In the first part of this on-line blog’s review of Orphan Pamuk’s SNOW, I set out to demonstrate that the novel’s structure is fairly European or Western in tradition. That should come as no surprise as, until the 20th century, novels were mostly the realm of western literature. That is, until Middle Eastern authors, like the late Naguib Mahfouz of Egypt, adopted the style, there was little in the way of novel-length fiction produced in the Middle East. This means that modern novel writing techniques, including postmodern narration and magical realism, have certainly been of great influence to modern Muslim authors, such as Pamuk and Mahfouz.
Nevertheless, from an educator’s or pedagogue’s perspective, Pamuk’s works bring much more to the table than a celebration of 20th century literary styles. Pamuk, like Mahfouz before him, also brings forward an amazing array of cultural memories that tie Russian, Ottoman, Middle Eastern and European peoples together. Specifically, he reveals both the facets of life and belief systems that appear to divide the peoples of the Eurasian land mass, including the philosophic traditions of Western European thinkers and Middle Eastern ones. This divided memory of interpreting life and experience is sometimes called a clash of civilizations, but Pamuk sees that every individual holds a clash of civilization or cultures within him over a lifetime.
By presenting a Turkey-located tale using western literary styles now-common-to many Turkish readers and to other readers of global literature in the Middle East and Europe, Pamuk constructs a bridge for the so-called sojourner across a cultural divide to be traversed by any interested parties through common study and discussion of a novel, such as SNOW--and through a study of its many manifest descriptions, scenes and peoples that represent the many souls of Europe and Asia lived out in and among individuals and communities.
In order to delve into how Pamuk’s SNOW can serve didactically to bridge divisions between Islamic and Christian histories and identities, a framework presented earlier in this decade by W. Shadid and P.S. van Koningsveld (2002) is a useful point to start.. These two authors were editing a book on the “position of Islam in the European Union” at the time of the occurrence of the 9-11 World Trade Center bombings. Beneficially, along with their critiques of Western mythology of Islam, Shadid and Konigsveld provide solutions or suggested avenues for resolving the problems caused by thenegative images of Islam in media, popular misconception, and public discourses--all which have adversely affected the discourse between Muslims and non-Muslims on the Eurasian landmass.
FRAMEWORK FOR BRIDGING CULTURAL DIVIDE
In their article, “The Negative Image of Islam and Muslims in the West: Causes and Solutions”, Shadid and Konigsveld assert that despite all the hoopla in the West over the threat of Islam, one finds primarily a myth: They charge this because Muslims have more historically in Europe “frequently fallen victim to terrorist actions carried out by right-extremist groups, rejecting them and wanting to expel them from their countries.” [p. 175] I need to add one caveat to this point: Namely, this claim by Shadid and Konigsveld may well have been much more accurate in Europe and its relationship to Muslims on the continent prior to the 3-11-04 train bombings in Madrid and the 7-7-05 attacks in London. In other words, there is more evidence these days to contradict Shadid and Konigsveld if one looks only at events of the past three years.
On the other hand, Shadid and Konigsveld’s arguments certainly continue to be valid if one sees the bigger historical picture in terms of the exclusionist politics in France, Germany, Greece, and Netherlands in the last half-century. That is, adverse social policies carried out or promoted by governments and demagogues over the past centuries are the historically accurate description ofMuslim experience in Europe over the past millennium. This includes naturally the Crusades and the Reconquista in Spain. With the exception of the Ottoman march on the West in the 14th through 16th centuries, one finds that the more apt description of Muslims and the continent of Europe is that they have been that of a threatened minority—rather than the image of a threatening Islam which is paraded before media readers and viewers now in 21st Century Europe.
Moreover, as a recent DER SPIEGEL (2006) special report on Islam emphasized time and again, for the vast majority of those émigrés originating in Islamic states, Europe’s colonial past is still considered very recent history. This is one reason why post-colonial deconstructionism is constantly called for by political Islamists. It is a topic that a variety of Turkish characters in Palmuk’s raise throughout the novel SNOW. In other words, there exist common attempts by both western and eastern post-modern authors to come to terms with how the past relates to the present. Consequently, form an educators perspective, there exists common ground of interpretation of the 21st Century world to explore, deconstruct and rebuild the future in less socially destructive ways.
