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The Utility of Islamic Imagery in the West

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Brief introduction

This book is written by J.A. Progler (Asst. Professor of Social Studies at CUNY, Brooklyn College) and published by al-Tawhid Islamic Journal. It is a discussion of the negative imagery of Islam in the West. The Orient and Orientalism, Medieval Phantasms of Sex and Violence, Holy War, and The Utility of "Muslim Terror" in Israeli-American Relations are some of the book's main subjects.

Contents in brief

The long history of encounters between Western civilization and Islam has produced a tradition of portraying, in largely negative and self-serving ways, the Islamic religion and Muslim cultures. There is a lot of literature cataloguing (and sometimes correcting) these stereotypes. It is not my intention to rehash this corpus here, though I do rely upon some of the more important works.

What I want to do instead is focus on a particular dimension of these encounters, and examine why the West has consistently constructed and perpetuated negative images of Islam and Muslims. My focus will be on the utility of Islamic imagery in Western civilization.

Most people seem to be familiar with stereotypes and negative imagery of Arabs and Muslims-indeed, some are so firmly entrenched that the consumers of these images are unable to distinguish them from reality. At the same time, many people have an idea how these images come about (books, television, speeches). But by looking at the cultural history of Islamic-Western encounters from the perspective of utility, I am able to locate the correlations between imagery and political economy.

Western image-makers, including religious authorities, political establishments, and corporate-media conglomerates, conceptualize for their consumers’ images of Muslims and/or Arabs in sometimes amusing and other tunes cruel or tragic ways. Upon closer examination, these images seem to serve essential purposes throughout the history of Western civilization.

At times these purposes are benign, at others quite sinister. Often, there are tragic consequences for Muslims resulting from the socio-political climate fostered by images. Focusing on the dimension of utility can help to reveal some ties between imagery and action.

At the same time, I am aware that focusing solely on imagery misses the important dimensions of intention and power. Though I reserve a careful look at these dimensions for another study, I do recognize the need to consider here some of those people who have the power to provide public conceptualizations of Muslims, such as religious figures, academics, policy pundits, journalists, and entertainment conglomerates.

Drawing upon the historical and cultural catalogue of assumptions and perceptions about Islam, these experts and spokespeople pick and choose the appropriate images to serve their purposes. Many times, they are seemingly unaware of using an image, which is indicative of how deeply entrenched they have become. The stories of those with the power to present need to be told, but they are beyond the scope of this article.

Similarly, fruitful research may also reveal the degree to which Muslims contribute to their own images. That, too, I will reserve for another study. The purpose here, then, is to suggest some of the broader utilitarian dimensions of Islamic imagery in the West.

A recurring theme in the present study is the idea of packaging the complexities of Islam and Muslim cultures into easily comprehensible categories-good and bad, beautiful and dangerous, desirable and repulsive-and I look at these in terms of their utility in Western cultural history and political economy.

Academic culture is an important site to reveal the utility of imagery, since these are the studies that inform policy makers and politicians; this is also where Western ideas are introduced into native cultures. But it is also necessary to focus on popular culture, especially news and entertainment, because this is where many people in the West get their impressions of Islam and Muslims.

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