In the Name of Allah, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate
The following are some of my thoughts and emotions about what we have experienced in recent months. My aim is to help Muslims articulate their feelings (even through disagreement) and to help non-Muslims understand where some of us are coming from.
In the confusion of wartime in which we are caught up, relying as we must on one-sided information, standing too close to the great changes that have already taken place or are beginning to, and without a glimmering of the future that is being shaped, we ourselves are at a loss as to the significance of the impressions which press in upon us and as to the value of the judgements which we form.
Sigmund Freud 
“The events of September 11.” “What happened on September 11.” Such is the perceived enormity of that day that we cannot even categorise it; it remains beyond categorisation. The sheer violence of the initial impact followed by the heart-crushing collapse of the twin towers was more than this soul could bear, and I began to turn my face away as the TV editors repeatedly showed the images of death. For that’s what they were, images of death, moments when hundreds if not thousands  died. I could not look on in awed fascination, as some have described.
Yet, I did feel some selfish concern at this moment. I thought: “I hope some Muslims didn’t do this, otherwise we’re in trouble.” And so at the moment when thousands were dying, I was worrying about me. I am ashamed by my own selfishness and lack of humanity; and perhaps this leads on to my next question, for surely the events of September 11 did nothing more than throw up a thousand questions summed up in the words, “What have we become?” Perhaps the saddest point to note in the aftermath is that instead of awakening everyone’s heart to suffering, this event may have sent us further into our trenches from which we fire accusations at each other. It should have been a day when all self-critical souls looked into their own hearts and wondered whether they helped to bring this about. It should have been a day when suffering, by being brought right up to our faces, should have pulled humanity by the hand of humility from its present abyss.
O you who believe, stand up for justice, even if it is against yourselves.
(Qur’an, Sura Ma’ida, verse 8)
I felt guilty. I felt responsible, even though I have no connection to Usama bin Laden and the ‘Jihad’ group. The first time I ventured out after the attacks, I remember feeling more paranoid than normal. Looking intensely at others, with the thought that perhaps they were looking at me, holding me to account. I felt like approaching them and shaking them and shouting: “But I don’t agree with what was done! I was not involved!” And then, not for the first time in my life, and probably not for the last either, the way things are going, I realised what Durkheim meant when he said that collective representations are social and coercive.
I have lived through the Rushdie affair when we were the vanguard of religious fascism. I have lived through the Gulf war when we were the fifth column. And perhaps most traumatically, I have lived through the war in Bosnia-Hercegovina, when we were passive onlookers to the murder of 200,000. I used to read newspapers, but stopped during the war in Bosnia-Hercegovina. I couldn’t read anymore. Rape after rape. Murder after murder. I still vividly remember walking past the Evening Standard hoardings next to the newsstands at London tube stations before and after the fall of Srebenica. I remember the day before it fell, the adverts announced: “Srebenica About to Fall!” Similarly, on the day itself, “Serb Troops Enter Srebenica!” A few days later: “Thousands of Men and Boys ‘Missing’ in Srebenica!” All the while, the commuters flowed back and forth, striding past the news, too busy, too tired and probably not deeply bothered . Those days were maddening for me. As was the Gulf war, at the beginning of which George Bush proclaimed: ‘Our quarrel is not with the people of Iraq’, which was before a million (half of them children) were killed through US-led sanctions. How I maintained my sanity, I don’t know. In fact I remember on September 10, thinking to myself, that bearing in mind the number of Muslims who have died in the last few decades (several million), the Muslims generally have been very patient. But that was before the towers fell. Perhaps what was so maddening was the absence of argument and voice. I couldn’t speak. If I did, no one listened. I was the wrong colour for a start, and I come from ‘Paki’-land.
There is an underlying religious feeling to this conflict, even if it may ultimately not be about Christianity and Islam. The Twin Towers fell, and religious people believe that God permitted it to happen as He can permit all human actions, good and bad, ours and theirs. The Taliban similarly withdrew from the cities and the Northern Alliance took over. God similarly permitted this to happen. The nervous post-hoc interpretation of both actions as either signifying God’s pleasure or displeasure reminds me of Weber’s analysis of the Protestant ethic, and how success in capitalist activity was the mark of God’s pleasure in this life and success in the Next. It is as if the unfolding events are somehow indicative of who has the Truth, and whom it is that God is ultimately pleased with.