In contrast to Shadid and Konigsveld, Pamuk in SNOW does, in fact, take much more seriously the Islamic threat. Nonetheless, like Shadid and Konigsveld, Pamuk does not see any unified Islamic enemy developing at all in the Middle East. Pamuk reveals this by painting multiple perspectives, portraits and identities of political Islam. By developing a great variety of characters Pamuk offers the reader the careful reader insight into the variety of interpretations of approaching Islam and the variety of ways its symbols can be manipulated to promote not only anti-western movements but how to combine elements of East and West into single characters.
Most of these SNOW-set modern Islamists or Turks, such as the main character Ka who is flirting at times with his Islamic roots and conceptions of Godare not portrayed as static, traditional or unidimensional and have been changing their attitudes on people and belief systems over the days, weeks, years and decades. For example, Ka is even toying with his spiritual side and belief in God as others, who claim to know him, are describing him as an atheist. In short, whether Pamuk’s character is the ex-husband of Ipek, Kadide (her sister), the main protagonist Ka himself, or the evolving partially-omniscient narrator of the SNOW tale himself—each character is shown wrestling actively with what they believe or don’t believe about God or religion.
In short, many Turks in Pamuk’s tales are constantly going through a variety of transformations in the way they approach, discuss and think about Islam, the West, their nation, and their own identity. However, this is not the portrait that boulevard newspapers or sensationalist film or newspaper reportages reveal these days across Europe.
The great variety of evolving character world views in Pamuk’s writing, mirrors several other arguments concerning the negative image or myths of Islam in the west. Each are fully rejected by Shadid and Konigsveld. The reflection mental and oral discourse struggles carried out by the characters in Pamuk’s work support the charge by Shadid and Konigsveld that the West should never envision such a thing as a unified Islam—whether it is in discussing the madrassas in Turkey or similar religious schools in Germany. For example, it is indirectly indicated by the narrator of SNOW that the Islamic religious milieus in each of Germany’s cities and communities are not so similar to each other. (That is why, although Ka is assassinated in Frankfurt four years after his visit to Kars, it is likely in a distant city, Berlin, where his killer likely resides.) In short, the myth of a unified Islam needs simply to be eliminated from Western interpretation of the world.
Finally, Shadid and Konigsveld also reject another popularly fabricated myth in the West. This is namely, that it is widely claimed that in Europe “Muslim authorities are more loyal to their countries of their origin and to the Muslim World in general than to their host societies. This assumption came to the surface clearly during the Gulf War and the Rushdie Affair.” [p. 176] This sort of authoritarian bent is evident in several of the characters in Kars, but all of these characters reside primarily in Turkey. Most of the Turkish émigrés, including ka or others seeking a better life for their family abroad, are more likely to be seen as fifth columnists in returning to Kars or Turkey (their homeland) than they are to be mistaken for fifth columnist in Germany or any other European country.
Moreover, Pamuk’s SNOW is filled with characters in the snowy land of Kars who, although they might reject some manifestations of European and Western identity, are just as likely to have a greater regional identity rather than a Turkey nationalist identity at most times and places. (The exception seems to be in terms of Turkish male machismo which even ka reveals at times.) These characters are often revealed to have or have had other more dominant identities beyond regional, Islamic or Turkish ones. These facets of identity include identities shaped around an Eastern and Western Turkish divide or identities shaped around upper and lower caste society behaviors and expectations.
Other dominate identities include being family oriented individual in contrast to being a state-centered one who promotes either authoritarianism or democracy in the building of a state. Moreover, there are certainly identities divided between Kurds and non-Kurds along with their identities as Turks or descendents of other religious sects, which have occupied the Kars cityscape over the millennium. Further, there are the aforementioned identities of those characters who have chosen to emigrate or in exile to other lands and those who have refused to leave their homeland at whatever personal cost. Finally, there are identity divisions between strict Islamists, stricter Islamists, political Islamists, terrorist Islamists, and non-violent Islamists. Some characters move in and out of these phases throughout their lives or even during Ka’s 4-day visit to Kars.
