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Arabian night sweats
The old Orientalism, with its vicarious sense of erotic thrill in the alien, was bad enough. But in the hands the religious right, the sexualization of Islam is downright dangerous.

EVEN AS THE BUSH administration is still working to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, thousands of US-based evangelical Christians are poised to rush into the ravaged country to win their souls. Franklin Grahamís Samaritanís Purse, one of the largest US-based Christian aid organizations, has hundreds of missionaries and relief workers ready to enter Iraq as soon as itís safe. The International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has already printed in Arabic a quotation from John 1:17 ("For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ") on 80,000 boxes of dried food it will distribute as part of its evangelical work. Covenant World Relief has raised $50,000 to help Iraqis as part of its ministry there, and a special Iraqi Relief Fund has been established by the Evangelical Covenant Church to provide food for the Iraqi people, given to them by missionaries. While Christians in the US can become part of Operation Iraqi Care (which has been set up by World Prayer Team, the Presidential Prayer Team, Covenant World Relief, and the National Association of Evangelicals) and offer their prayers for the suffering Iraqi people, the International Mission Board of the SBC, the largest Protestant denomination in the US, is planning to send close to 500 American volunteers from Oklahoma, Georgia, and Texas to Iraq ó so far they have spent $125,000 on supplies and Bibles. The International Bible Society has recently produced a Scripture booklet especially for Iraqi refugees, and is asking its parishioners to donate enough money to print another 10,000 copies. Weapons of mass destruction have yet to be found in Iraq, but instruments of mass conversion are about to be shipped in at a high volume.

On one level, these evangelical Christians are simply doing what they do: evangelize. They are in the business of trying to convert others to their beliefs. And the focus on Islam is nothing new: in the past decade, American evangelicals have quadrupled the number of missionaries they send to Islamic countries. They estimate that they have distributed Christian books, pamphlets, pictures, and toys to more than 334 million Muslims since 1990. But this renewed focus on converting Muslims to Christianity is motivated by something besides religious faith: a hatred of whatís seen as the sexualized aspects of Islam.

Consider the rather prurient focus on Islam of evangelical leaders like Dr. Jerry Vines, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Florida, and a former president of the SBC. Last June, he announced at the Southern Baptistsí annual meeting that "Islam was founded by Mohammed, a demon-possessed pedophile who had 12 wives ó and his last one was a nine-year-old girl."

Vinesís highly sexual condemnation of Mohammedís life and teachings is, well, unseemly. But his scurrilous, anti-Islamic attacks find deep roots in the traditional Western view not only of Islam, but of all that used to be called, without embarrassment, the "Orient." Indeed, this protracted history of Western distortion of other cultures has been a key element in our woeful contemporary misunderstanding of Islam, and to some degree, the complicated political nightmare we find ourselves in now.

THIS ISNíT TO SAY that "sexualized" Islam is the only thing motivating the evangelicals. Thereís good old-fashioned racism at work, too. For instance, as his source of knowledge about Islam Vines cites the recently published book Unveiling Islam: An Insiderís Look at Muslim Life and Beliefs (Kregel Publications, 2002), by Ergun and Emir Caner ó two brothers, apostate Muslims who are now fundamentalist Christians and teach at religious colleges in the South. But take a quick look through their arguments and you see that they rely on selective readings and interpretations of the Koran and the Hadith (the accepted, authoritative life of Mohammed). At a press conference last year hosted by the Baptist Press in St. Louis, Ergun Caner stated that "some Muslims want to allegorize their own scriptures because they donít want to defend jihad. But if you take the Koran at its word, or Mohammed at his word, then youíll find physical jihad." The Caners insist that they have the definitive interpretation of the Koran ó and isnít it surprising that theirs is a fundamentalist, literal interpretation that dovetails very nicely with conservative ó well, fundamentalist ó Christian ideas and political agendas? But as is well known, allegorical readings of religious texts are common in all religions. As with any religious text ó or any book, for that matter ó interpretation is subjective. Jews, Catholics, and Protestants have major disagreements about how to understand and interpret the Hebrew Bible and the later Christian writings we call the New Testament. Catholics and Protestants, after all, slaughtered millions over these matters of interpretation. And today, Sunni and Shiite Muslims have bitter and sometimes deadly religious fights over how to read the Koran.

