Islam and Sociology: A Critique of Anthony Giddens’ Textbook, Sociology

This paper is a critical review of Anthony Giddens’ book, Sociology, an introductory sociology textbook. It specifically looks at references to the Arab world and Islam within the text showing changes between different editions over time. It is an empirical study, a discourse analysis, about Western views of the Middle East. It is not, however, just any Western view, but the view from Anthony Giddens, one of the most prominent and influential sociologists in the world today.
The first edition of Sociology was published in 1989, the second in 1993, the third in 1997, the fourth in 2001, the fifth in 2006 and the sixth in 2009. The textbook has sold over a million copies worldwide since the first edition was published by Polity Press, a publishing company co-founded by Giddens himself. From the first to the sixth edition of Sociology, there is a steady increase of coverage, or mention of the Arabic and Muslim world, although the term “Arab” is hardly ever used. The analysis included the citations of all Arab or Muslim countries and peoples or Arab leaders as well as terms such as Muslim, Islam, Islamic revolution, Koran, Sharia, Taliban, and so on. By way of comparison, I also looked at references to Jews, Judaism, Israel, holocaust, anti-Semitism and so on. The analysis focuses on a comparison between the 1st, 4th and 6th Editions. These are the more significant because the 4th Edition was a major revision of the text that included a much more substantial number of references to the Middle East and Islam. The 6th Edition is the latest and the one mostly now used in teaching. What follows is an analysis of the relevant sections within the 3 editions, highlighting the emphases and, in my view, unbalanced perceptions comparing the coverage of Islam and Jewish or Israeli examples.


In the 1st Edition, there are no references to Arabs or Muslims in the chapter on “Race and Ethnicity”, but many on the discrimination and persecution of Jews in relation to ethnic minorities; to “blacks or Jews” in relation to prejudice and stereotyping; and to prejudice and anti-Semitism in relation to the research by Adorno on the authoritarian personality.

In the 4th (and 6th) Edition, “Ethnicity and Race” was replaced with “Race Ethnicity and Migration”. In the chapter of the 6th Edition, there is a reference to Jews and Muslims (among others) as victims of scapegoating. Further reference is made to the Jewish population in England before the industrial revolution, to European Jews in England as refugees from Nazi persecution and reference to the Nazi Holocaust.

Islam is mentioned in the context of terrorism, Ottoman Turks in relation to the Armenian genocide, Muslims from Pakistan and Bangladesh as post-WWII migrants to the UK, Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks that raised concern about race and ethnicity globally, and three polls, from Germany, Holland and Spain that asked whether migrants from the Middle East were good for their countries (in Germany 57% said “no”; Holland was 50-50; in Spain 67% said “yes”).

In the process of focusing on these comparisons, it seems clear that there is a consistent view of Jewish and Israeli history presented in a benign way, or presenting them as victims. By contrast, almost all references to Muslims and Islam are in connection with something socially, culturally or politically problematic, to say the least.


The 1st Edition chapter “Education, Communication and Media” had no references at all to Arabs, Muslims or Jews.

In the 4th Edition, however, a new chapter, “Mass Media and Communications” discussed Baudrillard’s idea of “hyperreality” in relation to the television coverage of the Gulf War. Under the subheading, “Resistance and alternatives to the global media”, Giddens observed that the virtual monopoly of the Arab satellite network, Arabsat, in 21 states changed after the 1991 Gulf War, marking “the Middle East a centre of attention for the global media industry” and satellite channels spread throughout the Middle East (p. 481).

Following the above quotation, Giddens adds, “Iran has been the staunchest opponent of the Western media, branding it a source of ‘cultural pollution’ and the promotion of Western consumer values” (p. 774). Citing the work of Ali Mohammedi (Nottingham Trent University in England) Islam Encountering Globalization (2000), it is suggested that the “traditionalist” resistance to Western media in Iran and Saudi Arabia has not held sway in the rest of the region (p. 774).

The second revision in the Media section of the 6th Edition is the inclusion of the historic rise of Al Jazeera and provides a reasonable balance of critique and support from other authors that Giddens uses. However, he cites Jacqueline Sharkey’s (head of the school of Journalism at the University of Arizona) criticism “that Al Jazeera is overly sensational, and shows too much violent and emotionally charged footage from war zones, as well as giving disproportionate coverage to fundamentalist and extremist groups” (ibid).

