmental study of the modern Near Orient," Said argues that
"the Orient" is itself a constituted entity, and that the notion that there are
"geographical spaces with indigenous, radically different inhabitants who can be
defined on the basis of some religion, culture, or racial essence proper to that
geographical space is equally a highly debatable idea." [8] While there are
numerous institutions in the West engaging in the study of the Orient, there are
few if any in the Orient, and those are invariably run by Westerners (for
example, the American Universities of Beirut and Cairo, or the Robert College in
Turkey), and consequently, little if any study of the West is done by Orientals.

Building upon the foundation of classical Orientalism, a new breed of
Orientalist emerged out of Cold War concerns. Characterized by a fusion of
classic Orientalism with post-World War II social science, the new discourse was
put at the service of foreign policy makers who emphasized prediction and
control. However, with all the new techniques, as Said shows, most have not
escaped the 4 dogmas of what we might call the orthodox discourse. Neo-Orientalists
replace philology with a more anomalous expertise, which, like philology, is
still based on language skills, but is more oriented toward strategic and
business interests. This new Orientalism is practiced with an almost mystical
authority by experts and Area Studies specialists who have mastered the
necessary languages. The usual rationale for continuing Orientalism is that "we"
can get to know another people, their way of life, thought, etc. To this end,
the new Orientals (many trained at the feet of the orthodox masters) are
sometimes allowed to speak for themselves, but only to a limited degree. The
Oriental becomes useful as a direct source of information, but the Orientalist
still remains the source of all knowledge.

As a way to avoid reconfiguring Orientalist discourse in new contexts, and to
diffuse pre-existing truths, Said recommends some questions to keep in mind when
approaching the Other: [9]

1. How does one represent other cultures?

2. What is another culture?

3. Is the notion of a distinct culture (or race, or religion, or civilization) a
useful one, or does it always get involved either in self-congratulation (when
one discusses one’s own) or hostility and aggression (when one discusses the

4. Do cultural, religious, and racial differences matter more than
socio-economic categories, or politico-historical ones?

5. How do ideas acquire authority, "normality," and even the status of "natural"

6. What is the role of the intellectual?

7. Is he there to validate the culture and state of which he is a part?

8. What importance must he give to an independent critical consciousness, an
oppositional critical consciousness?

Said concludes with a warning to guard against accepting handed down notions of
the other, and incorporating them into one’s work without first subjecting them
to critical analysis.

Thierry Hentsch incorporates and complicates most earlier studies of Orientalism.
[10] He believes that Western images of the Muslim world are projections of
Western insecurities about Self onto the Other, and that as long as the Other is
a mirror for the Self, there will always be conflict. I think this is becoming
evident in the recent usage of images of Muslims and Islam, built upon not only
centuries of images but in particular upon very carefully constructed images of
Arabs from the 1960s and 1970s. I will return to this in due time.

To Hentsch, Western images of a sensual yet violent Orient are self-telling
myths. Like Bernal, [11] Hentsch believes that racist myths of Western supremacy
were fabricated in the 17th and 18th centuries and projected backward to explain
contemporary realities. As Said pointed out, collating these myths became the
job of the Orientalists. But Hentsch’s sweep is far wider and more inclusive
than Said. He considers pre-Orientalist cultural factors, and brings his
treatment right up to the 1990-91 Persian Gulf Oil War. Hentsch believes that
the West’s myth of the Orient will continue to serve its explanatory functions
right on into the next century.

Hentsch’s essential hypothesis is that the area we call the Middle East (which
he defines as the nations from Morocco to Iran; Said’s Orient) has been a
self-reflecting mirror for Western civilization, in which the West defines
itself by constructing an Other who is everything the West is not. Hentsch’s
thesis is that the "Orient" is an "immense repository of our own imagined world"
and that "we reveal ourselves through our way of seeing." [12]

His "capital supposition" is that "any study of the Other is futile unless we
first observe ourselves face to face with it, and in particular, unless we
attempt to understand how, and why, we have studied and represented this
self-same Other down to the present day." [13] Speaking on ethnocentrism,
Hentsch asserts that it "is not a flaw to be simply set aside, nor is it a sin
to be expunged through repentance. It is the precondition of our vision of the
Other. Far from offering us absolution, this precondition compels us constantly
to return to our point of departure, if only to grasp the internal and external
imperatives which shape our curiosity about the Other." [14] I want to continue
with Hentsch’s analysis, and look in particular at the genesis and continuation
of images as they relate to the emerging European colonizing enterprise.
Races debased and Unities Sundered

In November of 1095, Pope Urban II initiated the first European attempt at
colonizing the Muslim world – known in the West as the Crusades – by drawing
this fateful picture:

For you must hasten to carry aid to your brethren dwelling in the East, who need
your help, which they have often asked. For the Turks, a Persian people, have
attacked them I exhort you with earnest prayer – not I, but God – that, as
heralds of Christ, you urge men by frequent exhortation, men of all ranks,
knights as well as foot soldiers, rich as well as poor, to hasten to exterminate
this vile race from the lands of your brethren Christ commands it. And if those
who set out thither should lose their lives on the way by land, or in crossing
the sea, or in fighting the pagans, their sins shall be remitted. Oh what a
disgrace, if a race so despised, base, and the instrument of demons, should so
overcome a people endowed with faith in the all-powerful God, and resplendent
with the name of Christ. Let those who have been accustomed to make private war
against the faithful carry on to a successful issue a war against the infidels.
Let those who for a long time have been robbers now become soldiers of Christ.
Let those who fought against brothers and relatives now fight against these
barbarians. Let them zealously undertake the journey under the guidance of the
Lord. [15]

The Pope’s words lay out many of the themes that would characterize this mass
colonial movement East for the next two centuries. In one reading of the
Crusading venture, restless knights and small-tune princes are enticed by their
lords with tales of land and wealth, fuel the hopes of turning their swords away
from the increasingly nervous feudal establishment, or what the Pope calls the
faihful brethren. Landless folks and the poor – euphemized by the Pope as
criminals – can also be turned Eastward with enticements of land and Divine
forgiveness. But what is most interesting here is that the Pope conceptualizes
his Oriental Other in racial terms. The enemy, for now, is the debased races of
Turks and Persians, and Islam is not yet a part of the Western conceptual

There is also an overlap here with Christian treatment of Jews as the
"instruments of demons", one of the key tenets of anti-Semitic white supremacy.
In Christian Europe, Jews and Muslims suffered the wrath of an increasingly
rabid and intolerant resurgent. Christianity, culminating in the expulsion of
both from Muslim Spain in the 15th century, at the dawn of the expansionist age
while this is not the place to trace this legacy in detail, this is also the
period in which the religion of rationalism replaced Christianity, with the
images of the other traveling full circle from Pope Urban’s 11th century
"debased races" to the Age of Enlightenment, with its biological explanation for
colonization and genocide.