Vines, of course, isnít the only right-wing culprit. Last summer, Jerry Falwell penned a defense of Vines on, and Dr. Jack Graham ó the current president of the SBC ó also issued a defense of his co-religionist; both Falwell and Graham completely agreed with Vinesís remarks, and complained that Islam, unlike Southern Baptists, was being treated with kid gloves by the mainstream media. Franklin Graham ó no relation to Dr. Jack Graham, but the son of famed evangelist Billy Graham who now runs his fatherís worldwide ministry ó had already weighed in on Islam soon after 9/11 by saying, "I donít believe [Islam] is a wonderful, peaceful religion. It wasnít Methodists flying into those buildings, it wasnít Lutherans. It was an attack on this country by people of the Islamic faith."

Even though the Bush White House distanced itself from Grahamís remarks ó Graham is a Bush family friend and had given an invocation at the inauguration ó Graham publicly supported Vines and reiterated the idea that Mohammed was a pedophile in his newest book The Name (Thomas Nelson, 2002). The propriety of conservative Christian attacks on Islam and Mohammed was reinforced on July 15, 2002, when Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote a sharp, myopic rebuttal to a July 9 New York Times column in which Nicholas Kristof had condemned the views of Graham and Vines. Declaring that Vines and Falwell were "anything but religious bigots," Mohler stated that "I know both of these men, and I know that their greatest concern is to see all people come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Muslims around the world may disagree, but they also understand." This "understanding," Mohler argued, came from the fact that Islam, like Christianity, also insists that it is the one true religion.

In the wake of 9/11, itís understandable, if unfortunate, that Islam itself ó not just the men flying the planes or the geopolitical culture that produced them ó is under attack from the likes of Vines, Graham, and Falwell. But what is curious is that while the mainstream press, for the most part, editorialized against such statements, there was almost no attempt to explain why the attacks focused most repeatedly on the alleged deviant sexual practices of Islam and Mohammed. Clearly Vines and company were out of line ó not only with mainstream Christian and Jewish thinking, but also with accepted popular thought. But something else about the evangelical critique of Islam has resonated with the public: the obsessive focus on a sexualized Islam.

The best example of this obsession is the endlessly circulated idea that a man who dies while on jihad will be granted an exalted place in heaven, which means he will be able to have sexual intercourse with 70 perpetual virgins. This idea is based on a reading of the 135th verse of the Hadith, but it is a literal interpretation thatís not embraced by many people. Islamic scholars even disagree on the translation, some holding that "virgins" is an incorrect rendering of a word that might more accurately be translated as "purity." Yet the idea is that from Mohammad Atta to Palestinian suicide bombers, Muslims (many of whose motivations may be cultural rather than religious) who die for a political ideal often do so for just such a reward.

Even more blatant examples of the sexualization of Islam concern homosexuality. Two months after 9/11, the National Enquirer published a story about Mohammed Attaís alleged homosexuality. It was the usual Enquirer mix of innuendo, conjectural reporting, and inflammatory insinuation, claiming that "Mohammed Atta and several of his bloody henchmen led secret gay lives ó and Attaís boyfriend died with him in his September 11 suicide mission." They also insisted that "the terrorists seethed with a hatred and a fear of women ó and that that loathing fueled their insane rage." The rest of the media did not take the Enquirer story all that seriously ó it was, after all, the Enquirer. But that did not stop many of them from mentioning it repeatedly as a curious media item.

This theme was reprised in a more respectable manner last August when Time magazine reported that John Walker Lindh, "the American Taliban," had a sexual relationship with Khizar Hayat in Pakistan sometime before he went to Afghanistan. Hayat himself was the source of the information. Time quoted him as saying, "He was liking me very much. All the time he wants to be with me." But he later denied this, as did Lindhís lawyers (probably figuring that this was one more thing, true or not, their client didnít need made public). This story received a huge amount of play on conservative radio and television shows ó like The OíReilly Factor ó which pointed out the "obvious" connections between homosexuality, immorality, and anti-Americanism.

