Leaps Of Faith Essay, Research Paper
Leaps of faith The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity Tariq Ali 352pp, Verso What Went Wrong? Bernard Lewis 192pp, Weidenfeld Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam John Esposito 192pp, Oxford On September 11 last year, 19 young hijackers changed the world and its relations with their faith, Islam. Their terrible act created one of the greatest paradoxes of the 21st century: Islam, which sees itself as a religion of peace, is now associated with murder and mayhem. What psychological, political or cultural factors are driving people into the global confrontation? And what is the role of Islam in this? In three authoritative books, the former Marxist, Tariq Ali, the “orientalist” historian, Bernard Lewis, and the non-Muslim yet sympathetic Islam scholar, John Esposito, attempt to answer the questions from different perspectives. Responses to Islam in the west have come in several forms. There have been attempts to reach out and begin the process of understanding, but there has also been an outpouring of vitriol. Muslims have been harassed and humiliated, even killed. The editor of the National Review came up with this solution: “Nuke Mecca” and force the remaining Muslims to accept Christianity. It is this kind of reaction that Tariq Ali calls “fundamentalism”. Ali’s autobiographical, polemical, angry, historical and ironic book explains Islam’s predicament and its relations with the west from a neo-Marxist perspective. The US as the sole superpower has created global political, social and economic conditions that foster anger and hatred towards it. Ali sees fundamentalism in both the America of George Bush and the Islam of Osama bin Laden; for him, “Allah’s revenge” and “God is on our side” are two sides of the same coin. His answer is to move towards socialism, and the route takes us back to his youth. In unexpected vignettes, he describes life in Pakistan as a boy in the 1950s. The first chapter, “An Atheist Childhood”, explains the influence of his communist father. “Moscow became his Mecca.” Ali would like the Muslim world to heed that transformation. The last words of the book ask it to abandon Islam and “lay the foundations of a truly progressive, a socialist Middle East”. But this may be more to do with nostalgia than with a realistic reading of history. Ali is forgetting the Muslim experience with socialist leaders in the Middle East: Asad of Syria and Saddam of Iraq. The rise of Islamic extremism in the Middle East is, in part, a consequence of the failure of nationalist and socialist movements. Samuel Huntington’s essay and later book, The Clash of Civilisations, has generated a global debate about a supposedly inherent conflict between Islam and the west. What is not well known is that both the term and the idea came from Bernard Lewis’s essay “The Roots of Muslim Rage”, written several years before Huntington’s. In this essay Lewis also rehearses the arguments now set out in What Went Wrong? Here, Lewis argues that the world of Islam was once the foremost military and economic power of its kind, and the leader in the arts and sciences of civilisation. Christian Europe was seen as barbaric and remote. Then all changed “suddenly”. It was downhill from then on, and this is where the Muslim world finds itself. As an explanation for the decline, Lewis argues that the Muslim world failed to produce respect for time, music and literature, features that came to characterise what we know as modernity (another development was the growth of democracy). There was no Mozart or Goethe, and this was symptomatic of the failure. But this linear trajectory can be challenged. If Muslim history was coming to an end at the outset of the modern era in one part of the world, in others it was just beginning. Take South Asia. When the British took over India after the failed uprisings of 1857, the processes of modernity were set in motion. As a response, Muslim society produced literary giants such as the great poets Mirza Ghalib and Muhammad Iqbal. It fostered educational institutions such as Aligarh, which created a synthesis between western education and Islamic tradition. South Asia produced world-class statesmen like Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who had a vision of a modern democracy for the nation he created, Pakistan. Abdus Salaam has won the Nobel prize and the Sufi music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan has moved millions in the west. And what about the role of western imperialism in explaining what went wrong for Muslims? The continuing western encouragement of royal dynasties and military dictators has stunted democracy in Muslim lands. Besides, too many Muslims live in non-Muslim states, subject to killing and harassment – ask the Palestinians, Kashmiris, Bosnians and Chechens. Lewis would not want a clash of civilisations, although many see his and Huntington’s ideas as forming a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the contrary, Lewis raises other questions that may point to hope in the future, saying that growing numbers of Middle Easterners are developing “a more self-critical approach”. “The question ‘Who did this to us?’ has led only to neurotic fantasies and conspiracy theories. The other question – ‘What did we do wrong?’ – has led naturally to a second question: ‘How do we put it right?’” If Bernard Lewis is the doyen of Middle Eastern studies in the US, John Esposito is considered by many as the young challenger. In Unholy War , written in his usual accessible manner, Esposito sets out to chronicle the rise of extremist groups and explain the emergence of anti-American feeling in Muslim society. It is not driven by religious zeal alone, but by frustration and disappointment at US foreign policy. Many Muslims are also repelled by aspects of western culture and the impact it has on their own societies. Esposito takes care to underline the fact that the vast majority of Muslims are appalled by the acts of violence committed in the name of Islam. In the final chapter, “Where Do We Go from Here?”, he argues strongly against falling into the trap of seeing the clash of civilisations as inevitable. While urging the international community to continue the fight against terrorism, he reiterates that it must not wage a war against Islam. The war against terror must not be used to erode central values in the US or seem to support authoritarian regimes. The first and most important step forward in dialogue is to understand Islam. There could be no better guide than these three books. We may not always agree with what they say, but we need to take in their different perspectives to help us make sense of the atavistic yet contemporary, predictable yet uncertain, and always dangerously changing relationship between Islam and the west. · Professor Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic studies at the American University, Washington, DC. His Rethinking Islam: Living Dangerously in the 21st Century will be published by Polity Press.
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