Thursday, April 14, 2005

The Islamic Simulacrum

West Africa Review (2000)
ISSN: 1525-4488
in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s Into Africa

Thomas E. R. Maguire

Into Africa, the BBC/PBS six-part series hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., displays the rich heritage of African society at every corner of the continent. Unfortunately, in the eyes of many, Gates failed to enhance popular culture with a revised and radical view of Africa. Instead, he reinforced many of the negative stereotypes of Africa and its diverse culture. This paper deals with the way that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. portrays Islam negatively in a manner similar to the traditional and modern manifestations of Orientalism. Using the concept of simulacrum, as introduced by Jean Baudrillard, I will identify the existence of an “Islamic simulacrum” that functions to vilify the Islamic world through Western media. By “Western media” I refer to the English language media in the United States and the United Kingdom where Into Africa was broadcast. In addition, I will examine the deeply intertwined “postmodern simulacrum” that maintains Orientalism and Western domination through rhetoric of pluralism and tolerance. Due to the obscure and endlessly shifting meaning of “postmodern,” it is necessary to specify that I use the concept as Ahmed S. Akbar defined it in Postmodernism and Islam. I will show the ways that the postmodern simulacrum appropriates marginal discourses within Western society to replace traditional figures of domination in the ongoing process of Orientalism. The body of the paper will systematically identify the ways in which Into Africa functions in the postmodern simulacrum as Afrocentric Orientalism. In a separate critique of Into Africa, Ali Mazrui accused Gates of “Black Orientalism”. I prefer the paradoxical term, “Afrocentric Orientalism”, because it specifically refers to the appropriation of Afrocentricism as a marginal discourse. On that note, the use of this term should not be mistaken as an indictment of that discourse, or viewed as a suggestion that Into Africa is an Afrocentric text. Molefi Kete Asante, a pioneer of Afrocentrism, actually referred to the film series as “a Eurocentric enterprise”. In conclusion, I will briefly address the broader issues regarding the relationship between Islamic and African civilisations that Henry Louis Gates avoids through his negative portrayals of Islam. However, this paper is primarily about Into Africa’s complicity with the representation of Islam in Western media, and not the diverse history of Islamic expansion into Africa.

The Islamic Simulacrum
Jean Baudrillard identified an epistemological crisis in contemporary media- drenched society with the concept of the simulacrum, the accelerated circulation of images without referents, a hyperreality operating independently of truth value. In spite of the disputed and ill-measured depth to which the simulacrum immerses members of society, its deceptive tides fail to breech the shores of representation--it deals primarily with the circulation of images and not other epistemological sources. As the majority of Western people wade through its currents, some are apprehensive, heeding the warning, and some are careless, occasionally being swept away. Perhaps Baudrillard is a Noah without an ark, proclaiming an invisible flood without a means for salvation, or an academic charlatan, swimming through the air, pitying the drowned. Despite the occasionally messianic tone of Baudrillard’s philosophy, and his disputable claims that simulacrum envelops society, the concept of simulacrum does identify a concrete process through which the media can deceive by projecting signs and images which distort the reality to which any given representation corresponds. In cases of radical alterity, where individuals acquire knowledge of a given subject primarily, or entirely, through the media, simulacrum becomes the sole epistemological force.

