A decade after the 9/11 attacks, and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, the publishing of the book Islam Through Western Eyes can’t be better timed. “Islam vs. the West”, “Them” vs. “Us”, these types of polarized debates never stopped making headlines. They have also kept the “Islam experts” busy and popular. The anti-Islam discourse is alive and doing well. Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington, father and architect of the “clash of civilisations”, respectively, must be happy that their ideas are not merely considered as theories anymore.
With his thorough and meticulous study with respect to anti-Islam discourse, Jonathan Lyons answers the questions of many confused readers who do not know who to believe any more in this highly and emotionally charged debate.
An author, an academic and a former foreign correspondent for Reuters, Mr. Lyons- who for 20 years reported from places such us Moscow, Turkey, and Iran- wrote several other books such as The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs transformed Western Civilizations and Answering only to God: Faith and Freedom in Twenty-first-Century Iran.
In his latest book Islam Through Western Eyes, Lyons doesn’t simply revisit other authors’ theories, or simply discusses their conclusions. Instead he applies a Foucauldian approach to prove to the readers that, when it comes to the anti-Islam discourse, the rhetoric has not changed much. Michel Foucault, a prominent French philosopher of the 20th century, wanted his books to ”be a kind of toolbox others can rummage through to find a tool they can use however they wish in their own area… I don’t write for an audience, I write for users, not readers.”
It is precisely this what Lyons did in his own book. He used Foucault’s toolbox and answered the following three questions: How was the anti-Islam discourse initiated? How did it operate? And who benefited and continues to benefit from it?
Lyons’ research takes us back and forth between the post-911 anti-Islam discourse of today and the one from the years that led up to the First Crusade. The similarities are striking; the centuries separating these two symbolic events didn’t seem to have eroded the choice of words nor the bluntness of concepts. All what these years seem to have done is to make the gap even wider. The debate remained simplistic, purposely unsophisticated, and yet filled with myths and legends.
For the West, the Muslim Orient is not a rational civilization but rather is a civilization that had a short-lived golden age which shortly after went back to its initial “Arabian backwardness.” Lyons captures these stereotypes very well when he emphasizes that the anti-Islam discourse heavily revolved around the following three main ideas: “…[Islam] is irrational, is inherently violent [as it is spread by the sword], and sexually perverse.”
Thus, scientific contributions by Muslim scientists are minimized, ignored, or simply portrayed as l’exception qui confirme la règle. Hence, the tremendous medical and philosophical contributions of Ibn Sina, also known in the West as Avicenna, or the work of the great philosopher Ibn Rushd, also known by his Latin name as Averroes, aren’t known today among the mainstream Western population. The origins of “siphr” (Arabic word for the zero digit) which was introduced by Arab mathematicians as well as the concept of “algorithm”, named after the Muslim mathematician “Al Khwarizmi”, are not known among Western students as much as the Greek origins of the Pythagorean theorem, for example.
On the issue of violence, the anti-Islam discourse seems to focus on the notion of “Jihad” and on the misperception that Islam propagates its message through the sword. Lyons mentions that Jihad is a complex concept that does not have a unanimous definition among Muslim scholars; he explains that most Muslim scholars gave it a general meaning such as “striving in God’s path.” He goes on to explain that there is nothing in the Quranic text that links Jihad to the Christian concept of holy war, as some would like to think. Nevertheless, the word Jihad remains one of the favourite words used by many American pundits to convince a fearful citizenry about the “inherently violent” aspect of Islam.
The relations between men and women, particularly the status of women in Islam, is also scrutinized by Lyons. Notions like “harem”, where men are not allowed to be present, are given exotic flavour, explains Lyons. He also mentions that since the colonialist era of the Middle-East the veil has been regarded as a symbol of oppression par excellence. The colonialism of those regions as well as today’s invasion of Afghanistan are still justified to the Western population as a way to liberate Muslim women from their “burqa” so that these poor girls can go to school.
Starting with Pope Urban, who paved the ground for the First Crusade, to Georges W. Bush and his infamous declaration “This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while…”, passing by Montesquieu with his famous literary work Persian Letters depicting two naive Muslim characters who discovered the “lights” of Paris and those of the Western civilization, the propaganda has always been the same: Why are Muslims in dark ages? Why do they hate our technological advances? And why do they abuse their women?
Lyons does not exaggerate the facts nor does he use them to boast his own views. Very recently, an online poll of 1,522 Canadians, commissioned by the Montreal-based Association for Canadian Studies and Toronto-based Canadian Race Relations Foundation, found that more than half of Canadians believe Muslims can’t be trusted. The poll also showed that nearly as many believe discrimination against Muslims is “mainly their fault.” In the U.S, the situation is not better. A study conducted between 2009 and 2010, by combining data that was collected by the Council on American-Islamic Relations and Berkeley’s Center on Race and Gender, reported that incidents of Islamophobia increased significantly last year and the Americans’ perception of Muslims worsened amid heavily publicized controversies like the Islamic Center near Ground Zero and a pastor’s planned Quran-burning campaign.
Islam Through Western Eyes is a call to reason, objectivity and knowledge in a world that is more and more dominated by sensationalism and hollow messages. Empowered by Foucault’s tools, and swimming bravely against the current, Lyons delivers to the readers an honest account of the anti-Islam discourse of yesterday and today. He reverses all these centuries-old stereotypes and urges the West to conduct a thorough self examination by urging them to break these prejudgements and to engage in a real and honest intercultural dialogue of the much-feared “Other.”