Islam and the west

Is the failure of Islamic states the fault of Islam? Ian Buruma, Fred Halliday, Abdelwahab El-Affendi, Merryl Wyn Davies, Roger Scruton, Sami Zubaida, Iqbal Asaria and Mai Yamani discuss...
November 20, 2001

Ian Buruma: To say that 11th September was a criminal act that has nothing to do with Islam is politically understandable but evades the issue. Clearly these terrorist acts have grown out of a broader political and economic failure in the Muslim world. And perhaps a failure of western response too. But what is at the root of these failures? Is colonialism to blame? Or is there a problem with the religion itself, or at least with the sort of political culture it produces?

Fred Halliday: You cannot blame the religion in the sense of the holy texts-the Koran, the hadith and so on-for the simple reason that you can interpret these to meet any practice you wish in the modern world. You can derive capitalism, communism, feudalism and even a slave economy from them. The same goes for a wide range of political behaviour. This applies to Judaism and Christianity too: the books of Judges and Deuteronomy legitimate, under appropriate circumstances, the killing of innocent people and children. But if we turn to the particular causes of these events, we have to ask why did this group of people do what they did and why did their action produce such an echo in the middle east and elsewhere? To take the echo first. It is clear that a lot of people out there think the Americans deserved it: people in China think this; 80 per cent of the population of Brazil said, two weeks after the event, that they did not think Brazil should side with the Americans in this conflict; parts of the intelligentsia in western Europe think this even if they don't say it. Why this resentment? It is partly just in the nature of being the most powerful state to attract resentment. It is, of course, also to do with cultural insecurity and the perception that globalisation is run in the interests of a narrow group of western countries. But if you look at what drove the main actors, you have to look more specifically at what I call "the greater west Asian crisis." By that I mean a set of crises which are distinct in origin but, over the past 15 years, have converged, at least in the eyes of the radical Islamists. The three main ones are the Palestine question, the Iraq question and the Afghanistan question. These are seen as being expressions of a single western conspiracy against Muslim and third world peoples. They are also linked more practically through the emergence of a transnational highly militarised Islamic youth-often well educated, rather secular in lifestyle, from comfortable homes-who move from one crisis to another. They draw on three very conservative strands of Islam: the Wahhabi tradition, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Deobandi movement. They gather in countries like Afghanistan and Yemen-countries with large areas out of the direct control of the state. It is no accident that these two countries never experienced colonialism. There are no railways, a weak state, strong tribal institutions, and they have both been through quite severe civil wars in modern times so there is plenty of opportunity for armed groups to mobilise.

IB: But why didn't secular institutions, culminating in some form of representative government, develop in the middle east? What has prevented church and state from separating, which seems to be a necessary condition of a successful transition to modernity?

Abdelwahab El-Affendi: I agree with Fred about religion not being the main motive here. When bin Laden is interviewed, he talks about getting US troops out of my country [Saudi Arabia]. That sounds like nationalism as much as pan-Islamism. But on the issue of religion and state, I think most people see the separation between the two as a specifically European, western development. In most other societies-especially pre-modern ones-people see religion, ethics and the state as indistinguishable. There is some differentiation of functions: some people specialise in religious matters and others in matters of state. And what has happened recently is that the balance has tilted towards expressing power in religious terms. For many reasons, religious rhetoric in parts of the Islamic world gets a mass resonance. The Egyptian government and the Tunisian government more or less openly admit that if they allow Islamist parties they will take over power.

IB: Could it be that the merging of church and state is actually a confused modern response to building states? Japan and Germany in the 1930s used quasi-religious rhetoric to build fascist states. Is that what is happening in part of the Muslim world now?

Merryl Wyn Davies: I think that there are similarities between some militant Islamic movements and fascism. But we have got to be careful when talking about church and state. Islam does not have an institution that you could call a church on the Christian model. Religion in Muslim societies is more amorphous-it is about principles, concepts, ideas about justice, rights and proper governance. We are looking at a code rather than a single institution or group of people. The rhetoric of that code is open to everyone to use. So when you talk about church and state you end up miscasting the discussion and misinterpreting the dramatis personae. This is part of the perennial problem of trying to interpret one civilisation in the terms and institutions of another.

