Social representation of Islam in the West : three British studies
This study explores social representations of Islam in the West, with the empirical inquiry focused on Britain. Drawing on Said's critique of Orientalism, treated as a Western representation of Islam, the author establishes a clear distinction between Islam and its representations in the West. Said's analysis of Orientalism is related, by the author, to Moscovici's theory of social representations. Islam is dealt with in terms of cultural otherness. Culture, both as a dynamic and a heterogeneous social phenomenon, is reinstated, by reference back to Durkheim's collective representations, as an integral component of Moscovici's theory. The author investigates social representations of Islam in Britain by means of three empirical studies: (1) a participant observational study of the British security establishment in relation to interrogation by Scotland Yard of a suspect terrorist; (2) a content analysis of nine popular and quality national newspapers for the whole of 1989 in relation to the Rushdie Affair; and (3) group discussions involving members of the community at a University of London college. Representations of Islam are sought in (i) the interrogation; (ii) letters to the editors of various newspapers; and (iii) the discussion of groups considered as thinking societies in miniature. In accordance with the findings of the three empirical studies Islam is, largely, represented as a fundamentalist phenomenon. Aspects of culture such as individualism and secularism are instrumental in shaping Western representations of Islam. Results also indicate that the structure of representations of Islam persist even though the contents of those representations and the thinking societies which produce them keep changing. The media play a powerful role in generating representations of Islam. Power, like culture, also structures the social representations of Islam in the West. Culture requires the adoption of more appropriate methods of investigation, while power needs operationalisation. The study of social representations of cultural otherness remains virtually unexplored terrain.