Carnegie Extremism: Decoding Mainstream Discourse on Islam & The Dynamics of Orientalist Journalism

Since the disintegration of the Soviet bloc, the launch of the first Gulf War, and the onset of the current “war on terror”, a considerable amount of attention has been devoted to the so-called threat of “Islamic fundamentalism” and its alleged proponents who are disproportionately Arab. Most often, if not always, this hysteria has been rooted in deeply seated ideologies of racism, many of which have come to dominate the bulk mainstream media. While these racist sentiments are undoubtedly worth criticism, we can learn much more about ourselves if time were taken to understand the development of these beliefs. An ideal domain to trace such a trend can be found in the most prestigious media publications where US policymakers, experts, and scholars voice their concerns. It’s quite easy to condemn characters like Rush Limbaugh and Pastor Terry Jones but the real challenge is to highlight the equally venomous views of senior fellows and “distinguished” scholars. Take for example an article written by Joshua Goodman of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace titled Shades of the Sinai’s Instability. This article, whose main focus is the growing conflict between Bedouin communities and state security forces in Egypt, furthers a conception of Arabs that is richly documented in scholarly literature, multimedia sources, and even declassified CIA documents. All of this documentation obscures a crucial fact, namely, that “radical Islam”, “Islamists”, and “Islamic fundamentalism” are all post-Cold War ideologies nurtured, in large part, by US policymakers and their apologists in the intellectual community or as Karim H. Karim points out in his study of Western media, Islamic Peril: “Prior to the collapse of the USSR, the confrontations of Western powers with state and non-state Muslim actors seemed to prepare the way for ‘Islam’ to become a post-Cold War Other”.  This reality can be keenly perceived in Goodman’s article and is typical when paired with other journalistic contributions of American “elite” media.   

Goodman begins his piece by alerting his readers to the “fragile security situation” in the Sinai due to “increasingly bold and open forms of militant resistance” carried out by Bedouin communities after the “partial withdrawal” of state forces. Before going into any great detail about the social or economic challenges that these communities face, Goodman creates an image of Bedouins as violent “militants” unable to convey their grievances by peaceful means. It should be noted that there’s nothing new about this description. In fact, it virtually echoes a sentiment articulated by the CIA in 1947. Back then the Bedouin was described as “a hardy type of fighting man, not only imbued with a warlike tradition (combining religious fanaticism with an enthusiastic devotion to looting, plundering, and raiding) but also trained in the use of small arms and the methods of desert warfare.” Aside from the clearly racist tone of this statement, it’s quite impressive how the writers of this report failed to detect its blatant hypocrisy. The report accuses Bedouins of having a “warlike tradition” driven by “religious fanaticism,” ignoring the fact that the United States, as a geographical entity, is founded on such forces. All serious historians, from the late Howard Zinn to Kevin Annet, would readily concede that the Puritans who “civilized” the indigenous populations of 17th century North America were, without question, religious fanatics intent on asserting their “warlike tradition” by means of genocidal extermination. Yet these crimes rarely, if ever, enter the historical record under such terms. Rather they are given the more sanitized distinction of “discoveries” carried out by “great explorers”. The same can be said of 15th century Christendom’s pillaging of  Muslim Spain, a human catastrophe movingly reconstructed in Tariq Ali’s 1993 classic Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree. Much like the Puritans, these criminals are also spared the distinction of marshalling a “warlike tradition”. In fact, this world historical moment is seldom mentioned at all in conventional colonial narratives.  

Not "extremist" but presidential.

