Archive interview with Edward Said. It offers a pre-9/11 insight into the West’s kneejerk fear of Arabs.

International Herald Tribune

Q&A with Edward Said
By Ken Shulman
March 11 1996

Born into a Palestinian Christian family in East Jerusalem in 1935, Edward Said, a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, has written extensively on Middle East politics. He spoke with Ken Shulman in Percoto, Italy.

Q. Has the West’s attitude toward Islam improved since you published “Orientalism” in 1978?

A. I don’t think it has improved at all. In fact, it has decidedly worsened. If you look at how Islam is represented today in newspapers and on television, you see that it is still considered a threat, something that must be walled out. The Arab world is depicted as a place full of terrorists and fanatics.

Instead of expanding, the West’s comprehension of the Arab world is contracting.

Q. What is the history of this anti-Arab prejudice?

A. The prejudice was created at the same time Islam was born, when Islam was a political and economic threat to Europe. It is no coincidence that Dante places Mohammed in the next to last circle of hell in his Divine Comedy, right next to Satan. In the Renaissance, we have the figure of Shylock, but we also have the figure of Othello.

It wasn’t just the Jew who was suspect in Christian Europe. It was also the Arab. The Arab who was indolent, diabolic and dishonest. On one hand, this world of the Orient fascinated the Europeans. On the other, it terrorized them.

Q. Is there a hint of truth in the current stereotype of the Arab world?

A. Of course there is, just as there is a hint of truth in all stereotypes. This is what makes it possible for them to be so widely accepted. But the distortions in the stereotype are far greater than the few elements of realism they may contain. Today, the standard view of the Orient is a vestige of 19th-century European colonialism, when anti-Eastern prejudice reached its zenith.

The West’s almost obsessive emphasis on terrorism and fanaticism in the Arab world is a form of exorcism. They see it in Islam so they won’t have to recognize that the same elements exist in their own societies, and in alarming levels.


In 1997, Zbigniew Brzezinski, a highly influential U.S. strategist under both Reagan and Carter, published The Grand Chessboard. Arguing that whoever controls Eurasia – the Middle East and Central Asia – controls Europe, Asia, and Africa, this Machiavellian book spelled out ‘‘an integrated, comprehensive, and long-term geostrategy…to help ensure that…the global community [i.e. transnational corporations] has unhindered financial and economic access to’’ the world’s resources. He recommended that the U.S. establish military control over Central Asia and the Middle East, and crush the Islamic fundamentalist movement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to protect ‘‘several pro-Western Middle Eastern governments and American regional interests especially in the Persian Gulf’’. Nowhere in the book does Brzezinski raise any concerns about terrorist threats to Americans.

Like Khalilzad, however, Brzezinski struggled with the problem of selling the scheme to the American public. ‘‘The pursuit of power and especially the economic costs and human sacrifice that the exercise of such power often requires,’’ he mused, ‘‘are not generally congenial to democratic instincts. Democratization is inimical to imperial mobilization’’. To solve this problem, Brzezinski repeatedly hinted that the U.S. could mobilize public support if it created a pretext incident like the 9-11 attacks:

“The attitude of the American public toward the external projection of American power has been much more ambivalent. The public supported America’s engagement in World War II largely because of the shock effect of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.” (pp. 24–25)

“America is too democratic at home to be autocratic abroad. This limits the use of America’s power, especially its capacity for military intimidation. Never before has a populist democracy attained international supremacy. But the pursuit of power is not a goal that commands popular passion, except in conditions of a sudden threat or challenge to the public’s sense of domestic well-being.” (pp. 35–36)

“Moreover, as America becomes an increasingly multi-cultural society, it may find it more difficult to fashion a consensus on foreign policy issues, except in the circumstances of a truly massive and widely perceived direct external threat.” (Emphasis added) (Brzezinski, 1997, p. 211)

