This Is About Islam
Republished: August 26, 2007
"This isn't about Islam." The world's leaders have been
repeating this mantra for weeks, partly in the virtuous hope of
deterring reprisal attacks on innocent Muslims living in the West,
partly because if the United States is to maintain its coalition
against terror it can't afford to suggest that Islam and terrorism
are in any way related.
with this necessary disclaimer is that it isn't true. If this
isn't about Islam, why the worldwide Muslim demonstrations in
support of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda? Why did those 10,000
men armed with swords and axes mass on the Pakistan-Afghanistan
frontier, answering some mullah's call to jihad? Why are the war's
first British casualties three Muslim men who died fighting on
the Taliban side?
Why the routine
anti-Semitism of the much-repeated Islamic slander that "the
Jews" arranged the hits on the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon, with the oddly self-deprecating explanation offered
by the Taliban leadership, among others, that Muslims could not
have the technological know-how or organizational sophistication
to pull off such a feat? Why does Imran Khan, the Pakistani ex-sports
star turned politician, demand to be shown the evidence of Al
Qaeda's guilt while apparently turning a deaf ear to the self-incriminating
statements of Al Qaeda's own spokesmen (there will be a rain of
aircraft from the skies, Muslims in the West are warned not to
live or work in tall buildings)? Why all the talk about American
military infidels desecrating the sacred soil of Saudi Arabia
if some sort of definition of what is sacred is not at the heart
of the present discontents?
this is "about Islam." The question is, what exactly
does that mean? After all, most religious belief isn't very theological.
Most Muslims are not profound Koranic analysts. For a vast number
of "believing" Muslim men, "Islam" stands,
in a jumbled, half-examined way, not only for the fear of God
- the fear more than the love, one suspects - but also for a cluster
of customs, opinions and prejudices that include their dietary
practices; the sequestration or near-sequestration of "their"
women; the sermons delivered by their mullahs of choice; a loathing
of modern society in general, riddled as it is with music, godlessness
and sex; and a more particularized loathing (and fear) of the
prospect that their own immediate surroundings could be taken
over - "Westoxicated" - by the liberal Western-style
way of life.
organizations of Muslim men (oh, for the voices of Muslim women
to be heard!) have been engaged over the last 30 years or so in
growing radical political movements out of this mulch of "belief."
These Islamists - we must get used to this word, "Islamists,"
meaning those who are engaged upon such political projects, and
learn to distinguish it from the more general and politically
neutral "Muslim" - include the Muslim Brotherhood in
Egypt, the blood-soaked combatants of the Islamic Salvation Front
and Armed Islamic Group in Algeria, the Shiite revolutionaries
of Iran, and the Taliban. Poverty is their great helper, and the
fruit of their efforts is paranoia. This paranoid Islam, which
blames outsiders, "infidels," for all the ills of Muslim
societies, and whose proposed remedy is the closing of those societies
to the rival project of modernity, is presently the fastest growing
version of Islam in the world.
This is not
wholly to go along with Samuel Huntington's thesis about the clash
of civilizations, for the simple reason that the Islamists' project
is turned not only against the West and "the Jews,"
but also against their fellow Islamists. Whatever the public rhetoric,
there's little love lost between the Taliban and Iranian regimes.
Dissensions between Muslim nations run at least as deep, if not
deeper, than those nations' resentment of the West. Nevertheless,
it would be absurd to deny that this self-exculpatory, paranoiac
Islam is an ideology with widespread appeal.
ago, when I was writing a novel about power struggles in a fictionalized
Pakistan, it was already de rigueur in the Muslim world to blame
all its troubles on the West and, in particular, the United States.
Then as now, some of these criticisms were well-founded; no room
here to rehearse the geopolitics of the cold war and America's
frequently damaging foreign policy "tilts," to use the
Kissinger term, toward (or away from) this or that temporarily
useful (or disapproved-of) nation-state, or America's role in
the installation and deposition of sundry unsavory leaders and
regimes. But I wanted then to ask a question that is no less important
now: Suppose we say that the ills of our societies are not primarily
America's fault, that we are to blame for our own failings? How
would we understand them then? Might we not, by accepting our
own responsibility for our problems, begin to learn to solve them
as well as secularist analysts with roots in the Muslim world,
are beginning to ask such questions now. In recent weeks Muslim
voices have everywhere been raised against the obscurantist hijacking
of their religion. Yesterday's hotheads (among them Yusuf Islam,
a k a Cat Stevens) are improbably repackaging themselves as today's
An Iraqi writer
quotes an earlier Iraqi satirist: "The disease that is in
us, is from us." A British Muslim writes, "Islam has
become its own enemy." A Lebanese friend, returning from
Beirut, tells me that in the aftermath of the attacks on Sept.
11, public criticism of Islamism has become much more outspoken.
Many commentators have spoken of the need for a Reformation in
the Muslim world.
of the way noncommunist socialists used to distance themselves
from the tyrannical socialism of the Soviets; nevertheless, the
first stirrings of this counterproject are of great significance.
If Islam is to be reconciled with modernity, these voices must
be encouraged until they swell into a roar. Many of them speak
of another Islam, their personal, private faith.
of religion to the sphere of the personal, its depoliticization,
is the nettle that all Muslim societies must grasp in order to
become modern. The only aspect of modernity interesting to the
terrorists is technology, which they see as a weapon that can
be turned on its makers. If terrorism is to be defeated, the world
of Islam must take on board the secularist-humanist principles
on which the modern is based, and without which Muslim countries'
freedom will remain a distant dream.