The Shaping Of Western And Islamic Identity Cultural Studies Essay

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

Islam has traditionally been depicted as violent, different, inferior and an enemy to the West. Through history Islam has fought for equality. Tension between the West and Islam arises from substantial differences in politics, and cultural and religious differences. More specifically economic disparity, inequality, modernism (and resistance to it), and the depiction of Western superiority and Islam's inferiority underlie these vast differences. Said's 'Orientalism' (1978), Barber's 'Jihad v McWorld' (2001), Huntington's 'Clash of Civilisations' (1996), Hall's 'West and the Rest' (1992), and Malik's 'Cultural Wars' (1996) focus on where differences between the two cultures lie, and how they have manifested.

This era is especially interesting because it is a time where conflict between the two cultures is most volatile. The West is at peak power due to imperialism, modernisation, globalisation and colonialisation, which has resulted in the rise in the number of fundamentalist groups in the East because it (Islam) is fighting more than ever to maintain its culture, traditions and identity in the wake of an increasingly modern and secular world. The post Cold War period had a telling effect on how Islam sought for equality and the right for religious, political, and social freedom in an attempt to maintain and protect its identity.

The ways in which both are portrayed and subsequently perceived largely affect how society sees the West and Islam. That being said, the misrepresentation, a lack of understanding and knowledge, bias, and stereotyping has contributed to the perception of Islam's difference. Recent events such as the Afghanistan War, the September 11 attacks, and terrorist activity seem to reinforce the negative stereotypes that the Western World holds of Islam.

It is important to examine the roles in which the East have played in the formation of West's identity and just as important, the role the West had in forming the East's identity. It is essential to establish how 'different' these two cultures are, and how the East 'helped' the West form it's superior, globalistic identity, and the basis upon which the West formed the East's inferior, 'violent' identity.

Edward Said's concept of 'Orientalism' theorises that the 'Occident' (West) imperialistically and ethnocentrically define their identity, as well as that of the 'Orient' (East). Said's general definition of 'Orientalism' is: "A style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between the Orient and the Occident" (Moosavinia, 2003).

Both Hall (1992) and Said (1978) argue that the West established and promoted its supremacy and superiority by depicting the East as inferior, monolithic, and static. Bloom believes that the West assigns this sense of inferiority to others as a means of comparison between itself and others to see how they measure up. This line of thought is reinforced by Hall (1992), who refers to the relationship between the West and the East as a 'discourse' because it allows for comparison, classification, and evaluation. Furthermore, Hall believes that the standard of which the West measured differences was primarily based on advancements, be it culturally, politically, socially, or technologically.

The notion of Orientalism was proposed at a time of European dominance in the world, and as Hall touches on, exploration resulted in contact, conquests, the establishment of settlements and colonialisation.

These expeditions led to establishment of permanent contact between the West and the East and gradually Western ways, ideas, and philosophies flowed onto the East. As a result imperialism arose, and along with this came machinery, trade, and money but at the expense of clashing values, ideologies, and religious beliefs. Imperialism has led to the re-establishment of the Eastern world, whereby the West is exploiting them for resources.

Although Foucault never studied or spoke directly about Orientalism, his understanding of knowledge and power (knowledge is a tool for power) helped understand how the West formed stereotypes about the Orient through their perceived knowledge of it; a concept known as 'discursive formations'.

Said's Orientalism demonstrates Hall's idea that "the concept of difference is reflected in racial inferiority and ethnic superiority" (p.) Differences lie in, essentially, what the West makes of it. The differences between the two cultures have been built upon ethnocentrism and imperialistic power which has led to the idea that the West is superior and the East is inferior. This sense of superiority and inferiority is reinforced by the notion of a 'Bifurcated World', which suggests that neo-colonialism has allowed the West to think they know what is best for others, whereby they intervene and do it for them. As a result the West is able to indirectly (without having to occupy the country) apply power and influence the Eastern World.

Orientalism still exists, especially after the September 11 bombings. Islam is being interpreted as fanatical, violent, aggressive, 'other' world that needs to be controlled. It is the discourse of Orientalism (us versus them, West v Rest mentalities) and negative stereotyping that many people lead many people to believe that all Muslims are the same. Western society tends to 'homogenise' other cultures, especially Islam, which can be largely attributed to what is portrayed through the media.