Roger Scruton: Yes, this is key. If you look at the origins of Christianity, you see it was St Paul who made the Christian religion into a church-based institution. He said we are "members in Christ," invoking the Roman law idea of a corporate person, a legal entity separate from the state. People talk about Christ wanting to "render unto Caesar" but it is the Pauline invention which has emancipated Christian society-and much of the west-from the idea that jurisdiction is primarily religious. This led, with the decline of faith, to Weber's legal-rational forms of authority.

FH: It is tempting to say that secular ideologies have not taken hold in the Muslim world, and that this is all to do with Islam's failure to distinguish the spiritual and the temporal. But the Islamic movements of the 1980s and 1990s arose in response to a period when secular politics dominated: think of nationalism in Indonesia, communism and nationalism in Iran, communism and nationalism in the Arab world. Why was it that decades of liberalism (at least for the elite), and mass secular politics, failed? Radical Islamism is built on the failure of liberalism, nationalism and communism. It has also, incidentally, stolen many of the latter's clothes. Khomeini celebrated May Day as the day of the Islamic worker; he quoted the Prophet saying that the sweat of the worker means more to God than the prayers of the believer. Secondly, if you look at the history of Muslim states, of course they define their legitimacy in Islamic terms and try to uphold Islamic law. But there is a clear institutional difference between, say, the Sultan in the Ottoman empire and the Sheikh of Islam. And that distinction you can see today: in Saudi Arabia the al Sauds are descendants of the Saudi monarch, and the al Sheikhs are descendants of al-Wahhab [the 18th-century religious leader]. In Iran, the same thing. An elected president, Khatami, and then the chief religious leader who emerges from the ulama [religious teachers]. That distinction between temporal and religious power has been there throughout the history of the Islamic empires-and Islam has its own versions of "render unto Caesar." One final point, people in contemporary Muslim debates always come up with the quotation, "Islam is a religion and state" and everybody nods profoundly, as if this is the word of the Prophet. It isn't. This was a phrase invented by a famous 19th-century reformer who felt that he had to come up with this integration of Islam and politics to cope with the modern world.

IB: What about economic failure? Philip Bowring pointed out recently that Muslim Indonesia has actually had the best economic and social record of any large developing country in recent years. Malaysia has done well, and the Gulf states too, thanks to oil of course. Yet there has been plenty of failure too: most of North Africa, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan. That failure has often been associated with statist economic solutions, not with Islam as such. But that still begs the question of whether Islamic cultures have a particular difficulty producing the preconditions for successful market economies-the rule of law, political pluralism and individual liberty.

FH: Most Muslims are capitalist and happy to be so.

RS: The ban on interest is surely a factor here.

Sami Zubaida: Not really. Shari'a courts in Ottoman lands used to allow interest, the restrictions were only on interest payments above 15 per cent. The nominal ban on interest has also been true of Christianity and Judaism, and equally neglected by Christians and Jews, except very orthodox Jews who now only enforce it between themselves. The idea that Muslims don't drink alcohol is also very recent. Muslims have always drunk alcohol. There was, for example, a classic book of Arab medicine which has a chapter on wine. It had been part of the book for a very long time until 1980 when an edition was published in Beirut, edited by an Islamic publisher, which omitted the chapter on wine and explained in the introduction that this would be unbecoming in a book of Islamic medicine.

IB: But none of this really helps us to understand the rise of radical Islamism in the past few decades.

Iqbal Asaria: I think you do have to go back and look at colonialism for part of the answer. There was a strong constitutional tradition that grew out of colonialism and in the battle against it. But that was eclipsed and frustrated by a kind of Islamic identity politics. What we are beginning to see now is the realisation that such identity politics is not a solution. People in many Muslim countries are again seeking constitutional arrangements, but want to find their own solutions to the governance issue. That includes not alienating the religious authorities. The west has not always helped here, it is often more convenient to deal with a despotism than a democracy. And democratic sharing does not come easily to dominant powers.

