Why did the sales of the Koran in the United States rise in the days after 9/11? It was because it was assumed by many that by reading the Koran, they would understand Islam, and that by understanding Islam they would understand Muslims, and if they understood Muslims, they would understand why the World Trade Center towers were brought down, why the Pentagon was attacked and why nearly 3,000 Americans lost their lives.
This set of assumptions and many like them are derived from Orientalism, a stereotyped connection between Muslims and irrational violence. Outside the picture that Orientalism paints, there is no necessary relationship between the links in this chain of assumptions: The Koran will not tell you why 9/11 happened, nor can Islam, nor will Muslims as a whole. If we want a better understanding of the unrest among Muslim populations, we need to focus not on Orientalist caricatures but on historical developments.
For Western societies — and their politicians, educators and entertainers — to have a sense of who they are and who they should be, there is a need to point out who they are not. The democratic credentials of the West are established by pointing to the despotism of others: If the West is considered to be rational, it is because others are considered to be irrational; if the West is about equality, it is because others are not.
The belief that the Koran or Islam can explain 9/11 or other acts of violence persists because the world we inhabit was made by the Western colonial enterprise, and Orientalism’s racial representations were part and parcel of that process. Orientalism, then, is not simply an attempt to study and understand Islam or the Orient; rather, it is a way of narrating the West’s sense of itself.
The world that European colonialism began to build in the 16th century was one in which the differences between what was described as Western and what was considered to be non-Western were fundamental. This division was manifested not only in the racial segregation of park benches and bathrooms, but also in internalization of white privilege among colonized and colonizers.
Colonialism was not only the imposition of authoritarian racial rule — it was also a state of mind. The Western colonial drew a world divided between those societies capable of making their own history and those societies and cultures that it was thought could do little more than borrow from the West. The greatest mark of white privilege was the ability to make history. Those considered to be non-Western either had to Westernize or be doomed to remain peoples without agency. The recognition that the world we all live in was made by European colonialism is the appropriate backdrop to understanding the upheavals in Muslim societies, not just the contents of the Koran or our stereotypes of Islam.
The influence of colonialism manifested itself not just in the rule of Western governors but also in the legacy of rulers like Mustafa Kemal in Turkey, Reza Khan in Iran, Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia (who sought to stop fasting during Ramadan), who despite their many differences believed that ultimately modernization and Westernization were more or less the same thing. They sought to Westernize their societies in hope that they could replicate the success of the West.
From the ending of the Ottoman state in the 1920s until the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, Muslim societies were ruled by elites who could not imagine a future except as Westernization. Since the Iranian revolution, Muslim societies around the world (such as in Turkey, Iran, Egypt and Bangladesh) have been involved in an epic conflict between the elites who want to hold on to the belief that the West knows best and those groups who reject this view.
It is not colonialism, but the struggle against a world that colonialism made, that is key to understanding the turmoil in the region and its overflow onto American soil. It’s a turmoil that Orientalist stereotypes cannot explain.
Salman Sayyid is the author of Recalling the Caliphate and is based at the University of Leeds, U.K.