Edward W. Said is a well-known Palestinian intellectual who wrote Covering Islam during the 1980s after the Iranian Revolution. This book was the third in a series that sought to critically analyze the West’s understanding of itself and Islam. Covering Islam had three different parts: Islam as News, The Iran Story and Knowledge and Power. Although this book is over 30 years old, Covering Islam is relevant as ever because the perception of Islam is still at the mercy of the media.
In the first part, Said explains how the media and experts ultimately determine how the world sees Islam, which is primarily in relation to its role as an oil supplier and the West’s fear of terrorism that has become associated with the religion. First, Said explains the perception of Islam through the “Orientalist” line of thought that has dominated Western culture. The Orientalist sees the world as “an imaginative and yet drastically polarized geography dividing the world into two unequal parts, the larger, ‘different’ one called the Orient, the other, also known as ‘our’ world, called the Occident or the West” (Said 4). Islam has always belonged to the Orient because of Islam’s blatant challenge to Christianity. Said attributes this to the Middle Ages when the rise of Islam came about. Said asserts that the Christian Europe loathed the false profit Mohammed, and even more so Europe loathed the power that came with Islam: “Real events in the real world made of Islam a considerable political force. For hundreds of years greater Islamic armies and natives threatened Europe, destroyed its outposts, colonized its domains…Even when the world of Islam entered a period of decline and Europe a period of ascendancy, fear of ‘Mohammedanism’ persisted” (Said 5). Said then jumps ahead to reflect on the next time that Islam was “center stage.” In 1978, Iran was “a major oil supplier during a period of energy scarcity. It lies in a region of the world that is commonly regarded as volatile and strategically vital” (Said 6). The pre-occupation with Iran continued well into the Cold War because Iran backed groups like Hezbollah in South Lebanon. The West, particularly the United States, feared Iran because it opposed “United States hegemony in Middle East, the Gulf in particular” (Said 7). The United States did not understand Iran or Islam, and as a result, Muslims were ubiquitously painted as terrorists, oil suppliers, and antagonists to the United States. Furthermore, the only conceptions the West possesses of Islam are from the colonial age of Europe, (the United States historically has never had much contact with Islam) or when Islam is in the news during a crisis “principally if not exclusively because it has been connected to newsworthy issues like oil, Iran or Afghanistan, or terrorism” (Said 17). There is also a lack of “expert opinion” on Islam, which caused Islam to be represented in an extremely superficial way: “this reinforced dependence on the official or the conventional picture of things was a trap into which, in their over-all performance on prerevolutionary Iran, the media fell” (Said 23). In summation of all these factors, the United States’ understanding of Islam and the Middle East still has a long way to go, even though I believe that the United States has made some progress since this book was written. To this day, Islam is still only mentioned in most major media outlets in the United States in the instance of terrorism, oil and now ISIL. With the rise of the Al Jazeera, the West no longer possesses complete control over the dialogue about Islam. The Al Jazeera can provide a counter narrative of false characterizations of Islam and help deepen people’s understanding of Islam.
Said also went on to analyze the words that the media uses to when discussing Islam in the news: “words like ‘monopoly,’ ‘cartel,’ and ‘block’ thereafter achieved a remarkably sudden if selective currency, although very rarely did anyone speak of the small group of American multinationals as a cartel, a designation reserved for the OPEC members” (Said 137). When there was a risk that Americans were no longer able to obtain oil from Islamic nations, this created a panic in America due to the dependency on foreign oil that was reflected in the media: “a large number of Islamic states, personalities, and presences thereby passed imperceptibly in the general consciousness from the status of barely acknowledged existence to the status of news” (Said 140). Islam was reduced and simplified into a concept that lacked historical basis, something that could be vilified for its challenge to American foreign oil and its rejection of American democracy. Islam was portrayed as “against” America, while ethnocentric conceptions of their culture and traditions were manipulated to make Islam seem backwards. The media’s fascination and misrepresentation with the hijab, prayer ceremonies, “domination over its faithful” (Said 142), and other oddities of its culture helped foster the growing divide between Islam and America. As a result, Islam has been represented in American culture in a reductive manner that has caused most Americans to view Islam as a threat to American democracy.