The Last Great Heresy Essay, Research Paper
The last great heresyA Fury for GodMalise Ruthven324pp, GrantaThe assaults on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, while they seemed at the time to be thunder out of a blue sky, were preceded by portents that are now seen to be prophetic.Malise Ruthven has set himself, in the light of those burning towers, to examine the remote and proximate reasons why 19 men killed themselves and nearly 3,000 strangers that morning. A Fury for God burrows deeply into the Koran, examines the milieux in Egypt and Saudi Arabia where the killers originated, and describes the chaos in Pakistan and Afghanistan where they came of age. It is an interesting and forceful book.The world dominion of western thought, forms of organisation, technology and military force is not God-given, nor eternal, nor greatly appreciated by the rest of the world. Yet while, the civilisations of China, say, or India seem content to buckle down and try to extract what they can from it, while biding their historical opportunity, the world of Islam threw up the lurid but objectiveless events of September 11. Why?Ruthven begins with jihad. The notion that jihad might in some way be an internal or charitable enterprise, as argued by some Muslim intellectuals living in Christian countries, gets short shrift. Islam, in its actual history, is a belligerent and domineering faith: as belligerent, if less insinuating, as the residue of Christianity now known as western culture.Islam has never treated belief as a matter of privacy, nor tolerated the lukewarm or treated other faiths as anything but distortions or sketches of Islam. Ruthven deploys a phrase worthy of the Infidel himself, David Hume: jihad is “as essential to Islamic identity and self-definition as the Mass is to [Roman] Catholicism”. (For Hume, the one faith is fanatical and the other is superstitious, and a plague on both their houses.)The key for Ruthven is the celebrated “Sword Verse” in the Koran (9:5). “When the forbidden months are past, then kill the idolaters wherever you find them, take them captive, and beseige them and lie in wait for them in every stratagem; but if they repent, and establish regular prayers, and pay the poor tax, then open the way for them, for God is forgiving.”That verse, which is held by many scholars to have abrogated earlier verses such as “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (Koran 2:226), is the theological basis of the bloodthirsty “Fatwa for the jihad against Jews and Crusaders” issued by Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri on February 23 1998.Yet the modern Christian does not go around cursing fig trees at the roadside. The revival of jihad as warfare began as a response of a proud civilisation to the insults of colonialism, and proceeds by way of the writings of Sayyid Qutb (1906-66) in Egypt and Sayyid Abu Ala Maududi (1903-79) in the Indian subcontinent. Ruthven’s brilliant discussion of Qutb’s prison tract, Signposts on the Road (sometimes translated as Milestones), is the strongest section in the book.Qutb, who was hanged by Abdul Nasser in 1966, pronounced the world we live in as pre-Islamic. We live in the jahiliyya, or age of ignorance. Even apparently Islamic regimes are jahili. Once this rhetorical sleight of hand is achieved, the way is open to make war on non-Muslims on the authority of the sword verse. Muhammad Atta, in the note found in his misdirected luggage at Logan Airport in Boston, used the Koranic language of Abraham’s sacrifice (Koran 37:102) to justify cutting the throats of stewardesses.Ruthven insists that much of Qutb’s style and ideology derives from European sources ranging from Nietzsche to the fascists and the revolutionary vanguardism of the 1960s left. He then overdoes it with a comparison of Atta and Ulrike Meinhof.In examining the “model young Egyptians” of the extremist groups that preceded al-Qaida, Ruthven lays great stress on their technical backgrounds as engineers or physicians. For Ruthven, Islamic literalism is a way of placing a signature on an alien body of knowledge. He also sees the sexual frustration of young Muslim bachelors as a tributary cause of extremism. The modern Muslim world is populated by younger sons, with no prospect at all of earning enough money to marry, loafing the streets of Alexandria and Isfahan, or jumping the goods trains at Sangatte. Actually, it is astonishing more did not end up in Afghanistan.Ruthven has nothing but contempt for the naive and irresponsible Islamist policies of both the Saudi royal family and Pakistani administrations since Zia ul-Haq. He reserves particular scorn for the former head of Saudi external intelligence, Prince Turki al-Faisal. He suggests that the west should stop supporting the House of Saud, and permit the Islamists to seize power in the Arabian peninsula. The Arabian public can then repent at leisure, as in poor Iran.Ruthven’s plea for democracy in the Middle East, even if it brings Islamists to power, is principled, passionate and very persuasive. It is a shame that the US has fallen back into the bad habit of seeking to impose regimes (Iraq, Palestine).Ruthven is suited to his subject. As a Scot, he is heir to the religious intolerance and theological hair-splitting of the 17th century, and also to the scientific scepticism of the 18th. As an aristocrat, he is able – as Marx said of the Jacobite philosopher Sir James Steuart – to think historically.His Arabic is flawless; it is his English that sometimes lets him down. Oh, the academic jargon, the narratives, the discourses! He is also better at handling Arabic than English sources, and gives house-room to some very questionable gossip on both Bin Laden and Atta. He devotes many pages to arguing that Ramzi Yousef, who staged the first bombing at the World Trade Center in 1993, is an Iraqi agent, for which there is no public evidence.The book leaves open the two questions for which we quite badly need answers. First, how did Zawahiri and Bin Laden come together in 1998, and second, why did they abandon political struggle in the Middle East in favour of a war on certain symbols of the United States? If I may have my two piastres, there seems to me a sort of congruence or echo between the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the twin Buddhas of Bamiyan, destroyed by the Taliban and its Arab allies in March 2001, and the twin idols of Lat and Uzza of Koran 53:19. But that, I accept, is mere mental doodling.What is clear is that Bin Laden, Zawahiri and Atta are (or rather, in my opinion, were) heresiarchs of an ancient and pestilent character. The essence of the three Abrahamic monotheisms – known in Arabic as din ibrahim, “Abraham’s faith” – is embodied in the story of Abraham’s substitute sacrifice: the ram in the thicket in Genesis and the sheep that Muslims kill at their Pilgrimage festival. The message of Islam, Judaism and Christianity is this: God is not a murderer, he does not want to kill us.The god of al-Qaida leers and draws the knife across the boy’s throat. This religion, in which there is no purpose to existence but to murder and die a virgin’s death, has, by definition, no future. Ruthven argues, no doubt with good reason, that the stupidity of the Bush administration and the bad faith of Sharon will prolong it beyond its natural life.· James Buchan is the author of A Good Place to Die (Harvill), a novel of modern Iran.