The Book Club

The Scary, Prevailing Thinking of Islam Today 

 

Dear Geraldine, Judith, Ted, and Chris,

I’m struck that Judith homed in on the self-pity for which Armstrong makes herself a mouthpiece. Whether this has been the dominant strain in Muslim thinkers’ encounters with the West throughout the ages—and there is, of course, ample evidence that it has not been—it certainly predominates in the current, Islamicist climate. Osama Bin Laden’s discourse in particular is given over to this kind of whining, particularly in the recent statement in which he at once pooh-poohed and slyly took credit for the death of 5,000 innocents in New York. The Arabs, after all, had suffered much worse—most grievously 80 years ago, when they were granted self-determination for the first time in centuries. Bin Laden’s rant was like a mix of “Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen” and Monty Python’s “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch. (“We used to dream of livin’ in a corridor … Woulda been a palace to us!”) And this from the man who is, as Andrew Sullivan has noted, the closest thing to a trust-fund hippie the Arabian Peninsula has yet produced.

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To say “Islam is Self-Pity” is probably as oversimplified as saying “Islam is Peace.” But there is, among Western Muslims, an alarming lack of sympathy with America’s war on terrorism and a willingness to scapegoat the West for the evil terrorists do. (Look at this poll from London’s Sunday Times, for instance.) And my reading has left me worried about a strong strain of fellow-traveling by elite Muslims, whom one had hoped would have at least an ear open to Western concerns. Here I’m thinking above all of the Pakistani Cambridge professor Akbar S. Ahmed, as close as one can come to an ambassador of Islam to the West. His books are published by London-based I.B. Tauris, probably the world’s major publisher for cutting-edge Muslim thinkers. Ahmed has taught at Harvard and Princeton. The book I read, Islam Today: A Short Introduction to the Muslim World, won the Los Angeles Times’ Best Nonfiction Book of the Year award a couple years ago and was praised by the late Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Runcie, for its “lucidity and learning.”

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That lucidity and learning are generally put in the service of showing what a much better way of life Islam is than Western Christianity (which is, of course, not really Christianity at all, but godless hedonism traveling under an alias). There’s nothing wrong with holding these opinions; most people will be partisans of their own religion. But shame on those who take passages like the following for either “bridges to understanding” or “dispassionate scholarship”:

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Although Western ideologies [Ahmed writes] seem mainly to be rooted in a vision of the world as secular, democratic and ordered by the need to acquire material goods for a satisfactory life, whereas those of Islam are motivated primarily by religious belief, the picture in practice is not so simple and clear. It is further confused by elements of both philosophies in each camp. Many living in secular material societies [notice the elision here?] openly challenge them; many look back to traditional beliefs and seek answers in religion or ethnicity or the tribal group. Similarly, many of those who live in Muslim societies pay only lip-service to the notions of piety and faith, and often disguise materialist greed with religious rhetoric.

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So you see? “It’s not so simple.” There’s fault on both sides: on the side of the West for not being Islamic enough, and on the side of the Islamic world for not being … er … Islamic enough.

There are two signature rhetorical tricks in Ahmed’s book. Any aspect of modern Islam that he finds impossible to explain away is either a) “not really Islam” or b) the fault of the American media. Sometimes both alibis are bundled into one pseudo-argument, as when Ahmed professes himself baffled that anyone would find anything to worry about in Iran’s Khomeini-ite revolution:

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For the USA, Iran represented fanaticism and religious hatred, a throwback to the worst excesses of medieval Europe, a revolution led by crazed priests. Because of the power of the American media, the images of Iran became the images of Islam throughout the world. These images were of shouting mullahs with death in their eyes, of women veiled from head to toe or of young men with Kalashnikovs. The gap between the substance of Islam’s message and its universal image was reminiscent of the time of the Crusades …

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Of course it was. In its reductio ad absurdum, this line of thinking leads Ahmed to defend Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie as being little different from … (and this is not a misprint coming) … Dante’s decision to write the Divine Comedy. “Because Dante perceived Islam as a serious threat to Christianity,” Ahmed writes, “his work was conceived, whether consciously or unconsciously, as a response, a countertext.” Dante relegates Mohammed to the lower depths of his Hell because “he was associated with ideas which seemed to undermine Christianity.” Like Khomeini, Dante was merely policing the borders of his religion. Terza rima and death threats are just means to the same end. Diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks.

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Before signing off, I should note that for Ahmed the ideal model of an Islamic society is Muslim Spain. Which, incidentally, he seems to want back. It was Ahmed who coined the term “Andalus syndrome” to describe the “sense of injustice, of loss, of the cruelty of the world” that results from the realization that Islam does not now control every single scrap of territory it once seized. Needless to say, what Ahmed is expressing is not the human condition but a kind of irredentism peculiar to Islam. (And perhaps universal to it, if we’re to judge from the disproportionate anguish that the very existence of Israel seems to occasion.) For all Osama Bin Laden’s moaning about the Crusader impulse, it has probably been eight centuries since a Christian last wept over Islam’s subjugation of the historically Christian lands of Syria, Anatolia, and North Africa.

What worries me is not that Islam Today is an atypical book but that it’s a typical one. It is, after all, written by one of the world-renowned giants of Islamic studies, whose reputation is absolutely, if bizarrely, intact. You can see where Karen Armstrong absorbed the ideas that Judith rightly sees as menacing. She must be swimming in the stuff. Pro-Muslim bigotry such as Ahmed’s and academic PC such as Armstrong’s turn out to be a real love match.

Yours,
Chris

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