"Challenging the New Orientalism: Dissenting Essays on the ‘War Against Islam’ " :: Book Review ::

In a discussion that is remarkable in its intelligence and complexity, the author presents a collection of essays [1] that cover Islamic history, global economics, Orientalist ‘dogma’, anti-imperialist activism, wars and human rights. Without an iota of doubt, it is a work of considerable intellectual substance, with Alam responding to many an unanswered question, although the content is somewhat ambitious. At a time when the world is apparently losing the war against terrorism, as some would claim, what the author has to say is important. It is an extremely sensitive topic, and anyone writing on it is treading on thin ice, but Alam does so dexterously. In reading this book, one is convinced that it has been written by someone with a fine philosophical intellect, steeped in the wisdom of both the East and the West, or as he would prefer, the Centre and the Periphery.

There is an abundance of literature and material by those who adhere to the ‘War against Islam’ while the voice of those who belong to the opposite camp is mute at best. By virtue of this fact alone, the book is seminal and sui generis, one of its kind. However, to fully do justice to his point of view and school of thought, a book of 250 pages is far from adequate.

In the first of the three sections of the book, the author discusses the New Orientalism, which he states has become a political phenomenon. This school of thought sees an unchanging, totalitarian Islam constantly opposing an enlightened and democratic West. He tears apart the arguments of influential protagonists of the New Orientalism, such as Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington, and how they distort reality. Alam attempts to explain why so many Jewish scholars and columnists in recent decades have taken culturalist positions on the history and conflicts of the Middle East, attributing the historical difficulties of the region to its religious and cultural heritage. In dissecting every aspect of Huntington’s thesis, the author’s counter arguments are solid, what with his profound knowledge of Islamic and world history.

The Islamic world as an integral part of the Periphery was caught between neoliberal economics neocolonial politics. It is not Islam’s so-called resistance to modernity or science or for that matter hostility to the West that can be attributed to the decline of Islamicate societies. Rather, it is the economic, political, social and technological factors that caused the peripheral countries to fall behind.

Alam questions why the Huntington discourse has dominated political discourse in the West despite its weak theoretical foundations and numerous ‘flaws’. As he aptly puts it, our acceptance of theories, even those bordering on the ridiculous, depend on how well they serve our interests, both at the individual and collective level. He rings the alarm by stating that if the Huntington thesis prevails, the twenty-first century will return the West and Islamdom to the twelfth century when wars were fought in the name of religion. Only this time it will be far worse.

In the following section, the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, political trends of the day, and the fallacies propagated by the media on the conflict are presented. He leaves no stone unturned in discussing and supporting the Palestinian cause. According to the author, the discovery of oil in the Middle East has led to a renewal of interest in the region with constant interventions that have caused incessant instability. Israel is assisted by a powerful lobby in Washington, which exercises strong influence over American foreign policy. Instead of seeking to restructure the region by itself, Israeli interests appear to be amply served by Americans taking the lead. In talking about the “Israelisation of the United States” the author states that the world’s only superpower, commanding one-fifth of the world’s output, and almost one-half its military expenditure has entered Iraq in order to effect regime change.

The final section of the book, ‘The War Against Global Terrorism’ addresses September 11 and its aftermath. Alam is of the view that contrary to what is claimed, it was not the ideological tendencies of Islamic societies to murder that led up to this event. Rather it was a result of the political-economic interactions between the West and the Periphery in general and Islamicate societies in particular. In the course of the book, he talks about the question of identity in imperial USA and what it feels like being a Muslim in the age of war and terror. The book is an antidote to the New Orientalism, and although thorough in no uncertain terms, makes at times for arid and pedantic reading. Its value and usefulness lies mainly in that the author dispels many a myth about the state of things in the world today.


[1]. "Challenging the New Orientalism: Dissenting Essays on the ‘War Against Islam’"
by M. Shahid Alam