Intellectuals, Disinformation and Repression

Events of early 2017 in Canada and the US raised once again the question: why are Islamic people so often subjected to discrimination, repression and violence in our societies and abroad? Among the reasons is denigration of Islamic religion and culture by intellectuals whose writing has long been given prominence by Western mainstream media. Their disinformation helped to generate a political environment in which some people in the West uncritically accept severe actions against Muslims by governments, groups or individuals, and curtailments of rights for all.

A few instances this year illustrate the diversity of such actions. In January, six Muslim men were murdered while at prayer in a Québec City mosque and others were injured in the same attack, for which a single non-Muslim Canadian was charged by police. In March, the Canadian government apologized and agreed to provide compensation to three Muslim Canadians who had been imprisoned and tortured in Syria and Egypt, following a formal inquiry’s finding that Canada indirectly contributed to their mistreatment.

Also in March, The Brennan Centre for Justice (BCJ) at New York University issued a report on the Obama administration’s “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE) programs. These programs were intensified from 2011 onward and the BCJ report concluded that the CVE measures: “while couched in neutral terms—have, in practice, focused almost exclusively on American Muslim Communities. This is despite the fact that empirical data shows that violence from far right movements results in at least as many fatalities in the US as attacks inspired by Al Qaeda or the Islamic State.”

Thus the CVE programs create “serious risks of … suppressing religious observance and speech.”[1] They acquired international significance when similar programs were adopted by UN bodies during 2014-2016, with President Obama’s encouragement.[2] President Trump plans to continue his predecessor’s programs but make explicit the targeting of Muslims.

The role of disinformation in facilitating such events is best seen in context. From the early nineteenth century onward, renewed contacts between the West and the Islamic world became more diverse with growing involvement by Britain and France in the Middle East and neighbouring regions, then and later often termed the Orient. Germany, Russia and the US also became involved but after the Second World War the US was and remains the most influential actor. As usual, the motivations were trade, commerce, resources and hegemony, with religious sentiment playing its customary supporting role.


An expanding intellectual industry accompanied Western penetration, with contributions on diverse topics by famous novelists, prominent politicians and distinguished academics, along with journalists and others. Edward Said used the term Orientalism for it and provided a characterization. He summarized its purpose as “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” Reciprocally, “European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self.”[3]

Said identified invocations of precedent and authority as features of Orientalism: “a system for citing works and authors.” Thus misrepresentations and other errors have propagated through much of it. Such invocations are common in intellectual discourse generally, and they help the Orientalist as outsider to represent the Orient in terms “relatively familiar” to the intended audience, hence more persuasively. From many examples Said concluded: “One myth supports and produces another.”[4]

More recent examples can be found in works by two prominent academics Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington. Lewis enjoyed such standing as an expert Orientalist that “everything he writes is steeped in the ‘authority’ of the field,” yet much of his work has been “aggressively ideological,” Said explained. Said added that Lewis’ scholarship purports to be objective “but is in reality very close to propaganda against his subject material.”[5] In a 1990 article, “The Roots of Muslim Rage” Lewis emphasized that “many Muslims deeply resent the West,” and suggested “a clash of civilizations” was developing between the West and the Islamic world.

Huntington’s 1993 essay “The Clash of Civilizations?” relied on Lewis’ 1990 article, and in 1996 he expanded the essay into a book with the same title (omitting the question mark). The central theme was that with the disintegration of the USSR as America’s political and military rival, the world would become the scene of contests among several culturally defined civilizations, each somehow acting as a coherent entity. These would include the West, Islam and Asia.

