The July 2002 issue of Harper’s Magazine includes an excellent article by Edward Said, titled “The Folly of Simplifying Islam.” The bulk of the article concerns the widely held idea that there is only one Islam: homogeneous and wholly “other.” Said places part of the responsibility for the popularity of these views on scholars such as Bernard Lewis, whose training and expertise concern Turkey, but who is interviewed left and right as an expert on Islam and the Middle East.

The most interesting part about the piece, however, is the question it raises about the role of fiction in our lives. Said opens the article by talking about a Danish journalist who flew in to New York to interview him and apologized that she hadn’t had a chance to read the Koran before coming to see him because the book was sold out in Copenhagen. This surprised Said very much and, he says,

I asked my Danish interlocutor by way of analogy, “If you met a Syrian coming to visit Denmark for the first time would you suggest he should prepare himself by reading the Bible or by reading Hans Christian Andersen?” Without hesitation she answered, “Andersen, of course.” I then suggested that reading great contemporary novelists from the Islamic world, writers such as Naguib Mahfouz, Tayeb Salih, Jabra Jabra, or Yashar Kemal, might be more worthwhile than plowing through the Koran, since, I went on to say, you mustn’t imagine that Muslims wake up in the morning, reach for their handy Koran, then go out during the rest of the day and do what it says.

The article closes with this paragraph:

Above all, “we” cannot go on pretending that “we” live in a world of our own; certainly, as Americans, our government is deployed literally all over the globe–militarily, politically, economically. So why do we suppose that what we say and do is neutral, when in fact it is full of consequences for the rest of the human race? In our encounters with other cultures and religions, therefore, it would seem that the best way to proceed is not to think like governments or armies or corporations but rather to remember and act on the individual experiences that really shape our lives and those of others. To think humanistically and concretely rather than formulaically and abstractly, it is always best to read literature capable of dispelling the ideological fogs that so often obscure people from each other. Avoid the trots and the manuals, give a wide berth to security experts and formulators of the us-versus-them dogma, and, above all, look with the deepest suspicion on anynone who wants to tell you the real truth about Islam and terrorism, fundamentalism, militancy, fanaticism, etc. You’d have heard it all before, anyway, and even if you hadn’t, you could predict its claims. Why not look for the expression of different kinds of human experience instead, and leave those great non-subjects to the experts, their think tank, government departments, and policy intellectuals, who get us into one unsuccessful and wasteful war after the other?

Do pick up the issue, it is worth a read.


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