So why are we where we are today? I remember attending a conference in London in 1993 at which Ernest Gellner and François Burgat spoke . Gellner said that the two main events of the twentieth century were the fall of Marxism and the rise of Islam. No doubt Islam has confounded key sociological thinkers such as Durkheim, Marx and Weber who argued that as secularisation and its engine of modernity progress, religion must go into decline. Islam’s answer to that has been “Count us out.” When I asked Giddens in an interview why this was so, his reply was, “Well the theorists were wrong about it, weren’t they?” So religion is here to stay. The question then is, how to deal with it. More specifically, for those whose moral order is based upon liberalism, how to deal with political Islam. There is no doubt that there has been an awakening within Muslim countries in the last few decades, and Islamic movements have achieved varying degrees of success. The example that is closest to the point that I wish to make here is that of Algeria. After the FIS had walked through the first round of elections with a victory that would make Tony Blair jealous, the army stepped in and cancelled the elections. (Note a liberal paradox: the right of the individual Rushdie must be upheld, but the right of the nation Algeria can be ignored.) The apology of Western writers stated that Islam was simply anti-liberal, women being oppressed, hands being chopped off, and the rest. So even if the people want Islam, they must not be allowed it. And so democracy works to a lesser extent in most of the Muslim world with the aid of Western intelligence agencies. (Whence the disingenuous claim of Israel being the only democracy in the Middle East. First of all, democracy is not allowed in most of the Muslim world, thanks to the Western governments. Secondly, what is the point of being a democracy if one cannot treat other human beings with respect?) At the same conference, François Burgat  spoke of bilateral radicalisation. This is the idea that the moderates would attempt to work through the political process, be prevented by the respective governments’ imaginative use of law (cf. Turkey and Egypt), so that sections of the movement would become radicalised and move outside the political process. This historically has lead to the formation of the Jihad movement of which Usama bin Laden is a charismatic leader. Calling for the overthrow of corrupt governments, the Jihad movement has grown over the last few years as injustice after injustice has been piled upon the Muslim world. (The second area of activity for the Jihad movement has been in Muslim minority situations such as Kashmir, Palestine and the Caucasus.) But effectively what has happened is that sections of political Islam have been radicalised towards extra-judicial violence, and the relative rise of the jihad group has meant, in one sense, that oppression in Muslim lands has been successful. I am reminded of that game I used to play without much success in Blackpool. A twopenny piece had to be inserted through a slot at the top of a machine and the coin fell down onto or alongside a pile of coins. A machine moved the pile along as the coins hung on one side over a ledge. If my coin could move the pile along, five coins might fall. Maybe (and usually) not. The coins falling from the top of the machine are the numerous injustices heaped upon the Muslim world, and the coins that fall over the edge are the terrorists.
We have all been radicalised over the last decade or so, at least discursively. Who could not have been, after the Gulf war, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir, and now Afghanistan, etc. etc. For how long can we bear the etcs?  But – and this is where most media commentators miss the point – Islam is not a religion of violence. It teaches us to control our anger, to withhold it, to be patient through prayer. Because if Islam was a religion of violence and advocated insurrection, then I and many, many others would have become violent by now. Because the pain has been maddening. 5000 children in Iraq every month. There have been times when I could not sleep because of this number. The disgust and shame that this number brought upon me has impelled me into great anger. But I have controlled myself, as have the millions of practising, angry Muslim youth over the world. Why? Because my religion has told me to control myself, and what my religion teaches me is sacred, full stop.
The play Iranian nights written by Tariq Ali and Howard Brenton and performed in the aftermath of the Rushdie affair suggested that the refugee turns to religion because he feels rejected:
Now I live in Notting Hill, with my mum. She is not well. The terror, the fear have broken her. Who can understand the fate of the prisoner and the poor who have fled from hate to a nowhere in the West, a nowhere in the rain? Who can understand our pain? Why does the West think it can do no wrong and expect the refugee to be superhumanly strong, more tolerant, more wise than any human being can be? It’s a miracle that so many of us do have the strength to bear the abuse, bear the blind ignorance of what we are and where we come from. A miracle! That only a few have gone fanatic! That only a few rave about the satanic! Therefore, the more who speak out, the better. The more! The more! The better! About the profound matter of the nature of God and man, speak out as best you can! What finer sound is there than a human being singing against cruelty! Against hate! 
