Norway: Muslims and metaphors, part two

The dichotomy between Islam and the West is fictitious, yet it is accepted by both the Left and the Right as real.

Not only conservatives are guilty of using Islamic imagery as a menacing metaphor – those on the Left, like Robert Fisk, do so as well [EPA]

[In the first part of this article, I discussed the blaming of Muslims for terror attacks, and the neo-conservative conflation of Muslims and the Left. You can read it here.]

What we are witnessing in this transfusion of the Left and the Muslim is only one critical element in the constitution of the Muslim as a menacing metaphor. The systemic machination behind the demonisation of Muslims as a menace to humanity is not limited to a Neoconservative and Zionist operation. When it comes to Muslims as epitome of evil, the list in fact swings all the way from the Right to the Left. The anxiety of identifying the Muslim with the Left is the anxiety of the enemy within. But when we catch the Left itself using the Muslim as a metaphor of banality and terror then we are onto something far deeper in the inner anxiety of the thing that calls itself “the West”. 

Consider this phrase: “He is a caliph, I suppose, almost of the Middle Eastern variety.” This is Robert Fisk, the distinguished British journalist, probably furthest in his political disposition from Dinesh D’Souza and Samuel Huntington and their ilk – and this is the opening sentence of an article he wrote on July 11, 2011 for The Independent in which he shared his thoughts on Mr Rupert Murdoch at the height of the phone hacking scandal in the UK. Why that curious opening – why a “caliph”, of all things, of “the Middle Eastern variety”?  What other variety of caliphs do we have, anyway? Scandinavian caliphs? Australian, British? There is only one kind of caliph. The word comes from the Arabic Khalifa, meaning representative, vicegerent. It was first used in its historic meaning in the aftermath of Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 CE, when Abu Bakr, his comrade, succeeded him. 

Abu Bakr and his supporters opted for the humble title of “representative of the Prophet of God”, not wishing to pretend they were equal to him. Other successors of the prophet followed suit and kept calling themselves “caliph”, until finally the first and second Arab dynasties of the Umayyads (661-750) and the Abbasids (750-1258) were formed and they called their institution a “caliphate”. Other dynasties such the Ottomans (1299–1923) also at times used that title.

Now, were some of these caliphs (as any other monarch or queen or caesar or pope) corrupt, authoritarian, wealthy, and such – of course they were. But why when it comes for a metaphor of corruption, banality, and tyranny, Mr Fisk cannot think of a metaphor from his own back yard:  Popes, Caesars, British monarchs, perhaps, “Bloody Mary”, Il Duce, Mein Führers? Why Middle Eastern caliphs – when referring to Rupert Murdoch, AC, KSG, an Australian-American global media baron – where that AC officially coming after his name stands for The Order of Australia, an order of chivalry established by Elizabeth II, Queen of Australia, and that KSC for “The Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great (Ordo Sancti Gregorii Magni)” established by Pope Gregory XVI in 1831? There are plenty of metaphors to work within all of that. Why “a caliph, I suppose, almost of the Middle Eastern variety?” Why could Robert Fisk not “suppose” any of these real things and reach for “almost” something else other than a “Middle Eastern” metaphor?

It is not just Robert Fisk. The syndrome is an epidemic. The Muslim is a metaphor of menace, banality, and terror everywhere – from the Right all the way to the Left.

Here is another prominent example. Lewis H. Lapham, the distinguished former editor of Harper’s Magazine, a singularly progressive left-leaning American critic of US imperialism, too would not hesitate for a minute invoking Islamic metaphors when he wants to denigrate and dismiss his conservative opponents. In a critical review of David Frum and Richard Perle’s horrid book, An End to Evil: How to Win The War on Terror (2003), Lapham unabashedly ridicules Frum and Perle’s book for having borrowed their inspirations from “the verses of the Koran”, for issuing “fatwas” like Osama bin Laden, and for summoning “all loyal and true Americans to the glory of jihad” – all the while calling them “Mullah Frum”, “Mufti Perle”, or “the two Washington ayatollahs”, concluding: “Provide them [Frum and Perle] with a beard, a turban, and a copy of the Koran, and I expect that they wouldn’t have much trouble stoning to death a woman discovered in adultery with a cameraman from CBS News.”

If Lapham needs to invoke the best metaphor for an unquotable propaganda prose, he cannot think of a better example than the Qur’an, nor does he pause for a moment to think through the implications of what he says:

As with all forms of propaganda, the prose style [of Frum and Perle’s book] doesn’t warrant extensive quotation, but I don’t do the authors a disservice by reducing their message to a series of divine commandments. Like Muhammad bringing the word of Allah to the widow Khadija and the well Zem-Zem, they aspire to a tone of voice appropriate to a book of Revelation.