Media representations of the Islamic world provide a convincing example of this phenomenon. In Covering Islam, Edward Said explores the American news coverage of Islam in the late seventies and early eighties. Within a matrix of military dictatorships and fundamentalist coups, Said examines the underlying geopolitical strategies at work in the representations of the Islamic world. The portrayal of Islam as a monolithic mass of “barbarism.medieval theocracy.[and] distasteful exoticism” weaves itself neatly into a social panic regarding the Middle Eastern control of the United States’ oil supplies (Said, 1981: xv) Though the increasing “coverage” of Islam in 1970s marked a new wave of representational attacks, the history of ethnocentric and xenophobic Western attitudes toward Islam can be traced deep into the roots of modernity. In his landmark work, Orientalism, Said traces the history of Western approaches to studying, describing, and engaging the Muslim world. For hundreds of years, the principal dichotomy established between West and East was the true religion of Christianity versus the false religion of Islam. Europe viewed Islam as a religion with an identical structure to Christianity except Christ had been replaced by the impostor, Mohammed. The very term which designated the religion of Islam in Western discourse bursts with misunderstanding. Islam was externally titled, “Mohammedanism,” a misnomer that would stay in common use well into the twentieth century. Two very basic and ubiquitous teachings throughout the Muslim world are the prohibition against the worship of any man, including the prophet Mohammed, and the reverence of Jesus as one of the greatest prophets of God. Such self-representations of Islam were either ignored or consciously considered irrelevant by Orientalists in the West. Though the religious character of Orientalism has subsided with the secularisation of Christendom, its orientation toward Islam as a monolithic object for study has remained. Regarding the opposed abstractions of “Aryan” and “Semitic” that appeared in late nineteenth-century Orientalist scholarship, Said notes,

“.what has not been sufficiently stressed in histories of modern anti-Semitism has been the legitimation of such atavistic designations by Orientalism, and.the way this academic and intellectual legitimation has persisted right through the modern age in discussions of Islam, the Arabs, or the Near Orient. For whereas it is no longer possible to write learned (or even popular) disquisitions on either “the Negro mind” or “the Jewish personality,” it is perfectly possible to engage in such research as “the Islamic mind,” or “the Arab character”.” (1978; 262)
As the underlying racism and ethnocentrism of Orientalism has come to inform the media representations of Islam through the late twentieth century, new oppositions have developed to replace the religious dichotomy of past centuries. The secular, rational, democratic, and modern self-image of the West sees its opposite in Islam, the great and dangerous impostor of a benevolent global civilization.

The image of Western society as the bastion of democracy, tolerance, and secular pluralism can be easily challenged with any number of incidents demonstrating the enduring racism and viciousness of neo-imperialism. However, in the media, the images of Western benevolence dominate, constituting what might be termed the postmodern simulacrum, with the Islamic simulacrum in contemporary media currently standing as its major opposition.. In Postmodernism and Islam, Akbar S. Ahmed identifies the qualities of postmodernism that compose this simulacrum. Included in his definition of postmodernism are the following criteria:

“.a questioning of, a loss of faith in, the project of modernity; a spirit of pluralism; a heightened scepticism of traditional orthodoxies.a rejection of a view of the world as a universal many profound ways the media are the central dynamic, the Zeitgeist, the defining feature, of postmodernism.[it] allows, indeed encourages, the juxtaposition of discourses, and exuberant eclecticism, the mixing of diverse images.” (Ahmed, 1992; 10-11, 25)
Ahmed also asserts an explicit connection between postmodernism and “ethno- religious revivalism--or fundamentalism” (1992; 13). The development of fundamentalist assertions of identity deeply intertwine with the transnational unification of postmodernism. Though the fundamentalist phenomenon has occurred worldwide irrespective of religion, economy, or political system, the media focus on fundamentalism has unfairly centred on religious movements within the Islamic world. Indeed, fundamentalism has become a code word for Islam that can be broadly applied to any one of the world’s one billion Muslims. Thus, within the rhetoric of pluralism and tolerance of postmodernity, there is a major exception in the representations of Islam.