It is not a miracle that we have not become terrorists, it is more simple than that. Islam prevents us from doing so.
The argument that has been proposed post-September 11 suggests that Islam is inherently violent, and that this is why these Muslims committed such acts of violence: they were acting on Islamic teachings. There is justification within Islam for these acts – that is the claim being made. If we are to play in an equal field, then does this mean that Christianity can justify the IMF or the sanctions against Iraq? Or Judaism justify Israel’s militarism? Let’s not let the secularists get away with this. Would the religion of the selfish gene justify sanctions against Iraq? The fact of the matter is that if there are one billion Muslims, at least a hundred million take Islam seriously, 1 in 10, and violence is not the norm in Muslim society. The twentieth century’s violence was mainly European, not Islamic. We have not responded to the numerous events of the last decade with acts of violence. In fact our response has always been one of restraint, and, unbelievably, dialogue.
The issue of sleepers is an interesting one. I would suggest that instead of sleepers being conscious, recruited members of a secret network, we could do ourselves a favour by examining the social nature of this phenomenon. I would suggest that a total climate of oppression has led to a situation in which there are millions of sleepers all over the planet. They are not members of al-Qaida. They are ordinary practising Muslims. They become activated once they cannot take it any more and they lose touch with fiqh. The American government is chasing a mirage if it thinks that al-Qaida is as organised as it suggests. This is the real problem for the American government: how to deal with a massive social phenomenon. (To be anti-hegemony is not in itself a bad thing; Foucault felt able to applaud Khomeini for being anti-hegemony.) If I was an anthropologist wandering around Washington at the moment, I would suggest that the bureaucrats of government agencies such as the State Department, the FBI and the CIA have a fetish for organisation. They need to construct the mirage of an organised body so that they can investigate it.
“Are you with the civilised world or with the naan-civilised world?” These words of James Rubin, the former US assistant secretary of state, still ring clear in my mind. He said these words, echoing Ehud Barak’s, across the discussion floor on the day of the attack. (How strange that Barak happened to be in the BBC offices at the time of the attack, as was reported. What was he doing there: congratulating the BBC for its objective coverage of the Middle East? And how strange, that Colin Powell echoed the same words in interviews following the attack. This was spin too well spun.) So suddenly civilisation was on the agenda. “Are you civilised or uncivilised?” Why the resurrection of pre-colonial justificatory discourse?  What irritated me most about Rubin was that this was the same man who was paid to justify the sanctions against Iraq. This is civilisation. The hijacking of language to cover mass murder. Call me uncivilised.
Well, I can’t let this discussion on civilisation pass without mentioning Lord Douglas Hurd, former Secretary of State for the Home Office and then the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. During the Rushdie affair, he said to Muslims gathered at Birmingham Central Mosque: “You clearly feel as if the most sacred things of your faith have been insulted and wounded. You feel shocked and you feel angry. But to turn such protests towards violence as has been suggested, not, I agree, in this country but elsewhere, or the threat of violence, I must say, is wholly unacceptable. Talks of death, talks of arrows being directed at hearts, such talk is vicious, it’s repugnant to civilised men or women.”  It was Douglas Hurd who was influential as one of the politicians who argued that the Bosnian Muslims must be refused the right to arm themselves. That would lead to an escalation in the war, he argued (his term was “a level killing field”). Meanwhile, many died. Imagine my feelings when I read Francis Wheen’s article in the Guardian (November 5 1997) which related how the same Hurd became deputy chairman of the National Westminster Bank. Markets which early in 1996 “concluded a deal with Milosevic to privatise Serbia’s post and telecommunication system and manage the country’s national debt. NatWest’s fee was said to be in the region of $10 million”. Call me uncivilised.
