The Native Orientalists: The Muslims America Loves

By M. Shahid Alam
Posted: 13 Rabi'u-Thani 1427, 11 May 2006

Being a Muslim today--in the middle of America's 'war against global terrorism'--carries some new hazards. But it is not without its bright side for a few Muslims who are eager to profit from this war.

Muslims need little tutoring in the hazards they now face. Many tens of thousands are already dead in wars imposed by the United States--on Iraq and Afghanistan. The death toll is expected to climb, perhaps steeply, as these wars are carried to Iran, Syria or Pakistan. Iranians also face the prospect--perhaps, imminent--of incineration in nuclear strikes.

Death or dislocation in wars are not the only hazards that confront Muslims. In principle, any Muslim can also become the object of 'extraordinary renditions.' No matter where they happen to be, they could be kidnapped by the CIA, hooded, and transported to secret offshore US prisons, or delivered into the hands of US-friendly regimes with expertise in the fine arts of interrogation. No one knows how many Muslims have suffered this cruel fate--or how many of them are still alive.

By comparison, Muslims who are captured or bought, and imprisoned in Guantanamo as 'enemy combatants,' are lucky. After facing down several legal challenges to these detentions, the US now brings these prisoners before military review boards. Although many of them have been cleared of any terrorist connections, it is quite touching that the US is now refusing to release them--it says--because they could be tortured by their own governments. The prisoners can now thank the US for offering sanctuary.

In fairness, America's 'war against global terrorism' has also created a few hard-to-resist opportunities. The chief beneficiaries of the new US posture are the Muslim rulers eager to get the US more firmly behind the wars they have been waging against their own people. They are happy to torture Muslims 'rendered' to them by the CIA, and, periodically, they capture their own 'terrorists' and put them on flights to Guantanamo.

The 'war against global terrorism' is also a war of ideas. In order to defeat the 'terrorists' the US must win the hearts and minds of Muslims. This is where Muslims can help. The US needs a few 'good' Muslims to persuade the 'bad' ones to reform their religion, to learn to appreciate the inestimable benefits of Pax America and Pax Israelica.

In the heyday of the old colonialism, the white man did not need any help from the natives in putting down their religion and culture. Indeed, he preferred to do it himself. Then, the opinion of the natives carried little weight with the whites anyway. So why bother to recruit them to denounce their own people. As a result, Orientalists wrote countless tomes denigrating the cultures of the lesser breeds.

Today the West needs help in putting down the uppity natives--especially the Muslims. One reason for this is that with the death of the old colonialism, some natives have begun to talk for themselves. A few are even talking back at the Orientalists raising all sorts of uncomfortable questions. This hasn't been good: and something had to be done about it. In the 1970s the West began to patronize 'natives' who were deft at putting down their own people. Was the West losing its confidence?

The demand for 'native' Orientalists was strong. The pay for such turncoats was good too. Soon a whole crop of native Orientalists arrived on the scene. Perhaps, the most distinguished members of this coterie include Nirad Chaudhuri, V. S. Naipaul, Fouad Ajami and Salman Rushdi. They are some of the best loved natives in the West.

Then there came the 'war against global terrorism' creating an instant boom in the market for Orientalists of Muslim vintage. The West now demanded Muslims who would diagnose their own problems as the West wanted to see them--as the unavoidable failings of their religion and culture. The West now demanded Muslims who would range themselves against their own people--who would denounce the just struggles of their own people as moral aberrations, as symptoms of a sick society.

So far these boom conditions have not evoked a copious supply of Muslim Orientalists. Irshad Manji has made herself the most visible na-tive Orientalist by cravenly playing to Western and Zionist demands for demonizing Muslims and Palestinians. I can think of a few others, but they have little to recommend themselves other than their mediocrity. This must be a bit disappointing for those who had pinned their hopes on using Muslim defectors to win the battle for Muslim hearts and minds.

There are some indications that this disappointment is turning to desperation. On March 11 the New York Times published a front page story on Dr. Wafa Sultan, "a largely unknown Syrian-American psychiatrist, nursing a deep anger and despair about her fellow Muslims." Deep anger and despair at fellow Muslims? Are these the new qualifications for Muslims to gain visibility in America's most prestigious newspaper?

If the only Muslims that the United States can recruit in its battle for ideas are at best mediocrities or worse--nobodies--what chance is there that it can win the battle for Muslim hearts and minds? The short answer is: very little. Muslims are not helpless children. You cannot molest them and then expect to mollify them with trifles and protestations of pure intentions. That may have worked for a while. It will not work for ever.

Muslims are too large and too dense a mass to be moved by wars. Military might could not break the spirit of Palestinians, Afghans, Bosnians, Chechens, Lebanese, Moros and Iraqis. What chance is there that wars will be more effective if applied against larger masses of Muslims?

The United States cannot expect to change Muslims unless it first thinks seriously about changing its policies towards Muslims. Americans must stop deluding themselves. Muslims do not hate their freedom: they only want that freedom for themselves. The United States and Israel seek to build their power over a mass of prostrate Muslim bodies. Stop doing that and then you will have a chance to win Muslim hearts and minds.

M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at a university in Boston. He may be reached at He is author of Is There an Islamic Problem?