Most Americans knew next to nothing about Islam before the image of Ayatollah Khomeini exploded onto their television screens at the start of the Iranian Revolution in 1978. Between then and the terrorist attacks of 9/11, awareness of Islam grew, though few people, including news reporters and key government officials, understood the crucial differences between Sunnis and Shi‘ites, secularists and observant practitioners, Arabs and Persians, or sometimes even African–American Muslims and immigrant Muslims from South Asia or the Arab world. After 9/11, awareness of Islam again intensified, but the psychological impact of the attacks channeled the new feeling of urgency away from religion and culture and toward questions of war, terrorism, and homeland security. Today almost every American has learned something about Islam, but mostly through the distorting lens of fear at home and ongoing crisis in the Muslim world.
This is not unusual. Peace and harmony combined with geographic and cultural remoteness usually foster ignorance and lack of interest. Consider, for example, America’s general lack of interest in Scandinavia. Crises, on the other hand, typically stimulate interest. Postwar Japan was of scant interest to Americans in the 1950s and 1960s when memories of World War II were still fresh and Japanese industry was popularly associated with flimsy imitations of Western goods. But when Japan began to challenge America’s global economic leadership in the 1970s, Americans suddenly became eager to read about their new rival. Businessmen read books on Japanese management techniques, and the general public made James Clavell’s Shogun (1975) a bestseller and a hit television miniseries. But they also found fascination in darker views of Japan, like that presented in the Michael Douglas film Black Rain (1989).
The same is true of earlier confrontations with Muslim societies. The Crusades awakened a dormant European interest in Islam. Advocates and veterans of those “holy wars” supplied heavily biased images of infidel Saracens that satisfied that interest and convinced most Europeans that the Muslims were a perpetual menace. The same thing happened again when the Ottoman Empire advanced militarily into eastern Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Frightened Christians wanted to know how “the Turk” had become so powerful, and this stimulated a multitude of publications from sophisticated analyses of the structure of the Ottoman government and army to hysterical sermons, both Catholic and Protestant, calling for new crusades.
Our current period of crisis differs from these earlier confrontations in one aspect in particular. The Muslims who defended themselves against the crusading European invaders in the twelfth century and who fought to extend the empire of the Ottoman sultans in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries knew next to nothing about Christian Europe. But today, American culture, and Western culture more generally, have been making headway in the Muslim world and influencing cultural values and institutions there for many decades. Because of this, the current crisis is radically asymmetrical, particularly at the cultural level. Many Muslims have long considered the impingement of Western culture on their own traditions a crisis. The most militant among them condemn every type of cultural import, from rap music and satellite television to wearing neckties and dispensing with female head coverings. Thus, if very few Americans knew much about the culture of the Muslim world before 1978, the opposite situation prevailed on the other side of the cultural divide. Few Muslims in any country were immune to the cultural impact of movies, television shows, and popular music coming from Europe and America, and few could ignore the inexorable replacement of domestic manufactures with Western or Western–style products in the marketplace.
Whether the impressions conveyed by the entertainment media or by the spread of American business franchises accurately reflect Western culture, or present it in the best light, is of concern for policy makers and diplomats charged with projecting an accurate and appealing American image abroad. But the problem these officials face in trying to improve international understanding of the American people and their culture during a period when American political and military actions are widely seen as aggressive and implicitly anti–Muslim is quite different from the problem of trying to counteract, in this country, a pervasive and growing litany of charges that Islam is an undifferentiated terrorist leviathan defined by oppression of women, amputation of hands, rigid imposition of benighted puritanical regulations, and hatred of the success and superiority of the West. In fact, the global faith community of Islam embraces an astonishing diversity of religious, artistic, and institutional cultures that bear no resemblance to the degrading stereotypes that have gained circulation since 9/11. But how are Americans supposed to realize this?Back to the top.