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Representations of Islam in Western Thought
What do we understand by the term ‘representation of Islam’? What does it mean to investigate the depiction of the Muslim world – be it the faith, the cultures, the believers, the literature – in non-Muslim discourse? How would studies of the representation of Muslims by non-Muslims differ from their logical inverse – Muslim representations of Christians and Christianity in texts from Turkish or Arabic literature?
The term has, by now, practically established a genre of its own. Academic books and articles abound in the study of the Muslim world’s portrayal in areas as different as sixteenth century French literature, contemporary cinema, British children’s education syllabi, German drama, medieval thought, many of them preceding Edward Said’s landmark investigation of French and British Orientalist portrayals of their subjects.
As a consequence, I’d like to consider some of the things I understand such studies to entail. First of all, to examine the depiction of the Muslim in Western discourse is to examine the West. To consider the scimitar-bearing Turks and veiled women of Western Oriental landscapes is to consider the anxieties and desires of the gazer, not the gazed upon. This is not to say the Muslim is merely a blank screen upon which the West simply projects whatever facet of itself it happens to be 15 Ian Almond | Representations of Islam displaying ; the relationship, particularly in those cultures (such as the former Yugoslavia) where non-Muslims have direct experience of Muslims on an everyday basis, is much more symbiotic than a mere case of projection.
However, if desire is built into the representation of the Other, then the constitution of that Other will tell us, to some degree, exactly what the Same desires. Whether it is terror or titillation, the kind of Muslims we encounter in a society’s culture reveals a great deal about what that society fears and yearns for…
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