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Review of Challenging the New Orientalism

Book Review

Challenging the New Orientalism: Dissenting Essays on the "War Against Islam"
by M. Shahid Alam,
Islamic Publications International , 272 pp., 2007, 978-1889999458

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad • 12 March 2007

Early in the 12th century, the Crusaders rampaged through Islamic lands with little initial resistance; the emirs and sultans were more concerned with their own internecine feuds. At this point, Ibn al-Khashab, an Imam from Aleppo, took it upon himself to jolt the Islamic world out of its suicidal stupor. His passionate, eloquent and incessant exhortations eventually shamed the would-be defenders of Islamic lands into confronting the aggressors, and laid the ground for an effective resistance that culminated in the crusader's eventual ejection from the Levant.

Since the foundation of Israel in 1948, and later after 1967, the Islamic world has been under renewed assault – this time from United States and Israel (at times joined by lesser European powers). This aggression also incorporates an ideological assault – an ideological Crusade, as it were. The twin objectives of the Zionists – to demonise those it sought to dispossess and the need to bring the imperial powers on board its colonial enterprise – led them to revive an ideologically driven discourse, Orientalism, which by end of the Second World War had become increasingly irrelevant. In its Zionist incarnation, however, Orientalism is far more virulent.

A sad legacy of prolonged Western domination has been that few people read in Muslim world; fewer still do so critically. This has left the field wide open for Orientalists to extend their pernicious influence. They have taken liberties with the history, culture, traditions and beliefs of the Islamic world and with the notable exception of Edward Said, they have encountered little resistance. In the tradition of Said, and in the spirit of al-Khashab, then, Challenging the New Orientalism: Dissenting Essays on the "War Against Islam" is M. Shahid Alam's bracing riposte to the New Orientalists.

Alam covers expansive intellectual territory in this collection of essays: from Islamic history to global economics; Orientalist dogma to anti-Imperialist activism; wars to Human Rights. His message is universal: whether one is a historian, political scientist, sociologist, economist, activist, member of an ethnic minority, or a Muslim, the book has plenty to offer. Its passionate, at times lyrical, rendering makes this a highly readable book.

The New Orientalism, the first of the book's three sections, deals with the proliferation of literature on the Muslim world by Orientalists – mostly of Zionist provenance – whose scholarly pretences barely conceal their deep-seated prejudice towards their subject. While the earlier Orientalists had produced tracts that aided the colonization of the Orient by furnishing ideological pretexts; the new version of Orientalism has taken on unabashedly political overtones. Their Manichean view posits an unchanging, retrograde, totalitarian Islam in perpetual conflict with an enlightened, democratic, egalitarian and free West. Alam's broadside against the most influential protagonists of this project – Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington – is trenchant as it is lucid; he shows up a theoretical edifice that has weak empirical foundations, one that is barely held together by specious arguments and defective logic.

With advances in gunnery and shipping providing a decisive military advantage and the Industrial Revolution helping replace the feudal order, Europe's colonial venture soon established and consolidated the global capitalist system. This was dominated by Core capital, comprising of Europe and America (and Japan to a lesser degree), that lorded over a Periphery whose markets and resources it relied on for profits. Like the rest of the countries that comprise the Periphery, the Islamic world was caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of neoliberal economics and neocolonial politics. Far from being a proof of Islam's resistance to modernity, aversion to science and hostility to the West, the relative decline of Islamic societies vis-à-vis the West is attributable to the same economic, political, social and technological factors that have contributed to the lag in the rest of the Periphery. In fact, Egyptian, Ottoman and Persian attempts at modernization and democratic reform were crushed right at their inception by European colonial powers.

Palestine and Israel, the second section of the book, addresses one of the most pressing issues of our time. The essays in the section range from the history of the conflict, contemporary political realities, to the misconceptions and fallacies sown through a systematically skewed media representation. Alam argues that the advent of a colonial-settler state, Israel, and the discovery of oil have fuelled the resurgence of interest in the region which has culminated in myriad interventions, contributing to its continued instability. By aligning with the hegemonic ambitions of the reigning powers (first Britain, then France and now America), Israel has appropriated their military and financial strength to further its own regional goals. In this, it has been assisted by a powerful lobby in Washington, which not only exercises inordinate influence over American foreign policy, but also confronts dissent in order to suppress critical voices. Alam 's personal experience in this regard is instructive: signing a petition in support of an Academic Boycott of Israel – a legitimate, popular and non-violent mode of protest – made him the target of a smear campaign headed by Zionist extremists at Campus Watch (a McCarthyite project which aims to discredit and intimidate critical dissenters) with accusations of "encouraging terrorist murderers". From there, the story was relayed on to right-wing media and Alam found himself the centre of much unwelcome attention.
While Alam has weathered this storm with courage, not everyone has his fortitude; if the fraudulent Zionist narrative still prevails in the American mainstream discourse, it is because most choose silence over jeopardizing their careers.

