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128 the minnesota review REVIEWS Edward W. Said, Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (New York: Pantheon, 1981). Pp. xxxi, + 186. $10.95. It was a source of outrage for hostile reviewers of Edward Said's Orientalism (1978) that he had refused to characterize Islamic culture, had failed, that is, to give an alternative to the misperceptions he finds in Orientalist vision. There was an assumption abroad that his attack on the Orientalist style must be a defense of Islamic culture, and if so it must be a particularly evasive and unprincipled defense because the proper facts about Islam were not part of his thesis. Other readers saw that this was the point, that the polemic of Orientalism is directed against exactly this naive tendency to sum up and categorize. (The societies of the Islamic world resemble us at least in this, that they are complex, unpredictable, human, elusive.) Nathan Glazer, among those who saw the point, argued in The Chronicle Review that Said was still wrong, that our new experience of the Islamic world after the collapse of the Pahlavi regime gave us data which allowed us to conclude that the Middle East was more homogeneous than Said would admit: While I was reading this book the Ayatollah Khomeini was returning to Iran. It was certainly not a good context in which to view Said's approach charitably. The Ayatollah and the vast crowds who greeted him did not seem to think The Koran and Islam don't matter .... The simple observation of the world, unblinded by ideology, leads one to the sad conclusion that yes, there are ethnic groups, and religions, and yes, they explain more about the world than the differences Said wishes Orientalists had concentrated on in their place (5 March 1981). The issue, then, is that the perception of a phenomenon is itself a valid object of inquiry: "Orientalist" perception is the belief in the existence of a simple culture whose essence is, unlike ours, visible on the surface. (That willed belief — we might call it an ideology — is not held together without epistemological strain; there arises to buttress it a contrary reading according to which the Islamic character is elusive, devious, inscrutable.) The new government in Iran has proven helpful in keeping that perception alive. With the figure of Khomeini, acting the part of the westerner's caricature Moslem (no doubt consciously and programatically), we have what appears to be a transparent signifier, a momentary scene where the opaque and inscrutable surface of Islam parts and the simple truth behind steps forth, legalistic, humorless, authoritarian. Why we accept these simplifications is a difficult question. The subject of institutions which themselves, independently of individual conscience , function to alter, rechannel or redistribute information is of course a central interest with Said; to examine those institutions is the shared project of the trilogy which begins with Orientalism. In Orientalism the site of that redistribution is specialized knowledge, and the unanswered question was, I think, where to locate the agent of distortion: to what extent it was the result of impersonal forces inherent in the institution, to what extent the pressure of willed misrepresentation. In the book which follows, The Question ofPalestine (1979), the project is to recover a specific tract of history lost, or at best deemphasized, in the official version. In Covering Islam the subject is perception again, but we are further downstream in the process, in the realm of the press and television news, informed by specialist knowledge but in its curious way resistant to it too. Covering Islam is a more accessible book than Orientalism, and the relation between the two is a direct one: it is a kind of case history assembled from familiar materials to test the theoretical construct of its predecessor. And they are indeed familiar materials: Covering Islam addresses above all the American reaction to the occupation of our embassy in Tehran, not so much the rage we felt as the channels into which it was diverted. (Though Said does not deal with it, it seems worth examining the sources of that rage as well. Was it the illegality...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2157-4189
Print ISSN
0026-5667
Pages
pp. 128-130
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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