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SAIS Review 21.2 (2001) 211-215

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Book Review

The "Islamic Peril" Deconstructed

Edward S. Herman

Islamic Peril: Media and Global Violence. By Karim H. Karim. Montreal: Black Rose Press, 2000. 272 pp. $24.99.

In Islamic Peril: Media and Global Violence, Karim H. Karim argues that the "Islamic peril" has become the main substitute for the "Soviet threat" as the West's convenient "other." The media readily mobilize Islam's menacing "jihads" and "Islamic fundamentalists" as demonic forces opposed to Western policy. Karim contends that the Western mainstream media are servants of Western interests, who dominate the global economy and political world and need intellectual rationales to justify their hegemonic policies. A member of the faculty of the School of Journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, Karim focuses on the Canadian media's treatment of Islam, although he also cites examples from the United States and other Western countries, and notes that much Canadian news and opinion on Islam is drawn from U.S. media and wire services. Karim makes a compelling case that the media has displayed remarkable ignorance, superficiality, and bias in using the Islamic peril to try to give context and meaning to global violence.

Using many illustrations, Karim shows that Canadian (as well as U.S. and other Western) media references to the Islamic peril are very commonly misleading stereotypes, used with considerable opportunism to provide the needed "fright" context. The media are fond of terms such as "jihad" and "Islamic fundamentalism," which have gradually been charged with negative connotations by the use [End Page 211] of photos and selective information (and disinformation) associating them with "terrorism." Karim demonstrates that the meaning of "jihad" as violent action has been in dispute in Islamic circles for many years, and that as a justification for violence, jihad has its Western counterpart in the notion of a holy war or just war (perhaps also, humanitarian war). Attempting to make the recourse to violence peculiar to Muslims is the product of an arbitrary and selective use of history. Referring to comments by historian Elie Kedourie on the alleged long historic roots--the "in-built messianism"--of Islam, which Kedourie demonstrates by citing a series of isolated events over many centuries, Karim refutes this assertion saying:

While it may be considered logical and coherent for Kedourie to weave various persons drawn from the history of Muslims into a fabric of 'Islamic terrorism,' a similar tracing of assassinations from Julius Caesar to John F. Kennedy to demonstrate violent tendencies in the ways that the North treats its leaders would be considered laughable.

The media tend to gravitate to experts like Kedourie, who follow what has amounted to a party line on the Islamic peril, and who display all the biases described by Edward Said as "Orientalism."1 These biases include claims of ethnic and religious solidarity and uniformity, excessive religiosity, irrationality, and hostility to modernization and the West. There is also a simultaneous tendency to downplay or ignore any just and material grievance the group labeled "Islamic" may have against the West and to present the West as the victim. Karim's analysis of the writings of Kedourie, Bernard Lewis, William Pfaff, and others shows the great importance of Orientalism and related stereotypes, and a serious misuse of Islamic history, in the work of these preferred experts who not coincidentally make the case for Islam as a threatening "other."

In addition to the East-West prejudice of media against Islam, Karim emphasizes a stereotyping along religious lines as well. He points out that while the media tend to stress the religious link to Arab or other Islam-related violence, they fail to do this for Christians and Jews, even when the link between their actions and their religious beliefs may be equally or more plausible. Among other cases, he notes that when an Italian sect called the "Apostles for Christ" engaged in hostage taking and bank robberies, and a Colombian group called "Christians for Peace and National Salvation" took forty-two hostages, neither was referred to by the Canadian papers as "Christian [End Page 212...