The Islamic simulacrum marks a modern extension of an ongoing strategy of Western cultural domination. Neither Said nor Ahmed attempt a blanket defence of the charges put forth against Islam in the mass media. Instead, they demonstrate the inaccuracy of the monolithic structure imposed over Islam by the various organs of Western power. When the practices and effects of traditional Orientalism are juxtaposed with those of the Islamic simulacrum, there is very little difference besides the ability for postmodernism to shift from icons of eurocentrism to those of pluralism and humanism in its tactics of vilification. For instance, instead of Islam being attacked as an impostor religion of Christianity, Islam may now be frequently attacked for its “negative treatment of women”. The Muslim woman’s hijab, or veil, has become a symbol of oppression in the West. However, the diversity of opinions and practices within Islam regarding the veil receive little attention, nor does the hijab’s relatively marginal position within the faith. Islam has also been charged with the elimination of indigenous ethnic identities in various regions. Even though such criticisms have appeared within the postmodern simulacrum, it would be highly disputable to assert that postmodern Western society has done anything significant for the liberation of women or the protection of indigenous cultures from the negative effects of global civilization. The ideals of Islam can make as many claims to the protection of women and ethnic identities as can Western humanism. When marginal voices speak after centuries of imposed silence, they can easily be regarded as indicators of an absolute change. However, within the postmodern simulacrum, they can simply transplant a progressive face onto an ongoing process of domination. Many aggressive criticisms of Islam in the media derive their social impact from such a process.

Though the Islamic simulacrum functions in a unique way in the propagation of ethnocentrism, it exists as one of the many heads of a polycephalous monster. The enduring racism against peoples of the African diaspora continues through different simulacra. In the United States, the demonisation of black people operates much as it always has in Western culture, but only in distinct realms of transgression which can be officially sanctioned by rhetoric of legal equanimity; overt racism is unacceptable. The paranoia inspired by the O.J. Simpson trial contained every possible invocation of savagery, but only within a rational logic of crime and punishment. Outside these realms of transgression, a simulacrum of equality exists which asserts the passing of racism and the full integration of African Americans into American prosperity. Despite unemployment and poverty rates in the black community that often equal or surpass those of the entire nation during the Great Depression, a belief in the disappearance of racism continues to grow in the U.S. Though the latter simulacrum represents a distinctly postmodern phenomenon, the prior originates in the centuries-old practice of dehumanisation that rationalised and justified the slave trade. In Into Africa, the six-part series produced for BBC in the United Kingdom, and PBS in the United States, Henry Louis Gates travels through various parts of Africa in an attempt to shatter the depictions of the continent as a land void of civilization and culture. He explains that, “it’s important to debunk the myths of Africa being this benighted continent civilised only when white people arrived. Africans have been creators of culture for thousands of years.”(BBC online, 2000) During his journey, however, Henry Louis Gates travels to many parts of Africa which have interacted with both European and Islamic civilization. In his attempt to extract a history of “Black Africa” from these diverse cultures, he reinforces many of the elements of the Islamic simulacrum, thereby adding Into Africa to the arsenal of postmodern strategies to discredit Islam.

Into Africa
Into Africa is divided into six one-hour episodes with the following titles and content 1) The Swahili Coast: exploring the East African Swahili trading civilization 2) The Road to Timbuktu: travelling along the Niger River toward the fabled Islamic university at Timbuktu 3) The Black Kingdoms of the Nile: venture down the Nile River into the lands of ancient Nubia 4) The Slave Kingdoms: examining West African roles in the slave trade 5) The Holy Land: a pilgrimage through the great sites of Ethiopian Christianity 6) The Lost Cities of the South: reassessing the ancient history of South Africa and Zimbabwe. The first three episodes deal with Islamic Africa.

The Swahili Coast begins with Henry Louis Gates arriving in Lamu, a Swahili coastal town, quoting one of the first European mariners to arrive in East Africa, commenting on the wealth and sophistication of the Swahili, most likely a great contrast to his expectations of a land populated with savages. Gates declares his intention to determine the “roots of the Swahili people”, who still have a “distinctive Muslim culture.” The camera films several veiled women walking down the street as Gates mentions that, “for 2,000 years Arab merchants have settled on this coast. You can see their influence everywhere. There seems to be a mosque on every street corner.” This generalisation of Islam, which will continue throughout this episode, utterly ignores that Islam arose in Arabia just over 1400 years ago. Soon after, he goes to meet with Sheikh Bedawi, “one of Lamu’s most venerable Islamic scholars.” During the conversation, Sheikh Bedawi, somewhat light-skinned but clearly African, claims that he is of pure Arab descent, tracing his ancestry to the prophet Mohammed. He also explains that he tries not to look badly upon those with African blood. His translator adds that Arab men used to take African women as concubines, which led to African people being considered inferior. Leaving Lamu by boat, Gates says, “whatever Sheikh Bedowi says, that supposedly pure Arabic blood has long been mixed with the blood of Black Africans.” In this first encounter with Islamic Africa, the image of Islam progresses from veiled women, mosques, and a Qu’ranic school to bigotry, concubines, and confused identity, neatly reaffirming the Islamic simulacrum.