In spite of these samples of self-imposed blindness, it should be noted that there have been some countervailing attempts  to make a connection between the terror of the “Islamist” and that of the “developed world”. Take for example a recent statement made by European Union Foreign minister Catherine Ashton in response to the tragic murders of a French rabbi and three Jewish schoolchildren. These  crimes were carried out by Mohammed Merah, an Algerian Arab in the French city of  Toulouse. Speaking at a conference on Palestinian refugees in the Middle East, Ashton remarked “when we think of what happened in Toulouse today, when we remember what happened in Norway a year ago, when we know what is happening in Syria, when we see what is happening in Gaza and in different parts of the world – we remember young people and children who lose their lives.” For these very mild and uncontroversial statements, Ashton was bitterly condemned. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak denounced her statement as “infuriating and far from reality,” while Kadima chairperson Tzipi Livni charged Ashton as being incapable of making “the appropriate moral distinction,” namely “a hate crime or a leader murdering his people is not like a country fighting terror, even if civilians are hurt.” These statements of ridicule come just weeks after Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a speech before the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee comparing the Iranian nuclear facility in Nantanz to Auschwitz concentration camps, a statement that not only fails to make the “moral distinction” for which Ashton is accused of violating, but does so by exploiting one of the most egregious  crimes in human history in the Nazi Holocaust.        
This double standard in the realm of terrorism is a dominant theme in the intellectual history of imperialism from the landing of Columbus in the “New World” to the current US policy of “nation building” in Afghanistan  and it finds vigorous affirmation in Goodman’s study. For example, Goodman repeatedly uses the word “terror” to mark the crimes of Bedouins but does not use this term to highlight the far greater crimes of the Egyptian state (possibly because Egypt remains a strong ally of the US). For example, when “Islamists” kill 65 tourists in a marketplace it’s justifiably called an “act of terror,” but when the Egyptian security forces illegally detain, beat, and steal from Bedouins it’s called “ineffectual military action.” This is to say nothing of the 800 plus civilians murdered in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria during the popular uprisings last year, another tragedy which escaped the category of terror because “a leader murdering his people is not like a country fighting terror, even if civilians are hurt” or as Karim suggests “the modern state tends to downplay its own massive and systemic use of violence as it simultaneously emphasizes its opponents’ violent acts”. Karim attributes this behavior to the general acceptance of the state “as a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory,” making it “the sole source of the ‘right’ to use violence.” The fact that Goodman is able to speak so freely about terrorism, despite the reality that the US remains the only country in the world to be condemned by the World Court for “the unlawful use of force” (international terrorism) in reference to atrocities carried out in Nicaragua, is a stunning indication of the ideological continuity that exists between old imperialist doctrines of Pax Britannica and contemporary ones embodied in the “Washington consensus”. The US and its allies do not engage in terrorism. As Robert Fisk stated “‘Terrorists’ are those who use violence against the side that is using the word.” This is even verified by an empirical study carried out by Shahzad Ali and Khalid in the European Journal of Scientific Research that revealed how the US elite media–Newsweek, Time Magazine–consistently produced negative reports about Muslim countries. In the coverage of enemy countries–Iraq, Iran, Libya, Afghanistan–the positive/negative disparity was particularly stunning. For instance, 56% of the sentences about Afghanistan were described as negative while a mere 6% were classed as positive. In this respect, we can see how certain geopolitical imperatives reinforce what Edward Said called “orientalist” conceptions of Muslims. Said defines Orientalism as an “integral part of European material civilization and culture ” that “expresses and represents [the Orient] culturally and . . . ideologically as a mode of discourse with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines . . .colonial bureaucracies, and colonial styles.”

Goodman’s analysis fulfills most, if not all, of these criteria in quite explicit ways. Of all the examples the most uncontroversial is Goodman’s use of the term “Islamist violence” to characterize certain factions of Bedouin resistance. Apart from the fact that “Islamist” is a term “whose etymological roots lie in Christian contexts”, the prejudice embedded in this religious classification of violence can be revealed by the observation that such labels are scarcely used in reference to the violence of others which could be argued, by this logic, to be religious in nature. To be precise, mass murderer Anders Breivik did not conceal the fact that he massacred scores of innocent civilians in Norway to “save western Europe from Islam,” much in the same way the Christian Crusaders carried out their atrocities in accordance with the demands of Pope Urban II. Though more egregious than the “acts of terror” for which the Islamists have been condemned these violent deeds fail to merit the label of Christianist. Moreover, this treatment of European terrorists is consonant with that of American terrorists. When US Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich was found guilty of participating in the savage slaughter of 24 Iraqi civilians, many of which included women and children, Lionel Beehner of the Council on Foreign Relations described it as a “military embarrassment” which would be “used by Muslim extremists for propaganda purposes and replayed on Arabic television.” Such treatment of our crimes preserves the dichotomy of the benevolent empire of the West versus the irrational barbarism of “Muslim extremists,” and the murder of innocent Iraqis is subordinated to higher concerns of anti-American “propaganda” broadcast on “Arabic television”. It is for this reason that Karim posits that “inter-cultural communication . . . remains problematic as long as the Other is viewed as the only transgressor and the Self is completely innocent.” Incidentally, Wuterich received zero prison time for this atrocity, as distinct from other “terrorists” handed life sentences for merely attempting to carry out attacks within the United States (Faisal Shahzad, the so-called “Time Square bomber”, is a textbook example).   