IB: You think that interference from the outside world has been the greatest hindrance to development?

IA: No, but it has been a contributing factor. Many young democracies in the Islamic world have had to contend with a host of internal and external pressures. Remember the famous CIA-engineered coup against the liberal Iranian leader Mossadeq in 1953.

MWD: The point about colonial legal codes is that they privatised Islam-it became about personal piety and family life. So you have generations of ulama who have grown up believing that the narrow constraints of personal piety are the basis of creating an Islamic state. That rhetoric is borrowed by radical Islamists.

RS: But wasn't that precisely the success of colonialism-both western and Ottoman-you had laws for each religious group which would be adjudicated by the religious group itself, but a territorial jurisdiction which embraced everyone for broader political things. It is a beautiful achievement if it can work.

FH: The great threat to the established power of the ulama was the modern state-either colonial or independent-because it wanted to control education, the law, the rules of economic exchange. The core conflict is not east versus west, or Islam versus non-Islam, it is Islamist oppositions versus the modernising state-even the Saudi modernising state which has tried to accommodate them. My second point is that one of the great misconceptions in debates about Islam, which the Islamists themselves perpetuate, is this issue of Shari'a law [Islamic law]. To put it bluntly there is no such thing as Shari'a in the sense of a divinely sanctioned set of texts. There is virtually nothing in the 6,000 verses of the Koran which is legal. There are about 80 verses which pertain to one or two matters of family law, but the idea that there is a divinely sanctioned corpus of law which you can argue about in terms of human rights or modernity is false. There is an historical accumulation of Islamic law-called fiqh-but it is not divinely sanctioned, it is law like any other.

MWD: This is what many reformers in the Islamic world have been trying to say: that the Shari'a is a body of principles that have to be redefined.

SZ: Sadat wrote into the Egyptian constitution that the Shari'a was the basis of legislation, which was patently untrue and made a mockery of the whole thing. The problem is that whenever there is a movement of protest against taxation or some change in the law, the cry goes up, "we want the Shari'a," without anyone knowing quite what the Shari'a is.

Mai Yamani: We must remember how parochial the Islamic world is, how unaware of its own variety. In Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabism is dominant, people know little about the other forms of Islam. Indeed, one of the good things about globalisation is that it has opened up the Islamic world to itself. Since 11th September a debate has opened up about what kind of Islam we want. That is an advance.

IB: But the debate does not always have liberal results. The more conservative, Arab varieties of Islam seem to be catching on in Malaysia and Indonesia, where they are "Arabising" their dress and welcoming Arab intellectuals sometimes of a quite extreme kind.

RS: Isn't this fundamental that Islam offers a form of membership, and a uniform, to people who are hungry for membership. The modern state does not.

MWD: I lived in Malaysia for 12 years and you are right there is a movement towards wearing the tudung [headscarf]. But there is an amazing variety of Islamic practice in that country. And the lovely thing about Malaysia is that you find girls wearing a tudung, in a pair of jeans, walking hand in hand with their boyfriends. They are picking and choosing.

SZ: In Cairo too... but why the attraction of Arab Islam? The point here is purity. If you look at Malaysia, Indonesia, even the Arab world itself, so much of Islam is "popular Islam"-various kinds of magic and cults. Modern intellectuals find the rigour of the Wahhabi-style puritanical, Arab Islam very appealing. The Wahhabis destroyed saints' tombs, banished the Sufis and asserted that Islam is the Islam of the first ancestors. It is more abstract and theological, more consistent with a modern outlook.

AE: I agree that religious militancy is a modern phenomenon. In the past, religion was something local, inherited from your father. Many Muslims did not even read Arabic, so they were hostage to the ulama. Now the average university student knows Arabic, can quote the Koran and argue with the dogma. On the other hand even the Islamic states tend to have a secular view of power. In Iran, say, they would not agree that there is no such thing as the Shari'a but, in practice, they would say it is subordinate to the interests of the state. The secular ruler decides. It is the same in Saudi Arabia. One final point, we should not forget the real grievances of the Muslim world-such as Palestine-which have nothing to do with religion: part of the Palestinian movement was led by George Habash, a Christian Marxist.

