Muslims, the new “natives”

Am writing a brief reaction paper to the chapter in Daniel Pals’ (highly recommended) Eight Theories of Religion on the pioneer anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard, best known for his magisterial and seminal work Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande.

Don’t have time to comment in depth, but I thought I’d share a few observations concerning how accounts of the sloppy and dehumanizing theorizing about "primitive" peoples of the 19th century have a uncannily familiar ring today for Muslims living in or observing the West.

Here are a few excerpts:

“Being insufficiently informed about the larger context in which primitive people or ancient peoples might have made such statements, they failed to make enough allowance for metaphors, figures of speech, and multiple meanings of words”

I’ve complained before about how Muslim discourse is often treated differently and prejudicially in the media and in society.   No allowances are made for the ways that many Muslims, coming from vastly different cultural and historical backgrounds,  inevitably take a less if you will bourgeois and "politically correct" approach to language and political rhetoric, even in cases where the offending discourse until recently was a staple of Western debate. 

Whether they’re reacting to the Arab-Israeli conflict (a conflict which, it should be noted, they feel they are losing miserably), democracy, gender issues,  etc etc., Muslims who fail to discuss the world in a manner comfortable to middle class American sensibilities are declared uncivilized.   In other words, people who are born in Mogadishu or Peshawar are expected to view the world as do right-thinking Village Voice readers.

At the same time, others who are eminently polite and civil in their rhetoric towards Muslims while simultaneously behaving barbarically in practice towards them are given a free pass.  People who verbally respect Muslims’ "right to exist" or refraining from using hurtful langauge about them while nonetheless regularly killing, maiming or otherwise oppressing them are never called to account for their failure to be civilized in deed as well as word.  But that’s an topic for another post.

Few people who engaged the issue had even seen a primitive culture, let alone studied one.

Ain’t that the truth?  In how many scholarly endeavors in the social sciences studies of other human beings can a "scholar" get away with never leaving the safety of his library and pre-conceived notions?

“Because none of them actually knows a real primitive society, each simply chooses to create one in his imagination out of the scraps of evidence about totemism, sacrifice, or some other custom that happens to float in conveniently from Australia or some other remote parts of the globe”

Substitute the words "totemism" and "sacrifice" with abysmally misunderstood and/or exaggerated mantras about  "jihad", "taqiyyah", "Wahhabism",  "72 virgins" , ad infinitum, and you get the spitting image of 19th century intellectual inquiry on "primitive" societies.

“…we cannot understand the culture or religion of primitives until we concede that their whole world may be a very different one from ours, and that this world cannot be properly explained until we have worked very hard and very long to understand how it functions from the inside.”

For how many other peoples, nations or religions are first hand knowledge, study and a bit of sympathy not only optional, but actually often considered to be a handicap to understanding?

Imagine if people said that those who interested themselves in or,  worse, sympathized with the plight of young Black men in America today were simply deluded by their over-exposure to the ‘hood.  That they’d listened to too much R&B and rap to be objective.  That’s effectively what many today argue concerning the already exceedingly modest sympathy for Muslim and Arab perspectives that remain within the US government and foreign policy establishment after a generation of regular purges of those who aren’t card-carrying AIPAC members.

For example, not unlike Freud on religion Robert Kaplan ludicrously argues in The Arabists that agreement by foreign policy hands with the Arab/Muslim perspective in the Arab/Israeli conflict is self-evidently a symptom of neurosis,  the result of gullible Westerners having been mesmerized like children in the exotic bazaars of the Orient.  As philosophical frameworks go, this is about as offensive, foolish and dehumanizing as they come, but it’s taken quite seriously by many in Washington, alas , where a whole industry toils day and night to make sure that Muslims and Arabs are seen by the public as hateful cartoon characters with whom one could never sympathize, much less give a fair shake.

Pritchard revealed how, contrary to the received wisdom of his day, witches, shamans and by extension their whole societies were no less rational than "modern" Westerners.  Essentially, he proved the

“the ‘normality’ of the primitive mind”

He showed how far from being irrational, the Azande were no less logical in their worldview than Westerners.  What Westerners dismissed as irrational superstitions were actually reasonable and internally consistent explanations for the way the world worked, given the information available to the Azande and their religio-cultural milieu in which they operated.

It is hard to exaggerate the subversiveness of this thesis in the prewar era of colonial domination and unspoken beliefs in racial hierarchy.  Especially given how this mindset was long championed by 20th century Western leaders and thinkers (e.g., the unapologetic imperialist Winston Churchill heaped scorn on the notion that the "natives" of India could govern themselves half a century ago) and how integral it was to justifying the imperial international order of the day.

Today, of course, Muslims are the irrational witches and shamans of Western imagination, except that we aren’t even viewed as "noble savages".  We’re just plain savages, dehumanized automatons deemed to be animated exclusively by hatred, fear and irrationality.

