Muslims in the West’s Imagination: Myth or Reality?*

As I reflect on September 11 and its ramifications for genuine political change, my attention and focus continue to twist and turn.  Events have been unfolding differently every day, moving from one tragedy to another tribulation: from New York to Afghanistan; from almost 3,000 victims in the World Trade Center (WTC) to the war casualties and 10 million refugees in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Iran; maimed and hungry children, women and men in Kabul, Qandahar [Kandahar], Mazar-e Sharif, Herat, Quetta and other places.  With the cataclysmic shifts, my thoughts travel between the U.S., where I live, and the Middle East, where I was born. I see pain and human misery in both places.  But I also remain mystified by my early encounters with the U.S., when I was a first-year college student.  I vividly recall a luncheon at which my American roommate asked: “Did you use fork and knife when you ate at home?”  “Had you ever seen automobiles before you came to the U.S., or did you always ride on camels?”  Such a recollection helped formulate my thoughts. 

Today I ask: can we analyze the implications of September 11 and the war in Afghanistan the two are not separate entities without understanding the diverse world of the Muslims, their aspirations, their struggles for democracy and a better life, as well as their authoritarian states and leaders and their colonial histories?  Muslims are so vastly misperceived in the West, in particular in the United States, that effective strategies of political action necessarily require a vigorous understanding of fact and fiction, rhetoric and reality, and most importantly, generalities and specificities.  I wish to address two ideas which have recently become shortsightedly and inaccurately popularized. These include the misconstrued notion of “Islamic fundamentalism” and the thesis of “the clash of civilizations.”

The label “Islamic fundamentalism” gained popularity with the West’s traumatic images of Ayatollah Khomeini, reminiscent of horror movies and TV shows that regularly and routinely appear in the United States.  Actually, “Islamic fundamentalism” was reinvented with the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 (which had toppled the pro-Western puppet government of the Shah of Iran) and, in particular, with the 1979 Hostage Crisis.  I say reinvented because the term “fundamentalism” is heavily influenced, not by what Muslims are, think and do, but by early 20th-century American Protestantism, which emphasized literal interpretation of the Bible as fundamental to Christian teachings, life and values, gender relations, and women’s position in society.  For many Christians, to be “fundamentalist” is pejorative and extremist (Esposito, 1995: 7f, 202ff, 219f).  I think not many Christians would support Jerry Falwell’s assertion that the U.S. deserved the WTC tragedy because gays, lesbians, and feminists helped it to happen (New York Times, 9/19/01).  Further, the Israeli settlers who confiscate and destroy Palestinian lands are not usually referred to as Jewish fundamentalists.

Thus the portrayal of the Iranian revolution reshaped the notion of “fundamentalism” in the American imagination.  But the revolutionaries were responding to the U.S. involvement in Iran which had installed the Shah through the CIA’s infamous 1953 coup, its first successful operation in the world. Critical of the uneven impact of capitalist development, militarization, state repression of the secular and religious opposition, the growing gap between different classes, and the establishment of an authoritarian state with its notorious secret police SAVAK (set up with the help of the CIA and Israel’s Mossad), revolutionaries wanted to have a democratic, open, and egalitarian society, free from the hands of Western powers, especially the United States.  Yet at the time, they were viewed in the U.S. as “fanatics,” “radicals” and “Islamic fundamentalists.”  Interestingly, only a few months prior to the revolutionary upheavals, Western media and many academicians perceived Iranians as “modern” and “modernizers.”  On a U.S. presidential visit to Tehran in 1978, in a champagne toast to the Shah (“His Imperial Majesty, the King of Kings”), Jimmy Carter referred to Iran as “the island of stability” in the Persian Gulf.

When Muslim Iranian students took over the U.S. embassy and held 52 Americans hostage, Islam became a scapegoat for everything the West disliked about activism and protest in the Third World.  Unlike the esteemed and modern Iranians under the Pahlavis, the Islamic students and revolutionaries were reduced once again to what Bob Ingle of the Atlanta Constitution called “fundamentalist screwballs.”  Students were barbarians who had “bazaar mentality” or “medieval minds.”  But this “Iranian obscenity,” as it was termed by Bill Green of the Washington Post, became an aspect of what Claire Sterling called “the war against civilization by terrorists” (cited in Said, 1981: xxiii).  Notice the catchwords: Islam, fundamentalism, war against civilization, terrorism.  Today, twenty-two years later, we hear the same rhetoric again. 