As Hentsch shows, [16] the uses of Islam continued to change according to
European internal and external political and economic situations. In the 16th
century, when Ottoman Empire was consolidating its control over Mediterranean
trade routes, the resulting "rift" was projected back to the first centuries of
Islam, making a contemporary economic problem seem to be the result of "age-old"
conflict. Any rift in the Mediterranean was there long before Muslims came on
the scene. There was never any trans-Mediterranean unity. The Catholic Church,
which inherited the decaying Roman Empire, soon split into its Eastern and
Western branches. Conventional history, such as is found in World Civilization
textbooks, overlooks this and continues to frame Muslims for sundering the
imaginary unity of European civilization. Religious imagery had its uses as
well. Christian disunity, which began long before Muslims came on the scene, was
blamed on Muslim hordes that exploded from Arabia, forever sundering the unity
of the Church.

When the Ottomans were at the peak of their power in the 17th century, European
princes viewed them as a respected and powerful rival. However, with the waning
of Ottoman power, the Muslim world was seen as a place of exotic trials and
espionage. This newly exoticized Orient began to be loved for its objects, while
its people were despised or belittled by the 19th century, race-based
explanations for colonization had fully re-emerged. As Hentsch suggests, [17]
some Muslims were considered by Europeans to be civilized according to their
criteria, but this was explained by the presence of Aryan blood in some Muslim
races. In fact, as French travelers saw it, the problem with Persians was that,
despite their pure Aryan roots, their blood was tainted because of mixing with
lesser, darker skinned breeds. Before continuing this trend into the modern
period, I want to go back over this terrain and look at Christian and European
obsessions and insecurities with sex and violence, and the ways they provided
particularly fertile ground for images of Muslims.

Medieval Phantasms of Sex and Violence

And, if you desire to know what was done about the enemy whom we found there,
know that in the portico of Solomon and his Temple, our men rode in the blood of
the Saracens up to the knees of the horses.

(Daimbert, Official Summary of the 1st Crusade) [18]

Those amongst the Saracens are considered most religious who can make the most
women pregnant they lie with their concubines and wives often in times of fast,
because they suppose making love and desire are so meritorious, either to
satisfy lust or to generate many sons to strengthen the defense of their

(Bishop Jacques de Vitry on the 5th Crusade) [19]

Count Roland gripped his sword dripping with gore he strikes his valiant blows,
shivering shafts of spears and bucklers, too, cleaving through feet and fists,
saddles and sides. To see him hack the limbs from Saracens, pile them upon the
earth, corpse upon corpse, would call to mind a very valiant knight.

(Verse from the Song of Roland, 12th century minstrelsy) [20]

Nor did Mahomet teach anything of great austerity. . . indeed, he even allowed
many pleasurable things, to do with a multitude of women, abuse of them, and
suchlike. . . many Christians change and will change to the Saracen religion.

(Dominican Friar Humbert of Lyons, c. 1300) [21]

These quotes are instructive in their presentation of Western Christian
foundational attitudes toward Islam. In Medieval Europe, the Popes began to use
Islam as a proxy to convince backsliding Christians to return to the fold and to
convince themselves that Christians were chaste, denouncing Islam as a sexually
liberal and even licentious religion. Once the Europeans gained a foothold in
West Asia, one of the areas of greatest concern was miscegenation. In the
Crusader mind, even sex with one’s own wife was a carnal sin; sex with an
infidel woman was punished by "castration for the Crusader and facial mutilation
for the woman." Muslim women were "viewed as defiled and wanton whores and
seductresses." To Christians, Muslim ease with sexuality was seen as
"offensively non-ascetic behavior." [22]

In fact, it seems that Medieval Christians could do nothing but condemn the
Muslim appreciation of sexuality, and therefore they attacked "Islam" as a
religion that had been directly set up to encourage promiscuity and lust.
Biographies of Mohammed by Christians describe the Prophet’s sex life in a
manner that reveals far more about their own sexual problems than about the
facts of the Prophet’s life. The Koran was said, quite incorrectly, to condone
homosexuality and to encourage unnatural forms of intercourse. One scholar
claimed that the foulness of lust among Muslims was inexpressible; they were
deep in this filth from the soles of their feet to the crown of the head. Soon
the Church would accuse any out-group in Christendom of excessive and unnatural
sexual practices and twelfth century Christians stigmatized "heresy" of Islam by
cursing what they considered its sexual laxity. [23]

To really grasp the utility of this imagery, we need to look at sexuality in
European history. In his discussion of human sexuality, Foucault describes
Arab-Muslim societies as among those "which have endowed themselves with an ars
erotica" in which "truth is drawn from pleasure itself, understood as a practice
and accumulated as experience." [24] Western civilization, on the other hand,
possesses a scientia sexualis, the "procedures for telling the truth of sex
which are geared to a form of knowledge – power strictly opposed to the art of
initiations and the masterful secret." In the West, the confession is "one of
the main rituals we rely on for the production of truth" and "Western man has
become a confessing animal." [25] What needs confessing is the sin of enjoyment.

