Muslims in the Western Imagination By Sophia Rose Arjana (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. 261 pages.)

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Brendan Newlon



Through research spanning 1,300 years, Sophia Rose Arjana presents a historical
genealogy of monstrous representations of Muslims that haunt the
western imagination and continue to sustain the contemporary bigotry of Islamophobia.
The central question introduced in the first section, “Introduction:
Islam in the Western Imagination,” is “How did we get here, to this place of
hijab bans and outlawed minarets, secret renditions of enemy combatants,
Abu Ghraib, and GTMO?” (p. 1).
To answer this question, Arjana highlights connections between historical
representations of Muslims and monstrosity in imagery, literature, film, and
popular culture to produce a volume she describes as “an archive of Muslim
monsters” and “a jihad – an effort – to reveal Muslims as human beings instead
of the phantasms they are often presented as” (p. 16). This work is a timely
contribution that will benefit scholars researching anti-Muslim sentiment, Islamophobia,
postcolonial and subaltern studies, the psychology of xenophobia
and genocide, or who are interested in historical manifestations of Islamophobia,
antisemitism, and racism in art, literature, film, and media.
In the first chapter, “The Muslim Monster,” the author argues that cultural
“ideas of normativity are often situated in notions of alterity” and that
monstrous representations of Muslims have functioned as an enduring signifier
of alterity against which the West has attempted to define itself since
the Middle Ages. Through the production of dehumanized and monstrous
representations, Muslims became part of a mythological landscape at the
peripheries of Christian civilization that included dragons, giants, and dogheaded
men. The grotesque and uncanny attributes of monsters reveal the
anxieties of the society that produces such images, and chief among those
is the fear of racial contamination and the dissolution of culture through intermingling
with the foreign and the strange. Each of the following chapters
focuses on depictions of Muslims as monsters in visual arts and literature
within a particular era or context.
The second chapter, “Medieval Muslim Monsters,” introduces Muslim
monsters of the Middle Ages, many of which survived as tropes used to vilify
Muslims, Arabs, Jews, and Africans for centuries thereafter. This chapter introduces
monsters such as “the giant, man-eating Saracens of medieval romances
and the Black Saracens, often shown in medieval art executing saints,
harassing and killing Jesus, and murdering other Christian innocents” (p. 19) ...

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