[After the 1967 June War] [t]his was what the Arab had become. From a faintly outlined stereotype as a camel-riding nomad to an accepted caricature as the embodiment of incompetence and easy defeat: that was all the scope given the Arab.
Yet after the 1973 war the Arab appeared everywhere as some-thing more menacing. Cartoons depicting an Arab sheik standing behind a gasoline pump turned up consistently. These Arabs, however, were clearly “Semitic”: their sharply hooked noses, the evil mustachioed leer on their faces, were obvious reminders (to a largely non-Semitic population) that “Semites” were at the bottom of all “our” troubles, which in this case was principally a gasoline shortage. The transference of a popular anti-Semitic animus from a Jewish to an Arab target was made smoothly, since the figure was essentially the same.
Thus if the Arab occupies space enough for attention, it is as a negative value. He is seen as the disrupter of Israel’s and the West’s existence, or in another view of the same thing, as a surmountable obstacle to Israel’s creation in 1948. Insofar as this Arab has any history, it is part of the history given him (or taken from him: the difference is slight) by the Orientalist tradition, and later, the Zionist tradition. Palestine was seen—by Lamartine and the early Zionists —as an empty desert waiting to burst into bloom; such inhabitants as it had were supposed to be inconsequential nomads possessing no real claim on the land and therefore no cultural or national reality. Thus the Arab is conceived of now as a shadow that dogs the Jew. In that shadow—because Arabs and Jews are Oriental Semites—can be placed whatever traditional, latent mistrust a Westerner feels towards the Oriental. For the Jew of pre-Nazi Europe has bifurcated: what we have now is a Jewish hero, constructed out of a reconstructed cult of the adventurer-pioneer-Orientalist (Burton, Lane, Renan), and his creeping, mysteriously fearsome shadow, the Arab Oriental. Isolated from everything except the past created for him by Orientalist polemic, the Arab is chained to a destiny that fixes him and dooms him to a series of reactions periodically chastised by what Barbara Tuchman gives the theological name “Israel’s terrible swift sword.”
Aside from his anti-Zionism, the Arab is an oil supplier. This is another negative characteristic, since most accounts of Arab oil equate the oil boycott of 1973–1974 (which principally benefitted Western oil companies and a small ruling Arab elite) with the absence of any Arab moral qualifications for owning such vast oil reserves. Without the usual euphemisms, the question most often being asked is why such people as the Arabs are entitled to keep the developed (free, democratic, moral) world threatened. From such questions comes the frequent suggestion that the Arab oil fields be invaded by the marines. . . . (Said, Edward. 1977. Orientalism. Penguin, London. pp. 285f.)
One of the most influential publications of the twentieth century was Orientalism [link is to the Wikipedia article on the book] by Palestinian born American scholar Edward Said. The book has been translated into 36 languages and said to have revolutionized Middle Eastern studies in the U.S. Naturally, as with any major revolutionary work that challenges conventional ways of thinking, it has had its critics. I single out here some of Said’s commentary on Western attitudes towards Islam that I believe stand as valid today as they were when first published in 1978 and expanded in 1994. My own comments are in blue italics.
The principle dogmas of Orientalism:
The absolute and systematic difference between the West, which is rational, developed, humane, superior, and the Orient, which is aberrant, underdeveloped, inferior.
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.
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.”
The Orient is at bottom something either to be feared (the Yellow Peril, the Mongol hordes, the brown dominion) or to be controlled (by pacification, research and development, outright occupation whenever possible).
Every one of those dogmas has come through loud and clear in the the writings of Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne and others, as well, of course, in many recent comments on this blog. We do not have to get to know or learn about Muslims from their own writings or history; we only need to pick up the Koran to see our suspicions and fears confirmed.
Islamic Orientalism accordingly believes there are still things such as “an Islamic society, an Arab mind, an Oriental psyche.”
It makes no difference whether we are talking about a situation in Bangladesh or events in Egypt, Palestine, Afghanistan or Bedford. The world is facing a threat from a singular religious belief system that threatens Western civilization.
The gospels of Matthew and John and other passages in the NT letters no doubt contain virulent anti-semitic expressions but most of us surely know from personal experience that those expressions have not turned (most of) us into raving anti-semites. Rather I suspect most of us have felt a little discomfort at times when reading these, much the same way many of us respond with some discomfort over passages forbidding women to speak in church assemblies.
Biblical “memes” need to find rich manure to do their dirty work, and surely those who find visceral excitement in passages like Matthew 27:25, John 8:39,44 and I Thess.2:15-16 are bent quite independently of those passages.
It helps to remember Jews have not been the only victims but Romanies (Gypsies) have been lumped with them for similar treatment from olden to modern times — variously along with witches and homosexuals et al. Singling out Jews at the expense of these surely risks serving sectional political interests today at the expense of these other minorities by failing to address racism per se.
Edward Said’s valuable contribution to this debate (in his classic Orientialism) was the observation of how since the holocaust of WW2 anti-semitism has bifurcated into the guilt-response cum displacement equation of jews:good::arabs:bad — both sides of the expression of course being unhealthy unrealistic mythical nonsense. I suspect that much of the rekindled expressions of anti(jewish)semitism in recent years has been a reaction, albeit an equally pathological one, against this bifurcation — as it has been expressed via one-sided neo-con policies in the middle east and inability to express any normal healthy criticism of the State of Israel without being accused (and often worse) of anti-semitism.
So what to do about religious or other tracts that promote antisemitism? Well, democracy is by nature often messy. Alternatives are totalitarianism and censorship. I’d rather those not so inflamed by those texts take reponsibility to promote solutions to racism as to any other social problem. It would help to ask also “why now”, “why these people”, “why here”, etc — since it is clear that the world has not seen rabid racism swept along on gales of sayings from sacred texts at all times and all places and among all groups where those sacred texts are venerated.