Gates continues his journey along the Swahili coast by visiting a town that specialises in the construction of dhals. Gates visits a local architect, Ahmed Sigoff, who also traces his ancestry to the prophet Mohammed. He describes the way that Arab men frequently married African women, with the reverse, African men marrying Arab women, only occurring occasionally. He affirms the higher social standing accorded to those members of the community with Arabian descent. In conclusion to this conversation, Gates states that the situation in Lamu “reminds me how black Americans used to claim descent from some distant Cherokee or Sioux ancestor, anything but pure Negro.” With this statement, Gates draws a parallel between Swahili and African-American cultures. The justification for such a parallel is dubious within the evidence provided in the episode. Beyond the possibility for highly divergent interpretations of what “pure Negro” might mean in each culture, Gates oversimplifies the complexity of ethnic friction in the United States and Kenya under a common banner of “blackness”. Gates makes a legitimate claim that the Swahili culture should not be entirely credited to Arabs. However, he inappropriately uses “Islam” and “Arab” as interchangeable signifiers. When Gates next travels to Shanga, the remains of the oldest city in coastal East Africa, his guide explains that the lowest strata of the town resembles archaeological remains of inland settlements, proving that the first inhabitants of the city were black Africans. One of his guides, Mohammed Badi, explains that, 2,000 years ago, the Arabs arrived and gained power gradually through intermarriage. However, Gates never addresses the fact that the arrival of Islam in Arabia arises six hundred years after the initial contact. The significant ways in which Islam transformed Arab culture, including a strong emphasis on equality irrespective of ethnicity, never enter his discussion of Swahili culture. The elision of these conflicts within the Muslim world itself allows the monolithic model of Islam to stand unchallenged. Later, when he’s leaving the island of Lamu, he notes that “the Arabs weren’t the only ones who came to exploit the coast. The British were here from the late nineteenth century up to 1960. They gave special privileges to those who claimed Arab descent, deepening racial divisions.” The extent to which colonialism may have contributed to the ethnic tension previously described at Lamu receives no critical attention.

While the issues of ethnic identity directly relate to the project of Into Africa, Gates makes a clear effort to include images that reinforce the Islamic simulacrum in other ways. After returning from the archaeological remains at Shanga, Gates plays a board game with his other guide, Abus Shakoona. After discussing Abus’ perspective on his ethnic identity as a mix of Arab and African, the conversation turns to the subject of Abus’ marriage to two women. Abus explains that Islam allows a man to marry up to four wives. Gates explains, “I would rather [my daughters] have two husbands than them to be one wife to a husband with two wives.I’d rather them be in control.” So far, Islamic gender relations have been described as a combination of polygamy and concubinage, and Gates clearly asserts his opinion that Islam disempowers women with the statement about his daughters. The next stop for Gates is Mombassa, a large port city and a major destination for European tourists. Walking along the beach, Gates comments on the disturbing racial polarity between the white tourists and the African servants. A moment later, he states, “it’s no accident that the people from Oman and the Saudi-Arabians would move here.leaving all that desert and heat, but this is spectacular.this is so beautiful.” Not only does this statement make an untenable connection between Arab traders and European tourists, it reeks of the malicious depiction of a foreign land that Into Africa attempts to destroy. When Gates travels to the archaeological remains of the Swahili city of Getti, he reinvokes the notion of female oppression in Islam. Standing in an arched inlet of the remains of Getti’s fifteenth- century mosque, Abdullah Alailsi, the curator, recites the fatiha, the first verse of the Qu’ran and an oft-repeated element of salaat, Muslim prayer. After finishing, they continue a conversation as follows:

Abdullah: So with the help of the echo, as you realized, the message will be conveyed and received very simultaneously. And for that, those women at that time had no complaints at all. Right, they could hear him very vividly.