European discomfort with sexuality in Medieval times gradually gives way to a
new outlook, still rooted, as Foucault stresses [26], in the old insecurities,
but now at least with an outward expression of enjoyment. By the twentieth
century, the alterity of sexuality has now been reversed, suggests Karen
Armstrong, with the post-Christian West seeing itself as sexually liberated
vis-a-vis a sexually repressed Islam:

At a time when many people in the West are liberating themselves from the sexual
repressions of their Christian past, Islam is constantly denigrated as a
sexually repressive religion. We have completely reversed the old stereotype and
not many people seem interested in the truth of the matter or wish to find out
about Islam itself. They simply want to bolster their own needs against their
long established counter-image: Sex and violence continue to be juxtaposed in
disturbing ways in American culture. For example, American pilots watched porno
movies while preparing to carpet bomb Baghdad in the 1991 Persian Gulf Oil war,
and they scribbled sexually explicit graffiti on the bombs, labeling them as
"Mrs. Saddam’s sex toy" or "a suppository for Saddam." [27]

George Bush purposefully mispronounced "Saddam" (which in Arabic has a heavy
accent on the last syllable) so that it sounded more like Sodom, evoking the
Biblical city of wanton sexual depravity, and thus sodomy. A wartime propaganda
book produced by an American public relations firm hired by the Kuwaitis was
entitled The Rape of Kuwait, adding another facet to the highly sexualized
justification for what amounts to a firebomb lynch-party of Iraqis reminiscent
of the same charge leveled at African Americans to justify racist brutality.
I’ll come back to some of these themes in a moment, but I first want to consider
further some unique elements of the American conceptualization of the Muslim

Orientalizing the American Way

Most of the literature on Orientalist pursuits focuses on European forms of
Orientalism. Comparatively little has been written about the peculiarities of
American Orientalism. The latter is worth careful attention, since the United
States seems obsessed with becoming the leader in a unipolar world, and some
official policy circles list Islam as a "new" but qualified threat to that
supposed inevitability.

17th through 19th century American writings illustrates how Europeans who
invaded North America believed that they were God’s chosen people, that the land
they were colonizing was the promised land, and that Native people’s were
God-less heathen who were to be driven from their homes and burned. [28] Sha’ban
points out that religiously driven settlers, Puritans in particular, imagined
parallels between themselves and the wandering tribes of Israel. These early
roots were bolstered by an emerging and increasingly strong, literal, and
exclusive sense of a relationship with their God, who had ordained pre-United
States settlers to be "a light in the West" that would shine over the rest of
the world. This expansionary, violent, and millennial sense of a divine mission
became known as "manifest destiny." [29]

In practice, manifest destiny initially meant bringing the "light" of American
style Protestant Christianity to the rest of the world. Americans saw themselves
as being placed in the "center of the world" by Providence in order to carry out
a Divine mission, as a writer in the American Theological Review put it in 1859:

Indeed, radii drawn from our eastern, western, and southern shores, reach almost
all Pagan, Mohammedan, and Papal lands, or rather most of them can be reached by
nearly direct water communication. [30]

The American missionary enterprise – the vanguard of manifest destiny – required
information on "barbarians," "heathens," "savages," and "pagans," and especially
"Mohammedans,* "Turks," and "Saracens." Beginning in the early 19th century,
particularly when manifest destiny turned cast as well as west, American writers
took a strong interest in Islam and the Prophet. In various treatises, they
dwell on the Prophet (upon whom be peace) as an impostor and portray Islam as a
deviant Christian heresy. Some of the very few instances where this does not
apply tend to romanticize the Prophet as a hero, but these views also had at
bottom the intention to defeat Islam and convert Muslims to Christianity. An
equally important goal of 19th century religious writings on Islam, as Sha’ban
notes, was to describe the alleged depravity of Islam in order to assert the
imagined purity of Christianity, a tendency inherited from Medieval European

Commercial, diplomatic, and military contacts with Mediterranean Muslim lands,
coupled with evangelical revivalism in the late 18th and early 19th century, led
to a "shift of the American myth of God’s Israel from the New World to the Holy
Land." [31] But the imaginary world of Biblical Zion constructed in the parlors
and parishes of the United States soon had to be reconciled with the realities
on the ground in Palestine. Unfortunately, this reconciliation did not entail
rethinking the vision of Zion – it meant imposing that vision on Muslims and
non-Protestant Christians who happened to be in the way of the American sense of

Americans were also motivated in their dealings with Islam and Muslims by a
complex amalgam of Oriental fairy tales. Making use of a body of literature
largely ignored by other critics of Orientalism, Sha’ban takes a particular
interest in Orientalism as found in popular American literature.

He notes that one of the most often printed books in the 19th century United
States was a translation of the Arabian Nights. That collection of fables and
fairy tales, often translated in the West subject to the sexual whims of the
translator and marketed to titillate readers, was taken as an accurate portrayal
of a timeless, exotic, and mystical East. Tales of harems, genies, and magic
carpets found their way into most American homes and libraries. These stories
often provided the criteria by which secular travelers to the East would judge
their own experiences.

Sha’ban’s detailed analysis of travel literature reveals that, time after time,
American men traveling to the East were both aroused and repulsed by Muslim
culture. One American traveler to Istanbul in 1858 was so mystified and aroused
by a veiled Muslim woman that he offered $50 to buy her, but soon realized it
was not possible since he "was no Mohammedan." [32]

While often envying the Turks for their "harems," some travelers also looked for
signs of distress so that they might heroically rescue "oppressed" women from
the clutches of the Turkish "barbarians." These expectations were founded upon
what Sha’ban calls the "dream of Baghdad", and he aptly demonstrates that such
dreams abound in early American Orientalism. This dream of Oriental splendour
was picked up by Hollywood in its early years, with Rudolph Valentino
epitomizing the Romantic lover in Arab garb. Similar Oriental fantasies
permeated American entertainment all through the 20th century, ranging from
cartoons like "Popeye meets Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves," to "The Adventures of
Sindbad" and "Lawrence of Arabia," and right on up to the 1989 Disney
Orientalist extravaganza "Aladdin."

Corporate American Phantasms

The dual image of luxury and bellicosity, as suggested by Daniel above, can be
illustrated through looking at the incredible popularity of the Arabian
Nights-type themes in American corporate culture. Though its use as literature
has declined somewhat in recent times, the Arabian Nights, as noted above, was
once among the most popular books in America. Hollywood has capitalized on this
American obsession with things Oriental in its recent production of "Aladdin," a
phantasmagoria of Orientalist cliche, complete with a menagerie of harems,
genies, magic carpets, and, of course, murderous barbarians.

