Archive for September 2006
It was inspiring to see (on television) Shaikh Hassan Nasrallah address a crowd of 800,000 in South Beirut on Friday afternoon. As usual, he delivered a stirring speech, slipping easily between standard literary Arabic and Lebanese dialect, and aiming his comments at international, Lebanese and Arab audiences.
Over the last few months I have read and heard all kinds of criticism of Hizbullah in the Western media. It is hard to reconcile this with the tremendous admiration that the Arab and Muslim ‘street’ has for the organisation.
Here is my letter, which was published in the Guardian newspaper, on the fuss caused by the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad:
“Very many Muslims find themselves cringing between the charging rhinos of militant secularism and unreflective Islamism. On the one hand, the offending cartoons insult our most sacred values. This is not a question of free speech. In associating the Prophet with terrorism they only repeat in more grotesque form an allegation that has repeatedly been made. This last attack, following an endless stream of negative imagery emanating from Hollywood or CNN, and real attacks on Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan, have been too much for some of us. But it is clear that most Europeans do not understand why the cartoons are so hurtful. The response called for is intelligent engagement with the media, not violent threats. Some Muslim countries also need to ensure that their own treatment of religious minorities is exemplary, according to Islamic principles, before they complain. And if Muslim countries wish to take political action against their enemies they should start by expelling the military bases of powers occupying Iraq.”
Although I found the cartoons offensive, I found the response more so. Some British Muslims made life even more difficult for the rest of us by holding up signs praising the tube bombs of July 2005. Nigerian Muslims attacked churches. Muslims rioted, threatened, and burned.
The world would surely be a better place if people were able to be critical of their own side before they laid into someone else’s. So, as a Muslim, I’ll start:
Straightforward imperialism has been pursued under the banner of Islam on various occasions in history. In Sudan, the state’s desire to extend its reach into areas where tribe counts for more than government means that Islamic rhetoric has been used as a tool of subjugation. In Saudi Arabia, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Shia Muslims face varying degrees of persecution for simply worshipping in the way they feel best. In Nigeria, Muslims have frequently taken out their political bad temper on their Christian neighbours (and vice versa). I could go on and on. The Muslim world is a mess.
If the Pope had condemned the treatment of Christians in Saudi Arabia he would probably still have provoked an angry reaction among the lunatic fringe of Muslims, but I for one would have supported him. It’s part of his job to defend Christians around the world, and by pointing to their oppression in some Muslim countries he would have encouraged a necessary debate among Muslims. If he’d made some kind of general statement that all religions must take care to interpret their scripture in the most positive and peaceful way, that Muslims and Christians and Jews have all at various times used religious language as they commit crimes, there would be no problem.
One of my correspondents has suggested that islamist economic policy cannot improve the dire social conditions of Muslim countries. I think it is being overly generous to islamism to think that it has an economic policy, or any kind of policy at all. Beyond vague promises to implement sharia law (and there’s a concept that means very different things to different people), islamism is best understood by what it is not. It is a rhetorical function rather than anything of substance.
Of course, there are as many different islamisms as there are contexts in which it thrives. Sunni and Shia islamism, right and left islamism, peaceful and violent, macho and feminist, and so on. Perhaps one good way to divide islamisms, however, is into two kinds: islamism to protect established power and islamism to challenge it.
Islamism which protects established power is the older form. The West complained less about it, because the West was happy with the status quo. The classic manifestation of this kind of islamism is the Wahabism of Saudi Arabia, which takes Ibn Taymiya’s anti-Shia, anti-Sufi, anti-innovation discourse to ever more puritan lengths, and which designates the Al-Saud family as guardians of the doctrine. So long as the Sauds suppress religious diversity, demolish shrines, allow full rein to the religious police, they are free to make whatever decisions they wish on the country’s oil wealth and foreign alliances. The king is ‘wali al-amr’ and it is part of religion to obey him.
A friend expressed the opinion that the Arabs need more women leaders. I don’t agree that having women in charge automatically makes things better. Thatcher, Indira Ghandi, Golda Meir, Madeleine Albright, Condoleeza Rice all prove that women can be every bit as power-crazed, militaristic and ruthless as men. And I think that the Arabs need leaders full stop, men or women. But the general point, yes, of course I agree with. There aren’t enough women leaders in the Arab world. My friend’s comment set me thinking though, about prominent and admirable Arab women. So here’s a quick list of some contemporary Arabat who I think have made a difference.
Martin Amis has written an ignorant, monomaniac and hysterical essay about what he calls ‘Islamism.’ You can read it here.
He makes all kinds of ridiculous assertions. For example, “Today, in the West, there are no good excuses for religious belief.” So there you are: all you Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, non-aligned-but-aware-of-the-spiritual types, all of you non-atheists in the West – you have no excuses! So that’s tidied up. Amis has sussed you (just like I thought I has sussed all the stupid believers when I was a teenager), and that’s all there is to it. No need to explain further.
But Amis’s target is Islam. He trots out the usual insulting idiocies. Genital mutilation, honour killings and wifebeating are taken as representative of Islam and Muslims, in the same way that the most unhinged Wahabbi preachers take heroin addiction and child abuse as representative of the Crusading West. Amis concedes that all religions have their terrorists, but says: “we are not hearing from those religions. We are hearing from Islam.”
It was two weeks into the Israeli blitz against Lebanon. Was it about to escalate to include Syria, where most of my family, and my wife’s people, live? My wife’s best friend, Randa, had already lost 22 members of her extended family under the rubble of their southern Lebanese village. The kind of epic tragedy, like Iraq and Palestine, that I follow on the internet for several hours a day, and get emotional about. But on this occasion, I couldn’t do so. I was booked in for 10 days of meditation at a retreat in Herefordshire. Fate decreed withdrawal from the war. No internet. No TV. No newspapers. No contact with the outside at all.
And no contact with the other meditators. We had to agree to maintain ‘noble silence’ for the duration: no talking, no physical contact, no eye contact.
Ten days of silence at the end of a hectic summer. I’d travelled in Iran from the migrainous Tehran traffic to the desert peace of Yazd, experienced a spiritual moment in Shiraz’s Nizam ul-Mulk mosque, and another by a spring in a mountain village, spliff in hand, taking a step back from my chattering voice, and observing it. I’d seen Kandinsky’s revelations in London and the Kirov ballet in Petersburg. I’d been racially profiled by a Finnish border guard, and felt how much more uncomfortable it’s become to be an Arab and Muslim in Britain. After all these environments, all these preoccupations, it was time to detach myself.