Americans are desperately ignorant about Islam and the Middle East, and this ignorance is one of the underlying causes of conflict. Scarcely a day goes by without a pundit or professor making such a statement. But is it true?
Judging how much people know about Islam and the Middle East is not nearly as difficult as it once was. Opinion polls, biased though they are, appear in the media every day. Interfaith dialogue is a major industry, and college students crowd into Middle East lectures on campuses across the country. But there's a simpler way to assess America's familiarity with this issue of the day.
Borders has over 500 locations in the United States. The bookstore is an associate of titanic on-line retailer Amazon.com. Its bricks-and-mortar competitors include Barnes and Noble's 800 stores, and used bookstores have blossomed online as readers shop for books from home. A trip to any of these stores puts America's knowledge of Islam and the Middle East in an entirely new light.
Borders in Eastchester, New York is a typical branch. Just before Christmas 2004, the store devoted nearly eight feet of shelving to books on Islam and 24 feet to the Middle East. To compare: Hinduism (including yoga) and Chinese thought spanned just six shelf feet each. There were 32 feet of Bibles, 42 feet of Christian fiction, six feet of Kabbalah (thanks to Madonna's sudden interest), and a single foot on atheism. Military history, including the Gulf War, covered 33 feet -- not including nine extra feet devoted to the recent Iraq War. Another seven feet held books on Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Borders' volumes on Islam do more than provide a quick overview to outsiders. This particular branch carried seven versions of the Koran, including translations by M.M. Khan, M.M. Ali, Marmaduke Pickthall, and J.M. Rodwell. Also for sale: Michael Sells' Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations, which sparked controvery when it was assigned to all incoming students at the University of North Carolina. The bookstore's biographies of Muhammad included those by Karen Armstrong, Muhammad Husayn Haykal, Barnaby Rogerson, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr.
Islam has its share of promotional and how-to books in English: Feisal Abdul Rauf's What's Right with Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West, Yousuf N. Lalljee's Know Your Islam, Lex Hixon and Neil Douglas-Klotz's The Heart of the Qur'an: An Introduction to Islamic Spirituality, and the inevitable The Complete Idiot's Guide (R) to Understanding Islam (not to mention The Koran for Dummies), among others.
In a more critical vein, readers can pick up Gilles Kepel's Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, Fatima Mernissi's The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam, and the less analytical but still important The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith by Irshad Manji.
Books on the modern Middle East lined the shelves, providing a range of political perspectives. For Middle Eastern history: nine different books by Bernard Lewis alone. And, lest Borders be accused of Orientalist bias, the story counterbalances Lewis with five selections by Edward Said and three by Noam Chomsky. In Souad's Burned Alive: A Victim of the Law of Men, a Palestinian woman recounts how she was nearly incinerated as an ‘honor killing.'
Borders also offered the sweeping Muqaddimah by the 14th century historical sociologist Ibn Khaldun, the collection by Robert Irwin Night & Horses & the Desert: An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, and even a lonely copy of Raphael Patai's unjustly maligned The Arab Mind.
But are people buying these books? In 2003 Borders had consolidated sales of $3.7 billion and fourth quarter profits of $120 million. Bookstore chains are immensely profitable businesses that respond to market demands. When books linger on the shelves, store workers whisk them away to make room for hot items.
The Koran is unlikely to outsell a Harry Potter novel in America anytime soon. But rather than bemoan this fact of life, scholars on all sides should acknowledge the Islamic world's ignorance of the West. We should deplore the fact that Muslims learn about us through al-Jaeera and state-controlled media. Even worse, the United Nations' Arab Human Development Report has noted that the total number of books translated into Arabic from other languages is less than the number translated into Greek. The report also found that more books are translated into Spanish in a single year than into Arab in the last 1,000 years.
Copies of Mein Kampf and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion seem to be readily available (and in convenient TV movie form). But where are commercial translations to complement the U.S. government-supported programs? Perhaps they exist, but as the Arab Human Development Report shows, readership remains low. Add the seductive power of television (a problem not unknown to the West), and the result is intellectual passivity.
Those who blame the West distract us from the root of the problem. Totalitarian governments and religiously imposed ignorance isolate Arab citizens from West and the world. Impoverished people end up mired in nonsensical conspiracy thinking and appallingly unschooled in their own histories and cultures.
Imagine a single Borders in downtown Cairo or Damascus. Until this information revolution takes place, Americans can disregard the doleful analyses of pundits and professors. We know more about Islam and the Middle East than many care to admit. If questions remain, the answers are only a bookstore away.
Alexander H. Joffe is director of Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.