Terrorism. Global political structures use words like ‘terrorism’ so much that their semantic utility tends to decline sharply. The popular usage would mean “the use of violence by madmen to secure anti-democratic ends”. Of course, terrorism is directly and inversely related to democracy, at least rhetorically. Hence the frequent sloganeering about “democracy and freedom” (a friend of mine said recently that he gets worried whenever they start talking abut democracy and freedom, because it means that they are about to bomb a third world country. He was right). The terrorists are against democracy and freedom. Our right to be free. Superficially, this may ring true. But how about changing ‘free’ to ‘rich’? “These terrorists hate our freedom (wealth)! They don’t want us to be free (rich). We must fight those who are willing to attack us just because we want to be free (rich)”. Make any more sense?
Those persons who talk most about human freedom are those who are actually most blindly subject to social determination, inasmuch as they do not in most cases suspect the profound degree to which their conduct is determined by their interests.
Karl Mannheim 
“The horror. The horror.” Colonel Kurtz’s last words. I wonder sometimes about their meaning. Is this the horror of the civilised man grown savage, or the horror of the corrupting influence of power? Or both? As we journey through the labyrinth of political error that has led us where we are, the question to be asked is: is the horror on our side or theirs? The answer, of course, is that the horror is on their side. Have we become savage in the pursuit of civilisation? Has power corrupted us in our pursuit of egalitarianism? The practical answer to this question lies in the machination of modernity. I would suggest that as knowledge and power are two sides of the same coin according to Foucault, in the same way, violence and distance are also two sides of the same coin in the discussion on terrorism and modernity. The terrorist terrorises us because he bridges this gap in the late modern era, whereas the objective of modernity is to make the equation of violence over distance tend as much towards zero as possible. The violent act committed by the state has to be out of sight, out of mind and out of discourse (hence the present discussions about press access to casualties in Afghanistan, and the resentment against Al-Jazirah). The sanctions against Iraq work so well because the distance between the act of violence and the actor is so great that the thread linking the two is too tenuous for the frail democratic sense. The “terrorist” act decreases this distance almost to zero. Suffering, of course, does not look to the name of the sender. But for some strange reason, we are today living in times when the “terrorist” form of violence exacts more horror. The drama of the moment holds our attention.
Here the word “terrorism” requires some comment. It is a word that, like its twin “fundamentalist”, doesn’t really mean much. Ask someone what they mean when they use the word and present different scenarios to question their definition and you’ll get the picture. “Terrorism” according to the lay definition means “the use of violence by madmen to secure anti-democratic ends.” I use the term “madmen” specifically. The suggestion according to this essentially right-wing definition is that “terrorists” are those people who are responsible for their actions because they have decided through rationalisation to commit acts of violence. The simultaneous description of them as “madmen” confounds their ambivalent reception, for “madness” limits the agency of the individual (as in the case of the assassination of King Faisal of Saudi Arabia) and renders them free of law. Perversely, madness can be a route to freedom. A more left-wing definition of “terrorism” would be “politics by desperate means” – the desperate under total political and military oppression resort to acts of individual and extreme violence. It is an attempt to take violence back into the court of the initiator state. Blair has entered this debate (and hence tacitly admitted the problem of defining terrorism) by offering the following definition in his answer to a question about the war in Afghanistan at Prime Minister’s Question Time (November 7): “Terrorism maximises loss of civilian life, we minimise loss of civilian life.” Netanyahu had offered the same definition on BBC2’s Newsnight a week earlier (October 31).
The use of the word “terrorism” by subaltern agents is a valiant attempt to re-focus concern towards universal suffering but the word has meaning only in reference to the powerful. There’s a word that we don’t hear much of. Power. Why? An open discussion on the nature of the relationship of terrorism to power would of course lead to the subaltern victory. Hence, the absence of discussion. For “terrorism” is the violence of the powerless, while “militarism” is the violence of the powerful. And since anything that can establish a relation to the nation state can automatically assume authority, the “militarism” approach reflects the order of things, while “terrorism” reflects disorder. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “terrorism” as “the use of violence and intimidation for political purposes.” Interestingly, this definition does not introduce the question of level of violence.
Recent reports suggest that the American intelligence agencies are re-considering the employment of torture as a tool to extract information. Simultaneously, the newly introduced human rights act in Britain is being set aside so that suspects can be imprisoned forever without trial. Well, this at least confirms to Muslims (for whom this act is primarily intended) what they have always thought, that they are insufficiently human to be warranted human rights. Both are examples of extremes of policies that are practised in the Middle East on a regular basis. It seems that the policies have come home. Is this reverse globalisation or the boomerang effect?