Gates: They couldn’t see him as well.

Abdullah: They couldn’t see him but they could hear him. The front part of it was entirely meant for men and the hind part was specifically kept for the ladies.

When Gates veers from his stated mission of reconstituting a stolen African past and swerves into unrelated representations of Muslim culture, he continually reinforces the Islamic simulacrum. After Abdullah’s statement that men and women are separated in Muslim prayer services, there is no treatment of this issue beyond Gates’ insinuated disapproval. After his tour of Getti, Gates comments that “unlike the British archaeologists, Abdullah says Getti was an African city built by Africans. This grand city was built by the Swahili. And here, on the mainland of Kenya, the Swahili are seen as Africans.” This glides over the fact that the Swahili in Mombassa, and those who built Getti, are Muslims. Gates is only interested in the colour of the builders, and not a revised picture of the African/Arab cooperation that Getti might demonstrate.

The final destination in The Swahili Coast is the island of Zanzibar, which grew rich during the eighteenth and nineteenth century by trading spices and slaves. The conflicts of ethnic identity are at their ugliest in Zanzibar. The island has witnessed great civil unrest in recent decades as the phantoms of its history have risen violently. Gates returns to many of the ethnic identity issues previously addressed, only this time linking them to the slave trade. Gates travels to the village of Kizimkazi where he talks to two black men who consider themselves Persian. Unlike the residents of Lamu, they possess no family trees and offer a rather poor verification of their Persian identity. However, a twelfth- century mosque with Khoufic inscriptions remains in the village that testifies to an ancient Persian presence on the island. Gates once again parallels the experience of Swahili Muslims to African Americans by stating,

“so it’s true that the Persians really did settle in Zanzibar -- just as the Arabs, and later the Indians did. But why do so many people here claim to be the descendants of a handful of medieval Persian mariners? It’s a bit like me claiming to be white because my great-great- grandfather was an Irishman named Brady.I think the answer lies in the shadow of Zanzibar’s history, as the centre of the East African slave trade.”
Despite the historical links and similarities between Zanzibar and the black Atlantic, the conflation of the two histories in such a matter again oversimplifies the ethnic identity issues at work in East Africa. In passing, as evidence of the island’s prosperity in the nineteenth century, Gates explains that the sultan of Oman moved to Zanzibar in 1940 with his court and his 99 concubines—another icon of the Islamic simulacrum, the harem, coming into play. He concludes by talking to a descendent of Tiputip, a famed Swahili slave trader, about the island’s sad history. Her unconvincing defence of the Arab role in slavery only emphasises the Arab participation in the institution, though Gates attempts no sweeping indictment of Muslims as slavers. In conclusion to The Swahilil Coast, Gates says, “it’s taken my people 50 years to move from ‘Negro,’ to ‘Black,’ to ‘African-American.’ I wonder how long it will take the Swahili to call themselves ‘African.’” With this statement, the Swahili no longer have the right to identify themselves as Muslims. According to Gates, they must purify themselves from Arab influence and redefine themselves within the domain of “Africa.” In the end, Gates comes very close to affirming one of the great Orientalist maxims, the oft-quoted position of Karl Marx that, “they cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.”(Said, 1978; xiii)