A promotional documentary about the making of Aladdin boasts of authenticity in
its producers’ emulation of "Islamic design" and "Persian architecture," showing
scenes of animators carefully drawing images of mosques and calligraphy from
photographs; they appear to use great care in detailing their drawings to the
minutest degree. But one thing is missing from all this careful attention to
detail – people. Characters in Hollywood’s Aladdin are compound stereotypes,
grossly racist caricatures of the worst Western phantasms – villainous sorcerers
in turbans, sensuous harems, sumptuous feasts, hordes of fat ugly thugs with
swords (ready to chop off hands for stealing bread), flying carpets, genies. All
this is an alterity of the hero, Aladdin, who speaks and acts as if straight out
of an American suburban high school. [33]

Sometimes, American media wizards ram together luxurious and bellicose images to
create the classic American phantasm. A recent example is the 1995 American
football Super Bowl half-time antics, an extended commercial-like foray. First,
crooner Tony Bennett sings "Desert Caravan" against a backdrop resembling a
mosque. Then Indiana Jones (who shot up many a Muslim barbarian in his Hollywood
films) swings into the scene and rescues the football-shaped Super Bowl trophy
from hordes of turbaned Muslims with swords (or were they Arabs? or Turks?
Moors?). Jones makes short work of these generic barbarians, retrieving the
trophy, along with a blonde heroine for good measure. This is followed by a song
and dance routine, featuring gyrating women wearing costumes right out of the
1960s American Orientalist situation comedy "I Dream of Jeannie." Other women
are draped in black or white chadors; some of these women doff their veils and
swing them along with their hips, as if reveling in their new found
"liberation." Of course, it is the American hero Jones who has rescued them from
their oppressive Muslim masters. The show climaxes with a flashy display of
fireworks, and the fans erupt into a jingoistic frenzy, the likes of which
rivals similar outbursts when the national anthem is played. Clearly, such
Oriental fantasies are part of America’s national heritage, which can be
utilized by production designers for all sorts of entertainment and commercial

Commercial television and its corporate advertising conglomerates from time to
time intensify their utilization of Islamic exotica in Popular American culture.
Interestingly, this often takes place side by side with an increase in the
vilification of Muslims and Islam. American corporate news is full of talk about
"Islamic terror," "Muslim suicide bombers," "the warriors of Allah," "the holy
war of Islam," or "Iranian backed radical extremist Moslem fundamentalist
terrorists." Examples abound, including a notorious programme in the Fall of
1994 called "Jihad in America," which described a centrally controlled, top-down
international Islamic conspiracy to carry out terror in the US, or the more
recent rush to blame the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing on Muslims. These public
displays of jingoistic fury have real repercussions on the ground, with a series
of mosque-burnings and increased hate and bias crimes against Muslims, including
the tragic case of a new mosque in Yuba City, California, burned to the ground
by arsonists on the eve of its opening to the community in September 1994.
Imagery creates a climate within which such acts seem to make sense.

Images of Muslims seem to ebb and flow with the American political tides, and
close examination reveals some connections. Following the violent orgy of death
and mayhem popularly known to Americans as "Desert Storm," American corporate
television began to feature advertisements with an Arabian Nights motif. For
example, a commercial aired on corporate TV throughout 1991 and 1992 for "Near
East Rice Pilaf" features scenes in a Middle Eastern bazaar. The ad segues to an
American family preparing to gorge themselves on an exotic dish, as if eating
Near East Rice Pilaf will somehow transport the consumer into an Eastern fantasy
world. IBM computers, as part of its globalized campaign of superficial
multicultural inclusion, produced a similar commercial, which utilizes Arabic
dialogue and racist caricatures. In an exotic bazaar setting, two natives
thoughtfully extol the virtues of the latest American techno-excesses. A similar
commercial was produced by Isuzu automobiles, taking place somewhere in North
Africa, also with Arabic (as well as French) speaking natives. It begins with a
call from a minaret, a pseudo adhan (which has always been an aural symbol for
Islam in American film and TV), and ends with the natives being dazzled by
expensive leather seats and the corporation’s newest mobile contraption. These
and other commercials share the common theme of a utilizing a timeless fantasy
world that is backwards yet ready for the salvation of American consumer
culture. Not intended to sell computers and cars to anyone but Americans, these
utilizations of Orientalist imagery serve to make powerful connections for
consumers, especially between tradition and progress.

With increasing numbers of American corporations hopping on the Oriental
bandwagon, American Muslims have tried to form collective responses. According
to a series of press releases beginning in November 1994, the Council on
American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has mounted several campaigns against greeting
card corporations for cards that objectify veiled Muslim women in degrading
ways, or which feature nude women juxtaposed with verses from the Qur’an. There
have been beer commercials featuring actresses with verses of the Qur’an
emblazoned across their chests, and the fashion industry has suddenly discovered
the beauty of Islamic calligraphy, using it in clothing designs modeled by
voluptuous women in public pageants. CAIR has also worked on a number of bias
incidents, many involving women barred from working because they choose to wear
the Islamic modest dress. It seems that in American corporate culture, veils and
other Oriental exotica are widely utilized to titillate buyers, but that real
women who wear the Muslim modest dress are despised and rejected. Another
phenomenon has also emerged since the Persian Gulf Oil War. There is an
increasing number of corporate news media programmes about Muslims living in the
US. Some no doubt grew out of wartime public relations on behalf of "good
Muslims," like the Kuwaiti royals, who hired one of the biggest US public
relations firms to manage their wartime propaganda. [34] Most juxtapose two
images there is a "terrorist fringe" among US Muslims (the "bad Muslims"), but
most other Muslims are peace-loving and eager to be assimilated to the American
way of life (the "good Muslims"). The American corporate news pundits
continually remind consumers that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the
US; at the same time, they tell Americans that "Islamic terror cells" are on the
rise in the US Muslims in such stories are usually defined by their politics and

While the media assure Americans that most Muslims are dutiful middle-class
citizens, the "terrorist fringe" is always laying at the wait, a threat to the
very core of American interests and values. Such images have been utilized by
politicians and corporate leaders to frighten American citizen-consumers into
accepting all sorts of barbarous immigration and security laws.

Closer scrutiny reveals that, in most cases, the Muslims profiled on corporate
TV programmes are Palestinians. One insidious implication is that Palestinians
are somehow inherently irrational, though this is not always made explicit. The
misogynist character of dominant media imagery of Muslims in the US is
underlined, for example, when the corporate news shows images of Palestinian or
other Muslim men crying, perhaps after another Israeli raid on their homes.
Since "real men" don’t cry, it becomes hard for Americans to imagine other
people’s grief expressed in that way, and it is seen instead as an expression of
rage or insanity. The point is that some images are heightened by the inability
of television to portray anything but the most extreme expressions of emotion,
causing some to label TV as best suited to portray death. [35] This technical
inadequacy is something that even good PR can’t fix. It also heightens the
effectiveness of television as a medium to utilize deep-seated American visions
of sex and violence in Islam.

