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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The State of Sharia: Orientalism from Within

SCHOOL OF ORIENTAL AND AFRICAN STUDIES (SOAS)

The State of Sharia: Orientalism from within

[Mediated Culture of the Middle East]

Fiza Fatima Asar

4/1/2010

This paper looks at a series of programs titled ‘The State of Sharia’ that were shown on a Pakistani English News Channel, Dawn News, and studies them in the light of Orientalism. I argue that the process of creating the “Other” not only occurs when West looks at Islam but also exists when Muslims are looking at Muslims. The program is in English and can be found on Youtube by typing in ‘The The State of Sharia’. Relevant links have been provided in the reference section.


The The State of Sharia: Orientalism from Within

The 9/11 attacks in the United States and the events that unfolded thereafter have given impetus to an ongoing debate in the intellectual and political spheres over the role of Islam in world politics. After the attacks on the World Trade Centers in New York, the war on terrorism initiated by the US government soon became the war on terrorism fought by many countries of the world either within their countries or with their forces being involved in other countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. In the Muslim world, including Pakistan, the debate over political Islam has also turned into questioning the role of Islamic teachings and Sharia in politics.

Edward Said (Media Education Foundation, 2007) speaking about his book “Orientalism” mentions how there is a dearth of intellectual work from within the East. Whether this is because of a lack of critical work or lack of work being translated into English makes it a point worth considering. However, when the first and foremost English channel of Pakistan, a reputable voice amongst the English-speaking Pakistanis speaks about Islam or Muslims and their politics, it is a matter of grave concern that they too fall into the same rhetoric that carries within it voices of the ideologically dominant forces of the world.

During October and November 2009, Dawn Television of Pakistan showed a series of programs called the The State of Sharia focusing on what Sharia means to Muslims and the view the West has of Islam. It tackled the issue by interviewing, amongst others, scholars, clerics, and those involved in “Islamic” activism. Although the program aims to think critically in understanding the ideology of Sharia and to bring out the conflict within Islam[i] (not just between West and Islam), I argue that it in fact reinforces the divide between “Islam” and “West”. With the usage of its images, its arguments, selection of interviewees and questions asked from them, and the structure of the program it is in fact playing into the same Orientalist rhetoric that exaggerates and plays up the “clash of civilizations.”[ii]

Orientalism and The State of Sharia

Edward Said (1979, pp 1) in his book Orientalism describes Orientalism as "...a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient's special place in European Western experience...and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other.” According to his argument (pp 2), the Orient was everything that the West was not and hence it was “the Other. “the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience."

Thanks to technological advancement, the communication between peoples has become far better than ever before. This is due to the presence of television and internet, and the convenience in traveling which has allowed for people to move across borders for education, business or pleasure. This improved communication has meant that there are more people today who are aware of the biases that can exist in representation and are trying to set themselves free of the Orientalist view of Islam. However, given the world political scenario today (where terrorism is one of the foremost concerns and war on terrorism the foremost responsibility of governments), biases in representation still exist. A great deal of coverage of Muslims in the news and on television programs continues to promote “Islam” or followers of Islam as “the other.” The seven-week long show, The State of Sharia, is one such example.

The pretext for the program is set with the words from the introduction given to the first episode’s by its host Owais Mangalwala “…a different set of people, a different set of beliefs, and a different set of ideology” referring to Muslims and their religion Islam. In the program aiming to hatch what Sharia means to Muslims, why West has a certain negative image of Islam and why Islamophobia exists, there is already an assumption that Muslims represent a different ideology - a school of thought that prevailed during the Cold War and that intellectuals argue still manipulates our understanding of global politics today. Samuel Huntington (1996) argued that it would be the clash of civilizations that would define world politics and amongst others, Edward Said (2007, pp. 570) refuted this argument by explaining that this was “a recycled version of the Cold War thesis, that conflicts in today’s and tomorrow’s world will remain not economic or social in essence but ideological; and if that is so then one ideology, the West’s, is the still point or locus around which Huntington and all others turn.

One of the criticism to Huntington’s theory was that it failed to see other factors that played into conflicts such as economic concerns, role of various countries, political and social history, geo-political conditions, etc. The State of Sharia has fallen into similar trap. With only a fleeting reference to the role of oil-politics in the clash between West and Islam[iii], The State of Sharia lay the claim that the bigger underlying concern was the fear that Islam stood as the only enemy of the West after Communism’s decline. Like Huntington’s argument, this program too was unable to see a connection between the two and was hence propagating that the difference in today’s world was an ideological one only. Furthermore, what this demonstrates is that the over 1 billion Muslims of the world, spread over all the continents, have been bunked into the same category of “Muslims” and their local issues are seen as being rooted in the same problem, their ideology of Islam.