IB: I'm sure you are right that many grievances, like Palestine, are not usefully seen in religious terms. But in the west itself the relation between the state and Muslim minorities is a religious issue. Especially in those countries, like France, which do try to offer a strong secular, national identity. There are tensions over schools and wearing the veil, and so on.

AE: But in France the Muslim youth who are rebelling tend to be those who are most westernised.

FH: Today's Le Monde has a survey of the views of French people about Muslims, and the views of the 3m Muslims living in France. On the French side, fewer and fewer people object to either the building of mosques or the election of Muslim mayors, and the great majority of French Muslims say they have no problem with what Le Monde calls republican secularism. The other point I want to raise is corruption-which alongside the whole bag of issues around western domination and "Zionism" is central to radical Islamist discourse. Mismanagement, favouring one's family or tribal group, siphoning off money, seems to be endemic to many Islamic states-a phrase you often hear is, "our rulers are thieves." But this is also, of course, a very secular problem and one that applies to many non-Islamic states. So support for Islamic heroes who are seen as uncorrupt is based on rather a secular impulse. When people say they admire bin Laden or Khomeini it is often because of the simplicity of their lifestyle. I went to Khomeini's tomb a few months ago and talked to pilgrims, and the word they used most often to describe him was sade, a word used by Turks for coffee without sugar. It means he was plain: he didn't lie, he didn't steal, he didn't have bank accounts. Khomeini never slept in a bed, he slept on the floor. Part of the loathing of the ruling elites in the Gulf is this sense that people don't know where the money is going.

IB: But what about this question of divided loyalties for Muslim minorities in the west?

RS: I think there are great problems for many young Muslims as to how they define their loyalties. People of my generation were brought up to believe that your primary loyalty was to the nation state. That is not so self-evident in many parts of the world. Indeed the world could be said to be divided between states and non-states. Non-states are fiefdoms in which there is usually no process of representation and no distinction between the constitution and the whims of the current ruler-the ruler can be a person, such as Saddam Hussein; a party, such as the communist party; or a sect, such as the Taleban. Most Islamic states remain poised between non-states and the unrealised ideal of an Islamic Republic in which God, rather than the state, is the ultimate authority. We in the west, on the other hand, enjoy a single political culture with the state as the object of a common loyalty and a secular conception of law which leaves religion and morality to the private realm. People who see all law and identity as issuing from a religious source cannot form part of this political culture and will not recognise the obligation to the state on which it is founded. That is why it is possible for young British Muslims to travel to Yemen in order to murder British tourists and blow up the British embassy without regarding this as an act of treason.

FH: I was raised as a Catholic and I was not taught the clear lines that Roger was taught. There was a deep concern that we were really loyal to another state, the Vatican, so we spent a lot of time pretending we weren't, singing God Save the Queen at the end of mass, and so on. But it was a bit of a problem.

RS: It was a bit of a problem but it all got integrated at least in times of crisis by a sense of a common country to be defended.

AE: I think there is a misconception here. The consensus, even among the fringe groups, is that secular law is acceptable for Muslims who are living in non-Muslim countries. In India, the Muslims promote it, because the alternative to secularism there is Hindu nationalism. Unless you are ordered to do something that is against your conscience, which is unlikely in a liberal society, then you must obey the laws.

SZ: I think Roger also forgets that the great majority of Muslims in Britain or France are just as Muslim as most other people are Christian, in other words not very much. This is true even in the Islamic world. Egypt has become pious recently, but from the mid-19th century until the 1970s Egypt was a very secular society. It had a thriving film industry, there was a great deal of drinking and carousing, and a vibrant intellectual and political life. The same was true of Iraq and Iran. Iran is now getting fed up with piety and there is a big reassertion of secular styles of life.