It is common thought that cultural differences underlie differences between the West and the East (Islam). Barber's 'Jihad v McWorld', Huntington's 'Clash of Civilisations', and Malik's 'Cultural Wars' believe that conflict arises from cultural differences; and that West dominance and imperialism has led to resistance and the rise of fundamentalism in the East.

Barber's 'Jihad v McWorld' provides an explanation for the difference between the two completely different worlds that is the West and the East. Barber believed that globalisation and retribalisation are affecting the very existence of democracy in the nation state. McWorld operates to promote economic growth and production, whilst Jihad opposes and resists modernism, globalisation and imperialism. This has resulted in, essentially, culture v culture (West v Islam). Jihad's identity is maintained through opposition to these modern trends, and McWorld's through trade, investment, technology and capitalism. Barber sums up the relationship between the two nicely: "Jihad pursues the bloody politics of identity, McWorld a bloodless economics of profit" (Barber, 2001, p. 8).

Malik believes that cultural differences are the cause of conflict between the West and Islam. 'Cultural Wars' discusses culture, identity, the underclass, the notion of a 'Bifurcated World'. Underlying these are the concepts of pluralism (essentially the acceptance and tolerance of cultural diversity), race, multiculturalism, and immigrants.

Pluralism was used as a means to express concern for national identity. British conservative Enoch Powell set out to answer the question 'Who are we?' Powell believed that every nation is unique and deserved the right to its traditions, history and culture. He (Powell) blamed pluralism for national decline, i.e. believed that immigrants and multiculturalism were to blame for the damage and subsequent 'loss' of Britain's national identity.

Powell believed citizenship was exclusive, i.e. to be 'British' you had to born in Britain; "It is something you are born into, not something you acquire" (Malik, 1996, p. 186). As a result immigrants were seen as a means of comparison (racial discourse), the opposite of what it meant to be British. Like most of the Western World, Britain is now contrasted to Islam.

France also believed that citizenship was exclusive, and like Britain started to question citizenship, and what it meant to be French. Malik's statement that conflict between France and Islam is "deep rooted in history" (Malik, 1996, p. 194) seems to be justified; for example the Algerian Civil War. This war occurred between France and Algerian Muslims because of concern that they (Algerian Muslims) weren't adopting, or assimilating to French values.

A lack of knowledge, stereotypes, and perhaps the impact of this war has led to the perceived dislike, racism, and discrimination against (French) Muslims today. More importantly though, what is portrayed through the media (the depiction of Islam) heightens and reinforces fear and insecurities that already exist amongst Western society.

Today France is seen as upholding a secular identity. For example, in 2004 the French Senate decided to ban the wearing or display of any overt religious symbol in State Public (Primary & Secondary) schools and most recently, the banning of the Burqa and Niqab in public. France argues that the decision to ban the Burqa is because it oppresses Islamic women, whilst Muslims argue that it is their (religious) right to wear it and it is racist.

Is France's decision to ban religious 'paraphernalia' an attempt to uphold secularism, or is it something more sinister? Whilst one could argue that France is historically secular, the argument that Muslim's make is equally as justified. Muslim people have every right to question these bans as it does, in essence, appear racist and contradictory. For example, France still celebrates religion specific holidays such as Christmas and Easter (Western/Christian holidays).

Like Malik, Huntington believed that cultural differences are the source of conflict between the West and Islam. Huntington's 'Clash of Civilisations' proposes that the 'next pattern of conflict' will occur between cultures on the basis of culture, not ideologies or money. He believes that civilisations will clash because of differences (different cultural beliefs), the world is becoming 'smaller' (more and more non-Western civilisations are resisting modernisation), and social change is resulting in the separation of identity. Furthermore the West is at peak power, where no country can challenge them economically (except Japan), politically, or militarily.