My paper does not take into account what the audience thinks or how it reacted to the show broadcasted on Dawn News television. Neither does it shed great light on who the audience is of the television and the program[iv]. My concern primarily is with the limitations with which media within an "Oriental" setting can still limit itself with the same or similar attitude towards Islam as that of the West towards the Orient, and I am convinced that this is due to what Edward Said (1979, pp 2) observes to be the weakness in a “large mass of writers, among whom are poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and imperial administrators…” who have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, mind, destiny, and so on....

Recurring Images of the “Other”

An eminent Pakistani columnist and political analyst, Shahid Masood commented in an interview on Geo News[v] (expressing his resentment over the handling of a certain news issue at the time) that the Pakistani media was following the “Western rhetoric” when it came to the representation of Muslims. The program The State of Sharia which quite clearly sets Muslims apart as “a totally different set of people” with “a totally different set of ideologies” (referring to “Islam”) strengthens its rhetoric with a set of images through out the show. Although there are several examples that can be referred to, I am going to go into relatively more detail over the introductory set of images that appeared in the beginning of each episode of the show because clearly set the pretext of the show.

These introductory set of images showed the Muslims to have an over-zealous attachment to spirituality translated into their defiance as shown on the streets and in crowds. In the 14 images that form this introductory piece, 8 are related to forms of praying and supplicating while the rest are mostly of protests and street demonstrations. The very first image is that of a man bowing (assumedly praying) in the middle of a street, an image which interplays between the dual concepts of attachment to religion (prostration) and protest/defiance (street) at the same time. The symbolism attached with Islam, in the program, is also constantly apparent whether it is ranging from the apparels worn, Islamic architecture of buildings, the Kaabah in Mecca or Islamic calligraphy. All images with men in them, show men either wearing head caps or with bands tied around their heads.

There is equal emphasis on pictures with females, as of males, and the women and girls too are shown with similar symbolism as mentioned above. Out of the 6 pictures with females in this introductory piece, five are with women covering their heads with scarves and wearing robes, and one with a girl in a protest wearing a band that is tied around her head. Considering the timing of the program[vi], the images of veiled women is not surprising in conjunction with the images that have been circulated in the media when representing Muslim women. Photos of women in burkas, their faces hidden behind embroidered lace grilles, their bodies enveloped in gathered rayon cloth, were a striking feature of the US and UK propaganda of 2001 in the lead-up to the recent Afghan War (Armbruster and Laerke 2008, pp 27) as their liberation was used as a justification “for the bombing of Afghanistan and the removal of the Taliban regime.” Even in a picture, from the introductory piece, which does not apparently involve any form of religious ritual (like praying, recitation of Qur’an or supplicating) and is taken in a supposedly Western setting, there is evident Islamic symbolism involving three women in black veils covering their bodies and faces.

It is also interesting to note the recurring image of “fists” in many pictures serving as a reminder that followers of Islam are feisty and overly passionate in their attachment to religion. As though there is a direct connection with the image of the three veiled women, the very next image is that of a woman in black robe and brown scarf protesting angrily with her hand raised in a fist shouting a slogan. In her background are soldiers. This is followed by the image of a young girl with a Palestinian head band tied around her head again with her fist also raised in the air. This is immediately followed by a man in a long beard looking up in the air with his eyes closed fervently shouting a slogan with his arm raised and his hands in a fist! In his background are lots of people as though in a rally. The next image shows men of East Asian descent again either wearing an Islamic cap or with head bands tied around their foreheads. They are holding placards and they all have fisted hands raised in the air.

It is unclear as to the intention of the next image - a group of men sitting in a room staring at the camera. They are wearing local Pakistani apparel, kameez shalwar, and either have caps or turbans. They could be either from the North West Frontier province of Pakistan or from Afghanistan but it would be foolish to deny that the picture is being used to to represent the Taliban. This is immediately followed by the The State of Sharia, the program's name written on the screen with a mosque in the background. The last image depicting the most current or demanding issue at hand, the Taliban, explains the political context in which the program is made and could be revealing in trying to understand the context in which the program has been made. Journalists interpret a situation “depending on what historical moment the interpretation takes place” (Said, 1997, pp 162).