The book emphasized a developing clash between the West and Islam and asserted “Muslims fear and resent Western power.”[6] Using what he regarded as statistical evidence, Huntington concluded “Islam’s borders are bloody, and so are its innards,” declaring: “Muslim bellicosity and violence are late-twentieth-century facts which neither Muslims nor non-Muslims can deny.”[7]

Editorials in the mainstream media across the US and Europe acclaimed Huntington’s book as a call to action in response to the danger he described. It was a best-seller and eventually translated into more than three dozen languages. Many people saw the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the US as confirmation of his views. The book was republished in 2011 with a Foreword by Zbigniew Brzezinski who called it “seminal,” adding: “the sheer size of his book’s global readership testifies that it satisfied the widespread craving for a comprehensive understanding …”[8]

There were critical reviews of the book but in publications with much smaller audiences than the mainstream media, with limited corrective effect. Notably, a review by Stephen Holmes exposed Huntington’s simplistic terminology, outdated concepts and serious inconsistencies in reasoning.  Holmes discussed Huntington’s “untenable” thesis and “keep-the-theory-and-change-the-facts approach,” commenting: “his scholarly caution apparently yields to his political passion.”[9]

Holmes noted Huntington “has been a dominant voice in American political science for thirty years,” but he was not the first scholar to criticize published work by Huntington as being too deficient in evidence or defective in reasoning to be regarded as scientific. A decade earlier, the US National Academy of Sciences twice voted not to accept him as a member on the basis of such criticisms developed through detailed analysis of some of his work.

However, the uncritical attention given to Orientalist views of academics such as Huntington and other like-minded intellectuals continued, helping to develop a “mainstream consensus” with its own characteristic “rhetoric.”[10] The consensus gave credibility to misrepresentations by governments as justifications for illegal military action. Colin Powell’s bellicose 2003 UN address shortly before the US and its allies launched their war of aggression on Iraq was an example. This consensus fuels Islamophobia that is sometimes exploited for political or commercial advantage.

In a 2015 column headed “Islam and the West at War” on the “war, or near-war” in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, Roger Cohen decried a “failed [Western] bid to eradicate a metastasizing Islamist movement of murderous hatred toward Western civilization.” He concluded: “only Arabs can find the answer to this crisis” represented by “the abject failure of the Arab world.”

Cohen’s Orientalist assertions were to the effect that the Islamic world is the author of its own misfortune and thus needs to resolve the crisis by itself. Several months earlier, President Obama made similar assertions in a more elegant style. Such rhetoric illustrates that President Trump is not isolated in having misguided opinions on the topic.

Western Interferences

There is a crisis and it is related to the Arab world, but it arose in large measure because Western powers have long subjected the Islamic world, including the Middle East to major military, terrorist and political interferences. Thus the “failure” is global in its causes but the preponderant damage has been localized to the Islamic world. The massive violence visited on large parts of it in recent decades is an expansion and intensification of events begun a century ago.

During the First World War Britain made overlapping territorial commitments to Zionist leaders and two different Arab leaders that led to conflicts in the postwar period and later. Such commitments and postwar international arrangements had a major impact on the Middle East. These arrangements allocated hegemony over much of the defeated Ottoman Empire to war victors Britain and France.

Resistances soon developed. For example, when Egyptian demands for self-determination were not granted in 1919, a revolution occurred and was successful. In Iraq resistances were met with severe repression, including terror-bombing of civilian populations.[11]

At the end of the Second World War the US enjoyed unprecedented economic and military power, including sole possession of nuclear weapons. Government and business leaders understood that the military-Keynesian political economy had brought “50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population” and were concerned “to maintain this position of disparity.” Already in 1944 they understood that “a permanent war economy” could help maintain such great relative prosperity.

The only credible candidate for a possible new enemy was America’s most important wartime ally, the USSR. It had large armed forces and was primarily responsible for the defeat of Nazi Germany, but suffered enormous destruction and so was unlikely to risk a war against the US unless the US attacked first. In August 1945 President Truman effectively initiated the Cold War against the USSR by using nuclear weapons against a blockaded and virtually defeated Japan.[12]

Domestically, from 1946 onward the US government and mass media mounted a major propaganda and persecution campaign against alleged communists. The Second Red Scare was similar to the First (1917-1920), but greater in scope and duration. During the first four and a half decades after the war, the US regularly claimed that the many overthrows of foreign governments orchestrated by it were justified by the spectre of the USSR and local communists. Frequently, however, the target regimes were nationalist: they used their countries’ resources for the general good of their citizens.  

