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Riffat Hassan, Ph.D.


[Dr. Riffat Hassan  is a member of the Islamic Research Foundation International and is an award winning scholar, an inimitable voice for moderate  Islam & interreligous dialogue and Professor for Religious Studies and Humanities at the University of Louisville, Louisville, KY. In February 1999, she  founded The International Network for the Rights of Female Victims of Violence in Pakistan (INRFVVP), a non-profit organization with a worldwide membership, which has played a noteworthy role in highlighting the issue of violence against girls and women, particularly with reference to “crimes of honor”  (website:; E-mail:]




             On September 11, 2001, four domestic flights within the United States were hijacked by persons identified by American intelligence agencies as being of Muslim and Arab origin. Two of these planes hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, while a third one hit the Pentagon in Washington, D. C.  The fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania, killing all aboard. The nature of the assaults and the efficiency with which they had been conducted shocked not only the Americans but also the rest of the world. Horror-stricken, millions around the globe, watched the massive tragedy unfold before them on television screens. As the reality of what had happened - the damage done to buildings which were symbols of American power and prestige - and the loss of thousands of human lives - sank in, many people in the United States began to feel that the world had changed forever.


            The post September 11 world was - and is - radically different from the world which had existed until that fateful day. The sense of invulnerability and invincibility which had characterized the consciousness of the only remaining superpower in the world was suddenly, and irrevocably, lost. The crumbling of the gigantic structures of the World Trade Center towers seemed to remind all of us of the finite and fragile nature of all human constructions, and of our own mortality.


            Waves of disbelief, grief, anger, fear, and bewilderment swept through the viewers of the death scenes with varying degrees of intensity. In the face of the most serious attack ever on American soil, it was understandable that many people in the United States wanted to lash out at those who had been responsible for the heinous crimes. The immediate perpetrators were dead and could not be punished. But there were others - like Osama bin Laden - who were believed to have masterminded and financed the crimes. Apprehending Osama bin Laden and his network of operatives, including the "sleepers" who were said to be in the country, seemed to be necessary in order to make a bleeding nation whole again, and to restore confidence in the "manifest destiny" of the  United States to lead and control the world.


    In the aftermath of September 11, more attention has been focused on Islam and Muslims than perhaps at any other point in modern history.  . Much of this attention – particularly in the case of mainstream U.S. television channels – has been negative, not only with regards to those who committed the criminal acts, but also with regards to  Islam and Muslims /Arabs at large.


            The September 11 assaults on the U.S have been condemned strongly by the global community including a large number of Muslims from all walks of life ranging from leaders of Muslim countries to ordinary people. However, the crisis was perceived - and described - from the outset in terms which polarized the world into two absolutely opposed camps. The worldview which became dominant in the discourse of both American administration and media was symbolized by expressions such as “us versus them”, “either you are with us or you are against us”, “good versus evil.”  Dualistic thinking which permeated this discourse seemed, at times, to be cosmic in magnitude. It appeared as if the so called “clash of civilizations” between the “West” and “the world of Islam” posited by Samuel Huntington had indeed come to pass.


However one interprets the fateful events of September 11, 2001, one thing is clear. The world changed forever on the day. There is now no going back to the situation which existed prior to this day. We cannot go back - we can only go forward. This poses a serious challenge both for (non-Muslim) Westerners and for Muslims. How and on what  basis are we going to create a new world-order in the aftermath of what happened on September 11, 2001?  Is it possible to “depolarize” the world and to build a bridge between “the West” and “the world of Islam”?


George Santayana had stated with acute insight that those who do not know their history are condemned to repeat it. As we reflect on the critical questions posed above, we need to be aware of the long history of negative stereotyping and imaging of Islam and Muslims in the West.  Though there are a number of Americans who had not paid any serious attention to Islam or Muslims until the Arab oil embargo of 1973 or the Iranian Revolution of 1979, propaganda against Islam and Muslims is nothing new in the West.

It is as old as the first chapter of Islamic history, when the new faith began to move into territories largely occupied by Christians and Muslims were seen not only as ‘”the Other” but as “the Adversary”. . Dante, the great poet of medieval Christianity, painted a gruesome picture of the Prophet of Islam in his well-known poem The Divine Comedy. Portraying him as physically “divided” with his guts hanging out, Dante assigned the Prophet Muhammad to all but the lowest levels of hell for the grievous “sin” of dividing the world of Christendom. 

St. Thomas Aquinas, the most outstanding Scholastic philosopher who owed such profound debt to the thinkers of Muslim Spain - who were the precursors of the Renaissance in Europe - described Islam as nothing but a construct to accommodate the lust of Muhammad. Christian voices such as those of Dante and Aquinas form the backdrop of Thomas Carlyle’s historic lecture on “The Hero as Prophet: Mahomet: Islam” in a series entitled On Heroes, Hero-Worship and The Heroic in History. Writing in mid-nineteenth century, Carlyle urged his fellow Christians to dismiss “our current hypothesis about Mahomet, that he was a scheming Imposter, a Falsehood Incarnate, that his religion is a mere quackery and fatuity.”


