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Demonising Islam

By Scott Richardson - posted Wednesday, 2 February 2005

Whether it be the Germans in World War II classics or the shady Russians from the James Bond films of the 1970's, Western culture seems to have an ingrained desire to have a villain worth hating - the “other”. The “other” is the person or group which is defined as different. The difference infers inferiority, that they are sub-human, thereby consolidating another group's identity. This “other” is effectively marginalised by the “mainstream” of a particular society.

Even in the great canonical texts, there are outsiders who are marginalised because they do not fit into the social mainstream of the time. Shakespeare's Othello is described as the “black ram” and The Merchant of Venice has been seen as an anti-Semitic text.

One of the recurrent ideas in critical theory is the notion that there is “no objective standpoint” and that “language predetermines what we see” and thus “reality” is a mere construction of language. French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, theorised this in his notion of the “self” and the “other” in terms of identification. He stated that we know ourselves as distinct from others through language and other systems of representation. Language, as he puts it, precedes and determines subjectivity.


Authors use language to construct a “reality” of Islam that will often be accepted by those that know no alternatives. Journalist Peter Manning's recent paper, The New Others, examined bias in Sydney journalism in its representation of the Arab world. Manning attributes the use of language, whether it is emotive language, persuasive word choice or euphemism as a first indicator of meaning.

Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses and Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations are two such books that create an Islamic “other” and arguably make up the two most controversial books ever written on Islam.

Despite winning awards and accolades in Western countries the reception of The Satanic Verses was not mirrored elsewhere in the world. In India, the book was banned before it was even published. Rushdie had a fatwa, a religious order of death placed on him and in the riots and mass book burnings that followed 12 Muslims died.

It is Rushdie's (mis) appropriation of the official history of Islam that has caused so much controversy. Rushdie's alternative view has the Prophet and Gibreel creating their own version of the Koran, rather than it coming directly from Allah. Contentiously, the novel also recounts an event where the prophet mistakes the word of Satan for the word of Allah. Rushdie's stylistically post-modern manipulation of historical “truths” in Islam is the primary tool for the author's demonisation of Islam and its followers.

The powerful signifiers in The Satanic Verses are undoubtedly blasphemous and provocative. Rushdie seems to flirt with the unsayable. Firstly, the name of the prophet Muhammad in the text is “Mahound” (literally meaning “false prophet”), which was the Crusader term used to vilify the prophet. He is described as a shady businessman and “a tyrant, a lecher and a man without scruple”. The holy city of Mecca where Gabriel (Gibreel) gave him the word of Allah is named “Jahilia”, which signifies the name Muslims give to the pre-Islamic times, literally meaning “ignorance”. Muhammad's 12 wives are described as the 12 whores in a brothel known as “the curtain”, referring to the veil (Muslim headscarf) worn by Muhammad's wives. During Mahound's return to Jahilia, the satirist and poet Baal (a biblical fertility deity that demanded human sacrifice) makes love one by one to each of his wives.

Rushdie's imagery of Ayesha leading the blind followers into the Red Sea to their watery deaths and of the Imam (Muslim leader) “grown monstrous” and “devouring the faithful” strongly exemplify Rushdie's belief that the Muslim faith is a blind one and one that leads its followers down the wrong path.


Samuel Huntington's non-fiction Clash of Civilizations documents in Huntington's mind the new world order of two battling totalities: Western democratic pluralism and Islamic theocracy.

Clash of Civilizations maintains the structuralist notions of relational identity. Affirmation of identity for Huntington is realised through understanding, not only who we are but also what we are not. He states that “unless we hate what we are not we cannot love what we are”. The “other” in Clash of Civilizations is not a group identified simply as “not self” but further as a devalued and feared “other”: for Huntington in the Western perspective, the new enemy.

Huntington supports the statement of Professor Barry Buzan that the fault for this perceived rivalry is the Muslim world’s apparent “jealously of Western power” and its “resentments over Western domination”. It is also partly to do with the “bitterness and humiliation of the invidious comparison between the accomplishments of Islamic and Western civilizations”. In a broad brush stroke Huntington has labelled the Muslim world as bitter, humiliated, jealous and resentful. Through this, blame is ascribed to the Islamic civilization, now divorced from our own civilization's self, and it becomes simply the “other”. The “invidious comparison” sets up the hierarchical comparison between the “self” and “other”, where because of a lack of “accomplishments” Islam is the devalued and inferior one.

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About the Author

Scott Richardson is a first year Journalism and Law student at the University of Technology, Sydney. His special interests are in social justice issues and and he also writes for and works with

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