MY: What is a problem for Muslims in the west is the family, where fiqh says one thing and national law another.

IA: We are looking at this loyalty question in a rather old fashioned way. Surely we can countenance multiple loyalties-isn't this one of the things that globalisation presents us with? Look at multinational corporations-they are not loyal to their country of incorporation, they are loyal to their shareholders. But I want to raise something else: Nigeria. There you have a country far removed from the Arab heartland of Islam which still seems to face the same tensions as Muslim societies elsewhere. Paradoxically, you are seeing the introduction of Shari'a law in parts of the country at the same time as the re-emergence of democracy, there is a dynamic of co-existence. I would go further and say that the more pluralistic practice of Islam in parts of Africa and Asia is going to take over from Arab Islam as the driving force of the religion in the next few decades. Why? Because from the Arab heartland at the moment, apart from the annual pilgrimage, we get nothing. And now the oil money is running out too.

IB: Will this improve the outlook for the rule of law?

AE: Yes, because these non-Arab countries are more democratic, there's more debate and openness. The Arab countries have sunk deeper into despotism, in part with western complicity. Too many young men in those societies believe, rightly or wrongly, that they have no alternative but violence.

FH: I do think we should try to stop talking in such generic terms about Muslims. Just think of the most famous Muslims in Britain today: Mohammad al Fayed, an Egyptian; Zeinab Badawi, a Sudanese; Prince Naseem, a Yemeni boxer; Hanif Kureishi, and a certain well-known author originally from Bombay.

IB: What about Nasser Hussein?

FH: They are all Muslim in a modern private sense. For every British Muslim who becomes an Islamist there are ten who go to the pub and play football.

MWD: I think there is an attempt amongst young Muslims here to engage with Britain with their Muslim identity prominent and openly expressed. But they do have to deal with a high degree of mistrust and fear from the general population.

IB: On the other hand, in Finsbury Park mosque and elsewhere there is this inflammatory language. A friend of mine went to the mosque in Hammersmith and the mullahs were very moderate but the young people were all pro-Taleban.

FH: One reason is that the debate they are caught in is between the Islam they have, which is usually very conservative, and British liberal society. But there is a third term missing which is liberal discussions in the Islamic world which have been going on for a long time. Young Muslims don't read the liberal Asian Muslims of the 19th and 20th century, they don't read Arab thinkers like Ali Abdulrazaq, they are not aware that most people in Iran wouldn't give the time of day to most of the mullahs and fanatics in this country. Edward Said could not be published by any secular publishing house in Iran. The most important link is for young Muslims in this country to know what liberals in other countries are saying. An example, I was lecturing at a college in Birmingham recently and two young women in the hijab came up to me and said, is it true that in Islam women are not allowed to be doctors and engineers, because this is what the fundamentalists have told us? Of course it's complete nonsense, and if they'd lived in almost any of the 55 Muslim countries, except Afghanistan, they would know that. So young Muslims here are squeezed between fundamentalist Islam on the one hand and the Daily Mail on the other.

IB: What should the British government be doing about this, in terms of legislation? Should something be done to stop the Finsbury Park mosque?

MWD: I would certainly be happy to see it closed down.

AE: I think the democratic process itself is taking care of this through the Muslim Council and other groups which project a more representative voice.

IA: The case of Finsbury Park is interesting, because the trustees of the mosque have brought an injunction against Abu Hamza to oust him. The trustees say the mosque has been taken over, but they told me that the police are not helping to get it back.

FH: A danger here is the use of the term Islamophobia. There is not a phobia against Islam as a religion, you do not see books saying Muhammad was a fraud, or an enemy of the west, as you might have done 100 years ago. There is a fear of Muslims. It is against people, not against the religion. The use of the term Islamophobia, can prevent criticism of Islamic practices and beliefs, and I don't think that critique should stop. It is a way of shutting up debate within the Muslim community itself.

IB: So David Blunkett's plans to extend the blasphemy laws are a mistake?