The term “Islamic fundamentalism” is not only inadequate; it is intellectually flawed and politically misleading.  Referring to the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, Henry Kissinger, U.S. Secretary of State under President Nixon, stated recently that this is not only a war against terrorism, but a war against Islamic fundamentalism (interview with Charlie Rose, PBS, 9/28/01).  But this term has also been applied previously to such governments as Libya, Saudi Arabia (pro-American), Pakistan (pro-American), and Iran (not pro-American). Yet, what does “Islamic fundamentalist” really tell us about these governments, other than that their rulers have appealed to Islam to legitimate their rule?  Or what does it say about Muslim women who live in Saudi Arabia, who cannot vote or drive cars, as opposed to Iranian women who are vice presidents and professors, and who drive cars?  The terminology is associated with Western stereotypes (Sedghi, 1996).  These stereotypes do not take into account the historical development and cultural reality of Islam, the long tradition of revival and reform, which includes notions of social and political change.  They ignore the struggles of both secular and Muslim women (nationalists and socialists; Shi’i and Sunni) in the Middle East and North Africa, against patriarchy, authoritarianism, and colonialism.

Terms such as “Islamic fundamentalism” also misconstrue Muslims. Islamic fundamentalism does not explain the fact there is only one Islam and many different Muslims¾slightly over 1 billion in today’s world, from the Middle East to North, West and East Africa, Central and South Asia, and Eurasia.  Both Edward Said and Maxime Rodinson have eloquently called our attention to “orientalism” (Said, 1978, and Rodinson, 1987).  Said sees it as a dogma which simplifies, distorts, and misrepresents the “orient,” or Muslims and the people of the Middle East.  It is a dogma, he says, that outlines “the absolute and systematic difference between the West, which is rational, developed, humane, superior, and the Orient, which is aberrant, undeveloped, [and] inferior… [T]he Orient [in short], is at bottom something either to be feared… or to be controlled” (Said, 1978: 300f).  This brings me to my second point.

The WTC tragedy and the devastating war in Afghanistan have given rise to the old cliché of a global division between belligerent and inferior Muslims on the one hand, and peaceful and superior Westerners on the other.  Usama [Osama] bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network have allegedly been behind the September 11 calamity, and George W. Bush and the United States have been behind the carpet bombings of Afghanistan since October 7.  Bin Laden says that “the world is divided between Muslims and infidels,” and Bush warns the universe that “you’re with us or against us.”  This clash of Muslims and infidels with us or against us is in reality a clash of the uncivilized.  But Harvard professor Samuel Huntington puts it differently when he views tensions in the post-Cold War era as the antagonistic relations between the West and Muslims, or “the clash of civilizations,” or “the West vs. the rest” (see this debate as it developed chronologically in Huntington, 1993, 1996a & b).  Actually it was in 1958, at the height of the Cold War, that Princeton Professor of Near Eastern Studies Bernard Lewis divided the world into a “dominant civilization” or the West, and that which envies and emulates it, or the Middle East (Lewis, 1958: ch. 2).  Thomas Friedman of the New York Times also articulates this dichotomization of the world between West and non-West when he writes that there are Muslims who pervert their religion into an excuse for terrorism (the medievalists) and those who “feel themselves trapped in failing states and look to America as a model and inspiration [the modernists]” (New York Times, 9/14/01).  For him, the targets of terrorism are “institutions that undergird America’s way of life, from our markets to our military.”  Thus, if not perverted by their terrorist impulse against U.S. wealth and power, Muslims abandon their history, culture and lifestyles in order to imitate and become like Americans.

