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The Middle East as Seen Through Foreign Eyes

Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries

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Examining Stereotypes

Violence, Irrationality, Barbarian, Savage

The idea that Islam is inherently violent and irrational is perhaps the most deeply embedded and persistent stereotype found in Western discourse about the Middle East. In 1990, The Atlantic Monthly published an article entitled “The Roots of Muslim Rage” written by Bernard Lewis, a Princeton University professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies. The title of the article is striking, suggesting not only that Muslims share a common and profound anger, but also that this collective rage is a deeply embedded neurosis. Malevolent fixation on the West and in particular the United States is further illustrated on the cover, which shows a turbaned, bearded, and scowling man whose pupils and irises have been replaced by American flags. The following passage from the aforementioned article presents Lewis’s central argument:

Too much of the Muslim world is again seized by an intense - and violent - resentment of the West…Why?…It should by now be clear that we are facing a mood and movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilizations [an expression coined by Lewis] - the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, or secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both.

In a 1981 op-ed appearing in the Chicago Tribune, Raphael Patai, author of The Arab Mind, lamented the assassination of Anwar Sadat and claimed the act represented the surfacing of “the darkest side of the Moslem-Arab personality.” The following passages, also from the same Tribune article, provide a virtual catalogue of the most common conceits and clichés about the alleged violence of Islam and Muslims:

The roots of the Moslem proclivity to settling differences with the dagger, the sword, the gun, or the bomb, either individually or in groups, go far back in Arab history…Feuding and intertribal warfare were age-old traditions in Arabia of the 7th century, when Mohammed founded Islam and converted all the Arab tribes to his religion.

Thus, as a result of Arab Muslims expanding outward from the Arabian Peninsula, Bedouin savagery was spread from Spain to India, infecting everyone who eventually accepted the new religion.

…The Arab proclivity toward conflict was exported to all the territories that became Arabized or at least Islamicized, and it became a common feature of all Islamic peoples.

Patai emphasizes the role of violence and warfare in this early expansion:

At the early age, the jihad, the holy war against the infidels, was made a basic Moslem duty. To engage in a jihad was not merely a religious duty, but a collective obligation, because Islamic doctrine held in theory only Islam had a right to exist in the world, and hence had to be spread by the force of arms…The adage Din Muhammad bilsayf [“The Religion of Muhammad by the sword”], has for centuries been the resounding popular response given to the doctrine of jihad by people whose psyche has been formed by Islam…

After pointing to numerous examples of hostilities involving Muslim states between 1961 and 1981, Patai attempts to marshal historical precedent for this aggressive behavior.

…Sadat’s assassination points up another traditional manifestation of age-old Arab-Moslem proneness for conflict: The practice of eliminating a political or religious opponent by dispatching killers to murder him. Of the first four caliphs [632-661], three were assassinated, and ever since innumerable Moslem leaders have been felled by Moslem assassins’ hands… assassination as such is more Middle Eastern than a Western mode of religious or political action. The very existence of the religious duty of jihad, despite all the limitations put on it by orthodox doctrine, is easily misinterpreted by the warped mind of the assassin as sanctioning his own personal act of war against his chosen target. In addition, the Moslem assassin is endowed with a greater recklessness, encouraged by a belief in predestination even without the use of hashish that enables him to act without being hampered by consideration for his own safety.

According to Patai, Arabs and by extension all Muslims are universally endowed with a national character marked by a barely repressed tendency to resort to violence. This predisposition is reinforced by their religion which promises them paradise in return for spreading their faith by force.

In The Lucifer Principle (1995), Howard Bloom picks up where Patai leaves off, offering an explanation on the origins or roots of Islamic violence. Bloom describes Bedouin culture as the mother of Islam, and draws a straight line connecting the Bedouin culture of seventh-century CE Arabia to the Bedouin culture of today, arguing that it is these unchanging Bedouin who “in their austere tents keep the spirit of Islam alive.” Treating their children harshly and showing them little affection, these supposed Bedouin norms Bloom uses to explain contemporary Arab (not Bedouin!) brutality. Bloom views Arab society today composed of individuals, “thrust into a life of cold isolation” who have become “walking time bomb[s].” Extending this perception to a whole civilization, he concluded, “An entire people may have turned barbaric for the simple lack of a hug.”

The idea that all Muslims are stamped with the negative traits of violence and irrationality is frequently expressed in editorial cartoons showing the Arab or Islamic world divided into units which proclaim this fact. In one iteration of this cartoon, the Arabian Peninsula becomes “Disarraybia,” Iraq and Iran become “I Rave” and “I Rant” respectively, Syria becomes “Hystyria,” and the Persian Gulf becomes the “Aspersion Gulf.” Such representations tell us that understanding the region or its inhabitants is out of the question. Attempting to comprehend the incomprehensible and reasoning with madmen are utterly futile undertakings.