Among US moves with long-term significance for its expanding military and economic hegemony were the following.  America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy of geopolitical importance because of its “vast reservoirs of oil and gas” and its “strategic” location, was strengthened when President Roosevelt met in Egypt with King Ibn Saud in February 1945.[13] The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was established in 1947 and became America’s main civilian agency for destabilizing foreign governments.

The CIA overthrew the elected government of Iran in 1953, replacing it with the monarchy of Shah Pahlavi. For a quarter century, the Pahlavi regime was America’s most important partner in the Islamic world. After the Shah’s regime was overthrown by a popular revolution, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan together replaced Iran in this role.

During the 1920s “Ibn Saud established ‘Saudi’ Arabia in an orgy of murder,”[14] and it is of note that “Britain effectively helped the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia into being,” because it was seen “as a fire-break against … pan-Arabism [a form of nationalism].”[15] “The House of Saud” was and remains the “official sponsor” of the fundamentalist Sunni Islam movement, Wahhabism and so it “is the spearhead of militant Islam today.”[16] From about 1980 onward, Saudi Arabia “pursued an openly pro-US foreign policy” that included helping “to keep” international petroleum prices “low” when convenient for US purposes, and helping to “bankroll” US interference in states such as Italy, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan.[17]

Pakistan’s elected government was overthrown in 1977 by a military coup d’état led by General Zia-ul-Haq, “a favourite of the US Defence Intelligence Agency.”[18] “The worst of Pakistan’s dictators,” Zia imposed Sharia law and promoted Islamic Fundamentalism during his decade in power.[19] His regime “became the linchpin of US strategy in the region,” as outlined below.[20]

By the time the USSR disintegrated in 1991, a basis for declaring a new spectre had been developing for a decade. This involved “concoct[ing] an enemy weak enough to be attacked with impunity but sufficiently threatening to mobilize the general population in support of the Reaganite expansion of state power at home and violence abroad.”[21] First, it was international terrorism, but Islamic terrorism became the primary focus after President Bush declared the War on Terror in 2001. The full transition between the two spectres had thus taken two decades to effect, spanning five US presidencies.

Islamic Terrorists

The terrorist groups receiving the most media attention at present are Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, sometimes labeled ISIS, IS, or Daesh). The latter emerged several years ago as an offshoot of Al Qaeda. In significant measure both are creatures of the US and some of its allies, including Britain and several Muslim majority states, as two former Western foreign ministers acknowledged: Robin Cook (publicly) and Hillary Clinton (privately, but leaked). The history is more complex and revealing than either suggested, and began around 1979 with a new US initiative.

This was when President Carter undertook “to reassert US power and influence in the region” extending “from northeast Africa through the [Persian] Gulf to Central Asia.” To accomplish this, his regime assembled a multi-state “security framework” involving Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as leading partners, with Britain and Egypt assisting. Weakening the USSR was the central objective, and the primary US approach was to try to destabilize the indigenous communist and nationalist government of Afghanistan, which had friendly relations with the USSR and India. The American supposition was that such efforts would provoke the USSR into a military invasion in an effort to stabilize the Afghan regime. The invasion began in December 1979, five months after Carter dispatched aid to anti-regime factions.[22]

It is of note that in 1978 the Afghan government had embarked on a Western-style modernization that included making “literacy compulsory for all Afghan women” (previously female illiteracy was at 98%).[23] The result by the end of the decade and a half this regime existed was that “a new generation of young Afghan men and women emerged as doctors, teachers, scientists and technicians.”[24]

Such was the context in which the US first augmented its array of political destabilization techniques by using very large numbers of foreign mercenaries: Islamic extremists (variously called jihadists, mujahedeen, freedom-fighters, or terrorists) recruited from outside the territory of the target regime. Egypt assisted with international recruitment, the US and Britain provided modern military equipment, Pakistan took the lead in training, equipment transfer and activity coordination, while Saudi Arabia and the US “were the chief bankrollers of the war.”[25] When the venture began, Presidents Zia-ul-Haq and Sadat of Pakistan and Egypt were encouraging Islamic extremist groups in their own states.