That same year (1997), the DPG re-surfaced, now dubbing itself ‘‘The Project for the New American Century’’ (PNAC). It included Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Lewis Libby, and Zalmay Khalilzad. Twenty-one other ultra-conservatives joined the project – well-placed academics, Pentagon advisors, media, politicians and lobbyists, Christian fundamentalists, and Likudniks (Zionist hawks for Israeli interests). Many of them are now senior officials in or associates of the Bush Jr. administration. The PNAC’s Statement of Principles reaffirmed the DPG goal of world conquest. To accomplish this goal, the PNAC set out four main policy directions, each of which now figures prominently in Bush’s ‘‘war on terror’’:

  • to increase defense spending significantly,
  • to strengthen our ties to democratic allies and to challenge regimes hostile to our interests and values,
  • to promote the cause of political and economic freedom [that is, neoliberalism] abroad, and
  • to preserve and extend ‘‘an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles’’ (PNAC, 1997).

In 1999, Rand, an influential think tank, published an assessment of NATO plans to attack the Caspian region (Sokolsky & Chalick–Paley, 1999). It too emphasized the ‘‘need’’ to control existing and potential oil and gas routes from the Caspian Basin, but argued against a major military operation in the region at that time. The fact that the Air Force commissioned this study, however, reflects the seriousness with which it was exploring the option of invading Afghanistan three years before the 9-11 pretext. At the same time, military interests were also actively lobbying for the U.S. to topple Saddam Hussein’s government.

In September 2000, a year before the 9-11 attacks and a month before George W. Bush was ‘‘elected,’’ the PNAC published Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century (RAD). It built on and expanded the DPG. ‘‘…Although the experience of the past eight years has modified our understanding of particular military requirements for carrying out such a strategy, the basic tenets of the DPG, in our judgment, remain sound’’.

Significantly, RAD only mentions the word ‘‘terrorists’’ once in passing in the entire document (and does not mention ‘‘terrorist’’ or ‘‘terrorism’’ at all).

“America’s global leadership, and its role as the guarantor of the current great-power peace, relies upon the safety of the American homeland; the preservation of a favorable balance of power in Europe, the Middle East and surrounding energy-producing region, and East Asia; and the general stability of the international system of nation-states relative to terrorists, organized crime, and other ‘‘non-state actors.’’ (Emphasis added)

In other words, the consistent, overwhelming motive for all these massively expensive plans was not Islamic terrorism, but global American military/ corporate control.

READ the entire article: Islamophobia and the War on Terror

Here is an excerpt of an excellent article on freedom of worship — or lack of it — in today’s Russia.

“Opinion is polarised over the extent – and even existence – of Islamic extremism in Russia, particularly outside the northern Caucasus. As elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, the belief in the legitimacy of violence in the pursuit of Islamic ideals is commonly referred to as “Wahhabism”, after Mohammed ibn Abdul-Wahhab, whose teachings form the religious basis of the present-day kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The eighteenth-century theologian’s “Book of Monotheism” is currently the only theological work on Russia’s 14 July 2007 federal list of banned extremist materials.

“The head of the FSB security service in the Urals region of Chelyabinsk, for example, was cited by Russian news agency Interfax in March 2006 as saying that “the expansion of Wahhabism is spreading to Russia in stages, according to a certain plan”. Following the first stage – “distribution of Wahhabi literature and leaflets in our region”, the second – “the formation of missionary groups and the spread of anti-state ideology among their members” – has begun, according to Aleksandr Krivyakov. The final stage of the alleged plan, he maintained, is the organisation of mass disorder and the seizure of power.


In Russia and Caucasus, any Muslim sporting a beard or a headscarf is commonly referred to as “Wahhabi”. Wahhabism is officially banned in parts of the Russian Federation. This article outlines the clampdown on “Wahhabis” in Azerbaijan.