Ichheiser  has written about the difference between ideology in principle and ideology in practice in American culture. Ideology in principle is democracy. Ideology in practice is nationalism.  These past few months have thrown up this distinction to a remarkably clear degree. The talk has been of democracy, but the symbolism has been that of nationalism. The American flag out-selling the Afghani flag. And it is this distinction between rhetoric and practice that allowed the bombing to begin and continue. “You killed American citizens, we must kill you.” This base nationalist feeling is perhaps the most dangerous idea roaming the planet and it is this same feeling that punctures any attempt to achieve humanitarian sensitivity. Ultimately, history and geography decide who can be a human being in practice. In rhetoric, we are all human beings, as human rights discourse usurps the old-fashioned democracy slogans; but in practice, human beings are unequal. There are currency rates for human lives. And I think recent events have shaken these markets. So exactly how many Afghans are equal to one American?
“Not one American or British soldier has been killed so far,” crow the hawks. If the Americans had sent their soldiers into battle, it might have been a different story. Instead, they used the Northern Alliance to fight the Taliban, Afghan against Afghan, because Americans are worth more. We do value certain lives more than others, and this is because of the way that we interpret individualism. The ideology of human rights being derivative of Kantian rationalism assumes individuals are mutually replaceable, all equal in front of the UN. But in reality, human psychology does not work like this. We may say that all humans are equal, but in reality, humans are different, and it is culture that determines the ascription of value. Culture strikes through human rights discourse. That is why the deaths of New Yorkers mean more so much more to viewers than the deaths of Afghani villagers or Iraqi children (those alert to media imagery will have noticed that after the angry, shouting crowd of Muslim youth and the wailing, pleading hijabi, has come a third image, that of children training for warfare, the implicit question following on from Israeli spin being “What kind of people train children to kill?”, thus implicitly justifying the murder of Muslim children). But New York is the home to global culture. “Friends” and “Sex and the City” both have a New York-style backdrop to their narratives of life. Superman, Spiderman and Batman were all New Yorkers. We share, or aspire to, that culture. We can relate to them because they invade our TV screens regularly. We live and make sense of our lives through their stories. And now we feel their suffering, because we can relate to them. More, certainly, than we can relate to a third-worlder. It is this social psychological reality that punctures the ascending balloon of human rights discourse. Culture brings people together, and forces people apart. (Kant is important as an ancestor because he has been described as the founder of the modern concept of race). 
Compare what the Catholics in Northern Ireland, the Palestinians, the Kashmiris and the Chechens have received and one begins to realise that there are decreasing levels of justice in this world. I suggest that “justice” (minus the infinite) needs to be heard of a bit more. This word doesn’t really match well with human rights discourse, mainly because human rights discourse is so frequently useful in serving hegemonic powers. Human rights activists say that you can have economic or political justice only if you agree with our way of doing things, that is to say, you can’t have your cake, even if you want to eat it.  An attempt to universalise human rights discourse is essentially an attempt to globalise the Enlightenment project, especially in the notion that there are only rights for individuals; and this is highly problematic.
For those who wish to discuss the real nature of things, a knowledge of economics is necessary. Oil money, the WTO, the IMF, the numerous trade agreements, rapid liberalisation of third world markets at the expense of local business: who is the thief? One doesn’t have to be a Marxist to recognise that economic globalisation is proceeding in an unbalanced manner. The ideology in practice means that the South Carolina farmer is rich because the African or the Indian farmer is poor. For those who remain unconvinced, I direct them to the writings of Susan George and Vandana Shiva.  The US’s approach to globalisation has simultaneously included the retreat from the Kyoto protocol (on the cutting of greenhouse gas emissions), the retreat from the anti-biological warfare treaty, the retreat from the anti-racism conference and the retreat from the anti-ballistic weapons treaty. So the US is interested in economic globalisation, but not, it seems, in other forms. John Locke wrote: “In the beginning, all the world was America”  (referring, ironically, to the then relative insignificance of the accumulation of wealth), today perhaps it would be: “The whole world is becoming America”, and tomorrow: “America is the world”. This does not mean that the US is unified on these matters. It is just that big business decides in Washington. It is the study of the interaction between democracy and economics that I wish to encourage here; but what should we call it? How about demonomics?
