Edward W. Said, Covering Islam (London: Routledge & Regan Paul, 1981).
Edward Said’s Covering Islam is one part of his project to analyze aspects of the Western view of Islam and the Middle East. Orientalism, the first and most substantial of these books, traced the evolution of European attitudes to the cultures of the Middle East from medieval times to the present. It examined specifically how US academics and policymakers adapted the legacy of European orientalism to the needs of US imperialism in the post-1945 era.
Here Said shifts his focus from the realm of academic discourse to that of the mass media, and examines their coverage of the “crisis” around the seizure of hostages at the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979-1980. This is in no sense a book about Iran. Rather it is about the remaking of Iran’s history by a powerful and now hostile state. The abuse of the concept of Islam as a catch-all category is, Said argues, hardly new, but its almost daily use as political cliche in the media has intensified. Sadat’s assassination provided more recent occasion for sweeping generalizations on the nature of Islam. Said’s analysis of the ideology behind the headlines makes us aware of just how pervasive these assumptions are.
Said does not assert that all reporting on the Middle East and Islam is entirely crass. But he is able to substantiate his critique of the notion that numbers of channels and newspapers necessarily add up to any real diversity of approach and opinion:
Certainly one cannot say that the media all expresses one general view…. But I do think that despite this extraordinary variety there is a qualitative and a quantitative tendency to favor certain views and certain representations of reality over others.
Said perceptively analyzes the constraints surrounding US correspondents and wire service writers posted to the Middle East. He provides a good account of how news is made, with all the limitations attached to journalists who often get new posts at regular intervals, and do not know the language, history or culture of the societies they cover. In such circumstances they understandably fall back on the cliches and prejudices which their own society has formulated on the Middle East and Islam. A key argument throughout is awareness of the degree to which “news” is political cliche that does not acknowledge its origins. Discussing a subtle piece of journalism by the “able” New York Times correspondent in Beirut on the extent of Soviet penetration in the Muslim world, Said writes, “What is noteworthy is [John] Kifner’s use of Islam to make what in any other instance would be an unacceptably direct and unqualified connection between an abstraction and a vastly complex reality.”
The book’s main strength lies in the way this textual approach allows Said to expose the special pleading and racism which pass as “objective” analysis from prestigious writers and commentators. He stresses at the beginning the importance of the relationship between language and political reality.
Everything about the study of Islam in the contemporary West is saturated with political importance, but hardly any writers on Islam, whether expert or general, admit the fact in what they say. Objectivity is assumed to inhere in learned discourse about other societies, despite the long history of political, moral and religious concern felt in all societies, Western or Islamic, about the alien, the strange and the different.
Said points out the “astonishingly frank atavism” of J. B. Kelley’s Arabia, The Gulf and the West—“its sheer desire of imperial conquest and its barely concealed racial attitudes.” Kelley, a British academic, is now serving as an adviser to the Reagan administration.
The first section, “Islam as News,” looks at the general treatment of Islam in the media, in political commentary and in fiction in recent years. This overview takes up many of the points made in Orientalism, situating them in the contemporary American context.
It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that before the sudden OPEC price rises in early 1974, “Islam” as such scarcely figured either in the culture or the media. One saw and heard of Arabs and Iranians, of Pakistanis and Turks, rarely of Muslims. But the dramatically higher cost of imported oil soon became associated in the public mind with a cluster of unpleasant things….
Said examines what he calls “communities of interpretation.” The US “community” is in an increasingly confrontational relationship with Islam, which is seen as the key to political and societal behavior in the Middle East. The second “community,” the Islamic world itself, is in both a “subjective” and “objective” relationship with its religion. Said makes it clear that he does not support some of the views of the West propagated in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East—he thinks they share many of the qualities of hostile political cliche. But his main focus in the book is on how the US views Islam.
This theme is expanded in the central section of the book, dealing with coverage of the hostage crisis itself. Though the book’s length does not seem entirely justified by the range of points he wants to make, Said’s textual approach—examining a range of printed and electronic coverage over the whole period of the “crisis”—has the advantage of avoiding oversimplification.
