Orientalism and Genocide

Paris – Belgium – Nigeria – Afghanistan, and we’re still only in January.

This coming so soon after a bumper 2014 in which a Christian genocide took place in Iraq at the hands of Islamic State, and countless Muslims in Syria were murdered by the same.

The response to this assault on civilisation is a most peculiar thing to watch: like the smoke of an out-of-control flame, shapes appear and disappear. This is how things come to pass: media ideas and opinions take shape only to disappear, or reappear; others gain traction and hang around as thought-memes.

These ‘memes’ hang around to become pathways, and these pathways lead to policies and law.

So far, there are a few standard memes of inevitable response which are being cultivated and nurtured through our screens and newspaper columns:

1) All of this that you see, this is ‘nothing to do with Islam’ because Islam is a religion of peace, so don’t blame Islam for terror.


2) This is related to Islam, but let’s admit these are angry people with grievances, and rightly so – they have had their resources stolen and their lands colonised by us (and don’t forget Palestine)


3) This is just a handful of extremists, the majority of Muslims are peaceful.

All of these positions are dangerous, in their own way.

Those who insist after every atrocity that “it has nothing to do with Islam” operate from a position which holds that, for example, Boko Haram is not Islamic. It has nothing to do with Islam. Those schoolgirls they sold into slavery, those thousands of people they killed last week – tragic, awful, etc. But nothing to do with Islam because Islam is about peace. Although all of these have precedence in Islamic history, somehow they just have nothing to do with Islamic history. (Sounds strange, doesn’t it?)

Yet, those who subscribe to these pronouncements on Islam hold no qualifications in Islamic theology or history, and rely on the false comfort of a ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ rhetoric to try to process, explain and consequently ignore something extremely dangerous.

Even some British politicians are ready to admit that the ‘nothing to do with Islam’ position is “lazy”. Still others will lay the writing of Sayd Al Qutb – spiritual father of the Muslim Brotherhood – as defining the birth of extremism, implying that prior to that, Islam was engaged in an essentially passive, and peaceful, spiritual mission.

Yet history, if one reads it unabridged, documents that Islam has been engaged in conquest and empire since its inception. The Battle of Lepanto, the conquest of Iberia, the Islamic conquest and colonisation of much of the world by the sword, the list is unending: the frontier between the Christian and Muslim worlds has almost always been troubled and shifting, often violent, always waxing or waning. It has always been about land, resources, law – and, as a conduit to all of that, the business of redeeming souls. Control of the Arabian peninsula, the conversion of native, non-Muslim peoples – all of this was the result of military advance. The mosques of Brunei, Java, India, North Africa, Córdoba and Granada – landmarks of imperial conquest.


The Battle of Lepanto – Christians versus the Ottomans

The second of these theses – that it is the fault of the Western world – is perhaps the most colonial, narcissistic and untenable. It is colonial because, while it of course means well, it places the Muslim world into a permanently unfavourable paradigm with the Western world: in setting up categories of ‘them’ and ‘us’, it casts Islam as an Eastern, otherised religion, deserving of our pity and apology, making it forever unable to recover its own past or to make sense of its own history without the intervention of the colonial white crusader who came to steal its water, minerals or oil to explain everything. The Muslim world is thereby relieved of the transformational potential of processing, reforming and accounting for the effects of its own historical successes and failures – because everything is the fault of the “West” or attributable to it. Even when the West did not exist, it can still be blamed for all of this evil. How fortunate the Muslim world is to have the West as an explanation for everything! A keystone, a missing piece to the jigsaw puzzle, which allows these poor, bedevilled people to make sense of themselves – victims of someone’s crime.

It is narcissistic because it makes the entire history of the world revolve around perceived wrongdoings – and crucially, the contemporary guilt and apology for past misdeeds – of the Western world. Western guilt runs very deep, and there is no getting over it, apparently.

All this pandering sounds very much like a kind of neo-Orientalism.

But this is an untenable idea because it is not only the Western world which has to answer for colonisation and control and what we see with Islamic State is an aspiration for a renaissance of Islamic glory – should we be willing to make that connection – the restoration of the Caliphate, the bringing back of the days of glorious Islam, which seeks to bring the whole world under its control.

This idea has everything to do with Islam.


The third response is, perhaps, a little more solid – even though it’s reckoning of statistics is off. Without a doubt, those Muslims carrying out attacks are small in number, relative to the total population worldwide. However, the Pew Center for Research found that hefty percentages of Muslims around the world were sympathetic to sharia law, death for apostates and blasphemers. Ben Shapiro analyses it in this way, here using Indonesia as an example:

It’s got almost 205 million Muslims,” Shapiro said. “According to one 2009 poll, it showed almost 50 percent of Indonesians support strict Sharia law, not just in Indonesia but in a lot of countries. And 70 percent blame the United States, Israel or somebody else for 9/11. You make that calculation, it’s about 143 million people who are radicalized. You scared yet? We’re just getting started.”

It is difficult to be precise about numbers and percentages because it is problematic to delineate the state of being ‘radicalized’ into a series of criteria, but this survey overwhelmingly supports the claim that levels of orthodoxy within Islam worldwide are very high. We may conclude then that a minority of Muslims are extremists, but certainly more than a ‘handful’. Even with a modest estimate of 15%, that is around 250 million people who share these views and may easily act on them.

That is not a handful.

What is never seen, in these three positions, is the extremity and iniquity in the Muslim-Muslim violence. Sects of Islam, other than Sunni, such as the Sufi, Shia and Ahmaddiya, do not fare well at the hands of Sunni and Salafi militants. In many ways, Muslims are those who have the most to fear from extremists. Further Pew Center research shows that the Muslim public are increasingly worried about the rise of extremism in their own countries.

A few conclusions then: this is not a phenomenon that only Western countries are concerned with; in many ways, that is the tip of an iceberg. It is time to connect the dots between Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, the French attacks, and all the rest of them, to see that what is being presented here is a worldwide onslaught aimed at humanity. It is entirely possible that a genocide of people is underway, and we’re still confusing each other because we cannot get over our own guilt long enough in order to see the truth.

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