You may accuse me here of being anti-American. I would be disappointed. Much of what I wish to say about America is already an intrinsic part of American discourse, whether it be in relation to anti-globalisation, democracy, war or Muslims. Sayyid points out in his book: “There is a convergence between ‘internal’ critics of the West and the Islamist critique of Western hegemony”.  This is an internal dispute whose ramifications are played out amongst innocents living in other parts of the world. This leads on to two interconnected points. First of all, the idea of the US being isolationist. So what exactly does the CIA do? How can true democrats tolerate the existence of an organisation whose central purpose is interference in the affairs of other countries? How many CIA agents are currently aiding the numerous Muslim governments against their own populations? Why do no political observers and analysts talk about the influence of the intelligence services? It is of course politically impolite to ask such questions, but I only do so for the interests of the political rights of other countries.
The second issue is of the nature of politics in the US and the UK. One of the more depressing sights over the last few weeks has been the closing of political ranks. Perhaps there are no greater political issues in our times. However the three main British political parties have virtually fallen over each other in agreement post-September 11. The same is true for America. Only last year, the world witnessed an intense polarisation in the political sphere as Democrats and Republicans bickered about the Florida recount. But today they are united in the “war against terror.” Giddens’ notion of political debate in the late modern era as being beyond left and right proved true for much of the last parliament.  Tony Blair’s Labour Party managed to walk over and occupy the centre ground. The Tories, in their perplexity, shifted to the right. The debates on key issues such as public services became a real bore. Arguing over fine details and intricate numbers, both Blair and Hague defied the common man in PMQ after PMQ to understand what exactly it was that they were disagreeing about.
But recent years have witnessed the emergence of a new political space, one outside the normal consensus. This is represented by the anti-globalisation movement. It takes seriously the effects of one political nation upon the rest of the world, and it calls on citizens of one particular country to audit their effect, primarily economic, on other human beings, which means that it takes the language of human rights seriously, and it disregards in one clean sweep the nationalist agenda. One cannot help but think, while listening to the political rhetoric coming out of Washington and London, that we are hearing the last cries of nationalism before we approach the post-nationalist era. I think this political space has arrived and needs to be articulated and expanded. The Blair government is attempting to carve out a new political space for itself and in doing so it wishes to afford morality, an ideology in principle. But there are at least two obstacles. Firstly, the ethical foreign policy was one attempt at this, but once Robin Cook discovered the price of human rights, little more was heard of the phrase. Secondly, the government has released information on policy shifts in regard to nuclear processing, Railtrack, tuition fees and asylum vouchers in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, highlighting the interaction between policy and manipulation. The government, it seems, does not have the necessary moral courage, though it has a huge democratic mandate. If within the modern democratic framework a strong government cannot afford morality, then who can?
A noticeable characteristic on the part of Jim Liberal is the refusal to engage with detail, especially in relation to international issues. A friend of mine was once talking to a non-Muslim friend of his who was slightly upset with Muslims. After my friend managed to give his side of the story, the non-Muslim’s response was “We should blow the whole world up and start again.” The refusal to deal with detail as in the case of much Middle Eastern politics may be a source of much humour for people like me, but ultimately, it remains as a tragic wall that bars political progress. “Both sides are at fault.” “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” As if all wrongs are equivalent.
