Islam inspires fear and fascination in the Western imagination. It calls to mind puritanical holy warriors, fanatics, dervishes, suicide bombers, hijackers, and human waves thrown into battle. The strange fulminations of a Khomeini, Qaddafi, or Saddam Hussein about martyrdom and death to the enemies of Islam heIp to sustain these images. An equal fascination with the condition of women under Islam, and indignation over (and prurient interest in) the submission of women, engages the West. According to the Wall Street Journal, tales from the harem, Islamic bodice rippers, are among today’s best sellers. What is more, journalists and scholars constantly remind us of the historic “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West. Political interest groups–the governments of Israel, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, and others wanting American support–propagandize about the Islamic danger. In a January edition of the New York Times, Elaine Sciolino wrote not about Islam, but about the debate over the menace of Islam. In short, Islam has become more than a political problem: it borders on an obsession.
Much of the recent scholarly literature, on which this article is based presents a more sober and sophisticated point of view about Islam. The information and perspectives set forth in this literature can help us get past the hype and achieve a better sense of proportion about Islamic issues.