How persistent has been the misrepresentation of Islam, Muslims and Arabs in the work of “Orientalists” who have played a major part in shaping Western perceptions of  all three has been very ably documented by Edward Said, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. One major result of Said’s landmark work Orientalism (published in 1978) was that non-Muslims who have written about Islam subsequent to the publication of his book no longer call themselves “Orientalists” since this term is now been discredited. However, the mindset exhibited by so-called  scholarly experts on Islam from Bernard Lewis (writing about “the Rage of Muslims” ) to Samuel Huntington (writing about “the Clash of Civilizations”) as well as so-called media experts appearing daily on American television channels, is very similar to that of the non-Muslim detractors of Islam of earlier times.

Given the reservoir of negative images associated with Islam and Muslims in “the Collective Unconscious” of the West, it is hardly sur­prising that, since the demise of the Soviet Empire, “the world of Islam” is - once again - being seen as the new “Enemy” which is perhaps even more incom­prehensible and intractable than the last one.  The routine portrayal of Is­lam as a religion spread by the sword and characterized by “Holy War,” and of Muslims as barbarous and backward, frenzied and fanatic, volatile and violent, has led, in recent decades, to an alarming increase in “Muslim-­bashing” - verbal, physical, and psychological - in a number of Western countries. After September 11, 2001, the “crusade” against Islam and Muslims so evident on television screens in the United States, has become even more relentless and intense.

One major difficulty that many Muslims encounter in the negatively-charged, media-dominated environment in the post-September 11 U. S., is the use of “loaded” language to refer to central tenets in Islam. Two words which have been used extensively to depict Islam as a religion which is narrow, rigid, and militant. are “fundamentalism” and “jihad”. However, from an Islamic perspective, the way in which these two terms are used in popular discourse leads to deep misunderstanding about  Islam and Muslims..

The word “fundamentalism” comes not from the history of Islam but from the history of American evangelical Protestant Christianity of the 1920s.  As pointed out by The Encyclopedia of Religion (( Mircea Eliade, Editor in Chief, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1987, Volume 5, pp. 190-191)


            ‘Fundamentalism’ is a subspecies of evangelicalism. The term originated in         America in 1920 and refers to evangelicals who consider it a chief Christian duty          to combat uncompromisingly ‘modernist’ theology and certain secularizing       cultural trends.  Organized militancy is the feature that most clearly distinguishes fundamentalists from other evangelicals. Fundamentalism is primarily an      American phenomenon..


However, Muslims who know English but are mostly unaware of the history of the word “fundamentalism” in American Christianity, use the term “fundamentalist” to refer to a person who believes in the fundamentals of something. The vast majority of Muslims believe in the fundamentals of Islam such as belief in God and the prophets sent by God, in prophetic books, the Day of Judgment, and duties directed toward God (“Haquq Allah”) as well as those directed toward God’s creatures (“Haquq al  ‘ibad”). Therefore, if they are asked whether they are “fundamentalist”, they are likely to answer in the affirmative, unaware of how this statement is going to be interpreted by someone who associates being a “fundamentalist” with being an “extremist” if not a “terrorist.” 


There is no counterpart of the word “fundamentalism” as it exists in the history of American Christianity in any Islamic language. It is most unfortunate that this word has acquired wide currency not only amongst non-Muslims but also amongst Muslims. However, colonized people often internalize the vocabulary of the colonizer hence the adoption of this word by many Muslims is not surprising even though it is highly regrettable.


Another word which is constantly been misused, especially by U.S. media, is “jihad”.  “Jihad” is a core Qur’anic concept which derives from the root-word “jahada” meaning “striving” or “making an effort”. The highest form of “jihad” in Islam (“jihad al akbar”) is against one’s own shortcomings and weaknesses. It is an ongoing struggle to make one’s self better in every way.  A lesser form of “jihad” (“jihad al-asghar”) is struggle against socials ills and injustice. Defensive war can be a part of the lesser “jihad” but the Qur’an repeatedly points out that “God loves not aggressors”.  “Jihad” as ongoing effort is a part of everything that a Muslim is required to do – from praying five times a day (“salat”) to fasting in the month of Ramadan (“siyam”) to wealth-sharing (“zakat”)  to performing pilgrimage (“hajj”)  to standing up for justice and testifying to the truth. It is so pivotal to Islam that it cannot be abandoned despite its persistent vandalization by the American media. It must, therefore, be purged of the negative images attached to it, and understood as a moral struggle for the attainment of a higher state, both by individuals and by societies.


All too often “jihad” has been translated as “holy war” which is understood as a war undertaken for God or an absolute cause. Those who engage in this war must continue the fight until victory or death.  The Qur’an which regards the rational faculty as the greatest gift of God to humanity and constantly urges humankind to make use of reason, does not support any war that is non-defensive or conducted outside of the bounds of rational thinking. “Holy war” is the translation not of “jihad” but of “crusade” - a term used to refer to wars undertaken by Christians in Europe in the 11th, 12th , and 13th centuries,  to liberate the Holy Land from the “infidels” (Muslims)


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