FROM PEDOPHILIA TO homosexuality, from polygamy to a bevy of perpetual virgins, Western culture cannot get enough of this sexualized Islam. But that should come as no surprise, since for over a century Western cultures have eroticized not only Islam, but the Near and Far East in general. In his groundbreaking 1978 book Orientalism, Edward Said charted how European (and to a lesser degree, American) culture has depicted the "exotic" East ó "orient" comes from the Latin word for east ó in art, theater, novels, travel books, opera, philosophy, and architecture. Saidís basic argument is that "the Orient" doesnít exist ó it is a figment of the Westís imagination, invented from endless, often sexualized, fantasies. Such fantasies have borne no relationship to the strikingly diverse countries, nations, peoples, and cultures to the east of Europe. Indeed, Orientalism was so strongly embedded in the Western imaginative tradition as to make these cultures virtually invisible to Europeans. And why did this happen? Orientalism, Said argues, enabled European culture to gain "in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even an underground self." In other words, the sexy, exotic Orient allowed Europeans to experience ó through the imagination ó sexual desires their own culture forbade them, as well as to set clear boundaries between their own moral culture and an alien amoral one. By displacing their own sexual fantasies onto the Orient, Europeans could double their pleasure by imagining the best, then labeling it the worst.

For over 150 years the Orient has played a vital part in Western culture: the endless fascination with myriad versions of the Arabian Nights; operas such as Rossiniís The Italian Girl in Algiers; Victorian erotic novels such as Ten Nights in a Turkish Harem and The Lustful Turk (both of which feature violated British virgins who just canít get enough); the enormous popularity of Rudolf Valentino in the 1921 silent film The Sheik; the shimmering otherness of films like The Thief of Baghdad (played by Douglas Fairbanks Jr., not Saddam Hussein), with their dancing girls and fabulous treasures; and all those mummy movies from the 1940s to the present. Embedded in all this eroticism was, of course, cruelty and death. Silent-film star Theda Bara ó the original deadly vamp(ire) ó was really a nice Jewish girl named Theodosia Goodman, whom the studio PR department renamed and billed as the "daughter of an Eastern Potentate" and whose name was an anagram for "Arab Death." In the European imagination, the Arabs were always cruel and heartless ó far more so than the "civilized" Western world ó and novels and films offered up this image to titillate and excite Western audiences. From Victorian times to the 1950s, childrenís books about the Crusades constantly played with the exciting idea of terrible, never exactly explained "Oriental" tortures. This idea of Arab cruelty was so ingrained in Western popular culture that blatant racism is considered appropriate childrenís entertainment. In the 1992 Disney animated film Aladdin, a character introducing the story sings "Oh, I come from a land/From a faraway place/Where the caravan camels roam. Where they cut off your ear if they donít like your face. Itís barbaric, but, hey, itís home." Because of protests by Arab-American groups, the line was changed in the video release of the film. A similar trend has been more than evident in such newer Hollywood films as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Mummy, and Rules of Engagement, which consistently depict Arabs as fiendishly sadistic and indifferent to human life. The Orient might be sexy, but it was dangerous as well.

Is it any wonder, then, that charges of Mohammedís immorality and child brides, or fanciful tales of suicide bombers driven by lustful dreams of perpetual virgins, or stories of John Walker Lindh being seduced into sin, sexual decadence, and terrorism by men in the mysterious East would play well with the American public? And who better to promote this thinking than the spokesmen of the American religious and political right? As Said explains in Orientalism, the inability of the West to really look at and understand "Eastern" cultures has been an impediment to better cultural and diplomatic relationships. Thatís even more true today. After 9/11 there was a general sense that at least some Americans were interested in understanding aspects of Islam ó a religion many people in this country knew almost nothing about. Bookstores reported a sales boom in books about Mohammed, and even the Koran. Universities saw an increase in students taking classes in the history of Islam and in Arabic cultures. That may still be the case. But it is also true ó thanks to Jerry Vines and his cohorts ó that a more vicious brand of Orientalism has re-emerged in our popular culture.

Traditional Orientalism was always tinged with the ambivalent, vicarious thrill of sexual desire and attraction to the "pleasure of the Orient." What Vines and friends have done is to render all that subliminal pleasure as sin, and to overtly demonize Islam as a vicious, evil religion predicated on sexual depravity, one that promotes hatred and violence. Albert Mohler is right: Falwell and Vinesís "greatest concern is to see all people come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ." That they are allowed to pursue that vision ó which is profoundly disrespectful to the lives and beliefs of Muslims and antithetical to an contemporary American idea of tolerance and cultural acceptance ó with the tacit acceptance of the media is a sorry sign of American culture today.

Michael Bronski can be reached at

Issue Date: June 6 - 12, 2003
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