If you think you have an original, perceptive opinion concerning Islam, you might want to think again. According to Jonathan Lyons, author of “Islam Through Western Eyes: From the Crusades to the War on Terrorism,’’ an ossified, immutable “anti-Islam discourse’’ has been propagated over the centuries by a diverse relay team of elite opinion-makers whose most obvious manifestation has become the self-proclaimed Islam expert. As a result, many Westerners have come to believe: “that Islam is inherently violent and spread by the sword; that Muslims are irrational, antiscience, and thus antimodern; and that they are sexually perverse and hate women.’’ In a mercilessly iconoclastic work of intellectual scholarship, Lyons takes a chisel to the ancient and venerable edifice that is the anti-Islam discourse and patiently chips away, hoping to demolish what he considers the chief obstacle obscuring the West’s view of real-life Islam and Muslims.
At times, Lyons takes his thesis too far, as when he implies that today’s war on terrorism grew out of the West’s anti-Islam discourse - specifically the “clash-of-civilizations’’ theory - rather than actual terrorism committed in the name of Islam. But more often than not, he makes a compelling argument. At its finest, “Islam Through Western Eyes’’ emerges as intellectual in the best sense, deconstructing an ideologically based meta-narrative of religion and history, analyzing its constituent themes, and determining how and why they were formed.
A former longtime Reuters foreign correspondent and editor, Lyons is author of “The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization,’’ and co-author of a book on contemporary Iran that challenges widely held assumptions about religious and social mores in the Islamic Republic. In “Islam Through Western Eyes,’’ he employs the analytical method of the late social theorist Michel Foucault to dissect and scrutinize a long-established but hoary discourse, and enlarges on Edward Said’s similar undertaking in his seminal “Orientalism.’’
Lyons dates the first stirrings of the anti-Islam discourse to the period immediately following a speech delivered by Pope Urban II in 1095. During the speech, the pope called for a crusade; Lyons surmises that he wanted to marshal support and power for broad social and religious reforms, a project for which an external enemy would be useful. For information on Islam, Urban relied on the accounts of Christians in Muslim-Christian border regions such as Spain and the Byzantine Empire. Of the Christian elites in these areas, Lyons explains: “Their need to combat conversion or assimilation as well as other domestic pressures . . . produced strong polemical and apologetic traditions.’’
The First Crusade was duly launched in 1096; more would follow. The portrayal of Islam as barbaric and oppressive eventually became part of a larger discourse, in which the religion was also depicted as obscurantist by Western scientists and philosophers who wished to play down the achievements of their Muslim counterparts, and misogynistic by Western proponents of imperialism. The traditional Western narrative of Islam and science, in which Muslim scientists are considered mere transmitters of Greek and Latin knowledge but rarely thinkers in their own right, remains widely unchallenged. Indeed, even “[w]here a tradition of science or philosophy within an Arab or Muslim cultural milieu is acknowledged,’’ observes Lyons, “it is invariably circumscribed neatly within the boundaries of a Golden Age.’’
Lyons also shows how those behind the anti-Islam discourse have rarely been interested in truth or accuracy, and that “facts on the ground that do not accord with the discourse are not treated as facts at all.’’ One might conclude that when certain of the discourse’s allegations actually prove true, it is the result of coincidence, and the allegations would not be retracted or even amended were they to cease to be accurate because of changing circumstances in the Muslim world. This realization makes it easier to accept Lyons’s own professed lack of interest in the truth or falsity of anti-Islam allegations.
On a separate note, it would have behooved Lyons to identify another discourse concerning Islam that has recently been enshrined as both semiofficial and politically correct: “Islam is peace,’’ and violence or extremism on the part of Muslims constitutes a perversion of the religion. This discourse, to which mainstream US media as well as government officialdom adhere, features a built-in means of parrying criticism of its all-enveloping simplicity, by tarring the dissenter as a bigot, Islamophobe, or even racist.
Thus, investigating possible links between Islamic scripture and Islamist doctrine has become an increasingly fraught endeavor. The “Islam is peace’’ discourse ironically complements the historical view - elucidated in this book - that Muslims are backward. Indeed, just as the purveyors of opinion and cultural attitudes in the West presume to tell Muslims that they are unsophisticated and must reform, they admonish non-Muslims not to suppose that they have a right to link aspects of perceived Muslim backwardness to the Koran or other textual foundations of Islam.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf, a writer and book critic in Beirut, can be reached at calaboose@gmail .com.