These images preclude each episode and set the mood for the program and it is clear from it that the direction the program will be taking, in tackling Sharia and its establishment in Muslim countries, will involve the emphasis on political Islam as understood to be in the light of demonstrations, protests and “terrorists”[vii]. It is troubling to note how acts of religious rituals directly translate into protests and defiance in these set of images. This is further reiterated when in the first episode Owais Mangalwala, the host of the show, introduces us to the program by saying that he will "turn the pages of politics in Islam" which is immediately followed by images of Muslim men in white caps, clothes, beards, protesting and burning effigies and the screen is supplanted with a grey-scale image of Allah written in Arabic.

These pictures immediately raise questions like why turning the pages of politics in Islam, elicit these images? Does it show that political Islam is about protests, disruption and senseless burning? Turning the pages of political Islam does not elicit image of sufferings in Bosnia, Albania, Kashmir, Chechnya, Iraq or Afghanistan. In the introductory piece, there is no acknowledgement of the millions of Muslim women who do not wear veils or are not participating in any demonstration or protest. After these images are blown across the screen, the voice of the host appears in the background throwing words like "fundamentalists", "radicals", "extremists" explaining that these are what Muslims have been termed as by the West. These words are again accompanied by images of protests, beards and burning over the screen.

It is unclear why each protest shown in these images should imply that those involved in it are fundamentalists and extremists. In the systematic “othering” of Muslim citizens protesting, and with no context given to the images, there is direct implication that those who protest against American or European actions are “extremists.” Perhaps it would have been better for the host to explain that these terms have been matched with these images in Western media. However, given no context, these images simply imply that these images have been paired with these words because this is what common sense implies to the program maker.

Structure of the program

…So authoritative a position did Orientalism have that I believe no one writing, thinking, or acting on the Orient could do so without taking account of the limitations on thought and action imposed by Orientalism (Said 1979, pp 3). Moreover, “Today Islam is defined negatively as that with which the West is radically at odds, and this tension establishes a framework radically limiting knowledge of Islam." (Said 1997, pp 163.) These limitations were apparent in the structure of the program, the logic behind its episodes and their topics, and the way the host of the show approached the The State of Sharia in the Muslim world.

The name itself is a play on the words state and Sharia and can be understood to mean both a State (a country) where Sharia law can be or is applied and the state (or condition) of Sharia. It fails however to bring out the complete understanding of Sharia and rather chooses to focus on the aspect of jihad[viii] in Sharia. For example, in the first episode each of the interviewees were asked about jihad and their thoughts on it, the XX episode on establishment of Islam during the day of Prophet Muhammad focused on whether it was jihad or other factors that worked then, the third episode on expansion of Islam during the times of caliphates questioned the imperialistic and military intentions of the rulers and the following episodes also covered Iran and Taliban and their political defiance in the name of God. Sharia is an Arabic word for “way” or “path” and is the legal framework based on Islamic jurisprudence regulating both private and public lives of those Muslims living under it (Wikipedia). An equivalent but completely bizarre approach would be doing a show on democracy in the world and in fact focusing the entire show on the military strategies or outlook of countries. It is obvious from this approach, that the makers of the program view Islam as being militaristic and hence “different” and the “other.”

The television program covers the debate by involving what it calls Islamists and puts them up against what it calls anti-Islamists (or former Islamists). Looking at the examples of Islamists and former-Islamists it gives, it can be deduced that for the host Islamists is equivalent to “jihadis” or “mujahideen” and in fact the three terms are used interchangeably throughout the length of the show. Edward Said (1997, pp 14) claims that "In the United States … Islam is mainly a policy question for the Council on Foreign Relations, a "threat" or military and security challenge" and although the program is trying to address the Western perceptions of "Islam," all it does is really strengthen these stereotypes and fails to take a look at "Islam" outside of its military and security threat to the governments of the world today.

What I find extremely problematic is that the program, although, claims to tackle Sharia as is understood by the Muslim world and how Muslims as a whole understand Sharia, it in fact only includes examples who are either of Pakistani origin or are living in Pakistan. Dr. Israr Ahmed is the founder of an Islamic organization in Pakistan called Tanzeem-e-Islami, his son Akif Saeed leads this organization, Zaid Hamid is a popular security analyst in Pakistan, and Majid Nawaz, an ex-Islamist, although residing in the UK is of Pakistani ethnic origin. Even in the episode which briefly mentions Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood) and its founder Hassan Al-Banna, there is no interview or mention of source that is from Egypt or from the Arab world where the Muslim Brotherhood continues to operate. There is no reference to Hassan Al-Banna’s words or thoughts. Similarly when Mawlana Mawdudi[ix] is mentioned, this too has the same weaknesses. Edward Said (1997, pp 572) very aptly explains why this is troublesome in his book Covering Islam when he explains how “…about more than a billion Muslims, scattered throughout at least five continents, speaking dozens of differing languages, and possessing various traditions and histories” are all talked about and represented in a way “as if a billion people were but one.”

