Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (Review)

Book cover for "Covering Islam" by Edward W. Said.Title: Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World

Author: Edward Said

Publication Year: 1997 (originally published: 1981)

Pages: 272

Genre: Non-Fiction

Source: Bought from BMV used bookstore

From the cover:

From the Iranian hostage crisis through the Gulf War and the World Trade Center attacks, America has been haunted by a specter called “Islam”. As portrayed in the news media – and by a chorus of government, academic, and corporate experts – “Islam” is synonymous with terrorism and religious hysteria. At the same time, Islamic countries use “Islam” to justify unrepresentative and often repressive regimes.

In this landmark work, for which he has written a new Introduction, one of our foremost public thinkers examines the origins and repercussions of the media’s monolithic images of Islam. Combining political commentary with literary criticism, Edward Said reveals the hidden assumptions and distortions of fact that underlie even the most “objective” coverage of the Islamic world. In so doing, Covering Islam continues Said’s lifelong investigation of the ways in which language not only describes but also defines political reality.

This book caught my eye in the BMV used bookstore when I went with Amy and Niranjana a few weeks ago, and I just had to pick it up. I’ve read bits and pieces of Said before, but never a full-length work. Given the focus on Islam for this month, I thought that this would be a good place to start.

Covering Islam was originally published in 1981, and it really shows in Said’s focus throughout the book. Most of the examples are related to the Iran hostage crisis, including a rather large section using it as a case study. There is other emphasis on such events as the first Gulf war, and – seemingly added in to later editions – analysis of events up until the early-mid 1990s, but no later than that. Because of this, the book is a rather specific look at how Islam and the Muslim World were portrayed pre-9/11 and all of the other things that have gone on since then.

Something that I found really interesting, but might be off-putting to some, was the highly academic style of Said’s writing. The entirety of Covering Islam reads like a formal thesis, which is good in terms of the logic of his arguments, but can be difficult to follow if you don’t have the opportunity to put your complete and utter focus into reading it and really understanding what he is saying. Here’s an example, from one of Said’s concluding paragraphs in a chapter discussing academic studies of Islam and the Middle East:

Since the middle 1980s, however, studies of political Islam – most of them aggressive studies of fundamentalism, terrorism, and antimodernism as principal aspects of Islam – have flooded the market. Most of them draw on a handful of scholars (like Bernard Lewis) to mobilize popular opinion against the “threat” of Islam. In this way the scholarly constituency perpetuates itself, while the clientele for Islam as news continues to get the massive doses of Islamic punishment, gratuitous violence, terrorism, and harem capers it has been fed for decades.

In general, I would recommend Covering Islam, but for specific purposes. If you’re looking for an overview and dissection of (mostly) American media attitudes towards the idea of “Islam” and of Muslim countries in the Middle East, this would be a great book. However, you should do so with the knowledge that it is an older analysis and would be best followed up by a more recent analysis. Said’s focus is predominantly on the overarching media attitudes towards “Islam” and how it affects specific countries that the United States has to deal with, so it’s also not the ideal work to go to if you’re looking for depictions of specific groups, such as media portrayals of Muslim-Americans rather than “Islamic” mobs in Tehran.

All in all, though, it was a very interesting book to read as part of a broader focus on the Middle East and Islamic issues.


This book is a part of the Ramadan Reading event happening here this month.

You can find other posts in the series by clicking on the image to the right, or by taking a look at the schedule of posts and reviews.

4 thoughts on “Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (Review)”

  1. It sounds like this book would be so much better if it was given an update. So much has happened in the past 9 years that involves the media and Islam that updating would really benefit the field of study. I get so frustrated with the media in general in their portrayal of events, but when it comes to Islam, Muslims, and the Middle East, they are particularly bad.

  2. This sounds like it would be interesting, though I would like to have something more recent at hand to read for afterword. The style doesn’t seem like it would bother me too much, as I frequently like more academic reads. Great review!

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