 And there are other, more subtle, discursive methods that add to this stereotypical portrait of Arabs. For instance, Goodman continues his study by describing how Bedouins in the south have resorted to “more drastic means of resistance” by taking hostages in retaliation to the detention of family members and theft of their land. In explaining how Bedouins handle hostages, Goodman remarks that “in keeping with tribal values,” the abductions were “not intended to cause physical harm”. In particular, “traditional Bedouin notions of honor and hospitality which demand[s] just treatment of strangers,” prohibits such abuse. Though Goodman concedes that Bedouins refrain from abuse of hostages, he couches this fact in a larger narrative of “tribal values”. In this sense, Goodman treats positive expressions of Bedouin culture as an adjunct to a criminal act. Bedouins are granted the rational capacity to act against socioeconomic injustices insofar that these actions ultimately find meaning in non-rational, criminal, and tribalist tendencies. Goodman fails to comprehend “whereas Islam may be described as a way of life, all that Muslims do is not necessarily Islamic”.  This tacit association between crime and Bedouin “tribal values”–an Arab counterpart to the Native American “noble savage”– has the effect of normalizing a mode of human relations that is, at bottom, anti-social and hostile. Such a process of normalization was powerfully expressed by Sina Ali Muscali who lamented that the American media portrays Islam as a “cold, primitive religion rooted in tribal norms rather than human well-being.” Furthermore, this negative conception of Muslims was shown to operate on a linguistic level in a study carried out in Human Communication.   In this publication, which used a data analysis program called CATPAC to assess the portrayal of Muslims in America, it was observed “that  for many people  it  is easier  to  think of Muslims as a group of religious people when referring  to  them, but  the word Islam is a word that provokes anger and is often associated with extremist ideas and terror.” It was added that such perceptions could be attributed to the fact that “the  word  itself  is  one  that many Americans  fear  simply  because  they  do  not  understand.”

These undeveloped pictures of Arabs and Muslim communities are  reflections of the American media’s failure to grasp a concept that was convincingly argued by Canadian anthropologist Bruce Trigger. Trigger held that there is “a close relationship between society and culture” and any analysis that neglects this relationship produces, at best, “low level inferences” based on what he called “artifacts”. Likewise, Goodman’s focus on “tribal values” and “Islamist violence of the mainland variety” obscures key socioeconomic factors like the fact that Egypt is a military dictatorship that receives $1.3 billion  in military aid from the US per year. This failure to provide a rigorous analysis Egyptian social structures produces an interpretation of Bedouin life that only attends to their “material culture,” an anthropological concept that  Trigger described as “the product of a very limited range of human behavior . . . [constituting] a limited basis for the reconstruction of the past”.  An illustration of these limitations can be observed in how Goodman describes the conflict between the northern and southern regions of the Sinai. After explaining how the south has attained some measure of “political stability” due to the growing tourism industry, Goodman states “In conjunction with the relatively greater economic opportunities enjoyed by the southern Bedouin . . . it is easy to imagine the resentment this has generated among the northern tribes towards their southern counterparts.” Goodman then claims that this resentment “explains some of the motivations of northern Bedouin in collaborating with the bombings of southern tourist resorts in the early 2000s. ”  Notice the “economic interests” which, until this passage, was at the core of the conflict between Bedouins and the state is now displaced by a more personal, politically narrow emotional disturbance on the local level which finds refuge in northern “resentment” of southern “stability.” It would be instructive to see how we would react to the argument that President Clinton bombed the Sudan’s al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in 1998 because of his “resentment” of sickly African children. Anyone who ventured such an argument would be roundly denounced as a lunatic yet when such emotional labels are applied to Bedouins it’s accepted as entirely legitimate. Emotional appeals of this brand obscure the general lack of material needs–potable water, arable land, adequate housing–that touch more on questions of social injustice rather than envious desires to validate oneself in the face of alleged rivals. Ironically, this perceived need to validate oneself in the eyes of a rival is precisely what the US does in their efforts to “win the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people or their efforts to “maintain credibility” by violating international law and bombing defenseless nations in the service of geostrategic goals. These policies, while emotionally potent in name, are placed into a wider political context of “democracy promotion”.  By reducing the grievances of the Sinai Bedouin to a north-south drama, punctuated by intense moments of resentment and “terror”, Goodman subscribes to what Karim calls a “cognitive script”. In cognitive scripts we find “all we know in our culture about a specific stereotypical type of episode,” and “how certain types of people (members of a professional group, adherents of a religion, etc.) behave in particular situations.” Here it is simply assumed, without citing an actual Bedouin from the north (or anywhere at all for that matter) that they are filled with “resentment” due to the economic transformations in the south. By orientalist standards, “regional tribal differences” suffice in providing an accurate picture of  their psychology. Such a mode of discourse reinforces a notion conveyed in the CIA’s study of the “radical pan-Arab position,” where it is claimed  that the core components of Arab nationalism can be deciphered in its “great emotional appeal” and not its overt challenge to US and European hegemony. This is the same doctrine behind George W. Bush’s idiotic slogan that Muslims abroad “hate us for our freedom”. Indeed, they must hate us for our “freedom” because if they hated us for our policies this would be conceding that Muslims can formulate a political stance beyond pure envy, something utterly unacceptable when dealing with “hardy fighting men” and “Muslim extremists”. Additionally, if Bush were to admit that Muslims “hate us” for our policies rather than our “freedom” it would not only help to explain their terrorism against us but, if we accept basic principles of universality, justify such acts as natural reactions to our much more horrific forms terrorism against them. For these reasons, it is of the utmost importance that we invest more intellectual and moral effort into figuring out what rests at the core of these racist, reductionist, and overtly imperialist doctrines.

