Remember "Orientalism," that landmark book by the late Columbia University professor Edward Said?
The 1978 work put the fear of God into any Western scholar who dared to discuss Islam, Muslims, or Arabs in anything less than superlatives — and it has succeeded beyond Said's wildest dreams.
In a prescient new book, "Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents," author Robert Irwin notes that "because of the possible offense to Muslim susceptibilities, Western scholars who specialize in the early history of Islam have to be extremely careful what they say, and some of them have developed subtle forms of double-speak when discussing contentious matters."
What goes for academia has been happening in a more dramatic fashion in the press, literature, and the creative arts, where death threats, death sentences, and actual murders of writers, artists, and intellectuals have taken a toll.
Bottom line: You can't talk about Islam, not really. Those transgressing are hounded like hunted animals.
The persecuted British-Indian author of the 1988 book "The Satanic Verses," Salman Rushdie, is a refugee here in America. Nearly two decades later, he's still living under a death edict issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini the year after the book came out.
A more recent refugee is the Dutch-Somali writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who is facing death threats of her own in the Netherlands after collaborating on a film about the oppression of women in Islam. One of her collaborators, the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, was assassinated in Amsterdam in November 2004; a knife pinned a note to his body that said Ms. Hirsi Ali was next. Islamic history is served up airbrushed in academia, and the result is a public denied knowledge. The reason many in the West are so surprised by the Sunni-Shiite split now tearing apart the Persian Gulf is that few know the history of early Islam, when a bloody succession to the Prophet Muhammad yielded that split 13 centuries ago. The storm around the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad last year was a perfect example of what happens when willful ignorance and self-censorship come together.
To this day, self-censorship about Islam is the norm. The only works that study, analyze, and teach Islam are those by politically correct Arabs, Muslims, or a few "vetted" Westerner scholars who know where not to go.
Edward Said's obsession was, of course, Palestine and the Jews. But his sweeping condemnation of all scholarship by Westerners as basically racist affected further academic endeavors. It took the tragedy of September 11, 2001, to begin reversing the intimidation. In a review of "Dangerous Knowledge" in the March issue of the Atlantic Monthly, the writer Christopher Hitchens notes that Western scholars and authors "have adopted the strategy of taking Islam's claims more or less at face value." Such undue deference, coupled with a fear of retribution, has led to a situation where "even a relatively generous treatment of the life of the Prophet Muhammad, such as that composed by [the French Middle East scholar Maxim] Rodinson, is considered too controversial on many campuses in the West," and puts "readers or distributors in real physical danger if offered for discussion."
If you follow the money, you'll discover quickly that the intimidation continues. Oil-rich fundamentalist Arab regimes, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar have put big money into spreading their version of Islamic history.
Take two donations to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an organization that has participated in its share of sinister activities. In June 2006, it was announced that Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal — supposedly a friend of America who built his multibillion-dollar fortune partly through owning Citibank and Apple stocks — will fund a $50 million CAIR project "to create a better understanding of Islam and Muslims" in America.
Surely the prince, who has scores of American advisers, knows how controversial CAIR is. Yet he is giving it $50 million to interpret Saudi militant Wahhabism, making it "accessible" in America.
The other multimillion-dollar donation to CAIR came from the Al Maktoum Foundation, the prime money-distribution arm of the ruling family of Dubai, also supposedly a friend of America.
We cannot afford such hypocrisy. The West is engaged in a major confrontation with Islamic terror, in which much of the Islamists' ammunition is coming from the charities, schools, teachings, and treasuries of Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Gulf. There is no need to hold America's door open to them.