Islam Through Western Eyes, by Jonothan Lyons: A book review

A decade after the 9/11 attacks, and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, the publishing of the book Islam Through Western Eyes can’t be better timed. “Islam vs. the West”, “them” vs. “us”, these types of polarized debates never stopped making the headlines. They have also kept the “Islam experts” busy and popular. The anti-Islam discourse is alive and doing well. Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington, father and architect of the “clash of civilisations”, respectively, must be happy that their ideas are not merely considered as theories anymore.


With his thorough and meticulous study about the anti-Islam discourse, Jonathan Lyons answers the questions of many confused readers who do not know who to believe any more in this highly and emotionally charged debate.


 A former foreign correspondent for Reuters, Mr. Lyons, who for 20 years reported from places such us Moscow, Turkey, Iran, is also an academic and an author who published several other books such as The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs transformed Western Civilizations and  Answering only to God: Faith and Freedom in Twenty-first-Century.


In his latest book Islam Through Western Eyes, Lyons doesn’t simply revisit other authors’ theories, or simply discusses their conclusions. Instead he applies a Foucauldian approach to prove to the readers that, when it comes to the anti-Islam discourse, the rhetoric has not changed much. Michel Foucault, a prominent French philosopher of the 20th century, wanted his books to” be a kind of tool-box others can rummage through to find a tool they can use however they wish in their own area… I don’t write for an audience, I write for users, not readers”.


It is precisely what Lyons did in his own book. He used Foucault’ toolbox and answered the following three questions:


  1. How was the anti-Islam discourse initiated?
  2. How did it operate? and
  3. Who benefits from it?


Lyons research works takes us back and forth between the post-911 anti-Islam discourse of today and the one from the years that preceded the first Crusades. The similarities are astonishing. The centuries separating these two symbolic events didn’t seem to have eroded the choice of words nor the bluntness of concepts. All what these years seem to have done is to make the gap even wider. The debate remained simplistic, purposely unsophisticated and yet filled with legends.


For the West, the Muslim Orient is not a rational civilization but rather a civilization who had a short-lived golden age and then went back to its initial Arabian backwardness. Lyons captures these stereotypes very well when he emphasizes that the anti-Islam discourse heavily revolved around the following three main ideas: “…[Islam] is irrational, is inherently violent as it is spread by the sword, and sexually perverse.”


Thus, in science, Muslims contributions are most of the time minimized, ignored or simply portrayed as l’exception qui confirme la règle. The tremendous medical and philosophical contributions of Ibn Sina, also known in the West as Avicenna,  or the work of the great philosopher Ibn Rushd, also known by his Latin name as Averroes, aren’t today very much known among the common Western population. The origins of “siphr” or the number “zero” introduced by Arab mathematicians as well as the notion of algorithm named after the Muslim mathematician “Al Khwarizmi” are not known among Western students as much as the Greek origins of the Pythagorean theorem for instance.


As for the theme of violence, the anti-Islam discourse seems to focus on the notion of “Jihad” and on the misperception that Islam propagates its message through the sword. Lyons mentions that Jihad is a complex concept that does not have a unanimous definition; he explains that most Muslim scholars gave it many meanings such as “striving” or “effort”. He goes on to explain that there is nothing in the Quranic text that links Jihad to the Christian concept of holy war as some would like to think. Nevertheless, the word Jihad remains one of the favourite words used by many American pundits to convince a fearful audience about the “inherently violent” aspect of Islam.


The relations between men and women, particularly the position of women in Islam, is also scrutinized by Lyons. Notions like “harem”, where men are not allowed to be, are given exotic flavour, explains Lyons.  He also mentions that since the colonialist era of the Middle-East the veil has been regarded as a symbol of women oppression par excellence. The colonialism of those regions as well as today’s invasion of Afghanistan are still simply explained to the population as a way to liberate Muslim women from their “burqa” and to send the little girls to school.

Starting with Pope Urban, who paved the ground for the First Crusades, to Georges W. Bush and his infamous declaration “This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while…”, passing by Montesquieu with his famous literary work Persians letters depicting two naïve Muslim characters who discovered the “lights” of Paris and those of the Western civilization, the propaganda has always been the same: Why are Muslims in dark ages? Why do they hate our technological advances? And why do they abuse their women?

Lyons isn’t exaggerating the facts nor using them to boast his own views. Very recently,  an online poll of 1,522 Canadians, commissioned by the Montreal-based Association for Canadian Studies and Toronto-based Canadian Race Relations Foundation found that more than half of all Canadians believe Muslims can’t be trusted and nearly as many believe discrimination against Muslims is “mainly their fault,”. In the U.S, the situation isn’t better. A study conducted between 2009 and 2010, by combining data collected by the Council on American-Islamic Relations and University of California, Berkeley’s Center on Race and Gender, reported that incidents of Islamophobia increased significantly last year and the American perspective of Muslims worsened amid heavily publicized controversies like the Islamic center near Ground Zero and a pastor’s planned Quran-burning.

The book of Lyons is a call to reason, objectivity and knowledge in a world more and more dominated by sensationalism and hollow messages. Swimming bravely against the current and equipped with Foucault tools, Lyons delivers to the readers an honest account of the anti-Islam discourse of yesterday and today.  He reverses all these centuries-old stereotypes and urges the West to conduct a thorough self examination by urging them to break these prejudgements and to engage in a real and honest intercultural dialogue of the much-feared “Other.”

 This article was first published on Prism Magazine


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