US corporate news features often use Islamic religious symbols to frame stories
about violent political events. For example, a 1994 story about the end of the
disastrous American intervention in Somalia begins with the reporter intoning
ominously "night falls on Mogadishu" over the Islamic call to prayer and a
backdrop of a mosque silhouetted by a dark, cloudy sky.

The report segues to picture bites of destroyed American helicopters and corpses
of US marines. The call to prayer in this case, as in many others, forebodes
death and terror. Furthermore, this is the only Somali voice in the piece.

Some media portrayals of Muslims are reminiscent of the contrived sense of
inevitability that Native American scholar Ward Churchill brings out in his
comments about the Orientalist extravaganza epic film, Lawrence of Arabia:

Its major impact was to put a ‘tragic’ but far more humane face upon the nature
of Britain’s imperial pretensions in the region, making colonization of the
Arabs seem more acceptable – or at least more inevitable – than might have
otherwise been the case. [36]

The US media often rely on pre-existing images of Muslim barbarity in order to
explain the need for intervention or to help the US military save face when
things don’t come out as planned. When the US Marines were escorting members of
the UN out of Somalia in February 1995, ABC News televised a report of a
multiple amputation, featuring a man who presumably had just been convicted of
theft in an Islamic law court. The piece was pure emotion and imagery, seeming
to say, with Churchill’s tragic self-righteousness, "look how easily the natives
revert to their barbarity once we leave."

Despite its pervasiveness in the media, imagery that I have described above is
far removed from the daily experiences of most American citizen-consumers. But
lately, some media producers have tried to bring these images closer to home.

TV Holy War

In the Fall of 1994, PBS aired a documentary by journalist Steve Emerson. Titled
"Jihad in America," it followed on the heels of other recent works that put
forth the thesis of an elaborate, secret, and centralized network of "Islamic
terrorists," who take orders from Iran, and who are mounting a violent war
against their hated enemy, the mighty Great Satan. [37]

Evidence within the programme suggests that Emerson has access to official
government intelligence. Most of the programme either consists of interviews
staged by Emerson, or clips from Muslim conferences (which are available
publicly from the organizations that sponsor conferences).

However, some clips appear to be from other sources, such as home videos
confiscated from Muslims in FBI sweeps during the Oil War and in the wake of the
World Trade Center incident, or surreptitiously taped surveillance videos. Using
"former" FBI and State Department officials as informants is only a smoke screen
to cover the access Emerson has to official intelligence. Concurrent with the
debut of his program, Emerson was invited to appear on news and talk shows as an
"expert on terrorism." A year or so of this kind of programming set the climate
for what became a rush to judge Muslims for crimes they did not commit.

Within hours after a truck bomb blew up the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building in
Oklahoma City on Wednesday 19 April 1995, word was out that "Islamic extremists"
were responsible. Talking heads on all the major corporate news outlets made
immediate parallels to the World Trade Center bombing, or to the car bombing of
the American Marine barracks in Beirut Programmes sporting logos like "Terror in
the Heartland" popped up on all the major networks. Speculations ran wild: an
international cartel of terrorists were retaliating for the abduction from
Pakistan of their leader, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef; fanatical followers of Shaykh Omar
Abdel Rahman were protesting his trial in New York; Muslim extremists intended
to show that even America’s heartland was not safe from Mideast terror;
religious and political "zealots" from the Middle East were lashing out at the

That night, Steve Emerson, along with CBS Mideast expert Fuad Ajami, asserted on
a CBS news programme that the bombing had "all the earmarks of Islamic radical
extremists," and that Muslim terrorists were now "wreaking havoc in the land
they loathe." Former FBI agent and Pan Am flight 203 bombing investigator Oliver
"Buck" Revell, who rose to public prominence after appearing in Emerson’s
anti-Muslim tirade "Jihad in America," was once again wheeled out of obscurity,
spewing theories about how vulnerable the US was to attacks by Islamic

It was not only the corporate news media that jumped to such conclusions about
Muslims. The same accusations and speculations could be heard from other corners
of US officialdom. For example, the director of the House Republican Task Force
on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, Yossef Bodansky, well known for his
conspiracy theories about a centrally controlled Islamic "holy war" against the
West, assured viewers that "we have a host of enemies that have vowed to strike
at the heart of the Great Satan" and called upon law enforcement agencies to
take preventative measures that amount to severe curtailments of civil
liberties. [38] The tirades by assorted "terrorism experts" continued into
Thursday 20 April, when World Trade Center investigator Michael Cherkasky told
CNN that "we’ve got to know what’s going on in these fanatical terrorist
groups," and called for beefed up intelligence against immigrants.

Politicians worked quickly to capitalize on the tragedy, quickly realizing its
utility for pushing new anti-immigration laws and wiretap legislation. Then
Republican Senate Majority Leader, and later Presidential candidate, Bob Dole
reminded the President that the Senate was ready to pass a new
"counter-terrorism" bill, the Omnibus Counter-terrorism Act of 1995, which had
provisions for enabling the use of "secret evidence" to deport immigrants,
allowed for the banning of fundraising by "suspected terrorist" organizations,
and lessened or eliminated restrictions for conducting phone taps. Similarly,
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde emphasized that the US had to
identify "potentially dangerous foreigners" and that "we should keep them from
getting into the country in the first place," while Florida congresswoman Ileana
Ros Lehtinen cried that "the radical Islamic movement has penetrated America and
presents a real threat to our national security and serenity." Summing up the
general tone of most reporting up to this point, James Wooten, an expert on
terrorism at the Congressional Research Service, asserted that "it’s no longer
to be looked at from afar, it’s come home to roost."