The Swahili Coast presents a version of East African history that could be classified as Afrocentric Orientalism. In The Road to Timbuktu, and The Black Kingdoms of the Nile, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. affirms the Islamic simulacrum in more subtle ways than the obvious misrepresentations of Swahili culture. He begins his sojourn to Timbuktu by explaining the reverence felt by African-Americans for the fabled city. The very existence of Timubuktu as a major centre of learning in West Africa disproves the myths of savagery imposed on black people throughout the period of European expansion. Recounting the old tales of Timbuktu he heard back in his neighbourhood barber shop, he quoted some men as saying, “there’s shit in these books that the white man don’t want us to know about.” The quest for that knowledge drives Gates on his trip to Timbuktu. Though the great Mali empire which Gates describes, and its university at Timbuktu, were Muslim, he pays minimal attention to the Islamic identity of either. Unlike The Swahili Coast, there are few representations of Islam or ethnic difference as he travels along the River Niger. Even when he encounters modern slavery by Tuareg nomads, who are very likely Muslim, he makes no mention of religion. The first explicit Islamic reference comes in his description of the fourteenth century king Monsamoosa’s hajj , or pilgrimage to Mecca, with 500 slaves, each carrying a staff of pure gold. He makes no criticism of Monsamoosa or his practice of slavery. Gates visits the twelfth century mosque at Djenne, a giant and impressive building made entirely of mud. The Imam of Djenne agrees to speak with Gates in front of the mosque. When Gates asks permission to enter the grand building, he is told that the only way he may enter is by becoming Muslim. His responds, “if I become Muslim, I want four wives.” Though this is clearly meant as a joke, and taken as such by his company, Gates again invokes polygamy as a symbol of Islam. Gates acknowledges the development of literacy in Mali with the arrival of Arabs and Islam, but also displays evidence of much older civilisations. There is validity in his goal of disproving a European claim that civilization only came with the Arabs, but again he focuses on negating Western racism by appropriating “Africa” in toto. When he finally reaches Timbuktu, he finds, as expected, a city centuries in decline from its peak. His guide, Ali Seedie, a Muslim scholar, shows him several of the centuries-old books from his family’s personal collection that remain as a legacy to the great university. Gates concludes the episode, saying, “the mind of the black world locked into the pages of these priceless books. Evidence of a grand civilization, untranslated and unknown.” The final remark again resonates with Orientalist tones. These books certainly testify to the greatness of the old Mali empire, but also to Muslim civilization, which endures to this day, despite the implication that the books are “unknown” because they have not been translated from Arabic. It is important to note however, that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. obtained a grant from the Mellon Foundation to catalogue and translate the books from Timbuktu. In a response to Ali Mazrui’s criticism of Into Africa, Gates argues that “the film series would have been justified, in my opinion, if this accomplishment had been the sole benefit that generated.”(West Africa Review, 2000) Though this claim has validity in regard to this significant benefit, it is still important to assess the harms of the film series. Even though The Road to Timbuktu lacks explicitly malicious representations of Islam, Gates assumes the posture of traditional Western academic scholars in dealing with the “otherness” of Muslim society.

In The Black Kingdoms of the Nile, Gates again encounters the Islamic world, continuing many of the Afrocentric Orientalist themes from the previous episodes. Gates delves into the history of Nile civilisations in an attempt to show the major role that Black pharaohs played in ancient Egypt. This episode presents convincing evidence for the major role of black Africans in ancient civilization and the racism that has prevented Western archaeologists from acknowledging it. However, the ethnographic elements of the travelogue address Islam in predictable ways. Gates explains that the Egyptian construction of the Aswan damn buried much of ancient Nubia under water. He notes that many African- Americans objected to the damn at the time of its construction because they considered it racist. His guide, Esra Dahab, a Nubian, expresses her anger at the loss of the geographic source of Nubian civilization, but she fails to confirm or deny the charge of racism. She takes Gates to a village that was specifically built for the flood refugees, where he notes that “Islamic terrorists” had killed 68 tourists several weeks beforehand. Esra introduces him to a woman who experienced the move when she was a child. Initially, she explains that the benefits of the damn outweigh the costs, and that she has no pain from moving. However, she expresses some nervousness because an Egyptian police officer is standing nearby. After he leaves, she affirms that people were sad when they left the land and that she misses it. Gates suggests that she has been “programmed.” Later, when Gates is in the Sudan, where a proposed damn could wash away more ancient Nubian lands, he makes similar inquiries to Sheikh Ashi, who, with his brother, runs a Qu’ranic school that would face devastation if the damn is built. The man expresses some regret, but again suggests that the damn would bring many benefits to the area. Gates asserts that Sheikh Ashi is also afraid to speak his mind, a questionable psychological assessment considering the actual line of questioning. When Gates enters the Sudan for the first time, he says, “all we ever hear about the Sudan is that it’s in a state of civil war, it has a fundamentalist Islamic government and it hates Americans. So I’m kind of nervous.” In one breath, Gates affirms the existence of the Islamic simulacrum; with the next, he justifies it. Toward the end of the episode, explaining the position of a Nubian politician, he says, “she believes that because the Nubian people are so fiercely independent, they’re a threat to the fundamentalist government.” His portrayal of the Islamic societies of the Nile region as racist and oppressive is consistent with the images of fundamentalism in the Islamic simulacrum.