In summary, all four of the major western myths discussed above concerning the image of Islam and rejected by Shadid and Koningsveld are attacked by the manifest characters and situations embedded in the very complexity of Pamuk’s post-modern narration of life, set in his own homeland’s back-country. That is, a region reputedly considered more “authentically Turkish” than the Western part Turkey where Istanbul, Pamuk’s hometown, is located. This authenticity is symbolized in Pamuk’s novel by a snowbound city of Kars cut-off from the outside world and left to its own devices.
In all, Shadid and Koningsveld introduce five common models to identify the roots and results of anti-Islamic imagery in western history and popular media. These models include: (a) the communications theory or “model of unnuanced information services”, (b) a colonial theory or the “changing power relationship” model, (c) a clash of civilizations or indispensable enemy theory, (d) a model of political Islam, and (e) an emigration or increasing “Islamic population” model.
At this time, without delving to much into detail about reapplying these models specifically to Pamuk’s novel SNOW at this junction, I would first like to recommend systematic studies of Pamuk’s writings and similar Western ones applying the five models advocated in Shadid and Konigsveld’s framework. As a lifelong political scientist, educator and cross-cultural specialist, I believe that good citizenship for all would be the result if at the high school level (or even earlier) students understood these approaches to deconstructing myth in our modern world; that is, myths that hurt human relationships.
Some of Shadid and Koningsveld’s immediate recommendations for educators stem from a review of the Changing Power Relationship model. This model is important because of the influence that Eastern and Western European manifestations of Christiandom and political leaders in Europe have done to manipulate the international image of Islam.
Following their short narration of how the role of power relationships are brought forth in history and social studies textbooks in the West, Shadid and Koningsveld advocate that “historically rooted prejudices are transmitted through education, especially in children’s and schoolbooks”. They indicate various ways that this can be done: “First of all, all the negative Islam can be erased from such literature designed for youth at the same time objective and complete information about Islam and Muslims can be added to these books. Furthermore, schoolbooks can be screened according to the extent of ethnocentrism they display. In any such exercise it is of paramount importance that texts that directly or indirectly stress on the superiority of the own culture and the inferiority of the culture of others, in this case the Muslim culture, should be avoided.” [p.178]
Sadly, it is only much later in their article, i.e. when they are discussing communications theory that Shadid and Koningsveld more clearly and adequately explain what kind of “prejudices’ need to be analyzed in the media that Shadid and Konigsveld take time to reveal more specifically what sort of “prejudices” need to be eliminated in such textbooks. In doing this, they explain the conundrum of anyone editing history for the consumption of readers of any age or educational background. The problem is that oversimplification, stereotypes, and prejudices are all common formats for the basic transference of cultural knowledge among (1) generations and among (2) news media and their audiences. In short, in trying to convey complex pictures of the world in an easily digestible fashion to consumers the storyline is transmitted with biases in narration and word choice.
A recent review of British media is discussed by Shadid and Koningsveld. That review indicates that the number one problem with the transference of information about the Islamic world is the “oversimplified and static” nature or image of Islam which is presented. It is such a situation of educational or information transfer where a novel, like Orhen Pamuk’s (and writings from a variety of other Islamic born and raised authors) might be able to fill an educational gap in school curricula across Europe.
Incorrectly, the western media often presents a tale with a plot where almost all Muslims are equally as strongly religious—something far from the truth. Similarly, it is often improperly assumed in and from media reports that “religion accounts for such aspects as the inequality of women and the lack of democracy in the Muslim world.” [p.188] Such an off-key narration implies that there has never existed a historical domination of the Islamic lands by various imperial and authoritarian groups: Hogwash! It is also prominently ignored in the West that Islam is an abused tool by a patriarchal society to keep the status quo (or to strengthen the hands of men who might feel they are losing their total hegemony).
This is particularly important because Islamic lands pride themselves for being historically ahead of the West in its treatment of women up until a few centuries ago. Pamuk, in SNOW, parades several Turkish female characters—including the sisters Ipek and Kadide—who are worthy of the description of strong and independent minded heroin.