This is a curious statement that goes unquestioned by Giddens. Is it that Al Jazeera supports these groups, or is it that they have better access to them? The statement is not clear. Giddens only comments by saying that sensationalist stories are typical of television in order to attract viewers, but he writes that “it may be objected that Al Jazeera is simply reflecting its audience in the same way that Western stations also do” (ibid). This could be interpreted in two ways: either that they can be criticized along with Western television because they pander to their viewer ratings, or because their Arab and Muslim audience prefer to see the blood and guts and it therefore says something about their macabre proclivities – or both.

On the other hand, citing other researchers, Giddens refers to Al Jazeera as having “played an influential role in breaking open state control of the Middle East media, encouraging open debate” and in changing social and political discourse in both the Middle East and the West, “where digital viewers can tune in for an alternative perspective on global events” (ibid). He does grant Al Jazeera the status of a broadcaster presenting “the facts”, but simply “an alternative perspective”.

Perhaps the most concessionary new inclusion in the Media chapter of the 6th Edition is an additional study by the Glasgow Media Group.[1] It is from a more recent 2004 study from “Bad News Israel” (by Philo and Berry) that showed a significant bias towards Israeli perspectives, particularly on the BBC1.[2]Importantly, Giddens explains the findings of the study that showed that Palestinian attacks were described as “terrorist” attacks “but when an Israeli group was reported trying to bomb a Palestinian school, they were referred to as ‘extremists’ or ‘vigilantes’” (p. 748).


In this chapter, all three Editions remain basically the same in the brief description of Judaism, Christianity and Islam as the monotheistic religions. It is worth noting however, that the short history of Christianity emphasizes its Judaic and Hebraic origins, “as a sect of Judaism”. Under “Judaism”, Giddens writes:Until the creation of the state of Israel, not long after the end of World War Two, there was no state of which Judaism was the official religion. Jewish communities survived in Europe, North Africa and Asia, although they were frequently persecuted – culminating in the murder of millions of Jews by the Nazis in the concentration camps during the war. (p. 455, 1st Edition; 534, 4th Edition; 685-6, 6th Edition)

On the one hand, this may be seen as an objective factual statement, but it does also imply that the creation of Israel at the expense of the Palestinians was justified because of their tragic experiences.

One small difference between the editions is that in the 1st Edition at the end of the section on Islam, it states in brackets “For a brief discussion of Muslim beliefs, see the section on Islamic Revolution below”; in the 4th Edition this is changed to “…see the section on Islamic Fundamentalism”; in the 6th Edition the directive is absent altogether. I am not quite sure of the significance of this, but referring the reader to Muslim beliefs in a section on the Islamic Revolution or Islamic Fundamentalism does seem a little odd.

In the 1st Edition, there is a subsection, “Current Developments in Religion – Islamic Revolution”, that includes a discussion and further subsections on “the development of the Islamic faith”, but which concentrates upon the breakaway Shiism (and Khargism) in Iran.[3]

Similarly, the next section on “Islam and the West” also has most of its focus on Iran and its influence in fostering “Islamic fundamentalism” and “Islamic revivalism” as a reaction to the eighteenth and nineteenth century defeats of Islam in Europe and North Africa. In particular, the late 19th Century defeats, Giddens argues, led to “reform movements seeking to restore Islam to its original purity and strength” (p. 472). This was the backdrop to the revolution:

The revolution was fuelled initially by internal opposition to the Shah, Mohammed Reza, who had accepted and tried to promote reforms of modernization modelled on the West – for example, land-reform, extending the vote to women, and developing secular education. (ibid)

All of which was reversed under the Ayatollah Khomeini, but nothing critical of the Shah was mentioned. Nor did Giddens give any explanation that, following the nationalization of the oil industry (in 1951), the UK and US conspired in 1953 in the overthrow of the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh to install the compliant authoritarian Shah. Interestingly, the 1st Edition section offered a more liberal and reformist view of Sunni Muslims, pitting them against the Shia. Giddens wrote:

The Sunni Muslims follow the ‘Beaten Path’, a series of traditions deriving from the Koran which tolerate considerable diversity of opinion, in contrast to the more rigidly defined views of the Shiites. Sunni doctrines have themselves changed considerably, particularly since the expansion of Western powers over the last two or three centuries. (ibid)

This reference to Sunnis, however, was taken out entirely from the 4th and subsequent editions. Indeed, in the 6th Edition one could be forgiven for thinking that the only form of Islam is Iranian revolutionary Shiite fundamentalism.