In order to further understand the weaknesses in the The State of Sharia, it is important to see how the various episodes of the program were brought together. Apparently a logical and chronological view of how political Islam has developed, the show traces Islam from the days of the Prophet Muhammad to the caliphate and the end of the Ottoman Empire, the Iran and Afghanistan wars and ties it in with the political situation today. However, within this, lies the weakness of the program. What it does not show is the intellectual and philosophical understanding of what Sharia meant for the rulers and intellectuals mentioned in the past. By asking questions about the past from current scholars, it brought down the vast history of the Muslim world into the paradigms of jihad or peace, hence creating an “other” automatically. Even in its chronologically ordered account of Muslim history, the histories, the cultures, or the geographic and economic politics, amongst other factors are not taken into account at all.

Dichotomies in the Program

The show begins with its host Owais Mangalwala saying the words "Render to Caesar, what is Caesar's and to God what is God's." In a couple of sentences following this, he describes how since renaissance Church and State have remained separate in the West. It is at this point, he quite disturbingly chooses to introduce the words "totally different set of people, totally different set of beliefs and totally different set of ideology" and exclaims with authority that "this time it is Islam!" The inherent problem with using the word Islam so authoritatively in this instance is that when it is not used with great restraint and many qualifications, precisely because in many Muslim societies and states (and ofcourse in the West) ‘Islam’ has become a political cover for much that is not at all religious. How then can we begin to discuss Muslim interpretations of Islam, and developments within it, responsibly?” (Said 1997, pp 57) The context of dichotomizing society in terms of the West versus Islam (and West taken to be Christian) begins from this point onwards and it is with these assumptions and this interpretative project that the host aims to study the topic of the program.

By pitting the West against Islam, the host is inevitably implying that the West is congruous on all aspects of life and that Islam is interpreted and followed congruently by all Muslims. Furthermore, such an outlook which promotes “a clash of civilizations” by dividing the world into binaries unfortunately ends up “exaggerating and making intractable various political or economic problems. The sad part is that “the clash of civilizations” is useful as a way of exaggerating and making intractable various political or economic problems (Said 2000, pp 571). Hence important factors in understanding world politics are ignored such as “…the pauperization of most of the globe’s population; the emergence of virulent local, national, ethnic, and religious sentiment, as in Bosnia, Rwanda, Lebanon, Chechnya, and elsewhere; the decline of literacy and the onset of a new illiteracy based on electronic modes of communication, television, and the new global information superhighway; the fragmentation and threatened disappearance of the grand narratives of emancipation and enlightenment” (Said 1997, pp 589).

Throughout the program there are troubling numbers of dichotomies and the arguments put forward in each episode seem to be pitting one group of people against the other, hence blurring the lines between the two. To begin with, West is pitted against Islam and this dichotomization has been introduced as a pretext to the entire seven-week long show. Furthermore, the moderates are played up against hard-liners, and Islamists versus former-Islamists. Akif Saeed and his father Israr Ahmed are conservatives whereas Ghamidi is labeled as a moderate. Similarly, Majid Nawaz is a former-Islamist whereas Zaid Hamid is an Islamist still. Similarly even in the episode on current issues, Afghanistan is put up against Iran, hence dichotomizing Shia Islam from Sunni Islam. Whenever there are binaries in question there is an underlying assumption that one is good and the other is evil. This is because one has the qualities the other lacks and whenever two opposing side are put in front of each other, one is on the right and the other is in the wrong. If West is on one side and Islam on the other, and Islam is represented with extreme religiosity and defiance, elements of jihad then obviously Islamists as opposed to ex-Islamists and conservatives as opposed to moderates will all fall in the same binary of “evil” or the “other.”

Observing the show closely and its editing it can be noticed that the questions put at the conservatives and “Islamists” are more confrontational whereas the moderates like Ghamidi and Majid Nawaz seem to be refuting what the conservatives are saying. Dr. Israr Ahmed's son Akif Saeed who is the head of the organization founded by his father says, as translated in English, that is is a Muslim’s responsibility to establish God’s order in the world, and he goes on to say that struggling for this is what is more important than actually succeeding in the task. The host Owais Mangalwala immediately after this goes on to say that “this call is taken to extreme terms here and the images that are thrown across the television screen are those of US soldiers versus Osama bin Laden, reminding us of the dichotomization between West and Islam, and terrorism and peace. It is unclear why the above statement would translate into this, however what is clear is that making this association automatically marks the organization, or its sympathizers, as a terrorist organization like that of Osama Bin Laden’s. A dangerous representation, the choice of editing of the show and the host’s interpretation of the subject is highly questionable here.

