Covering Islam
Knowledge and power

by Michael Selig

from Jump Cut, no. 28, April 1983, pp. 63-63
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1983, 2005

Edward W. Saïd. Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World. New York: Pantheon Books, 1981. 186 pages.

Scholars rarely examine the political consequences of the knowledge they produce. After all, if they admit that a political dimension exists in academic activities, they then question the truth value of their own discipline and intellectual affiliations, thus risking treasured prestige and consequently some power. In film studies, when scholars resist taking a self-conscious political stance, most often that resistance manifests itself as their doing supposedly apolitical formal analysis or historical research. Nevertheless, the medium of cinema still lacks aesthetic justification conceded to more traditional art forms, and it is thus particularly open to political analysis. Since academics consider the commercial mass media in general as having so little cultural value, in fact, and find its commercial and industrial foundation so obvious, their suspicious attitude towards it (unlike attitudes towards literature, say) seems "natural."

In Covering Islam, however, Edward Saïd's political analysis of mass media coverage of the Islamic world opens up areas normally unexplored in mass media studies. We assume that the mass media may powerfully influence public opinion, especially about foreign affairs. However, what Saïd demonstrates throughout is that media opinions quite often derive from those academic and government "experts" to whom the media provides a forum. In other words, Saïd's contribution to media studies is the manner in which he situates the mass media within the context of their dependence on specific sources of information, principally academic and government institutions, for the knowledge the media disseminate. This is true of not only the news but also of supposedly "serious" drama, such as PBS's presentation of DEATH OF A PRINCESS.(1)

With Covering Islam, Saïd extends his analysis of cultural images of Islam, a project also undertaken in his generally historical Orientalism (1978) and more specific The Question of Palestine (1979). Here he deals with how the mass media produce popular images of Islam. He demonstrates how a centuries-old, academically produced image of the Islamic world has operated to foster Western colonialism. And he further shows how such negative imagery, repeated in media news, drama, and advertising, operates to justify U.S. hegemonic claims on Arab lands. In Covering Islam, Saïd employs the same critical tools he utilized in Orientalism, demonstrating that certain interests underlie the interpretation of other cultures and promote the institutionalization of certain interpretations as "knowledge." With this critical tool, Said moves to unravel the interests in Western society, especially in the United States, which operate in the media's coverage of Islam.

Thus, any sympathy for Saïd's argument requires accepting the premise that all knowledge is partial, interpretive, and vulnerable to influence from powerful institutions. Saïd rejects traditional theories of knowledge, which intend/ pretend to furnish objective truths and a non-political awareness, and which offer a discovered — rather than a created — "correct" point of view. Such concepts of knowledge make invisible the operation of political interest and will to power, factors which still shadow "objectivity" despite advances in interpretive theory and historiography. Saïd attempts to bring this shadow play of forces into the light. The book is not witten to inform us about what Islam really is but to help us see how in many ways "Islam" stands as a concept which functions to maintain Western cultural and political hegemony.

It is in the nature of what we call knowledge that the particular gives way to the general, the different to the same. In Western and specifically U.S. views of the Islamic world, historical consciousness surrenders to "a small number of unchanging characteristics … still mired in religion, primitivity, and backwardness." (p. 10) In the first of the book's three parts, Saïd focuses on how choices and interpretations of fact concerning the Islamic world are shaped within the context of a dominant Western viewpoint. Early, Saïd tells us,

“It is only a slight overstatement to say that Muslims and Arabs are essentially covered, discussed, apprehended, either as oil suppliers or as potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Muslim life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Islamic world.” (p. 26)

Saïd discusses the historical and ideological conditions shaping common pejorative images of Islam. Most prominently, the United States lacks a colonial past, as France and England had. Thus, the U.S. historical awareness of Islam is limited to a period of post-WW2, U.S. international economic hegemony. Without an historical awareness of Islam, the suddenness and immediacy of recent challenges to U.S. hegemony in the Islamic world have overwhelmed any real capacity here for reflective, non-ideological thinking. As Saïd tells us,

“Representations of Islam have regularly testified to a penchant for dividing the world into pro- and anti-American (or pro- and anti-Communist), an unwillingness to report political processes, an imposition of patterns and values that are ethnocentric or irrelevant or both, pure misinformation, repetition, an avoidance of detail, an absence of genuine perspective … The result is that we have redivided the world into Orient and Occident — the old Orientalist thesis pretty much unchanged — the better to blind ourselves not only to the world but to ourselves and to what our relationship to the so-called Third World has really been.” (p. 40)

Saïd discusses how the media rely on "experts" — in particular, scholars and government officials — to form this image of "Islam." In the second part of the book, Saïd analyzes in detail coverage of Iran during the overthrow of the Pahlavi regime and the following “hostage crisis." In part, the media's reliance on a predominantly Western political viewpoint derives from an image of Islam created by Western scholars implicitly (i.e., historically) tied to government policymaking, as those supported by the Pahlavi Foundation which finances Iranian studies in U.S. universities. Furthermore, the media demonstrate little concern about a reporter's experience in assigning coverage of Iranian issues. Rather they have an excessive concern with the dramatic and hence confrontational aspects of international affairs. The media function to cement a malevolent, ahistorical image of another people and culture. And overarching all the institutional factors, an unrecognized ideological commitment to Western capitalism and its modes of thought and perception determines the boundaries in perspective "beyond which a reporter or commentator does not feel it necessary to go." (p. 50) Covering Islam presents a series of examples:

“All the major television commentators, Walter Cronkite … and Frank Reynolds … chief among them, spoke regularly of ‘Muslim hatred of this country’ or more poetically of ‘the crescent of crisis, a cyclone hurtling across a prairie’ (Reynolds, ABC, November 21); on another occasion (December 7) Reynolds voiced-over a picture of crowds chanting ‘God is great’ with what he supposed was the crowd's true intention: ‘hatred of America.’ Later in the same program we were informed that the Prophet Mohammed was ‘a self-proclaimed prophet’… and then reminded that ‘Ayatollah’ is ‘a self-styled twentieth-century title’ meaning ‘reflection of God’ (unfortunately, neither is completely accurate). The ABC short (three-minute) course in Islam was held in place with small titles to the right of the picture, and these told the same unpleasant story of how resentment, suspicion, and contempt were a proper response to ‘Islam’: Mohammedanism, Mecca, purdah, chador, Sunni, Shi'ite (accompanied by a picture of men beating themselves), mullah, Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran. Immediately after these images the program switched to Jamesville, Wisconsin, whose admirably wholesome schoolchildren — no purdah, self-flagellation, or mullahs among them — were organizing a patriotic 'Unity Day.’”
(pp. 78-9)

Working on a theoretical level, as well, Saïd makes some methodological suggestions about how to pinpoint interrelations between power and the generation of knowledge. Borrowing from Raymond Williams, Saïd recognizes that the creation of knowledge and images does not result from a monolithic, wholly determining (usually simplistically derived) ideology. He analyzes how ideological consensus is formed by powerful institutions (government, universities, media), and how that consensus "sets limits and maintains pressures" (p. 49) on the individuals and groups who produce conceptions about the rest of the world, and by extension, on ourselves. As Saïd tells us,

“When the American hostages were seized and held in Teheran, the consensus immediately came into play, decreeing more or less that only what took place concerning the hostages was important about Iran; the rest of the country, its political processes, its daily life, its personalities, its geography and history, were eminently ignorable: Iran and the Iranian people were defined in terms of whether they were for or against the United States.” (p. 50)

There is no conspiracy operating in Saïd's book. But neither does he provide a detailed analysis of the hegemonic process as it operates through the functioning of particular individuals, government agencies, and media corporations. Despite a wealth of evidence to support his point of view, Saïd hasn't analyzed how those ideas that compete with the dominant image of Islam become negated through the very real media processes. These processes include hierarchical decision-making, concentration of media ownership, broadcast regulation, economic constraints of news coverage, demands of space (newspapers and magazines) and time (television and radio), processes of hiring and firing personnel, and many other specifics covered in books like Edward J. Epstein's News From Nowhere. Saïd recognizes that some coverage is better than others but he doesn't explain how the more intelligent reportage has a negligible effect, even if he explains to some extent why we get so little good coverage. The book is more adept at this kind of detailed analysis and explanation when it treats academic institutions. But it presents the media as an homogenous entity with little or no deviation from the ideological norms outlined in the book.

Most valuable in Covering Islam is probably its last section, titled "Knowledge and Power." In it, Saïd advances a more coherent use of his evidence to demonstrate the often ignored association between government policy making and academia in their continual reification of Western political hegemony. This association is especially pronounced in academic work on the Middle East. For not only do scholars write about Islam as a threat to Western civilization — a view held in concert with the government and the media — but the scholars themselves deny political partisanship. Saïd analyzes four Princeton University seminars on the Middle East funded by the Ford Foundation in a way that refutes the scholars' own self-concept of being "apolitical":

“In the choice of over-all topics and trends the four seminars undertook to shape awareness of Islam in terms that either distanced it as a hostile phenomenon or highlighted certain aspects of it that could be ‘managed’ in policy terms.” (p. 140)

Scholars' methodological naiveté compounds the institutional factors. Orientalism still considers itself to be producing objective knowledge about the Islamic world, "blithely ignoring every major advance in interpretative theory since Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud." (p. 140) In fact, Middle East scholars rarely ask methodological questions, in particular, questions concerning who profits (and I mean this literally) from the knowledge produced. As Saïd says,

“The obliteration of the methodological consciousness is absolutely coterminous with the presence of the market (governments, corporations, foundations): one simply does not ask why one does what he does if there is an appreciative, or at least a potentially receptive, clientele … the overall interpretative bankruptcy of most … writing on Islam can be traced to the old-boy corporation-government-university network dominating the whole enterprise.“(pp. 141, 144)

Fortunately, Saïd sees some hope in an "antithetical knowledge" being produced by younger scholars and non-experts. It is in his praise of their work that we can begin to discern what represents, for Said, knowledge "in the service of coexistence and community" (p. 153) rather than in the service of domination. Although Saïd offers no strict methodological program for the production of truly humanistic knowledge, he does suggest an attitudinal stance proper to such an enterprise. For Saïd, "knowledge is essentially an actively sought out and contested thing, not merely a passive recitation of facts and 'accepted' views." (p. 152) As such, the cultural critic must stand in opposition to the liberal democratic institutions which produce knowledge about ours and other cultures, and in sympathy with the "object" under investigation. We need an academic stance-highly aware of the political consequences of scholarship.

Thus, to produce knowledge, especially about other cultures, means to assert power, whether or not the scholar recognizes this. And in demonstrating this, Said has produced knowledge not only about Islam but about ourselves. In a most powerful way, he has shown how our culture has denied, ignored, and suppressed the ways it asserts power in and against a large part of the rest of the world. Against Western scholarship which parades in costumes of liberal objectivity and truth, Saïd's work unmasks the partisanship and political interest at work in our media and universities. Covering Islam reveals once and for all that the emperor, our emperor, has no clothes.


1. Death of a Princess was a British film in docu-drama form of the well-known execution of a Saudi princess and her commoner lover presented by PBS on May 12, 1980. The presentation of this film set off a small international incident which is the subject of a short chapter in Covering Islam.