The War Against Global Terrorism, the last section of the book, addresses the historical provenance of September 11, which Alam situates in the dynamics of political-economic interactions between the West and the Periphery in general, and the Islamic societies in particular, rather than any claimed cultural-ideological proclivities of the latter for murder. Alam proceeds to dispel the ideological fog that envelops the events and causes of the tragedy. The roots of this conflict lie not in profound hostility of Islam to modernity, freedom and democracy, as the ideological cheerleaders of the so called "war on terror" suggest; but in mundane realities of imperial excess and a deeply iniquitous economic system that sustains the neocolonial grip of Core capital over the Periphery. Alam exposes how the events of September 11 have been instrumentalized in the pursuit of global hegemonic ambitions. Afghanistan was merely a first step. With a pretext established, unchecked imperial ambitions soon opened the way for American conquest of Iraq, urged on all the way by the neocon vanguard of the Zionist lobby. The fall of Baghdad, an event with painful historical connotations for most Muslims, is the spark for one of the book's most searing essays. The concise, charged rhetoric of "Iraq is Free" has an almost poetic quality to it.

Alam next dissects the semantics of Empire; the corrupted discourse that presages – and rationalizes – wars of aggression; the language that reduces adversaries to mere labels and statistics. The purveyors of violence have their propaganda agents in the media and academia, who substitute the sensory reality of war and occupation with a mythical reality imbued with benevolence and high minded ideals. Alam tackles the question of identity in imperial USA; what it is like being a Muslim in the age of war and terror – of being prejudged and demonized by the likes of Thomas Friedman; of being the centre of every bigot's leery attention; of paying the price for departing from doctrinal orthodoxy.

September 11 complicated things for many Muslims. The majority chose to weather the storm quietly; some accepted the role of native informers. Only a rare few refused to accept the dominant narrative and challenge the doctrinal assumptions. Prominent in this latter group, Alam has had to bear a heavy toll.

Alam ends the book with a topical essay on the escalations in the Gulf that threaten a new war, this time against Iran. He traces the roots of this planned aggression to 1979 when the Islamic Revolution brought down one of the pillars of American power in the region: the regime of the Shah of Iran. The revolution was a serious setback for US-Israeli hegemonic ambitions; therefore Iraq was tasked with neutralizing this potential threat. The Zionists, on the other hand, had more ambitious plans; as articulated by Oded Yinon in Kivunim, the World Zionist Organization's main publication, they aimed to break Iraq into ethnic-sectarian statelets and neutralize regional challengers to Israel's dominance one at a time. In the wake of the US conquest of Iraq in 2003, Zionists immediately started recycling the same falsehoods used to justify the war against Iraq to sell the new war – against Iran this time.

The endgame in the case of US-Israeli aggression against Iran is uncertain, but Alam's essay does an admirable job of exposing the source and trajectory of this policy.

As with any collection of essays dealing with broadly similar topics, repetition is inevitable and in that respect this book is no exception. However, that also means that each essay is self-contained and offers complete context and analysis. My only objection is with the use of the term "Islamicate" [1], which is obscure and lacks linguistic resonance; for instance, there is no comparable word for other similar societal configurations.

In his later years, Aldous Huxley had complained about the trend towards excessive specialization in academia, which produces knowledge that does little to improve the human situation. He emphasized a need for bridges to rescue knowledge from the sterile confines of academic exclusion back into the service of human endeavour. In Alam 's writings one finds that rare amalgamation of depth and breadth, of scholarly rigor and activist zeal. An accomplished economist, he is also an erudite political scientist, engages complex sociological debates, has a keen eye for textual analysis, and writes with the passion of a poet.

At a time when authentic narratives of the Islamic world are being submerged under a vast proliferation of Orientalist dogma, Challenging the New Orientalism offers an invaluable antidote. Alam's insights are indispensable; this book deserves to be widely read.

[1] A terms coined by Marshall Hodgson which refers "not directly to the religion, Islam, itself, but to the social and cultural complex historically associated with Islam and the Muslims, both among Muslims themselves and even when found among non-Muslims"


Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is a member of Spinwatch. His regular commentaries appear on The Fanonite



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18 March 2007

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