As if a vast contingency plan were set in motion, other Federal agencies quickly
joined the fray, and there was even talk of possible "retaliation" against a
Middle Eastern state. The Pentagon detailed several Arabic language interpreters
to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for possible use in interrogating
suspects, and the FBI began to question Arab and Muslim groups in the Oklahoma
City area. A Jordanian-American was detained in London and returned to the US
for questioning because his luggage contained "possible bombmaking equipment,"
but which later turned out to be a telephone and other innocuous items. When the
man’s identity was announced publicly, his property in Oklahoma was vandalized
and his wife spat upon. [39]

Though the mainstream media ignored repercussions, the independent Muslim press
reported hate crimes related to these incidents. [40] A Muslim woman in Oklahoma
city miscarried her late term child when an angry mob besieged her home with
bricks and stones. Muslims and Arabs were harassed and many organizations
received death and bomb threats and phone calls demanding that they get out of
the US. All of this abuse was further exacerbated by continuing reports, such as
one that the Immigration and Naturalization Service was on the lookout for men
of "Middle Eastern appearance" and that they had detained several suspicious men
of "Middle Eastern origin." [41]

All of this occurred within less than 48 hours after the blast. However, when
the composite sketches of "two white males" were released in the late afternoon
of 20 April, people began to ask if this reduced the possibility that the
bombing was carried out by "Middle Eastern terrorists." News services started
mentioning a possible "lone kook" or a "disgruntled employee." When a suspect
with ties to American ultra-nationalists was arrested, attention shifted to the
"militia" phenomenon. Although resurgent white supremacy had been seething for
years, and despite the warnings of watchdog groups, the mainstream media acted
as if the militias had come out of nowhere.

The lesson here is that, while a white American Christian acts alone Muslims
always work together. In such a discourse, Muslims are guilty merely by
association with the vast menagerie of imagery that government and corporate
outlets use to sell products and ideas to Americans. The cruel ironies of
American domestic problems began to pile up for Muslims: once it was announced
that a man with possible ties to the militias was arrested for the Oklahoma City
bombing and emphasis shifted away from "Islamic terror", some branches of the
corporate news media insisted on clinging to the hope that there might still be
an "Islamic connection," since "our boys" don’t do such things; once a white
Christian American "good old boy" stood accused of the crime, programmes
entitled "Terror in the Heartland" were replaced by those with titles like
"Tragedy in Oklahoma;" once it was clear that there were no "Islamic extremists"
to blame, the tone of public discourse softened remarkably, with less talk of
"retaliation" and more about "forgiveness." Despite the obvious haste with which
American officialdom was set to blame Muslims, there were no public apologies to
Muslims once it was clear that they could not be blamed.

The Utility of "Muslim Terror" in Israeli-American Relations

In the 1970s, Arab American academics like Edmund Ghareeb, Jack Shaheen, and
Michael Suleiman made strong connections between stereotypes of Arabs in
corporate culture and the issue of Palestine. [42] They concluded that in order
for the dispossession of Palestinians to be supported by ordinary Americans,
Arabs had to be written off as either backward barbarians (who don’t understand
that colonization is in their best interests) or violent terrorists (who deserve
to be eliminated). This was a time when no one used the term "Muslim
fundamentalist." Even the Islamic revolution in Iran was seen as some kind of
wild and crazy Persian phenomenon.

At the same time, with the gradual acquiescence of Arab regimes to either
American or Israeli demands throughout the 1980s and 1990s, there was a shift
from "Arab terror" to "Muslim terror." The infrastructure of imagery, already in
place from decades of anti-Arab propaganda, simply had to be transferred to
Muslims, the new "enemies of peace." In fact, many of the same political
problems still persist, but the "terrorists" are now conceptualized as Muslims,
since Arab regimes were now obedient allies. Although the Persian Gulf Oil War
was a successful test case for enframing the Muslim world into "good" and "bad"
parties, Zionist colonization of Palestine still remains one of the core issues
contributing to conflict in West Asia.

American scholar Edward S. Herman believes that anti-Muslim racism in US
corporate culture is closely related to the issue of Palestine. He sees an
"enormous pro-Israel (and anti-Arab) bias of the mainstream media and
intelligentsia," and gives four sources of this bias:

1. Israel’s strategic value to the US.

2. the influence of the pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC.

3. Western feelings of guilt toward Jews.

4. anti-Arab racism.

Herman clarifies what he means by anti-Arab racism:

This racism is mainly an effect and reflection of interest and policy rather
than a casual factor. . . Arabs who cooperate with the West. . . are not subject
to racist epithets and stereotypes. This suggests that if other Arabs were more
tractable and responsive to Western demands they would cease to be negatively
stereotyped. Scapegoating is a function of power and interest. [43]

While his remarks on anti-Arab racism illustrate my point about the utility of
imagery, I want to take another one of Herman’s observations – the pervasiveness
of the Israeli lobby in framing American policy – and look at the utility of
Muslim terror in that context.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) held a conference on the
"Middle East Peace Process" in Washington DC on 7 May 1995, which was aired live
on CSPAN. The guests of honour included US president Bill Clinton and Israeli
prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. In his speech, Rabin warned that "extremist
radical Islamic fundamentalists" are the "enemies of peace" and that "Khomeinism
without Khomeini is the greatest danger to stability, tranquillity and peace in
the Middle East and the world." The "scourge of Khomeinism" has replaced the
"scourge of communism," and even as the Israelis "consolidate peace with
Jordan," the forces of "terror" are seeking to "destroy peace between peoples of
our area." He called for the "free world," which successfully mobilized itself
against communism, to mobilized itself against "Khomeinism." Rabin concluded by
stressing that "only a strong Israel can guarantee stability in the Mideast" and
that, therefore, US foreign aid "must remain a key pillar of the peace process."
But the aid Rabin demands is about more than "peace" and "stability."

Israel cannot survive without continuous transfusions of American dollars, both
from US government aid ($4-5 billion in American tax dollars annually), and
private contributions, making Israel one of the few states in the world whose
economic viability relies almost entirely on foreign donations and charity.
(Despite this, it has never been economically viable, with even the World Bank
considering Israel to be a weak financial risk.) This is meaningful because
recently the US Congress has been threatening to cut foreign aid. While the Cold
War provided the impetus for supporting aid for Israel as the ”first line of
defense" against the "communist threat," it seems that the "Islamic threat" is
now being utilized for the same purpose by Israeli politicians and their proxies
in the US Congress.

After Rabin concluded his speech, AIPAC president Steve Grossman introduced US
president Bill Clinton by emphasizing that Clinton has raised the "strategic
partnership between the US and Israel to new levels." Clinton began his speech
by emphasizing that the US role in the "peace process" was to "minimize the
risks taken for peace." He then noted that Russia’s cooperation with Iran was a
"prime concern" of the US because Iran is "bent on building nuclear weapons."
Clinton ignored another "prime concern" of people living in the region, the long
standing Israeli nuclear weapons programme and its cooperation with South Africa
in detonating a several nuclear weapons, or its kidnapping and imprisonment of
Mordecai Vanunu, an Israeli technician who revealed the existence of the
long-denied Israeli nuclear weapons programme to the outside world.