But scholars and journalists not only distort reality; they often underestimate the impact of colonialism and its merciless scars on the Middle East.  Lewis, like today’s politicians, sees the impact of colonialism on the Middle East as “late, brief, and for the most part indirect” (Lewis, 1958: 31).  George W. Bush referred to the “hunt” of al-Qaeda as a “crusade” against terrorism.  The Western Christian crusades massacred the inhabitants of Beit ol-Moghaddas (Jerusalem), Palestine, and the al-Aqsa Mosque in the 11th century.  Later, Western powers broke their promises to Muslims and Arabs and, through the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1915-17 and the San Remo Agreement of 1920, divided the Arab lands into separate areas as post-WWI settlements.  Today’s Lebanon, Transjordan (Jordan) and Palestine were thus established as artificial creations.  So was Israel, which came into being in 1948.  Arabs’ opposition to the West is based, in part, on fear that the establishment of the state of Israel would create in the Middle East a new base for imperialist political and/or economic intrusion.  The West’s support of Israel and the subsequent wars of 1956, 1967 and 1973, the occupation of Palestine, and the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila camps under Ariel Sharon’s orders in 1982, left permanent marks on Middle East history and its people, as did the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 and the Persian Gulf war of 1990-91 (Sedghi, 1992).  The “clash of civilizations” thesis fails to explain the grief and distress that Muslim people have historically experienced at the hands of imperialism.  Nor does the thesis give credit to the intellectual, literary, aesthetic, scientific, feminist and spiritual contributions of Muslims to world civilization.

In sum, despite twenty-two rough years since the Iranian Revolution, the West continues to be burdened by its distorted imagination of Muslims and the Middle East.  “Fundamentalism” denotes the negation of the modern world, a view which is shared by a minority of Christians, Jews, Muslims and other people.  “Khomeinism” is associated with “populism,” not with fundamentalism (Abrahamian, 1993: Introduction and ch. 1).  The Taliban and bin Laden do not represent all Muslims, just as David Koresh, Jim Jones, Timothy McVeigh, Baruch Goldstein, and others do not define Christians and Jews.  By the same token, not all unveiled women in the U.S. and Europe are modern Christians or Jews; and conversely, not all the veiled women in the Muslim world are political and religious traditionalists and/or social conservatives or victims.  While generalizations are important for the purpose of theory-building, they must necessarily take account of specificities if reality is not to be distorted (Sedghi, 1994).  Likewise, generalizations about Muslims overlook differences among them as to race, gender, ethnicity, culture, class, nationality, etc., and must therefore be rejected. An effective strategy of political change must call for demystification and re-understanding of the Middle East and Muslims¾women and men¾and of their struggles for genuine transformation.  Given the current stereotypes, this may be difficult both for the activist and for the intellectual.  Yet how can we strategize without knowing?  Eric Hobsbawm noted that the 20th century was the age of catastrophe (Hobsbawm, 1994).  Perhaps better understanding can bring more optimism to this new millennium. 


Abrahamian, Ervand. Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Esposito, John L. The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Hobsbawm, Eric. The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991. New York: Pantheon Books, 1994.

Huntington, Samuel P. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993.

_______. The Clash of Civilizations: The Debates. New York: Foreign Affairs, 1996 (a).

_______. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996 (b).

Lewis, Bernard. The Middle East and the West. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1958.

Rodinson, Maxime. Europe and the Mystique of Islam. Trans. Roger Veinus.  Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

________. Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the World. New York: Pantheon Books, 1981.

Sedghi, Hamideh. “The Persian Gulf War: The New International Order or Disorder?” New Political Science, Spring-Summer 1992.

_______. “Third World Feminist Perspectives on World Politics,” in Peter Beckman and Francine D’Amico (eds.). Women, Gender and World Politics: Perspectives, Policies and Prospects.  Westport, Conn.: Bergin & Garvey, 1994.

_______.”Women, the State and Development: Appraising Secular and Religious Gender Politics in Iran,” in Jennifer Turpin and Lois Ann Lorentzen (eds.). The Gendered New World Order: Militarism, Development and the Environment. New York: Routledge, 1996.


*This article is adapted from a teach-in presentation, “Reflections on September 11, 2001,” given at City College Center for Worker Education, October 12, 2001.

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