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Minority of One

COVERING ISLAM: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World. \o7 By Edward Said (Vintage: 240 pp., $13 paper)\f7

October 04, 1998|GLORIA EMERSON | Gloria Emerson, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the author of several books, including "Gaza: A Year in the Intifada: A Personal Account from an Occupied Land."

A cultivated and scholarly man, fluent in three languages, an accomplished pianist, the author of 10 books including one on Joseph Conrad, a professor of literature at Columbia University, is seen by many Americans as a pariah and by others as heroic and inspiring. The sin of Edward Said is that he has persisted in writing about the punishing scarred lives of Palestinians as well as a vast body of scholarship on the Muslim Orient so often defined as being "other" than the Occident that it has been rendered inferior. Said, who as a boy in 1947 left West Jerusalem, where his father, his grandfather and several generations before them had lived, is seemingly undefeated by the animus of others. This patrician and highly productive scholar refuses to let Americans see all Arabs as malevolent, murderous, dishonorable and backward.

The fixed perceptions of Muslims, our ignorance and national revulsion toward Islam, the new enemy, are the crucial themes in a revised edition of his 17-year-old book, never needed so much as now, "Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World."

"It is only a slight overstatement to say that Muslims and Arabs are essentially covered, discussed, apprehended either as oil suppliers or as 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 Islamic world. What we have instead is a limited series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as, among other things, to make that world vulnerable to military aggressions," he writes.

This situation has worsened since he first wrote the book in 1981, with the intense focus on Muslims and Islam and the accompanying commentary and analysis by the unqualified. In the book's new foreword, Said writes: "Malicious generalizations about Islam have become the last acceptable form of denigration of foreign culture in the West. What is said about the Muslim mind, or character, or religion, or culture cannot now be said in mainstream discussion about Africans, Jews, other Orientals or Asians." If Americans tend to think of Muslims as only those men who blew up the U.S. military quarters in Saudi Arabia or the embassies in Africa, Said would also have us bear in mind "the staggeringly varied geographical circumstances of Islamic societies (from China to Nigeria, from Spain to Indonesia, from Russia to Afghanistan to Tunisia)." But he does not gloss over the appalling events that have happened nor does he trivialize their repercussions. Rather, he hopes to teach us the political implications when the media and the "experts" lump Muslim countries together as identical undesirables, ignoring their considerable numbers, past, present and future, the sheer historical venture of Islam and the varied traditions, societies, languages and cultural formations of Muslims.

It may be a losing battle on his part, but Said thinks not. Even when there is a strong orthodoxy of interpretation among Muslims, there can be revolutionary turmoil, Said notes, as in Sunnite Islam. Sunna means orthodoxy of interpretation based on consensus. But Said reminds us of the conflict between the government in Egypt of the late Anwar Sadat, who with his followers claimed to be the party of true Sunna, and the various so-called fundamentalist opponents made the same case.

"There can be no Islam without the Koran," Said writes. "Conversely there can be no Koran without Muslims, reading it, interpreting it, attempting to translate it into institutions and social realities."

There is not one frozen Islam, predictable and locked in itself. All throughout the Islamic world surge varieties of Islam, many Muslims laying claim to guiding their memories back to "the true Islam." Quite correctly Said makes his case that very little of this diverse Muslim energy is noticed, let alone understood, by the Western media. He is equally derisive about certain scholars and the credentials of those commentators who have made an industry of appearing on television to "explain" terrorism in all its forms. He criticizes the use of "fundamentalists," a word almost automatically associated with Islam although it has a flourishing relationship with Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism.

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