“Interior of the Amron Mosque,” Henry Bechard, ca. 1870

[Note: the following excerpt is from the introduction to my recent book on the ways in which anthropologists study and represent Islam.]

What the world does not need is yet another book which assumes Islam can be abstracted out of evolving cultural contexts and neatly essentialized into print without repeating the obvious or glossing over the obtuse. This is–I believe and I hope–not such a book. I have no interest in telling you what Islam is, what it really must be, or even what it should be. In what follows I am more attuned to what Islam hopefully is not, at least not for someone who approaches it seriously as an anthropologist and historian. I bare no obvious axe to grind as either a determined detractor against the religion or an over-anxious advocate for it. Personally, as well as academically, I consider Islam a fascinatingly diverse faith, a force in history that must be reckoned with in the present. The offensive tool I do choose to wield, if my figurative pen can stand a militant symbol, is that of a critical hammer, an iconoclastic smashing of the rhetoric that represents, over-represents and misrepresents Islam from all sides. By avoiding judgment on the sacred truth of this vibrant faith, I shift intention towards an I-view that takes no summary representation of Islam as sacred.

Like any revelation that expects to be taken seriously, Islam is about truth in all its various forms. It has become fashionable in the post-existential, post-structural, post-colonial and temporarily postmodern climate of much intellectual criticism to ignore truth claims, reducing them to mere representation or simply by sinking into the quagmired once-metaphysical debate over what truth could possibly mean. Nietzsche is not my theoretical niche; nor do I wish to follow Foucault into self-contained deciphering of discourse or Derrida down the deconstructive path of linguistic relativism. Although I have no meta-truth to reveal, neither do I smugly assume that Islam is not or could not be true in the experiential sense knowable only to a believer. For Muslims the truth is best seen, as Fazlur Rahman wisely suggests, from the inside. As an anthropologist, I am prepared to follow Abdul Hamid el-Zein and leave such verification of truth to the theologians. My concern at the offset is with the outside, the rhetoric of representing Islam as a religion through the lens of anthropological or sociological narratives. Much of what has been written and is still sadly said, with academic air as well as media flair, is so overflowing with half truths and untruths wrapped around grains of truths that the dynamics of one of the world’s largest and fastest growing religions are obscured.

There are two major reasons for writing this book. The first is academic, and hopefully more than academic: there is no up-to-date, critical assessment of how anthropologists have represented the religion of Islam. A century after the demise of mainstream Christian missionary apologetic against its Oriental rival and just a few decades into an academic evolution beyond the kind of old-style “Orientalism” savaged by Edward Said, the study of Islam in the widest sense stretches across various disciplines and post-ed counters. For somewhat less than a century ethnographers have observed “Islam” where it is practiced; there is now a wide and relevant corpus of ethnographic data and analysis available. Although certainly not the dominant voices representing Islam, anthropologists and sociologists today figure in the process because of what they are able to learn by observing the behavior and rhetoric of Muslims in social contexts, usually in non-Western societies. Yet few scholars outside anthropology, as well as many within the general ranks, are aware of the ways in which the rhetoric in this corpus has changed against the backdrop of postmodern critique of ethnography as a genre and shifting paradigms within the field. Contemporary anthropology is not the exotica and erotica trope that so many people assume it always used to be…

Another compelling motivation for a book in the format of textual critique is the need to speak out to colleagues and the general public about the continuing reprehensible representations of Islam and Middle Eastern people in Western society at large and in the news media. Deeply rooted ethnocentric prejudice and an unwillingness to see beyond political expedience have contributed to a demonization of Islam as a religion of violent terror alongside the older Judaeo-Christian charge of heretical error. Several prominent media icons of Christian the right have gone so far as to label the prophet Muhammad a “terrorist” and the Quran as the “enemy’s book.” Recent collective cultural memories, whether premeditated or self-mediated, comprise an inescapably politicized litany: oil embargo, hostage crisis, mad mullahs, shoe-string budgeted airplane hijackings, skyscraper terrorism, Hamas suicide bombers and the uncivilized clash with a post-red, green menace of fundamentalist militants. The cycle of blaming victims and victimizers, from CNN crossfiring to talk radio jockeying and internet chat rooms, ensures that “Islam” will be viewed suspiciously as a “problem” by Americans and Europeans for the foreseeably intolerant future.

What went wrong? How did the ideologically driven politics of nationalism and neo-colonial birth pangs lose out in causal terms to the rantings of religious extremists and the martyrdom of children? The pundits have mostly played a blaming game. Echoing the patriotic rhetoric of President George W. Bush after 9/11, historian Bernard Lewis traces the troubles of the Islamic world to a “lack of freedom,” seemingly the failure of predominantly Muslim countries to have the same governmental ancestry as France or the United States. Were Muslims secular in a Western mode, the argument implies, they too could become enlightened enough to reform their religion into irrelevance. For a political scientist like Martin Kramer, the sandtrap lies with the entire Middle East Studies establishment reinvented in the wake of Edward Said’s critique of media-friendly establishment scholars like Bernard Lewis. Middle East specialists who recognized and lamented the ethnocentrism and racism of an imperially aligned “Orientalism” are faulted for a “failure to anticipate Islamism.” Being a blindsided expert on Islam in this scenario becomes tantamount to being a geologist who fails to predict the timing of an earthquake or a stock broker who does not foresee a recession. Op-ed speak aside, there was hardly a need for academic scholars studying Islam–certainly not those who have no expertise as “political” scientists–to predict the swell of political unrest couched in religious rhetoric throughout the Muslim world. No one, not even the most sophisticated intelligence operatives in the world, was able to predict the attack on the Twin Towers. Were American security advisors waiting for an Ivory Tower directive to tell them the obvious: American policy towards the Middle East has continually generated violent reactions? Asking what went wrong in order to trounce one’s opponents is disingenuous; the real question should be why ongoing global power plays resulting in political instability, economic disparity, cultural defamation and misplaced self-interest should be labeled failures of religion. What went wrong is what usually goes wrong: someone else gets the blame for not being on the right side of God.

Excerpt from Daniel Martin Varisco. Islam Obscured: the Rhetoric of Anthropological Representation. New York: Palgrave, 2005.