One particular type of violence, namely terrorism, has become inextricably linked with Islam and Muslims in contemporary popular imagination. Connecting Islam to terrorism typically rests on a misunderstanding of the term jihad, demonstrated by Mr. Patai above, and by countless others elsewhere. In past decades the Islamic Revolution in Iran contributed to the commonplace association of Islam and violence. Many editorial cartoons portray gun-toting or jihad-spewing ayatollahs as representatives of official Islam, which possesses a dangerous revolutionary impulse.

The idea that the fundamental principle of Islam is violent intolerance of non-Muslims is also one of the most often repeated polemics appearing on numerous Web sites. Since September 11, 2001, dozens of sites have appeared with the stated purpose of monitoring the activity of militant Muslims, but invariably feature anti-Islam diatribes. One site in particular, “Jihad Watch,” provides a representative sample of the content seen on numerous other Web sites invested in similar projects. “Jihad Watch” director Robert Spencer describes it as “primarily a pedagogical site. We are trying to educate people about the nature, magnitude, and sources of the jihad threat. In the course of that effort, we must from time to time work to clear away misconceptions, false assumptions, and false claims about a variety of subjects.”

In the “Islam 101” section of the site, Gregory Davis, “Jihad Watch” contributor and author of Religion of Peace? Islam’s War Against the World, argues that violence, by virtue of Qur’anic injunction, is the defining characteristic not only of radical Muslim militants, but also of the totality of Islamic civilization, past and present:

The Quran's commandments to Muslims to wage war in the name of Allah against non-Muslims are unmistakable. They are, furthermore, absolutely authoritative as they were revealed late in the Prophet's career and so cancel and replace earlier instructions to act peaceably. Without knowledge of the principle of abrogation, Westerners will continue to misread the Quran and misdiagnose Islam as a “religion of peace.”

In a later passage, Davis argues that Islam universally teaches Muslims to be engaged in a perpetual state of violent conflict with non-Muslims and at the same time deceive them by insisting Islam is a peaceful religion:

Due to the state of war between dar al-Islam [the house of Islam] and dar al-harb [the rest of the world], reuses [sic] de guerre, i.e. systematic lying to the infidel, must be considered part and parcel of Islamic tactics. The parroting by Muslim organizations throughout dar al-harb that "Islam is a religion of peace" or that the origins of Muslim violence lie in the unbalanced psyches of particular individual "fanatics" must be considered as disinformation intended to induce the infidel world to let down its guard. Of course, individual Muslims may genuinely regard their religion as "peaceful" – but only insofar as they are ignorant of its true teachings.

In his final analysis, Davis recapitulates the essential nature and goals of Islamic civilization:

As we have seen, contrary to the widespread insistence that true Islam is pacific even if a handful of its adherents are violent, the Islamic sources make clear that engaging in violence against non-Muslims is a central and indispensable principle to Islam. Islam is less a personal faith than a political ideology that exists in a fundamental and permanent state of war with non-Islamic civilizations, cultures, and individuals. The Islamic holy texts outline a social, governmental, and economic system for all mankind. Those cultures and individuals who do not submit to Islamic governance exist in an ipso facto state of rebellion with Allah and must be forcibly brought into submission. The misbegotten term "Islamo-fascism" is wholly redundant: Islam itself is a kind of fascism that achieves its full and proper form only when it assumes the powers of the state.

The spectacular acts of Islamic terrorism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries are but the most recent manifestation of a global war of conquest that Islam has been waging since the days of the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th Century CE and that continues apace today. This is the simple, glaring truth that is staring the world today in the face — and which has stared it in the face numerous times in the past — but which it seems few today are willing to contemplate.

It is important to realize that we have been talking about Islam — not Islamic "fundamentalism," "extremism," "fanaticism," "Islamo-fascism," or "Islamism," but Islam proper, Islam in its orthodox form as it has been understood and practiced by right-believing Muslims from the time of Muhammad to the present.

Robert Spencer insists he believes that “Islam is not a monolith” and claims, “Never have I said or written anything that characterizes all Muslims as terrorist or given to violence.” While this statement not only contradicts the material that appears on the Jihad Watch Web site he directs, it also goes against the central theses he presents in books he has either authored or edited, which include The Myth of Islamic Tolerance (2005), The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion (2006); and Religion of Peace?: Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t (2007).

Stereotyped as a violent, irrational, and intolerant, Muslims are represented as a serious danger to the rest of the world, and in particular to the cultural and religious traditions of Western civilization. Although Islam is an Abrahamic faith alongside Judaism and Christianity, it is seen threatening both “mom and apple pie” as well as basic “Judeo-Christian values.” Thus, those who struggle against such people are not only protecting everything they hold near and dear in their own culture, but also in a sense they are continuing the “civilizing mission” of the European and colonial powers referred to earlier.

Supporting Links:

“Face of Muhammad.” Link to resourcenew window (accessed June 24, 2010).

Godlas, Alan. “Jihad, War, Terrorism, and Peace in Islam.” University of Georgia. Link to resourcenew window (accessed June 24, 2010).

“Islam 101.” Jihad Watch. Link to resourcenew window (accessed June 24, 2010).

“Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West.” Google Video. Link to resourcenew window (accessed June 24, 2010).

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