One view was stated rather straightforwardly by intelligence analyst Peter Naffsinger in his infamous study on Arab populations published by the CIA Historical Review Program (“Face” Among the Arabs). Here the Arab is conceived of as an “animate pawn” imbued with an “all-is-from-Allah fatalism” which, by necessity, leads to actions where one is “not answerable to an inner God, a conscience.” Arabs are, to borrow Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s phrase for the besieged citizens of Haiti, “ little more than primitive savages”. Coupled with this mythology about Arab psychology is another, more prescient, assessment of Arab politics. Here Arab political aspirations are understood to be “aimed at a renaissance of the Arab people and a restoration of their sovereignty, unity, power and prestige”, objectives carried out with the ultimate goal to bring about “an elimination of foreign domination”. This struggle for human dignity, called “the problem of Arab nationalism,” in a 1958 CIA report, is ridiculed as an ominous threat to Western “influence” in Arab majority nations.  Any exercise of force in the service of “radical pan-Arabism” is wholly unacceptable as distinct from the force of Western-backed “conservative leaders” which is, by definition, legitimate with analysis politely confined to whether the resort to violence is effective or a “military embarrassment” enforced with an “empty hand”.   This is the standard orientalist conception successfully reiterated in Goodman’s piece. In contrast to these orientalist views are those expressed by Edward Said that “the tightening grip of demeaning generalization,” has “found a fitting correlative in the looting, pillaging, and destruction of Iraq’s libraries and museums,” and that “history cannot be swept clean like a blackboard so that ‘we’ might inscribe our own future . . .and impose our own forms of life for lesser people to follow.” This notion, scarcely endorsed by prestigious publications, finds ample expression in the courageous movements of oppressed people against unjust authority. It can be sensed in the struggles of people like the Bedouins in the Egyptian Sinai, the Palestinians in Gaza, the Sahwaris in western Sahara, the Afghans in Afghanistan  and many other “lesser people” whose stories have been “swept clean” like blackboards. As the latest upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa attest, the currents of transformation are quite unpredictable, brutal, and, in the most inspiring cases, emancipatory. But it will be up to a people, infused with a measure of intellectual honesty, to determine whether the outcome of these struggles forges new bonds of solidarity or simply furthers our infatuation with “Islamic radicals”, “militant jihadists”, and other manufactured ideologies.


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Chomsky, Noam. Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance. New York : Holt Paperbacks, 2003. Print.

Trigger, Bruce. Beyond History: The Methods of Prehistory. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968. Print.

Muscali, Sina. “Arab/Muslim ‘Otherness’: The Role of.” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs. 22.1 (2002): 131-148. Print.

Ali, Shahzad, and Khalid . “US Mass Media and Muslim World: Portrayal of Muslim.” European Journal of Scientific Research. 21.4 (2008): 554-580. Print.

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