Clinton’s rationale for preventing Iranian-Russian cooperation was that since
Iran has "ample oil reserves" it cannot possibly need nuclear technology for
peaceful energy purposes. He warned that while Iran haunts the Mideast," the US
will seek to "contain Iran as the principle sponsor of terrorism in the world,"
reminding his audience that Iran undermines the West and its values." He also
thanked the Israelis for "drawing our attention to Iran’s history of supporting
terrorism." But the utility of this imagery became clearer when Clinton next
asked for AIPAC to help out with the floundering American embargo against Iran.
American attempts at convincing the Europeans and Japanese to sever their
economic ties with Iran have been met with little international support, and he
seemed to think the Israelis would have some sway over European politicians.

Clinton stated that US support for Israel was "absolute" and that all forms of
current assistance will be continued. He chastised the US Congress as a bunch of
"budget cutting back door isolationists" for daring to suggest that the US
discontinue its bloated but politically selective foreign aid programs,
emphasizing that the US "did not win the Cold War to blow the peace" on
budgetary issues. But the kind of peace that Clinton and his cohorts support is
clear from the ensuing promises he made to the AIPAC congregation.

Clinton revealed that the once closed American space launcher vehicle market
would now be open to the Israeli arms industry, along with other previously
unavailable high-tech US weaponry. He also noted that the US would escalate its
pre-positioning of weaponry in Israel, and that it would buy $3 billion worth of
Israeli made military products. Since the US already has the largest
military-industrial complex in the world, buying weapons from Israel is another
thinly disguised form of economic aid.

As with other aid, US taxpayers are slated to foot the bill in the name of
"national security." Clinton explained the need for all of this wheeling and
dealing about war and weapons of mass destruction as necessary because "Israel
is on the front line of the battle for freedom and peace." Again seeming to
assume that they held some sway over public opinion, this time domestically,
Clinton suggested that AIPAC help to "lobby" the American people about budgetary

Israel needs more than military aid. Clinton also assured his audience that the
US will continue to support-loan guarantees for the "settlement of 600,000
immigrants from the former Soviet Union." This is perhaps the most intractable
problem in the Middle East conflict, and one of the main causes of tension,
since many Russian emigres are given inducements (and military training) to
settle in West Bank areas, in and around Palestinian towns. But in the official
conceptualization of this issue, when people who live there resist in any way,
they do so because they are inherently "terrorists," not because of any
machinations of state power. This contradiction is worth a closer look.

Rabin used the word "terrorist," and its by product "terror," more than "peace"
in his speeches like the one at the AIPAC conference. Bernard Nietschmann
attempts to provide clarification of the utility of language used to describe
conflict and war. [44] He concludes that most wars and conflicts in the world
today are of the state-versus-nation variety, and in most cases the state is
able to frame the nation they are trying to subdue as "terrorists" or
"extremists." Those states, in many cases clients of larger states like the US,
are generally supported by the major Western corporate news media. Nietschmann
believes that a term like "terrorist" is in most cases a non-word in the
struggle for normative issues: the aggressors have always provided the
definitions of words used to explain their actions. [45] As we have seen above,
words provide the climate for actions.

Especially useful is the assertion that "terrorist" is basically a non-word,
because it is always used from a position of power to describe those who
struggle against the status quo, or the emerging neo-colonial world order. (One
could add to this the term "fundamentalist," which came into vogue after the
Islamic Revolution in Iran; similarly, the French use "integriste.") State
terminology defines struggles and these terminologies are used to undermine
nations that want to have their own vision. More often than not, the nations
under state domination are indigenous peoples – Native Americans, Palestinians,
South Africans, Australian Aboriginals – who were displaced by European

Nietschmann reminds his fellow Western political scientists that state systems
set up boundaries and that all peoples within those boundaries become subjects.
The present historical moment does tell us that states result in hierarchy and
violence, that lines on a map make the world, that history has become the
history of lines. States define land masses, and most defy logic. The state
system serves transnational corporations, which need to be able to deal with a
head man. In addition to facilitating transfer of goods, states also allow use
of force within their borders. Usually, the violence is explained as a police
action against terrorists, who are portrayed as acting out of some kind of
irrational, religious fanaticism. Occasionally, states will even cross borders
into another state to attack "terrorists" without actually declaring war on that
state, as in repeated Israeli invasions of southern Lebanon, or the recent
Turkish incursions into northern Iraq.

There are parallels to this discussion in US history. When Mexicans resisted US
expansion in the 19th century, they were called "bandits." Texans had a policy
to shoot on sight any bandits, and sometimes marched as far as Mexico City to
root out banditry. However, the "war against banditry" was accompanied by a
systematic process of enclosure and depopulation, followed by mass ranch
ownership. Within 2 years, over a million acres were conquered, while the
"bandits" were relegated to the realm of American popular culture. Similar
stories could be told about racism toward Native Americans. Returning to
Berkhofer’s discussion of whites stereotyping Native Americans, he notes that
warlike images of Indians prevailed when Indians were a threat to US interests,
and that the nostalgic images prevailed when they were seen as a vanishing race.
When the US was involved with military action against Haiti around the turn of
the century, American newspapers featured stories about stereotypical Haitians,
drawing upon a previously constructed repertoire of images and tales of
cannibalism and barbarous voodoo rituals.

Nietschmann’s distinction between "state" and "nation" is useful, but it suffers
from some glaring omissions, particularly in his list of nation/state conflicts.
Israeli incursions into Lebanon since the early 1970s are not mentioned, nor is
Indian domination over Kashmir. While the Timorese struggle against the
Indonesian state is stressed, the struggle of the Achenese is ignored. These
Muslim peoples have been struggling against oppression and domination since the
19th century, first against Dutch imperialism and later against its Indonesian
surrogate state. Can the Shi’ites of Iraq and Bahrain (where they are oppressed
majorities) and in Saudi Arabia (where they are an oppressed minority) be
classified as "nations"? Or are religious distinctions not acceptable? There are
other shortcomings in this short work on a long topic, but the overall point is

Conventional American public discourse utilizes images of Islamic resistant
movements as intolerant and predisposed toward violence. While many contemporary
movements do have a strong anti-Western sentiment, it is often qualified and in
any case is a fairly recent phenomenon. If Arabs and Muslims are extremists in
anything, I believe that it is in the patience and tolerance they have shown
toward persistent Western interventions until very recently. Islamic movements
have much more important characteristics than intolerance and violence. A
central concept is social justice. In the West, where it is fashionable to be
anti-social under the pretense that socialism is obsolete, it is easy to
overlook calls for social justice and fixate instead on violent struggle. But
seeing social movements only in terms of violence, real or imagined, is seeing
them only in terms that are important to a narrow set of strategic interests.