Huntington (1996, p. 6) believes that the West run the world in a way that best suits and benefits them: "maintain its military predominance and to advance its economic interests". This stance has evoked mixed reactions amongst different countries. Some have cut off all ties completely with the Western world in an attempt to run their country and pursue what is best for it. Others are band-wagoning (conforming to Western ways, ideas, and beliefs etc.) or 'balancing'; forming alliances with other non-Western countries (militarily and economically) whilst preserving their own beliefs, traditions, religion, culture and identity.

Huntington splits the world into several civilisations: "Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin-American and possibly an African civilisation" (p.3). Huntington notes that Western conflict with Islam is far greater than any other civilisation, using examples to elaborate on his theory.

For example, conflict between the West (specifically the USA) and Orthodox & Latin-American civilisations is minimal because they are now willing to co-operate with the West. Whether it is because they simply cannot compete or because of the benefits the West has to offer. This can be seen by the inclusion of Mexico into the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA), and the inclusion of Eastern European (Orthodox) countries into NATO.

India has seen a rise in nationalism, which Huntington refers to as "Hinduization" (p. 4); but still remain democratic. Interactions between the West and India are on good terms, and similarly, interactions with Islam are hostile. India's negative interactions with Islam arise from clashes with Pakistan (who by majority are Muslim).

Huntington acknowledges that the most pronounced conflict of our time is between Western and Islamic civilisations (Quote?). In fact, there is no doubt that the relationship between the West and Islam is historical. According to Huntington conflict between the two civilisations dates at around about 1300 years; the Crusade Era. The Crusade Era was marked by shifting power, and confrontation of two civilisations (West and East) trying to assert their religion. It was at this time, according to historian Tomaz Mastnak that "Muslim became the enemy" (As cited in, Mamdani, 2004, p. 25).

Since the Crusades there has been a number of clashes; the Cold War, various Civil wars, the Afghanistan War, and the September 11 bombings. All of these are important because they show how cultural, religious, and political differences has led to a bigger divide between the two cultures, and subsequently, how identity was affected and/or formed as a result of these events.

The Cold War was characterised by the conflict between the Western World and the Soviet Union. This conflict arose by the Soviet Union's decision to revolt against the West because of their 'dominance' and cultural differences. This decision encouraged and resulted in social fragmentation (Huntington, 1996; Malik, 1996; Barber, 2001). Fragmentation is defined as......

Islam (and many other non-Western civilisations) followed the Soviet Union's decision in the search for equality and the right to political, social, and religious freedom. The idea that Islam's identity is partly defined by resistance to modernism, globalism .etc, is reinforced by Castell, who states that "assertion of identity plays a key role in these resistance processes" (as cited in Herbert, 2004, p. 162). Resistance and opposition to modernism, globalisation, secularisation and imperialism resulted in the rise of Islamic fundamentalism (Mamdani, 2004).

Fundamentalism is "a certain way of looking at certain religious communities...individuals movements" (Charon, 2007, p. 278). Both Charon (2007) and Ghadbian (2002) believe that fundamentalism appeals to people who disapprove of modernisation and those experiencing "horrible social conditions" (Charon, p. 278), i.e. poor socio-economic status, unemployment, poverty etc. Fundamentalists generally interpret religious scriptures and teachings as being free of error, and the literal truth.

Fundamentalist groups, as Charon touches on provides a group specific identity, protection from enemies/'infidels' (most commonly the Western world), and boundaries which distinguish members from enemies. Thus, these groups provide Islam with a way to practice and maintain their identity, whilst defending itself from the West.

The rise in fundamentalist groups in the East (Islam) may be attributed to key factors such as poverty, oppression, quashing of traditions and religious beliefs. Islam (especially post September 11) have been portrayed through the media as suicidal fanatics who commit such heinous crimes in the name of their God. This is simply not true. In fact many Westerner's would probably be unaware that the Quran opposes any form of attack/war on society: "The terrorist's acts, from the perspective of Islamic law, constitute the crime of hirabah (waging war against society)" (Muslims against Terrorism, 2007).

Ghadbian (2002) discusses the link between Islam and violence, and believes that politics is related to violence. Ghadbian uses the example of the USA trying to find answers for Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in the Qur'an to show how the West assumes that Islam (religious teachings; Qur'an) is related to the use of violence. The fact that the USA thought answers/justifications of Hussein's actions could be found in the Qur'an emphasises the lack of knowledge of Islam, culturally and religiously, amongst the Western world.

