The Perils of Portraying Islamism in Arab literature

I typed "Islamism: it's complicated" into Google's image search, and this is what they gave me.

It was a few days ago now that Al Masry Al Youm ran my “5 Books on: Views of Islamism in Egypt.”

The piece was for an Egyptian publication, and so the discussion was largely confined to books by Egyptian authors. But, as part of my poking around on this topic, I emailed with Abir Hamdar, one of the organizers of the “Islamism in Arab Fiction and Film” project that held its conference this past February.

Hamdar said that the impetus of the project was that:

We wanted to investigate the portrayal of Islamism and Islamists and the extent to which the stereotypical representations transmitted in Western politics, media and culture hold true. We also wanted to question whether these Western representations are echoed or deconstructed in their Arab counterparts.

One thing I was curious about was the difference in portrayals of Islamism by Arabs writing in Arabic (Tahir Wattar’s The Earthquake, Mohamed Mansi Qandil’s Moon Over Samarqand) vs. Arabs writing in French (Leila Marouane’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris) or English (Laila Lalami’s Secret Son).


On the one hand, yes, there are differences between representations of Islamism in Francophone and Anglophone Arab works and those published and produced in Arabic. Representations of Islamism in Francophone and Anglophone works seem to be aligned with the clichéd representations consistently put forth in the West. Thus, Islamism is synonymous with terrorism. Islamists come from deprived backgrounds, are uneducated, sexually repressed, violent and fanatical. This is especially the case in many Francophone works by North African writers and filmmakers (Algeria more specifically). Having said that, the experience and configuration of Islamism in Algeria is completely different from, say, that of Egypt and Lebanon. Islamism in Algeria is linked to the country’s bloody history, particularly its civil war. Still, Algerian works produced in Arabic offer a more complex and nuanced portrayal of Islamism (for example the works of El-Taher Wattar and Yasmina Saleh).

However, she added, just because a work was written in Arabic didn’t necessarily make it more complex. “This is especially true of works from Saudi Arabia where the Islamist fits every stereotype we hear in Western discourses.”

It is worth repeating that Dr. Rasheed el-Enany, who was a keynote speaker at the Islamism in Fiction and Film conference, still doesn’t believe that anyone can write about religion in Arabic. But certainly some authors are giving it a go. Khaled al-Berry, I believe, really wants to look into religion from all aspects.

So, the Scylla and Charybdis in literature are the same as in politics, where Scylla is cleaving to Anglo-American stereotypes of Arabs and Charybdis is avoiding the topic of religion, allowing oneself to be limned in by fear and self-censorship.