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The Middle East as Seen Through Foreign Eyes

Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries

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Essay

The Middle East as Seen Through Foreign Eyes

Conceptions of the Middle East and wider Muslim world are rooted in European culture. They have been fueled by the rivalries that have existed among Muslim and Christian polities, with the Mediterranean Sea functioning as the nexus of connectivity and competition. For globally minded European states and empires, the Muslim world encompassed an alien ideological, political, economic, and social system. Islam, and its Prophet, have both been routinely the target of calumny in European texts dating back to the medieval period. The twelfth-century CE “Song of Roland” portrays Muhammad as a false deity and his followers as misguided pagan idolaters. In the fourteenth-century CE Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri places Muhammad in the Eighth Circle of Hell where, as an intentional “disseminator of scandal and schism,” he is nearly cleft in two by a sword-wielding demon. In later centuries, when Europeans were making advances in the natural sciences, Islam was explained in terms of psychological pathology, with its Prophet a mentally dysfunctional epileptic. Until well into the twentieth century, it was common in the West to refer to Islam as “Muhammadanism,” a label inferring that Christianity is the paradigmatic religious tradition and Islam is an imitation with Muhammad serving as an inferior substitute for Jesus.

With the ability of the Ottoman Empire to challenge Europeans militarily from the fourteenth century onward, it was not uncommon for Muslims to be depicted as violent, barbaric savages. In Muslim societies, the segregation of men and women into separate spheres of activity aroused both the prurient fascination and moral indignation of European observers, leading to a characterization of Muslim men as tyrannical oppressors of women and Muslim women as passive victims devoid of power or agency. During the age of European global empires, to correct and reverse perceived cultural shortcomings, colonial governments sought to reconfigure Muslim polities through the imposition of the socio-moral conventions of the modern West.

As a cultural extension of Western Europe, the United States inherited many of these images and ideas, but it was not until after the Second World War that Americans found a suitable context in which to place them. At the conclusion of World War II the United States as a new world power found itself heir to many of the political problems of European colonialism. Between 1946 and 1953, the Foundations were laid for many of the foreign relations problems the United States deals with today. First and foremost, the oil of the region was deemed the “greatest prize in human history” by an American commission established by President Roosevelt. Secondly, the Middle East became a zone of violent proxy conflicts as the United States and the Soviet Union vied for strategic influence. Thirdly, the United States’ support for the creation of the state of Israel, the subsequent dispossession of a large part of the Palestinian population, and the hostility of the surrounding Arab states to both Israel and the displaced Palestinians destabilized the region and continues to be a source of grave concern for American policy makers and the American public. Finally, anti-colonial forms of nationalism, such as Muhammad Musaddiq’s (Mossadegh) Iran, posed a threat to American economic interests. The CIA-orchestrated overthrow of the Iranian government in 1953 in response to Musaddiq’s desire to nationalize Iran’s oil industry marked the first direct involvement of the United States in re-shaping the region politically according to its strategic interests. This intervention was invoked as a rallying point during the 1979 Iranian Revolution when the American-installed Shah was deposed.

It was not until the 1970s that Americans began to feel themselves directly affected by events in the Middle East and Islamic World. The OPEC oil embargo, enacted in retaliation to American support for Israel in the October 1973 War, caused fuel prices to skyrocket and created economic hardship and resentment among Americans, who directed their animosity at the perceived rapaciousness of Arab oil “sheikhs.” In 1979 and 1980, the media spectacle of the Iran hostage crisis captivated Americans and produced a storehouse of dramatic video footage that became the defining imagery of the Middle East for several years to come. In 1983, an attack on the marine barracks in Beirut left 241 American servicemen dead, and throughout the 1980s until the end of the Cold War, Middle East-related hijackings, car bombs, hostage takings, and assassinations abroad seemed almost a daily occurrence.

In the dissolution of the Soviet Union, some saw a vanquishing of the “red menace” of communism only for it to be replaced by a new geo-political threat: the “green wave” of Islam, echoing the “yellow peril” of the early twentieth century. Articulated most memorably in his forecast for a global “clash of civilizations,” Samuel Huntington imagined a post-Cold War world that pitted the forces of Western liberal democracy against a Chinese-Islamic multi-colored mega-enemy. Beyond the political science and foreign policy intelligentsia who cast Muslims as the new spoilers of world peace and security, Islam also plays a significant if negative role in the view of evangelical or fundamentalist Christians with certain eschatological expectations. According to these Christians, signs of the impending cataclysm include a re-establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine and the return of Jerusalem to Jewish control. In most apocalyptic narratives, Muslims are antagonists in the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, which in turn contributes to enthusiastic and uncritical championing of Israel by many American evangelicals. Whatever their motivations, these notions continue to be strikingly expressed in the mainstream media. An instructive example comes from the cover of the May 1994 issue of World Press Review which features two minarets silhouetted against a red-orange sky and a setting sun. Superimposed on this ominous image is the question “Fear of Islam – Is it a real world menace, or just the latest evil empire?” a restrictive formulation that offers no other possible interpretations.

In addition to the shortcomings of American foreign policy and the nurturing of extremist religious ideologies, two other factors have been crucial in conditioning current notions of the Muslim Other: rapidly changing demography and the perception of economic inequality. Growth in Muslim populations in both the United States and western Europe accelerated in the latter half of the twentieth century. Immigration to the United States has increased dramatically since 1960, with the overwhelming majority of these immigrants arriving from the so-called Third World. These new-comers, many of whom are Muslim, have not only diversified major cities but have also transformed the demography of smaller suburban communities and rural townships. Although many Muslims have managed to integrate themselves quite seamlessly into the fabric of Western society, terrorist attacks in New York, Madrid, and London and social unrest among Muslim immigrants in France and Germany have caused some Americans and Europeans to turn a fearful eye toward Islam and perceive growing Muslim communities as internal, existential threats. Finally, in the United States, the gap between the wealthy and middle- and working-class people has steadily widened throughout the last two decades of the twentieth century and into the first decade of the twenty-first century. While middle- and working-class families struggle to deal with this development, hardship and frustration have caused some to seek out situations or individuals to blame for their predicament. In some cases, new immigrants—mostly Latinos but also Middle Easterners and South Asians—are the targets of their hostility.

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