FH: Yes. The Koran says that Christ was not crucified, was not the son of God, and did not rise from the dead. Those three are blasphemous statements under Christian law. Are we going to ban the Koran? No.

MY: I agree that we must not close down debate within the Muslim world. An imam [a Muslim leader] in Spain produced a booklet recently reminding the pious Muslim male that he has to beat his wife to keep her on the right path. We have to deal with that.

IB: So how, if at all, can we encourage a more liberal Islam here in Britain and in the rest of the Islamic world? And if we have these liberal traditions in Islam how is it that so much of the Muslim world is now dominated by conservative brands of Islam?

SZ: It started not with the Islamists but with the nationalists, in a cold war context. It was Nasserism that first suppressed all these liberal tendencies, not in the name of Islam at all.

AE: There is another more recent explanation for the weakness of the liberal tradition. Given a choice between Islamists and secular but oppressive governments the liberals have tended to side with the governments, which then feel free to become even less liberal. There are, however, some encouraging signs. In Tunisia, for example, a coalition is emerging between the moderate, liberal Islamism, and the ordinary secular liberalism, there is a joint platform calling for representative institutions.

IA: In the short term, post-11th September, the west will probably make things worse. The coalition being built against bin Laden and the Taleban will undermine the liberal trends within Islamist groups. Moderate Muslim leaders will demand a free hand to move against any dissent and so drive Islamists into using even more destructive methods.

SZ: Mubarak has already said in so many words, "all you people, going on at me about human rights and all that rubbish, now we can see what that produces."

FH: He's already locked up Egypt's homosexuals.

IA: Blair's global vision speech was encouraging in some ways but it will not change much in the short term. Look at the coming WTO meeting. The EU is still saying to developing countries that if you don't accept this or that rule on the environment or labour we won't give any more concessions on agriculture. And what about central Asia? All the ex-communist apparatchiks are now entrenched for years.

IB: So Blair is trying to spread liberal values but he is a spokesman for a coalition which, in the short term, will do the opposite.

AE: Most Muslim grievances are to do with Muslims, whether in Kashmir, or Iraq or Turkey. These new Islamist radicals are rebels against their own governments, rebels against their own families, they are the ultimate global army with no connection to anything. And the trouble is that if you are one of these "Afghan Arabs" you have nothing to lose. You have to be an underground terrorist to survive because if you go to any western country you'll be imprisoned, if you go to Egypt or Saudi Arabia you will be beheaded.

FH: And there are a lot of truly crazy views out there. I did a debate the other day on al-Jazeera [the Qatar television station that has become so influential in the Islamic world] with an Egyptian fundamentalist and a Sunni fundamentalist from Iran. Both of whom saw 11th September as part of an American conspiracy against Islam and China, and they had a complex explanation for this.

SZ: Part of the Arab media say that the Jews did it.

MY: Even people in Saudi Arabia say it. Everywhere.

IB: Some final words.

FH: A paradoxical thought, the bestselling poet in the US in recent years has been a 13th-century Afghan Sufi mystic, Jalal-uddin Rumi from Balkh.

SZ: There is a long tradition of anti-American, or anti-western, charismatic leaders in the third world and even in Spain and France. Some of the enthusiasm for Osama bin Laden is similar to the enthusiasm for Saddam Hussein during the Gulf war, which went far beyond the Muslim world. It even has echoes of the enthusiasm for Nasser, Khomeini, Mao, Stalin, anyone who successfully challenged western hegemony.

AE: It is a very sad comment on the international system as it stands today that it takes a terrorist attack of these proportions to make people remember that the Palestinians are being maltreated. The Kosovars had been peacefully suffering for years, but nobody cared. The moment they took weapons, everybody listened, so the message we are being sent is that violence is the only way the international system listens. And this is a very bad message to send.

IA: Radical Islamists are not actually as powerful as they have been made to seem in the past few weeks. But there are some countries where they do attract a mass following. It may be that the best strategy for both the west and the Islamic world is to let them come to power; allow them and their supporters to experience the difficult reality of government. Then, as in Iran today, we might see some progress.