Afrocentric Orientalism
The concept of Afrocentric Orientalism could only arise amidst the shifting cultural icons of postmodernity. Besides the continual reinforcement of the Islamic simulacrum, Gates’ sympathy towards Christianity throughout the series offers a stunning contrast to his depiction of Muslims and the West African cultures he explores in The Slave Kingdoms. In the United States, where the series aired under a different title, Wonders of the African World, Gates has been attacked repeatedly for his uneven leveling of blame on Africans for the slave trade, with very little attention given to European involvement. While in Zanzibar, Gates expresses disillusionment with the Anglican attempts at atonement for slavery. In his discussions with Canon Garda, a Christian leader in Zanzibar, he only speaks of his inability to forgive the slavers. He refuses to address any of the ethnic identity conflicts embedded in Christianity. In The Holy Land, Gates almost performs a total elision of the Muslim presence in Ethiopia. He states, “after surviving nearly 2,000 years the Christian kingdom was overthrown in the 1974 Marxist revolution. Today, Ethiopia is secular and is a democracy, with almost as many Muslims as Christians.” Though the Muslim presence in Ethiopia dates back fourteen centuries to the time of the prophet Mohammed, when a Christian Ethopian king offered sanctuary to the early Muslims who were persecuted in Mecca, this statement suggests that the arrival of Muslims to the country is relatively recent and insignificant. He also refers to “Muslim invaders” and to Ethiopia being “protected from Islamic neighbours by formidable mountain ranges.” While travelling through the Sudan, Gates comments that “the Nubians were Christians for 1200 years before they became Muslims in the sixteenth century. Some even took part in the Crusades.” The transcription of this statement does not capture Gates’ deepened voice at the grave pronunciation of “Muslims”, or the celebratory way in which he refers to the Crusades. Edward Said exposes the deepest roots of Orientalism as a paranoia stemming from the conflict between European Christianity and Islam. Henry Louis Gates upholds these fundamental elements of Orientalism within an Afrocentric framework.

The paradoxical nature of Gates’ Afrocentric Orientalism stems from the very mission of Into Africa, the reclaiming of African history from the racist framework imposed by European colonialism. Though the series succeeds in reinventing the image of Africa without some of its traditional stereotypes, Gates succumbs to the same illness that afflicted other Africanist movements of the twentieth century. Biodin Jeyifo suggests that Into Africa engages in the “reconfiguration of Senghorian negritude”, explaining,