If Lapham needs an appropriate allegory for indoctrinating hatred, and terror, Islam and the Qur’anic language are handy:

The result of their [Frum and Perle’s] collaboration is an ugly harangue that if translated into Arabic and reconfigured with a few changes of word and emphasis (the objects of fear and loathing identified as America and Israel in place of Saudi Arabia and the United Nations) might serve as a lesson taught to a class of eager jihadis at a madrasa in Kandahar.

Examples abound and are not limited to Harper’s Magazine. Pages of The Nation magazine, another Left-Liberal periodical in the United States, are replete with derogatory references to conservative adversaries again using Islamic metaphors: mullahs, madrasah, turbans, verses from the Qur’an, etc. The Florida pastor Terry Jones who burned the Quran is an easy target – he is just a simple and honest racist man carrying his bigoted heart up his sleeves. People with a far superior claim to progressive, liberal, left, and tolerant ideals have been at work here sustaining “the Muslim” as a metaphor of evil for a very long time.

Muslim scholars help perpetuate the Islam-West dichotomy

The issue here is not catching these people red-handed. The issue is how did Muslims become a singularly dominant metaphor for menace, terror, and mendacity. In thinking through that transmutation, even a larger frame of reference is at work. It is not just Europeans or Americans, and it is not just the Left or the Right, that use and abuse Islamic terms freely as metaphors of dismissal and denigration, vilification and disparagement. 

The practice is predicated on a more fundamental binary opposition established between “Islam and the West” – a binary that Muslims themselves have been historically instrumental in using and thus corroborating. 

The binary has been manufactured, corroborated, and driven home by no other Orientalist, dead or alive, more adamantly, more doggedly, more persistently than Bernard Lewis. But Muslims themselves have bought into that binary. Every time, to this day, a Muslim or Arab scholar, journalist, activist, public intellectual uncritically uses the delusional term “the West” – “the West did that” or “the West will do the other thing” – she or he is corroborating the binary between “Islam and the West” – two vastly vacuous appellations that rob reality of its paradoxes, ironies, contradictions, self-effacements. It makes no difference if you say, as Dinesh D’Souza or Niall Ferguson would, that “the West” is God’s grandest gift to humanity, or reversing that and say that “the West” is the source of all horror in the world – in either case you are corroborating the amoral authenticity of a reference that ipso facto posits and negates “Islam” and thus transmutes Muslims into a solid metaphor of menace and mendacity. 

As manufactured in “the West,” in the battle of metaphors between “Islam and the West”, “the West” is good, “Islam” is bad. “The West” is Cowboys, “Islam” the Indians. As an Arab or a Muslim you may reverse the order, but you will only exacerbate the binary opposition, the delusion that clouds reality. Arabs and Muslims are as much at fault for cross-authenticating “the West” and positing it as the primary frame of moral reference, within which Islam and Muslims are staged as metaphors of evil and banality.

Where the Left and the Right come together is thus the constitution of Muslim as the civilisational other, the ontological alterity, of the sand castle that must call itself “the West” or else it will doubt and dissolve itself back into the shadow of its own nullity. 

In seeing through this epistemic free-play of signs, it is not sufficient, necessary, or even advisable to go back to the European history of Orientalism, to Dante’s Divine Comedy (1308-1321), or Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio (1782), or even as far back as Aeschylus’ The Persians (472 BC) on a goose chase after the origin of “the Oriental” and later its rendition of “the Muslim” as the supreme other of “the West”. There was no “West” at the time of Aeschylus or even Dante – and the Orientalism of each one of these eras differs from the other.

That kind of historicism dilutes the issue and confuses the focal point of iteration through which the delusion of “the West” keeps repeating in order to continue to believe in itself. We need surgical precision as to how and when and for what purpose is the figure of the Muslim posited as the supreme metaphor of menace – for instant, knee-jerk reaction. Who benefits from this spontaneity, which invokes it, and to what effect, and with what barefaced persistence. 

Yes indeed, the constitution of “Muslim” as a metaphor of mendacity and menace to civility and society is predicated on older tropes. But today it is the handiwork of North American, Western European, and Isareli journalism (three specific sites for three specific reasons), and as such it is now exposed for the hideous lesion that it is on the body politics of a constitutionally flawed narrative that has perpetrated unfathomable terror on generations of Muslim children and their parents around the globe – frightening them out of their wits that there is something constitutionally wrong with who and what they are.

The world is no longer at the mercy of this corrupt cacophony of power and wealth. They have analysed and terrorised us enough. It is time to get even, expose and theorise them back. 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. He is the author, most recently, of Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest (Harvard University Press, 2011).   

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy. 


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