The 4th Edition under Religion updated events in Iran, detailing three groups, the radicals, conservatives and pragmatists as well as the rise of Mohammed Khatami to the presidency and the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei following the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 (from the work of Zubaida) (p. 560). It also added a new section, “The Spread of Islamic Revivalism”, which remained in the 6th Edition, but with updates on Iraq and the U.S invasion in 2003 as well as U.S. action in Afghanistan. In this latest edition, he also questions Huntington’s “clash of culture” or “civilization conflicts” thesis, arguing that conflict is more about “access to scarce resources and struggles for political power and military dominance” (p. 713-4).

In the Religion chapter, there is also an interesting set of image changes between the editions. In the 1stEdition there are no photographs and only a few drawings, cartoons, some graphs and maps. There are no illustrations at all in the “Religion” chapter.

In the 4th Edition, however, where the three monotheistic religions are explained, a photograph has been inserted with the caption: “A devout Jew reads the Torah” (p. 534). Around 7 pages later, there is a photo of a Hare Krishna kitchen in London to illustrate the Hindu section (p. 541); a photo of a female priest in the section on women in the Church of England (p. 544); a photo of a man carrying a large wooden cross on a beach in Florida that depicts “Religion in the United States” (p. 550); and then in the section under “Islam and the West”, there is a photo of a very large billboard poster in Tehran showing the Ayatollah Khomeini, the Ayatollah Khamenei and the then president Hashemi Rafsanjani (p. 559), followed by a full page of a map showing the countries where Islam is in power and in opposition (p.561).

In this regard, the 6th Edition is a complete revision again. Clearly, the financial success of this publication is evidenced in its indulgence of colour photos, maps, shaded boxes and so on. In the “Religion” chapter, the photo of the “devout Jew praying” has been removed and nothing replacing it in that section, but there is a nice coloured map of the world showing where the different religions are mainly based (p. 687), a nicer colour photo of a female Anglican priest, but then, under “Religious minorities” there is a full page shaded story from the Guardian: “In Poland, a Jewish revival thrives – minus Jews”. But strangely, the photo under the story is of orthodox Jews in Jerusalem dancing the Hasidic “dance of happiness” (p. 701). Turning over, there is a full page of a table showing the “Jewish population in Europe, 1937-94” (p. 703). Gone is the 4th Edition’s map of Islamic countries, but it is replaced with a half-page map showing “The number of European Muslims originating from specified countries and total Islamic population of European destination countries circa 1990” (p. 704). On the one hand, this map may be seen simply as a balance to the table of Jews in Europe. On the other hand, however, it is a different style of illustration entirely. The arrows showing the trajectories from Muslim countries to England and Europe may be interpreted (perhaps from a European perspective) as “descending upon” or an “invasion” of Europe, for it is typically this type of map that is used for such purposes.

Under “Islam and the West” the photo of the Ayatollahs is again reproduced, but this time in colour.


In the 1st Edition of this chapter the reference to the Arab or Muslim world is only a mention of Saudi Arabia as the only country where women were not allowed to vote. Otherwise, the differences of political systems, structures of power and authority were entirely centered on the West versus the Soviet Union (as West versus East), still reflecting the Cold War climate of the time.

In the 4th Edition, now titled “Government and Politics”, a new section on “Nationalism and modern society” introduced Anthony Smith’s notion of “ethnies”, where “nations tend to have direct lines of continuity with earlier ethnic communities (ethnies)” (p. 443). Here Giddens gives the example of Jews as a 2000 year old “ethnie”:

Like most other nation-states, Israel was not formed from just a single ethnie. The Palestinian minority in Israel traces its origins to a quite different ethnic background and claims that the creation of the Israeli state has displaced the Palestinians from their ancient homelands – hence their persistent tensions with Jews in Israel and the tensions between Israel and most surrounding Arab states. (ibid)

The political, conceptual and empirical remoteness of this statement suggests that the “claims” of the Palestinians are subjective, controversial and that is all there is to it. In the interests of brevity for an introductory text, it still cannot be justified. Giddens goes on to explain the idea of “nations without states”, where all the trappings of a nation exist (i.e. ethnies within larger states, but with varying degrees of autonomy) but which lack recognition and where force is used to deny recognition. Here again, he uses Palestinians as an example, “Until the recent development of the peace process in the Middle East [presumably 1994 Oslo accords], the Palestinians were a clear example of such a group” (ibid). While many had already given up on the Oslo process by 2000 (although the final status negotiations did begin in that year after a 4 year delay), Giddens appears to have had a hopeful view and as such he at least does not seem to be openly hostile towards Palestinians.


In the 1st Edition, there is only one page devoted to “Terrorism”.  However, in the 6th Edition there are 7 pages with a much more nuanced discussion, identifying old and new forms of terrorism.