If the East were responsible for helping the West form its identity (by means of comparison) then the West formed Eastern identity through its opposition to globalisation and modernism, which resulted in fundamentalism. Fundamentalism essentially resulted in the belief that Islam's identity is characterised by violence.

It is important to establish how the perception that Islam's identity is linked with violence has arisen. "The dominant view in the West assumes an affinity between Islamic values and the use of violence in the Muslim world" (Ghadbian, 2002, p. 91). This statement by Ghadbian sums up exactly what is portrayed in modern Western media, and the stereotype of all Muslims/Islam that is held in the West.

So what events have influenced the thinking that Islam is associated with violence? The war that occurred between the Soviet Union and various Afghan factions resulted from economic and military encouragement by the US to wage war against the Soviet Union. This is because they (US) wanted to see Russia "lose their foothold in Afghanistan" (Ghadbian, 2002, p. 100). Both Ghadbian & Mamdani believe that the Afghanistan War played a part in not only the increase of violence amongst Islam, but the role in which the West (USA) played in forming the link between what we commonly see now, Islam and violence.

USA's decision to fund the Afghan War had an adverse effect on the Afghan people and the Western World. Russia's decision to leave Afghanistan sparked a set of internal conflicts (Mamdani, Asian dude), and the effect on USA was that "some of these groups turned against the USA" (Ghadbian, 2002, p. 100). At the end of the war the USA left because they decided their job was done, leaving Afghanistan war-torn and in dire straits.

Also towards the end of the war, Afghan Arabs (led by Osama Bin Laden) were encouraged to continue waging war against other cultures, especially the USA. This decision was based on Bin Laden's thought that: "The collapse of the Soviet Union...goes to God and the mujahedeen in Afghanistan" (Bin Laden, Howarth, & Lawrence, 2005, p. 50; March 1997 interview with Peter Arnett). Essentially, Soviet withdrawal resulted in the thought that Islam could overcome any enemy with the use of violence, "commitment and belief" (Ghadbian, 2002, p. 101). This belief is still held by Muslim's today and can be seen by the September 11 attacks, as well as various terrorist activities globally.

However, it is important to understand that violence such as the September 11 attacks are not committed and accepted by all of Islam. Thus it is important to establish the difference between violent (extremists) and non-violent (moderates) Muslims, which acknowledges that all Muslims are not 'the same'. Ghadbian contrasts 'moderate' and 'extremist' Islam, and believes that politics and religion underscore the way in which actions are pursued by these groups. Whilst differences are what set these groups apart, they share one commonality; their actions are justified through their interpretation and understanding of the Qur'an. This largely affects whether the way they pursue their goals; through violent means or "gradual and peaceful means" (Ghadbian, 2002, p. 91).

In conclusion, both the West and the East complement each other; they both helped to form each other's identity. The East's perceived inferiority helped the West build its superior, modern, secular, and global identity by comparing itself with the East. And by the same token, Western dominance resulted in the rise of fundamentalism in Islam, which in turn, resulted in Islam's violent identity.

Fundamentalist activity, such as the September 11 bombings formed the perception that Islam and violence/terror are synonymous. This activity represents only the views of 'extreme' Islam; those that are willing to instrumentally use violence, or any means necessary to achieve their goals. This form represents only the minority. 'Moderate' Islam, however, due to racial discourse, are being perceived and homogenised by Western society to carry the same beliefs, thus all Muslims must be the same.

The West is (partly) for violence in Islam; they provided money, weapons, and the opportunity for Islam to be violent. However, Islam is also responsible for their violence. Ultimately the way that the West 'runs' the world has resulted in how Islam are today. Islam's actions, such as 9/11 only reinforce the negative stereotypes already associated with it.

Western dominance and modern trends such as modernism, secularisation, imperialism etc only help to emphasise the yawning difference between the two cultures. Ultimately differences in culture, religion, and politics underlie the concept of identity, as well as the sociology of difference.