Algis Valiunas’s essay, “Encountering Islam,” appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of the Claremont Review of Books, A Journal of Political Thought and Statesmanship—a journal I highly recommend.
“Encountering Islam” is a devastating critique of Edward Said’s book Orientalism. Said, the late Palestinian-American professor of English at Columbia University, is an icon of the Left, who “condemns virtually all Western literature and scholarship on Islam as based on imperialism. He goes so far as to deny the idea of “Islamic civilization,” one that circumscribes the thoughts and feeling of individual Muslims. Hence he not only criticizes eminent professors of Oriental studies such as Bernard Lewis, but disdains distinguished Western literary travelers through Muslim lands.
Valiunas, author of Churchill’s Military Histories, surveys the writings of these travelers, beginning with Vicomte de Chateaubriand, diplomat and author (1811). Chateaubriand, says Valiunas, contrasts the ‘sanctity of Jerusalem’ and the ‘hopeless sensuality of Constantinople,’ where no man is master of himself. Chateaubriand laments Egypt as “the land where civilization was born and where ignorance and barbarism reign today.” He especially deplores the helpless situation of Jews: “Particular object of all contempt … [the Jew] suffers all injustice without asking for justice….One has to see these rightful masters of Judea slaves and strangers in their own country.” (My emphasis)
Although Alexis de Tocqueville elsewhere regarded Islam as in many respects worse than paganism, he wrote in his “First Report on Algeria” (1847) that “Islam is not absolutely impenetrable to enlightenment.”
Edward W. Lane, author of An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836; revised 1860), refers to the Egyptian child’s religious upbringing: “He receives also lessons of religious pride, and learns to hate Christians, and all other sects but his own, as thoroughly as does the Muslim in advanced age.” Valinius adds, ‘Of those whom the Muslim hates, Jews enjoy pride of place.’ Again Lane: “At present [Jews] are less oppressed; but still they scarcely ever dare utter a word of abuse when reviled or beaten by the meanest Arab or Turk; for many a Jew has been put to death upon a false and malicious accusation of uttering disrespectful words against the Koran or the Prophet.”
The American traveler John Lloyd Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia, Petraea, and the Holy Land (1837) ‘finds that the will of Allah and the honor of the Prophet provide a useful excuse for beastly behavior. In Hebron he notes the profound Muslim revulsion at the Jewish presence. Muslim hatred of Jews is the leitmotiv in the early 19th-century travel literature.’
Referring to Charles M. Doughty’s 1,200-page classic, Travels in Arabia Deserta, Valiunas points out, ‘Doughty’s encounter with the faith of “that fatal Arabian,” and other near fatal Arabians who swear by their Prophet’s teaching, show that the clash of civilizations as a mortal danger, which must be met with high courage if one is to preserve his integrity and his life.’
Robert Byron in Road to Oxiana (1937) searches for a bygone Muslim epoch of light and finds it in Afghanistan, of all places, in a 15th-century city (Herat) where Muslims enjoyed some sort of humanist life.
Approaching our own time: ‘When Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish author of Shah of Shahs (1982), goes among the brutes, he knows where he is and what he is doing in Iran, the brutes are whoever happens to be in power at the time.’ No civilization arose after 1925 when the British installed Shah Reza Khan, who supported Hitler. Nor after Reza Khan was succeeded in 1941 by his son Mohamed Reza Pahlevi. Far more dangerous to Western civilization, however, is the Islamic revolution wrought by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. “Kapuscinski shuddered in the spectacle of a million people praying en masse in Tehran’s great square.”
Valiunas concludes: ‘Someone who reads only Edward Said—and he is the sainted authority of leftist academics today—may come away convinced that his argument is true. But to read in the travel literature he disparages is to see how wrong he is. The travelers’ tales do not originate in malevolent prejudice or issue in great distortion; rather they are drawn from carefully observed reality.’
Moreover: ‘The travel literature overwhelmingly shows Islam recoiling from the Western touch, perhaps in part out of legitimate fear that it might be transformed into an alien shape with all the West’s deformities, and to a great degree out of blind hatred inculcated over centuries of prejudice and ignorance. In any case, the Orientalist writings testify to the deep roots of the modern Islamist fighting creed, in which Islamic purity must be preserved from Western, liberal, modernizing pollution.’
Valinius’s conclusion surely applies to the war between Israel and the so-called Palestinians, who are part and parcel of Islam.