The State of Sharia focuses on a single family (a husband, a wife and their son aged two) to represent those Muslims who believe in the ideals of Islam and Sharia and it is this same family that is constantly referred back to in all the episodes of the show. Troubling here is not just the fact that Muslims around the world are being represented by this single family from Pakistan belonging to a certain school of thought but also that even within Pakistan, this single family’s example is being used to represent those who are conservative in their opinions. The outer appearance of the couple symbolized Islam and was one that has been spoken about earlier too when discussing the images of Muslims in the introductory piece of the show. The husband had a beard while the wife was veiled in black such that covered both her body and her face. The husband was a professor at a local university and one of the first questions he was asked was whether his beard put his students off and whether he faced difficulties communicating with the female students. One of the first questions the wife was asked (after hearing the couple’s opinion on jihad and sharia) was if she would not be scared sending her son for jihad. These questions reflect the biases with which the host was approaching the show and it was clear that he was making certain assumptions about beard and jihad, or religious adherence and the difficulty it brings in communication between opposite sexes. It is troubling that this family’s responses are taken to represent a myriad of opinions based on complex political, economic, social and individual experiences.

Similarly on the question of Iran and Afghanistan and the statement “Ayatollah versus one-eyed Mullah” automatically has connotations that place them in the same block as well as that of putting them against each other. In both instances, it is problematic because when putting them in the same block it automatically implies that the Iranian revolution had the same qualities that come to mind with the Talibanization of a country or region. When putting both against each other, there is the dangerous implication of putting Shias against Sunnis, hence creating another set of dichotomies. Both Israr Ahmed (conservative) and Ghamidi (moderate) are asked for their opinion on Taliban. However, no effort is made in the show to explain who the Taliban were in Afghanistan and what the Taliban is in Pakistan.[x]

Conclusion

Set in a time when "war on terror" dominates international politics and "Talibanization" concerns Pakistani society, the program has not dealt with the understanding of Sharia or Islamic take on politics, rather it has looked at the debates around Sharia from the lens of jihad and terrorism. In doing so it has not only created several dichotomies ranging from West verus Islam, Shia versus Sunni, conservatives versus moderates and Islamists versus ex-Islamists, but it has also created an “other” in each example. The idea of a clash of civilizations based on their ideological difference is further reinforced. There is much emphasis given on how the West views and portrays Muslims and Islam. The State of Sharia, however, proves that even when the intention may be a positive one, Orientalism has been so engrained in the common thinking that no one can work without its limitations. In the world where concerns over Talibanization and terrorism are rampant, a program originating from within the East or the Muslim world is reinforcing the same stereotypes that exist about Islam and Muslims in the socio-political situation today.


[i] Based on difference of opinion amongst analysts and intellectuals.

[ii] As understood by Samuel Huntington in his book Clash of Civilizations published in 1996.

[iii] In episode 2

[iv] Although it is quite obvious that the audience of the only English news channel in Pakistan is the English-speaking viewer and hence a relative elite of the society.

[v] An unverified girl flogging video was released in April 2009 and claimed to have been from Swat where the peace process was underway between the neo-Taliban and the government. The video instigated nationwide protests and demonstrations immediately. Many argued that the video was to either fabricated or old and released then to undermine the peace process in the region. Shahid Masood resented the mishandling of the video by media in an interview related to this issue < http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ICs1urTbFw&feature=PlayList&p=71FAB7D975FEE8EE&index=5>.

[vi] In a time when war on terrorism is being fought all over the world, and especially in Muslim countries, and one of the major concerns to world security is from the Taliban in Afghanistan or neo-Taliban (involving groups against US war on terror) in Pakistan.

[vii] Like the Taliban

[viii] Jihad means to struggle, however in this instance I am using it with its specific usage meaning holy war (on battle field).

[ix] Mawlana Mawdudi, an eminent journalist , religious scholar and intellectual of his time (in the 1930s) also founded Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamic organization still existing in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.

[x] Neo-Taliban or the Taliban in Pakistan are said to represent those splinter group which sympathize with the Taliban only in their resentment of US attacks on Afghanistan and West Pakistan. These groups were created as a result of “war on terrorism” waged by US and its allies.

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