Furthermore, in the case of media-myth versus more historically accurate textbooks, there has often been the tendency for any news reporter to view comments of laymen in the Islamic world as equivalent to those the claims of experts in . This sort of profiling of all Muslims as “equal experts” on their own culture is to be considered very unfair in any educational setting. Moreover, as popular media is a major educator of the masses, we should demand more of it.
This focus by Shadid and Koningsveld on how the media propagates stereotypes and even crimes in the name of one terrorist group or another is a common thread throughout Pamek’s SNOW, too. Television, radio, and print media are taken on by Pamuk as not only poor disseminators of information but as both cause and effect of events around any community, i.e. communities unfairly affected by medias’ prejudices, simplifications, stereotypes and misinformation. For example, Pamuk reveals that the local newspaper editor in Kars, whom Ka comes to know very well on his visit there, is constantly printing its news before they actually happen. Talk about power of suggestion through power of the media! Another example of domination by media is revealed by how the community of Kars is forced to watch 24-hours a day the local TV station—a station which had been taken over by the leaders of the local coup d’tet.
Turning again to communications theory, Shadid and Koningsveld note that two other core concepts need to be understood in framing any particular image. These are the concepts of (1)“news value” and (2) “social weight” of the message. This is “why the media make eager and uncritical use of negative statements about the groups concerned when these are expressed by politicians and other important persons in society.” [p.189] This was exemplified for me quite well as I have come to realize in the last months that although nowhere in the Koran is the topic mentioned female circumcision in the media is constantly tied to Islam in western narration. Another example, of unequal weighting of news or of appealing to uninformed authority is exemplified by the media’s seeking out of politicians or poor scholars, i.e. people who have the hope of getting into the news the following day by throwing off one-liners worrying about the so-called daily threat of Islam to their identity, local society or to their children’s future.
Naturally, as Shadid and Koningsveld point out, most often a great part of the problem for western journalists is their lack of knowledge of Islam and Islamic lands. This may be why journalists are likely to confuse a religion with an individual in making comparisons or generalizations.
Happily, this is one area where both European and non-European governments and private organizations can get involved in. For example, one stereotype that I have observed even western academics in sociology succumb to are found in the media myths concerning suicide bombers and what the Koran and Islam say quite clearly on the matters of suicide and jihad. One common myth claims that a man who takes part in a suicide bombing in the name of jihad or a holy war will go to Paradise and receive 60 or 70 virgins. The fact is: NOWHERE in the Koran is such a statement about Jihad, suicides or virgins made and no majority of Muslims in any serious survey anywhere seems believe that particular weird claim--no matter how often Al-Quaida or whatever-terrorist organization in the name of Islam claims to be fact.
In conclusion, a better educated media is required and educators and public information campaigns should be undertaken to enable or empower journalists and citizens to ask tough questions of reports on Islam in the future. Naturally, reading Pamuk’s SNOW and its discussion of suicides in Islam could also be a starting point for European public schools. Opposing selectivity in providing news is what we can certainly teach young westerners regularly—whether it be in properly developing good curricula, good textbooks or whether we using and analyzing authentic media resources in the classroom. In this manner, we will be able to empower future generations by making certain that they can see more clearly through the foliage of old-begotten information, new-information and myths that have been piling up around us.
"A Europe of Two Souls", European Viewpoint in NPQ, http://www.digitalnpq.org/global_services/european%20viewpoint/11-23-04.html
DER SPIEGEL SPECIAL: POWER OF RELIGION, SEPTEMBER 2006, http://www.spiegel.de/international/spiegel/0,1518,k-7054,00.html
Shadid W. & van Koningsveld, P.S. (2002), “The Negative image of Islam and Muslims in the West: Causes and Solutions” in Shadid W. & P.S. van Koningsveld, Eds., RELIGIOUS FREEDOM AND THE NEUTRALITY OF THE STATE: THE POSTIION OF ISLAM IN THE EUROEAN UNION, Leuven: Peters, pp. 174-196.