People at least sympathized with heroic Zulu fighters as they were mowed down by the Gatling gun.  Can the same be said today, as world leaders not only look indifferently as Muslims are oppressed, tortured and slaughtered but even in some cases actively opposes ceasefires in bloody conflicts where Muslims are dying?  Or when "religious" people can object to a sliver of humanitarian aid in a bloody conflict going to Arab civilian victims?

It is not hatred that ultimately enabled  ethical abominations like slavery or colonialism, but rather the unspoken understanding that these people are fundamentally different from "us".  That they were Other.  Ultimately, it leads to the conclusion that they are children of a lesser god.

In our day, I suspect that Edward Said was the most prominent successor to Evans-Pritchard’s tradition of challenging these prejudiced anti-humanistic assumptions, though Mahmood Mamdani has made a significant contribution with his insightful analysis of the role of "culture talk" in sustaining conflicts.   Unfortunately, such courageous voices that challenge the dehumanizing double standards that justify violence and confrontation with Muslims are largely ignored.

Lately, there’s been much debate about whether Muslims are the new "Jews" of Europe.   What is rarely acknowledged is that given the attitudes we’re seeing more and more that would be a promotion in some ways.  Open prejudice against and animosity towards Jews is at least socially unacceptable in all strata of society in most of the West.  Bigotry towards Muslims, however, has become a perverse badge of honor, especially on the Right.

You don’t see academically undistinguished ideologues best known for shrill, Jew-baiting polemics getting prestigious gigs at major Washington think tanks to comment on Israel and Judaism, for example.  Nor would many scholarly institutions consider a community member who is universally considered a shrill, poorly informed self-hater within "her" community a credible observer of the same.

Oh, and meanwhile Tariq Ramadan can’t even get into the country.

Evidently different rules apply to Muslims.  Consider it a form of Affirmative Action for old fashioned bigots and minority sell-outs.  Qualifications, scholarly standards and objectivity are all optional so long as you’re willing to really pummel those rag-head natives into submission.


  • The Lounsbury

    Sounds about right.

  • Leila

    good post

  • Yakoub/Julaybib

    Interesting to note that Rosenthal’s ‘Knowledge Triumphant’ has just been re-issued. I gather he argues that that in early Classical urban Muslim culture, books – writing them and reading them – were central to public culture. Indeed, I gather Monty Python’s ‘Novel writing from Dorchester’ (which presents Hardy writing ‘The Return of the Native’ as a sporting event) was a joke on the West – public writings in some parts of the classical islamic world were commonplace.

  • Irving

    If anything, it is an understatement of a pervasive human trait, found in every country and in every strata of society.

  • Abu Sinan

    I dont think any of this is really new. If you look at the old Orientalist writings it is clear that “the West” has had these views about Islam and Muslims for hundreds of years.
    All that is happening now is a resurgence of old thought paterns and ideas. Old concepts are getting new window dressings to fit new realities.
    I guess the biggest difference is now is that many of the countries of the West now have these “natives” in their own countries. It used to just be writing about the natives “over there” now they are here.
    Edward Said’s book “Orientalism” said it all, and we are living it yet again.

  • A.

    I liked your blog post – while I agree with commentator Irving that all cultures/societies share this weakness, I think you rightly emphasize the point that the ridiculous demonising of muslims has surged to what feels like an all time crescendo (in my short lifetime!) today.
    I recently read a somewhat confusing book review in the NYTimes about western scholarship on orientalism. It would be interesting to hear what you make of it. The URL follows – and the review is about a book by Robert Irwin called “Dangerous Knowledge”.

  • Svend

    Thanks, folks.
    That’s a complicated subject. Let me just say the following:
    1) Any attempt to hold Dead White Men responsible for their role in history is bound to inspire a fiery backlash from Living White Men. That’s just a given. What surprises me is how long it took for this sort of critique to emerge.
    2) I have never been comfortable with the simplistic rhetoric that’s hurled at “orientalists”, Bernard Lewis included. I do not consider them the root of all evil and think many of them deserve great respect and gratitude (e.g., Lane of “Lane’s Lexicon” fame).
    3) Having said that, Bernard Lewis is profoundly partisan and shouldn’t be allowed to masquerade as an impartial observer, especially when he’s giving pro-Israeli speeches before Congress. He’s a serious scholar who needs to be taken seriously, but he clearly has as much ideological baggage as do Muslim apologists.
    4) Even if Said got some of the details wrong, his basic message as I understand it was right: The simplistic way non-Western peoples were presented in the arts and popular culture played a powerful role in justifying the colonial project. Orientalism, both conscious and unconscious, did and continues to justify violence and injustice against “Oriental” peoples.
    How can people who “learn” about the world from a viciously bigoted movie like “True Lies” or a subtly but ultimately equally bigoted film like “The Siege” be evenhanded with and respectful towards Muslims and Arabs in the Middle East?