In the 1st Edition, he prefaces the discussion by writing:

We can only understand what has come to be called terrorism against the background of the internal pacification of states… Terrorism acquires a particular significance within modern states, precisely because governments claim a monopoly over the right to use violence – as a threat against other nations, or in actual wars – for political motives. (p. 361-2)

Explaining that many terrorists (such as the IRA) see themselves as legitimate and often refer to themselves as “soldiers”, Giddens then goes on to explain that “States have been responsible for far more outrages against human dignity and life…than…insurrectionary groups” (p.362); but he then goes on to say, “For the purposes of clarity, however, it is perhaps best to reserve the term ‘terrorist’ for those who specifically set out to challenge the authority of states” (ibid). Still, it is clear that Giddens is not entirely comfortable with that for he acknowledges that terrorists can become legitimate “governing authorities”, citing the example of Israeli government leaders who had been terrorists (“participated in terrorist activities”) - and the PLO that is seen by Palestinians as a legitimate government “although it has supported acts which other states regard as terroristic” (ibid).

In the 6th Edition, Giddens acknowledges that terrorism “is a notoriously difficult term to define” and admits the adage that “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter” (p.1057). He repeats the 1st Edition’s example of Israeli leaders who were once terrorists (and who are now “part and parcel of the ‘war on terror’ and regards terrorism as its primary enemy” – ibid); and he goes on to use Nelson Mandela as another example; but, in contrast with the 1st Edition, the PLO are now absent as a legitimate authority!

To reserve the label of “terrorist” to non-state actors because it is easier (for clarity) is hardly a plausible justification for the decision. In both the 4th and 6th Editions is a discussion about the role of the state and whether we can identify “state terrorism” (this term is only used in the 6th Edition). 

Regarding “state terrorism” in the 6th Edition, Giddens changes his argument somewhat. He poses the question: “Is there such a thing as ‘state terrorism’ or is this a contradiction in terms?” (p. 1057) Giddens introduces the example of the gratuitous Allied bombing of Dresden in Germany at the end of WWII during which hundreds of thousands were killed, acknowledging that it was an act “precisely to create terror and fear in German society and thereby weaken the resolve of its citizens to carry on the war. Is this terrorism?” he asks (ibid). But he goes on to say, “Nonetheless, it is sensible to restrict the concept of terrorism to groups and organizations working outside the state. Otherwise, the concept becomes too close to that of war more generally” (italics in the original) (ibid).

Happy that he has found a “neutral definition”, he sums it up by writing, “In other words, terrorism concerns attacks on civilians to persuade a government to alter its policies, or to damage its standing in the world” (ibid).

Only in the 1st Edition are “guerrilla movements” mentioned. They are distinguished because they tend only to attack military targets (by contrast, “terrorists” act against civilian targets, but the “distinction is blurred in practice” – p. 363) and there is reference to “Islamic groups” resisting the Russians in Afghanistan. Following this, however, are one and a half pages with two tables: the first table (p. 364) lists “major acts of terrorism” in the year between April 1985 and 1986, taken from Social Studies Review, March, 1987. Out of the 20 incidents listed with the dead and injured, 1 action was by the Red Army Faction, 4 were by unknown assailants and the other 15 were all by Palestinian-related groups. The second table lists “some of the principal terrorist groups active during the last decade”. Out of 26 groups, the largest were Palestinian groups (7) and the others included Irish, Basque, Breton and Corsican nationalist movements as well as revolutionary socialist and anti-capitalist factions (p. 365-6). These tables were not reproduced in subsequent editions.

In his distinction between old and new types of terrorism, Giddens argues that the old type primarily concerned nationalist movements that attempted to establish their own states against those that had been arbitrarily drawn up by the imperial powers. These are particularly post-colonialist struggles and with exclusively local territorial ambitions. He notes that, “most forms of old-style terrorism are linked to nations without states” (p. 1058) but although he had previously allocated the Palestinians in this category (p. 1039), they are not mentioned again here.

The “new terrorism” basically relates to “the scope of its claims”, and it typically uses sophisticated communications technology and operates at a global level. The archetypical new terrorist organization is of course Al-Qaeda and the last few pages of the book are devoted to an analysis of Al-Qaeda and how it operates internationally, curiously comparing it to many NGOs. The only other example given is the “Libyan involvement in the bombing of a passenger plane that landed on the Scottish village of Lockerbie in 1988” (p. 1059) in order to illustrate that new terrorism, like NGOs also need contacts and support from nation states.