“By far the most popular center of alternative Islam in Baku is the Abu-Bakr Mosque, the construction of which was financed by the Kuwaiti foundation, Restoration of the Islamic Heritage, in 1997-1998. Between 7,000-10,000 worshippers, including some government officials, attend Friday Prayers at the Abu-Bakr mosque every week, and during religious festivals, the number can exceed 12,000.
“The imam of the Abu-Bakr Mosque, Hadji Gamet Suleymanov, is in his mid-30s (the same age as Ibrahimoglu) and received his religious education in Saudi Arabia. In contrast to the Cuma congregation, that of the Abu-Bakr Mosque formally registered with the Justice Ministry (in 1998) and with the State Committee for Work with Religious Structures in 2002.

“The Abu-Bakr Mosque appeals above all to the more disadvantaged members of society, such as the unemployed, and veterans of the Karabakh war. And in his sermons, Hadji Gamet focuses on poverty, corruption, and social injustice. But he rejects allegations that his community seeks to engage in politics or even aspires to political power. In an interview with on July 21, he said “we do not intend to get involved in political processes in Azerbaijan. On the whole we are against religion expanding into politics.”
“The fact that many members of Suleymanov’s congregation rigorously observe the requirement that believers should grow their beards long and wear above-the-ankle trousers has led critics to brand them as “Wahhabis.”

“Strictly speaking, that term refers to followers of the 17th century theologian Muhammed ibn Abdul Wahhab and, by extension, to the puritanical school of Islam currently practiced in Saudi Arabia. Russian media, however, use the term “Wahhabi” indiscriminately to designate any practicing Muslim who does not recognize the authority of the “official” state-supported clergy.
“Even the Azerbaijani authorities disagree among themselves over the purported Wahhabi threat. State Committee for Work with Religious Structures head Orudjev was quoted by on February 21 as saying that Wahhabism does not pose a threat to Azerbaijan. But the National Security Ministry claims to have identified and “neutralized” several Wahhabi groups in recent years. And Sheikh ul Islam Pasha-zade was quoted by on July 12 as openly branding the congregation of the Abu-Bakr mosque as “Wahhabis” and as implicitly criticizing the Azerbaijani authorities for failing to crack down on them.”

Azerbaijan: ‘Alternative Islam’ Takes Several Forms

President Vladimir Putin has threatened to castrate a German journalist concerned about human rights in Chechnya. Read these excerpts about the Kremlin’s campaign against Muslims:

There are some 23 million Muslims in Russia, constituting approximately 15 percent of the population and forming the largest religious minority. Approximately 1 million Muslims live in Moscow. Elsewhere, Muslims live predominantly in Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, the northern Caucasus, and the Volga region

Muslims constitute the majority in seven republics of Russia, including Chechnya and Tatarstan. Both Tatarstan and Chechnya-Ingushetia (as it was then) refused to sign the Federation Treaty in 1992. Tatarstan negotiated a separate treaty which gave it special rights as a “state associated with” Russia. Bashkortostan, another Muslim republic, followed suit in establishing confederal rather than federal relations with Moscow.



Though Islam is the continent’s second religion, Muslims across Europe are facing campaigns from far-right groups and some church leaders to have stately mosques.  

Critics claim mosques are signs of the “Islamization” of Europe.

“I have a queasy feeling,” Cologne Catholic Cardinal Joachim Meisner told Reuters.

“A mosque would give the city a different panorama. Given our history, there is a shock that Muslim immigration has brought a cultural rupture in our German and European culture.”

Riem Spielhaus, an expert on Islam in Europe at Berlin’s Humboldt University, argued that mosque construction is a controversial issue because houses of worship in general have a high symbolic value in Europe, where the cathedral or church is usually the center of town.

“A mosque symbolically retraces the changes that have been made in society,” she said.

“It reopens the debate on whether these changes are good, whether Muslims should live here, even whether Islam is a good religion.”

Spielhaus said opposition to mosques is also related to other issues irrelevant to the house of worship itself like Islam as a religion and security threats.

Last month, the private secretary of Pope Benedict XVI of the Vatican gave voice to a spiraling Islamophobia in the continent warning of the “Islamization of Europe” and urging defense of Europe’s “Christian roots.”

Euro Mosques Meet Opposition