The critique is a powerful one. For the most part it is cogently expressed, though occasionally weakened by the use of abstruse language that verges on the baroque. Said might profitably have broadened the scope of analysis to include a wider range of instances. What is not reported often proves to be as significant as what is. This book was completed before it became obvious that, after the hostages’ release, the media would drop the issue of Iran with the same alacrity with which they took it up. A more detailed comparison, for instance, of reporting on Afghanistan with that on Iran would highlight the degree to which the concept of “Islam” can be manipulated politically. The analysis might also have gained strength by a look at different patterns of coverage in a range of Middle Eastern countries.
In this regard, Said tends to give rather too favorable an impression of the British and European press. He cites a few writers whose coverage is internationally known—Eric Rouleau is the chief of these reference points—as comparative paradigms of good, serious journalism, but one should fairly acknowledge that they are, unfortunately, exceptions in the European context as well.
Said argues here, as in Orientalism and The Question of Palestine, that the Middle East and Islam have served as particular targets of Western prejudice and racism. One cannot deny the historical specificity of relations between the West and Muslim countries, but Said does at times turn that specificity to a kind of “Oriental” or Middle Eastern or Islamic exceptionalism. He dos not set the phenomenon he outlines against other forms of prejudice and racism prevalent in US society.
The last chapter, “Knowledge and Power,” details the ways in which the US academic establishment influences and indeed sometimes directs the flow of information and debate on the Middle East and Islam. Here, referring back to Orientalism, one may see how some of the particular myths and distortions relating to the Middle East and Islam—as distinct from those relating to, say, Africa or Central America—are formed. Said shows how the research and output of establishment academics is closely connected with the climate of opinion in government circles.
Said is correct in maintaining that the intellectual lead does not come from the universities and research institutes, but it would have been interesting to have a closer analysis of the triangular relationship of these forces with the actual bases of power—the state and the dominant classes. Said does not have a class conception of power. He rather sees society as composed of various interlocking interest groups. These determine the spurious interpretation of Islam to be found in the media: “All this is presided over by the great power establishments—the oil companies, the mammoth corporations and multinationals, the defense and intelligence communities, the executive branch of government.” This perspective does not allow him to analyze how broader social forces affect the information media.
The book reflects the view that the role of information in changing political perspectives is crucial:
As our world grows more tightly knit together, the control of scarce resources, strategic areas, and large populations will seem more desirable and more necessary. Carefully fostered fears of anarchy and disorder will very likely produce conformity of views and, with reference to the “outside” world, greater distrust: This is as true of the Islamic world as it is of the West. At such a time—which has already begun—the production and diffusion of knowledge will play an absolutely crucial role. This concept—that through a reshaping of information and interpretation it may be possible to change the context in which political action is determined—is also implicit in Said’s other works, particularly The Question of Palestine. The point is serious and important. Its weakness is that it appears to give too much weight to the power of the media and the intellectual currents which shape them without giving enough space and attention to those which shape media coverage. Said is obviously well enough aware of these forces, but the thrust of his argument here tends to lift the media out of that context.
Said does not take a consistent position on the vexed question of the relationship between ideas and material reality. At one point he cites C. Wright Mills to make the point that “material existence does not determine people’s consciousness.” He goes on to say that the contemporary view of Islam in the West should be seen as “reflecting powerful interests in the society served by the media.” This confusion is also reflected in the way he sees possible changes in the information sphere. There is a tension between the voluntaristic view that “better” information and media coverage would produce changes in people’s political attitudes to the Middle East, and the view that such change is desirable for long term US interests. The effect is to play down the constraints on the reform he suggests for media coverage of the Middle East and Islam. At one point, Said comes close to admitting that the “information improvement” which he advocates would have to take place within the context of the continuing US role as a great power—in other words, the geopolitics of imperialism.
Demystification of media content is extremely valuable in making those of us who consume the “information” more aware of alternative ways of viewing the issues. Said is certainly one of the most significant contemporary analysts of this level of discourse as it touches Middle Eastern culture and politics. But work of this kind, however sophisticated, can yield relatively slender results without change at other, political levels in the US attitude to Islamic peoples, and indeed to other cultures which its media regularly slander.