Tuesday, April 10, 2007

I'm taking a Humanities course this semester about Islamic art and culture. Now that there's only a couple weeks left in the semester we have moved from the ancient history of Muslim civilization to present-day. Today in class we watched a film about "Orientalism," or the West's fascination with the Near and Far East. It was inspired by Edward Said, a Palestinian-American professor at Columbia U who wrote the book Orientalism. According to Wikipedia [I know, only so authoritative], he had been under FBI surveillance since 1971, probably until he died in 2003.

Odd how time chances perceptions.
He wrote the book in 1978 and updated it in the 1990s, saying he had noticed an uptick in the presence of anti-Muslim sentiment in those years. We grow up with an idea about the exotic lands to the east, home of the famed spice trade and silk routes and caravans of camels. This is nothing new, although it continues to evolve. In the Disney movie "Aladdin" for example, one of the main songs' lyrics perpetuates many myths to children so young they don't even understand what they are hearing.

Oh I come from a land, from a faraway place
Where the caravan camels roam
Where it's flat and immense
And the heat is intense
It's barbaric, but hey, it's home

[Original first verse (1992-93):]
Oh I come from a land, from a faraway place
Where the caravan camels roam
Where they cut off your ear
If they don't like your face
It's barbaric, but hey, it's home

So they toned down the barbaric imagery for the kids but left the reference.

The film we watched included footage of the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombings [which were obviously perpetrated by two Americans], and so many of the journalists basically came right out and said "This attack is characteristic of Islamic jihad" or referred to the Middle East that watching it's embarassing. There was also a news clip by a reporter talking about the first World Trade Center bombing as he walked, you guessed it, in front of the World Trade Towers. A quick look around the classroom revealed grimaces and a couple stiff laughs— the movie needs a bit of updating now that the WTC towers are no more.

It frightens me a little that despite being a fairly open-minded person, and despite reading books and taking courses that address this kind of subject, I am still unable to shake the all of the perceptions and misperceptions I have about Islamic culture. I realize that "Islamic terrorists" are misusing the Qur'an much in the same way that Pope Urban and his trained emissary monkeys misused the Bible and launched the Crusades, and yet with the media's slant on the war, it is too easy to see people blowing themselves up in the Middle East and stop all intelligent thought thereafter. Nevermind that the US is probably in it for the oil and that we ally ourselves with Israel which hasn't exactly treated its neighbors well. We get to sit back and wage our own holy war against an entire religion, one of the largest and most peaceful in the world.

I'll save my thoughts on religion for another day.

From Edward Said...

"So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Muslims and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Muslim life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have instead is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression."

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