Orientalism, the term invented by the late Edward Said and the title of his culminating work of scholarship, anticipated today's almost total breakdown of understanding between the West and “street” Islam, the Islam of the masses in Africa, the Middle East, and Indonesia. The problem as Said saw it was an historical tendency on the part of Westerners to romanticize and in some ways infantalize Islamic culture -- “orientalizing” it -- and in the process, giving it a unitary appearance that, up close, is a complete illusion.
Even before Said wrote, the experience of being Muslim had become so geographically dispersed, diversified, and internally conflicted, no single individual or group could claim sole authority to interpret the Prophet or Islam's essential record of his teachings, the Quran (Koran). Now, with the rise of an “angry” Islam that appears intolerant of everything, including the West but also sizable portions of other Muslims, Said's problematic needs restating: the primary problem now is not the West's ignorance (though that still pertains), but rather mainstream Islam's inability to recognize itself or speak for its interests in a way others can productively respond. So the “street” rules. Burning embassies, stoning dissidents, and ultimately killing those who disagree, however, is not a formula for persuasion: it is an invitation to absolute retribution by the rest of the world.
The population of self-identified Muslims now exceeds one billion persons spread around the world, but concentrated in the nations of North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and Indonesia, with sizable populations in Western Europe and smaller communities in North America. Like Christianity and Buddhism, which preceded Islam -- a religion with fairly recent origins -- Islam has gone through seismic turmoil resulting in deep internal divisions. The most famous of these schisms is between Shi'ite and Sunni Islam, a dispute based (as is so often the case in religious conflicts) on who the true descendants of Mohammed, the original Prophet, might be.
Be that as it may, Islamic society today projects a collective persona that's always on the defensive. (In this, it's very similar to evangelical and conservative Christian sects that claim a hostile world is out to destroy their repressive Kingdom of God.) It wasn't always so: in it's initial sweep across the Middle East and Spain, Islam founded a “golden age” culture that confidently developed medicine, astronomy, music, architecture, mathematics, theology, and other intellectual streams that led to the Renaissance, humanism, and (in Al-Andalus, known today as Andalucia) remarkable religious tolerance.
For the next thousand years, there remained Islamic bright spots despite the Mongol depredation and ruinous wars of conquest by the Ottoman Turks. India under the Muslim Mughals was a gem of civilization.
But now, there is no center to Islam, as Mecca and Baghdad once were. And over the centuries, conservative Muslim clerics have proven the dire enemy of cultural and economic progress. Hand in hand with Western colonialism interests, they've kept Islamic culture largely frozen in the 15th Century, while their resources -- and their most innovative citizens, including tens of thousands of Christians and Jews -- have been exploited by more dynamic societies.
With most of the West ignorant about Muslim society, and Islamic society itself so fractured as to be unable to speak with a clear voice, the presentation of Islam has been left to extremists in each camp: denigrators in the West and firebrands in the Islamic “street.” What a travesty.
A culture with a legacy as noble as any is reduced to cartoon caricatures by those who place press freedom above simple respect for other traditions, and Muslims are now known best for violent demonstrations, destruction of property, and people dying for no better reason than to protest cartoons. (Inviting cartoons about the Holocaust, as an Iranian publisher has done, doesn't even the score. It merely distorts the images of Muslims and Jews in each others' eyes, and makes all parties look pathetic in the eyes of the world.)
This is not how I would design the experience of Islam for my fellow Americans or Westerners anywhere. But it suits the needs of those who benefit by xenophobia, social hysteria, and violent conflict, including the truly powerful (and carefully invisible) economic forces who do best in these situations. This is not a formula for understanding. It is a formula for continuing strife that reminds everyone of the Crusades, another experience contrived for political gain in the name of religious ideals, an experience that resulted only in hatred, human suffering, and lasting hatred.