Osama Bin Laden joined this US-led enterprise and spent a decade in Pakistan and Afghanistan, arriving in 1980. He served in the capacity of representative of the Saudi government, asked “to lead the Saudi contingent” for the onslaught against the Afghan regime. “Bin Laden, Prince Turki and General Gul [directors of the Saudi and Pakistani intelligence agencies] were to become firm friends and allies.” The group of mercenaries that became Al Qaeda had been organized by Abdullah Azam, who used funds from various Saudi sources to develop the organization. When Azam was assassinated in 1989, Bin Laden became its leader.[26]

The weakened USSR withdrew its forces after a decade and the country fell into many additional years of warfare that is still ongoing. Bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia in 1990 but soon disagreed sharply with the Saudi regime’s support for certain American policies and actions. However, for a time he “maintained his links with both Saudi Intelligence and ISI [Pakistani Intelligence].”[27] He moved to Sudan in 1992 and there re-formed the Al Qaeda group, by this time opposed to both the US and Saudi Arabia. In 1996 he moved from Sudan back to Afghanistan. The September 2001 terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda in the US were among the many murderous outcomes of a chain of international events begun more than two decades earlier, events that have since proliferated.

From October 2001 onward, great destruction to life, infrastructure and the environment has been inflicted on Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen by the US or its allies, both Western and regional, and by the terrorist organizations their ideologies and actions helped to develop. The War on Terror has served to fuel both the growth of terrorism and the military-industrial complexes of major Western states, as illustrated by President Trump’s recently announced agreement to sell $350 billion in armaments to Saudi Arabia. The Trump program is in effect an expansion of an arms-sales program President Obama developed after the financial crisis of 2008.

Finally, no one should forget the role of religious sentiment in the great Western orgies of murder and devastation, such as the Thirty Years War, or the Second World War. For instance, in 1939: “Germany’s churches eased many a troubled conscience. The Protestant and Catholic clergy, both high and low, legitimated the assault on Poland from the very outset, enjoining loyalty to führer and Reich.”[28]


[1] BCJ report (2016 cited above by web link), 1

[2] BCJ report (2016 cited above by web link), 7

[3] Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage/Random House, 1979), 3

[4] Said, Orientalism, 20-23, 307

[5] Said, Orientalism, 316

[7] Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations, 258

[8] Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations, 5

[9] Stephen Holmes, “In Search of New Enemies,” London Review of Books, April 24, 1997 ( )

[10] Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage, 1994), 287

[11] Robert Fisk, The Great War for Civilisation (London: Fourth Estate/HarperCollins, 2005), 179-180

[13] Rashid Khalidi, Sowing Crises (Boston: Beacon Press, 2009), 12-13

[14] Mark Curtis, Secret Affairs (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2012), 12

[15] Suleiman Mourad (New York: Verso, 2016), The Mosaic of Islam, 78-79

[16] Mourad), The Mosaic of Islam, 151

[17] Curtis, Secret Affairs, 158

[18] Curtis, Secret Affairs, 139

[19] Tariq Ali, The Duel (New York: Scribner, 2008), 122-125

[20] Ali, The Duel, 119

[21] Noam Chomsky, Necessary Illusions (Toronto: CBC Enterprises, 1989, based on the 1988 Massey Lectures), 269

[22] Curtis, Secret Affairs, 129, 132, 135

[23] Tariq Ali, The Duel (New York: Scribner, 2008), 120

[24] Tariq Ali, The Clash of Fundamentalisms (New York Verso, 2003), 206

[25] Curtis, Secret Affairs, 137-141

[26] Ahmed Rashid, Taliban (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 131-132

[27] Rashid Taliban, 133

[28] Arno J. Mayer, Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? The “Final Solution” in History (New York: Verso, 1990), 183. The full extent of German atrocities in Poland only emerged in 1944 when the USSR’s Red Army drove out the German army; a representative description can be found in Vasily Grossman, A Writer at War (Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), Chapter 24: Treblinka.