Dayton Voice (August 10, 1997)

Review of Edward Said, Covering Islam, Vintage Books, 1997; $ 13.00

Reviewed by Gordon Welty
Wright State University
Dayton, OH 45435

Edward Said is one of the best-known Palestinian intellectuals.  His Ph.D. is from Harvard; he is currently a Professor at Columbia.  His intellectual contribution to the West’s understanding of itself -- especially in its relation to the rest of the world -- is as great as any living person.  For instance, Said’s Orientalism (1978) is a dense but crucial study of the Nineteenth Century roots of the West’s continuing  (mis)understanding of the Middle East.  His political contribution to Palestinian liberation is not only substantial, but has been increasing over the past few years.   He has made an intellectual contribution here as well.  For example, Said’s The Question of Palestine (1979) examines the basis of Palestinian nationalism, and the subversion of these aspirations by Zionists in league first with British imperialists and then in league with United States imperialism.  Must reading, both books.  What of the author?  An anecdote might serve to illuminate something about his personality.

 I was with Edward in July 1993 when he received an honorary degree from Bir Zeit University in the West Bank.  I told him this represented a high point in my own academic career -- simply to be present when so illustrative a scholar and activist got some measure of recognition for his contribution to the academic world and to his people.  He inquired about other high points.  I responded that the other high point for me was to be with Jesse Jackson a few years earlier when he received an honorary degree from the University of Cairo.  Edward seemed to be genuinely touched. 

It is a pleasure to see Said’s Covering Islam reissued in a revised edition, updated and with a new introduction by him.  This book first appeared in 1981, shortly after the Iranian Revolution.  The book has three main sections: Islam as News, which considers how the Middle East is largely unknown to Americans, except as it is related to “newsworthy issues” such as oil or “terrorism.”   Thereupon Muslims and Arabs are “covered” by the media -- i.e., obscured; Said’s word is carefully chosen, to be contrasted to “revealed.”  They are represented either “as oil suppliers or as potential terrorists.”  This section also examines how “newsworthy issues” are determined largely by very particularistic groups and interests -- e.g. energy corporations, Zionists, etc. -- rather than by American national interests.  Next comes The Iran Story, addressing the West’s response to the Iranian Revolution and the overthrow of Shahanshah Pahlavi; finally there is Knowledge and Power, which considers how easily Western “science” -- the “cool, relatively detached instruments of scientific, quasi-objective representation” -- can be employed to misrepresent a “distant and alien society” such as Islam.

Said’s arguments have become even more timely than they were in the early Eighties.  The events he recounts both refresh our memories as well as serve to highlight how severely the U.S. media has continued to distort our view of the Middle East.  As though to underline this latter point, the May 11, 1997 issue of The New York Times Magazine published an article by the Israeli writer Amos Elon on Egyptian intellectuals’ opposition to “normalization” of relations with Israel.  At the present interval, he holds, “Israel [is] at the mercy of blind forces.”  That kind of talk simply reinforces the deluded U.S. view of “Israel, the victim.”

Better Elon had been asked to write for the American audience on the “Post-Zionism” debates which have Israeli intellectuals “at one another’s throats.”  Or to address the continuing Israeli military occupation of its neighbors’ territories, and the impact of this on the Israeli psyche.  And leave to an Egyptian writer the task of characterizing Egyptian intellectual currents for the American audience.

When we recall the Iranian Revolution we remember Jimmy Carter, in retrospect the most humane of modern presidents -- his humanity highlighted by comparison to his predecessors, e.g. Nixon, or his successors, Reagan and Bush.  We remember Carter’s inability at the time to prevent the demonization of the Iranians.  Now we starkly confront Said’s topic.  The U.S. media and the “experts” who thrive there -- the “talking heads” -- create a dehumanizing climate, a malarial swamp which infects all of us in our view of the Arab world, Islam, the Middle East.  It is an easy step then to propose to “Nuke Teheran” or “Nuke Baghdad.”

Clearly there is more behind this popular culture.  There are financial and corporate interests which need that climate for their own gain.  There are the geopolitical designs of the Zionists who want Israel to appear the victim, rather than the archetypal garrison state bent on regional domination.  There is the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union, which has unleashed the U.S., unconstrained in today’s unipolar world.  Certainly not constrained by critical insights from the academic world, from the Middle East “experts” on the mass media, who largely fuel the demonization of Islam.

As Said puts it, “the overall interpretive bankruptcy of most -- though by no means all -- writing on Islam can be traced to the old-boy corporation-government-university network dominating the whole enterprise.”  This network cannot be discounted, because “that, finally, determines the way the United States views the Islamic world.”  And what the United States will try to get away with in the Middle East.