Out of the 8 photographs in this chapter, 5 are related explicitly to Muslims, 4 of them being on terrorist acts by Muslims.

The first is the only photo of “happy” Muslims in the whole book and shows the celebratory dancing in the Kosovo capital of Pristina following their declaration of Independence in 2008 (p. 1031).

The second photo shows Muslims in Karachi, Pakistan “burning the Danish flag after a Danish newspaper published controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad” (p. 1033).

The third photo shows the plastic covered bodies of the children killed at a Russian school by Chechen Muslim “rebels” (p. 1037).

The fourth photo shows “British-Asian” women showing some embroidery as an example of “hybrid social identities” (p.1044).

The fifth is a (1943?) photo of Jews being marched off through the streets by German Nazis to the Treblinka concentration camp (p. 1051).

The sixth is a photo of one of the twin towers in New York exploding from the 9/11/2001 attack (p.1056).

The seventh photo shows the wreckage of a London bus that was bombed n the 2005 attacks (p.1056).

The eighth photo shows the permanent anti-terrorist metal barriers constructed outside the Houses of Parliament in London after 9/11 (ibid).


Not all references to Israel and the Arab and Muslim states pertain to the controversial religious, cultural or political issues mentioned above. For example, there is a throwaway line on water resources in the chapter on the environment that “the Israeli-Palestine conflict is at least partly about securing supplies from the river Jordan” (p. 166), a rather gratuitous observation that tells the reader nothing about who is taking water from the Jordan and who has rights to it (although he does make judgments in the cases of China in Tibet and Sudan in Darfur). Other brief references to Islam throughout the book maintain a particularly negative set of images, without much respite, such as “Islamic suicide bombers” along with Japanese Kamikaze pilots (p. 16), “Islamic terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001” (p. 100) and so on.

Also in the 6th Edition the broader discussion of the “underclass” is taken from the Poverty, Welfare and Social Exclusion chapter of the 4th Edition and placed into the Stratification and Social Class chapter. The text itself does not change much, but the dramatic difference is the new inclusion of a photo of a Muslim family with the caption: “Does the American theory of an underclass make sense in the context of European societies? Consider these Muslims outside a mosque in Whitechapel in East London: is it race, class or something else that keeps them living there?” (p. 456) Then on the following page a box insert (taken from the BBC news) is an article on “The creation of a Muslim underclass in Germany?” with a photo of angry Turkish demonstrators (one wearing a Palestinian kafiyeh around his neck and a black headband with scriptures from the Koran on the front)(p. 457).

Another interesting change in the 6th Edition is the inclusion of a shaded box section on “Can bureaucracy be defended” in the chapter on “Organizations and Networks”. Giddens again takes the opportunity to cite Zymund Bauman’s (1989) Modernity and the Holocaust in which he argues that bureaucratic development facilitated the Jewish holocaust. This is illustrated with a half-page photo of the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Finally, in the Methods chapter of the 4th and 6th Editions, Giddens’ example of oral history uses Holocaust survivors as witnesses.


When it comes to the issues covered in Giddens’ Sociology concerned with Arabs, Islam and the Middle East, the decisions to use particular issues and examples seem to be at least partly based upon the sensationalist conservative mainstream press, only marginally backed up by scholarly sociological analyses and few from Arab scholars. It is by no means an “enlightened” text on Middle Eastern issues but focuses upon many critical conflicts and concerns of the Western political regimes and conservative Western mass media.

The differences that I have highlighted between the editions show a clear shift from from the 1st Edition that was perhaps at that time an attempt to provide a balanced and objective coverage of the controversies that are consistent with its theme of Globalization. But, in my view, they fall far short. When it comes to the Arab and Muslim world, there is a clear bias that portrays Islam (with very little reference to Arabs as such and no acknowledgement of the existence of Christian Arabs) as fundamentalist, aggressive, authoritarian, misogynist and so on.

By contrast, Jews are repeatedly portrayed as victims of pogroms, persecution and genocide while Israel is a peaceful and safe haven state for Jews who have suffered for two thousand years. The Israeli state simply “came about” and the “tension” with the Palestinians is merely a question of “claims” by them that their land and properties have been and are continuously being stolen from them, without mention of the ongoing repression and violent acts of state and settler terrorism.


[1] This was referred to in the 4th Edition, but only in relation to biased reporting of industrial strikes in the UK – it is curious that they were not included in the first edition because the study was published in 1976

[2] This Giddens could have argued earlier was a reason for Arab states banning the BBC, but this will not be pursued here.

[3] In the 4th and all subsequent editions, however, all references to Khargism have been erased.