I became deeply interested in this line of research around the time of the
Persian Gulf Oil War in 1990-91. I was amazed at how readily the government and
the corporate news media were able to rally public support for that senseless
and destructive war. I was sickened by the grotesqueness of the war and the way
academic experts and journalists self-righteously mimicked each other’s
stereotypes and biases in their inhuman depictions of "bad" Arabs and Muslims,
while slavishly parroting the official public relations – fueled imagery of the
"good" ones. I found it absolutely incredible that the persona of Saddam Hussein
could be reworked from loyal proxy, during his murderous war against Iran, to
Hitlerian demon after he became too big for his American britches. I thought to
myself, Americans must be brain dead if they buy this. Many did. Not content
with that as the sole explanation, I set out to see how imagery could be
reworked to expedite a shifting political economy. This article is largely about
what I found.

One of the points I have tried to make is that Western civilization maintains a
shifting array of images about Islam and Muslims. These images can be called
upon as needed to explain, justify or simplify complex political, social and
economic problems, whether they be international or domestic.


1. The best comprehensive discussion on the lineage of Western legal thought
from the Crusades through modern legal treatment of Native Americans is Robert
A. Williams, The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: The Discourses of
Conquest (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).

2. Robert F. Berkhofer, The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian
from Columbus to the Present (New York: Vintage, 1979).

3. Ibid., 29.

4. Ibid., 30.

5. Ibid., 30-31.

6. For example: Norman Daniel, Islam and the West: The Making of an Image
(Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1961); Hichem Djait, Europe and Islam
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985); Thierry Hentsch, Imagining the
Middle East (Montreal: Black Rose, 1992); Edward Said, Orientalism, (New York:
Vintage, 1979).

7. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1979).

8. Ibid., 301 and 322.

9. Ibid., 325-326.

10. Thierry Hentsch, Imagining the Middle East (Montreal: Black Rose, 1992).

11. Martin Bernal, Black Athena. The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization
(New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1987).

12. Hentsch, op. cit., ix.

13. Ibid., x.

14. Ibid., xiv, emphasis in the original.

15. The passage appears in August C. Krey, The First Crusade: The Accounts of
Eye Witnesses and Participants (Gloucester, Massachusetts: Peter Smith, 1958).

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid., and cf. Marshall Hodgson, Rethinking World History: Essays on Europe,
Islam and World History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

18. In Krey, op. cit., 275.

19. In Norman Daniel, Heroes and Saracens: An Interpretation of the Chansons de
Geste (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1984).

20. In D.D.R. Owen, ed., The Song of Roland: The Oxford Text (London: Allen &
Unwin, 1972), 75.

21. In Daniel, 1984, op. cit., 70.

22. These quotes are from David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of
the New World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 179. Stannard provides
a particularly useful overview of the relationship between sex and violence in
Western colonial discourse, especially in the section on "Sex, Race, and Holy

23. Karen Armstrong, Holy War: The Crusades and their Impact on Today’s World (NewYork:
Anchor, 1992), 230.

24. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (New York:
Vintage, 1990).

25. Ibid., 58-59.

26. Ibid., 230.

27. In Stannard, op. cit., 253, cf. Douglas Kellner, The Persian Gulf TV War
(Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1992).

28. This story, including a case study of Puritan violence toward Indians, is
well told by Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism,
and the Cant of Conquest (New York: Norton, 1976).

29. Fuad Sha’ban, Islam and Arabs in Early American Thought: The Roots of
Orientalism in America (Durham, North Carolina: The Acorn Press, 1991), 23-26.

30. In ibid., 20.

31. Ibid., 149.

32. Ibid., 183.

33. Henry Giroux provides a useful analysis of Aladdin and other Disney films as
they relate to child development in America, in his essay "Are Disney Movies
Good for Your Kids?" which can be found in the collection of essays edited by
Shirley R. Steinberg and Joe L. Kinchloe, Kinderculture: The Corporate
Construction of Cllildhood (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1997), 53-67.

34. Kellner, op. cit., 68-70.

35. For an explication of this thesis, see Joyce Nelson, The Perfect Machine: TV
in the Nuclear Age (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1987).

36. Ward Churchill, Fantasies of the Master Race: Literature, Cinema and the
Colonization of American Indians (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1992),

37. There is a growing genre of conspiracy literature espousing this thesis in
the US, which has been recently heightened by an Israeli scholar working on a
Congressional task force under President Bill Clinton, Yossef Bodansky. See in
particular his book Target America: Terrorism in the U.S. Today (New York:
Shapolsky, 1993). The same book with identical text is marketed outside the US
under the title Target the West.

38. This was reported by Reuters on 20 April 1995. All quotes in this paragraph
and the next were taken from this report.

39. This was reported in a series of news releases by the Associated Press on 20
April 1995.

40. See, for example, Crescent Intennational 1-15 May 1995.

41. This was reported by Reuters 20 April 1995; for a fuller account of the
media circus, see the July/August 1995 issue of Extra!, the magazine of Fairness
and Accuracy in Reporting).

42. For a representative sample of this work, see the following: Edmund Ghareeb,
ed. Split Vision: The Portrayal of Arabs in the American Media (Washington, DC:
The American-Arab Affairs Council, 1983); Jack Shaheen, The TV Arab (Bowling
Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1984); Michael W.
Suleiman, The Arabs in the Mind of America (Brattleboro, Vermont: Amana Books,

43. Herman’s statements are taken from a piece he wrote in the November 1994
issue of Z Magazine.

44. Bernard Nietschmann, "The Third World War," Cultural Survival Quarterly 11,
no. 3 (1987).

45. The relationship between language and politics, and especially the struggle
over normative issues, is nicely detailed by Franke Wilmer, The Indigenous Voice
in World Politics: From Time Immemorial (London: Sage Publications, 1993).

J. A. Progler, is the Assistant Professor of Social Studies, School of Education, Brooklyn
College at CUNY.

Published in Winter 1997.

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