“.every single claim or assertion that can be made about Africa is premised on the obsessive need to refute the doubts already established by the Western world about those claims and assertions.this was the animating spirit, the motive force of Senghorian Negritude: whatever Africa is, or is not, can be established only with reference to the doubts and phobias about Africa established in the minds of Africans themselves and the rest of the world by Western racism and ethnocentrism.The point of the objections to negritude of course was that in becoming locked into that dialectic of discourse and counter-discourse with Western racism and ethnocentrism, negritude gave too much ground to the West, it allowed Western frames of ideas and discourse to dictate the terms of discussions of the African past and present, and worst of all, sometimes negritude even became no more than an inversion or caricature of Western ideas of what it is to be human or ’civilized.’“ (West Africa Review, 2000)
V.Y. Mudimbe tracks the rupture in discourses of colonialism and domination that attempted to define Africa on its own terms. (Mudimbe, 1988) African scholars who attempted the counter-discourse with the West often found themselves in an uncomfortable intermediate position between Western academic systems and their respective African cultures. The use of Western thought and languages by African scholars still remains a difficult issue for the self-representation of Africa within global contexts. Gates comes from a very traditional Western academic background (Yale, Cambridge, Harvard) and he maintains its general structures with the exception of its generally demeaning depiction of Africa. Gates continually makes comparisons between Africa and Europe through the six episodes of Into Africa, as if the two regions are distinct poles of a radical dichotomy which he intends to equalise. In Getti, he shows that the Swahili possessed toilets which rival those he has seen in Europe. When arriving at the mosque of Djenne, he says, “it looks like something from outer space, but for me, it’s as sublime as the cathedral at Notre- Dame.” The latter statement confirms not only the positioning of Africa and Europe as dichotomous opposites, but also the cultural distance from which Henry Louis Gates views Muslim West Africa. Gates appropriates every culture, person, and artefact that he encounters for his reconstituted vision of Africa within a Eurocentric definition of civilization.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. allows the anti-Islamic structures of Orientalist academia and postmodern media to rest unchallenged in his documentary of Africa. During his voyage, he often resembles the very European travelling scholars whose legacy he wishes to dispel. He presents Islamic Africa as a monolithic mass with a confused self-identity. He ignores the deep variations and practices of African Muslims and their relationship to a global Islamic civilization. Though Into Africa may help resuscitate the self-image and historical pride of people scattered throughout the African diaspora, it also suggests that Islam stands as a threat to any healthy reconstituted image of Africa or an African future. However, from E.W. Blyden, to Franz Fanon, to Kwame Nkrumah, Islam has always been considered a necessary partner in the development of pan-African unity and liberation. In addition, Islam has played a major role in African-American history, from the Muslim slaves who made up an estimated ten percent of all those who were brutally imported to America, to the steady rise of converts among black Americans in the twentieth century. (Gardell, 1996, p. 32, 214-215) These elisions reduce the potency of Into Africa as a treatise against the Eurocentric positions. Instead, the series adds another marginal discourse to the vilification of Islam, enhancing the power of the postmodern simulacrum to retrofit Western imperialism.

Abdullahi Osman El-Tom, “Drinking the Koran: The Meaning of Koranic Verses in Berti Erasure,” in Peel, J.D.Y. and Stewart, C.C. (eds.), Popular Islam South of the Sahara, Manchester University Press, 1985

Ahmed, Akbar S., Postmodernism and Islam: Predicament and Promise, Routledge, London, 1992

Baudrillard, Jean, Simulacra and Simulation, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1994

Gardell, Mattias, In the Name of Elijah Muhammad: Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, Duke University Press, Durham, 1996

Harrow, Kenneth W. (eds.) Faces of Islam in African Literature, James Currey Ltd., London, 1991

Lewis, Bernard, “The Crows of the Arabs,” in Gates Jr., Henry Louis (ed.), “Race,” Writing, and Difference, University of Chicago Press, London, 1986

Mudimbe, V.Y., The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge, James Currey, London, 1988

Said, Edward W., Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient, Penguin Books, London, 1978.

_________ Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1981

Trimingham, J. Spencer, The Influence of Islam Upon Africa, Longmans, Green, and Co Ltd, London 1968

Into Africa with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., BBC, 1999

Official BBC Into Africa website, including transcripts of the six episodes.

Official PBS Wonders of the African World website.

West Africa Review, 1:2, January, 2000 Special Issue Dedicated to Wonders of the African World.


© Copyright 2000 Africa Resource Center

Citation Format

Maguire, Thomas E.R. (2000). The Islamic Simulacrum in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s Into Africa. West Africa Review: 1 , 2. [iuicode:]

** Table of Contents

0.1. The Islamic Simulacrum
0.2. Into Africa
0.3. Afrocentric Orientalism
0.4. Conclusion
1. Bibliography
1.1. Filmography
1.2. Webography


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