This myopic interpretation is common in international debate. But closer examination reveals that such platitudes are irrelevant at least. For example, let us take two forms of violence and murder. The attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, and the sanctions against Iraq. Both required planning and execution. An attention to detail is necessary. But here the similarities end. One act of violence ended in a moment. The other has lasted for ten years. One act of violence has the backing of a government which is democratically elected. The other has the backing of a small and freakish network. And this is where the strange nature of social attribution reveals itself. Governments representing nations (i.e. the majority) are not accountable according to the press, but Muslims and Islam are accountable for the actions of a small religious minority (even though the media is doing much to counterbalance this effect). So responsibility is differentially distributed. Strange, but true. In fact, the Archbishop of Canterbury, representing the majority of British Christians, supported the bombing of Afghanistan, whereas violence has only ever been advocated by minority Muslim spokesmen. Perhaps stereotyping is only against the weak, that is, it lies in the hands of the powerful and the majoritarian, the hegemonic? Of course, one could be cynical, and read political actors through the reverse of their professed statements. So Tony Blair appeals to the middle classes although he is the leader of the Labour party. Similarly, John Major celebrated his Brixton beginnings, though he was Conservative Prime Minister. So what does this say about Tony Blair’s religion and the current government? (Note how Blair began by using the anti-drugs argument as a pretext for war in Afghanistan, later permitting his Home Secretary to decriminalise cannabis).
The argument regarding the Holocaust as a supreme evil because it employed the machinations of modernity towards suffering is, I believe, a strong one; although I do have a problem with the implicit valorisation of rationality, as if it could, if left alone, never lead to evil. The sanctions against Iraq have killed at least 1 million – that’s a sixth of the Holocaust – and I think that as such the sanctions qualify to join the Evil Hall of Fame. The machinations of modernity have been used here as well, including the proper functioning of democracy. How many times have the sanctions been raised in the Commons, and how many times have MPs ignored them while eyeing Front Bench positions? Democracy can walk shoulder to shoulder with mass murder if the thinking masses and the chattering classes are drunk on the wine of banality.
There is a problem with commenting on recent events, and it is to do with the interaction between media studies and international relations. The Glasgow University Media Group has conducted some research on the reporting of war, but to my knowledge (and I would love to know of instances that prove otherwise) there has been no major piece of work on the relation between information dissemination and time after a major event. One opportunity is provided by the recent publication of a book on the conflict in Bosnia by Brendan Simms, a Cambridge historian, examining the nature of political decision making that permitted so much mayhem.  One could compare the content and style of discourse within this book with the newspaper coverage at the time, and see what differences, if any, emerge. Similarly one could compare a recent article detailing US political decision-making in relation to Rwanda in the Atlantic Monthly (September 2001) entitled “Bystanders to Genocide” by Power (a professor at Harvard University) with US newspaper coverage of the genocide at the time.
We all know that the first casualty of war is truth. However what I am wishing to suggest here is that the type of discourse changes dramatically as one moves further and further away from the source event as truth begins to appear without disguise. Secret files are released, ex-ministers are more open, shocked bureaucrats leak sensitive information, international friendships fall apart. And the truth begins to appear. The huge wave of news information post-September 11 is enough to drown one under detail after detail. However, for those who are interested in the real nature of things, the best thing to do is to stand back, treat media speculation for what it is, and to buy a few books on the history of politics in the Middle East and American foreign policy.
I remember once having a discussion with one of my teachers about the nature of reality in our times. He was working on the social psychology of globalisation and implicit to his work is the principle that the picture of the Earth from the moon is enough to convince people that the Earth is round. (Like millions of others I have received the e-mail which tries to convince me that NASA faked it, but let’s leave that issue aside – I am not a flat-earther). I remember discussing the efficacy of imagery as proof with him. I was suggesting that as computer imaging develops, it will become more difficult to distinguish between true images and false images. The Gulf War made this issue real and perhaps this is what Baudrillard meant by his essay The Gulf War did not take place : he was satirising the postmodern contempt for suffering. Of course, the events of September 11 have turned this issue on its head. Many people will have seen the films that can be related symbolically to the planes crashing into the twin towers. “The Towering Inferno” has a burning building about to collapse. “Independence Day” has scenes in which buildings representing American nationalism are blown up. “The Siege” has a secret enemy cell plotting to kill innocent civilians in New York. “Executive Decision” has Muslim terrorists (sic) hijacking a plane.
On September 11, all the story lines merged into one in a single dramatic moment. “It was just like a movie!” This was heard often in the aftermath of the attacks. The reality wasn’t, it was worse, much worse, because not only did the hijackers manage to combine the worst aspects of each film narrative, they also managed to kill thousands. That doesn’t happen in the movies. And now films are being shelved because the weak distinction between fact and fiction isn’t standing up under so much scrutiny. There is something of the self-fulfilling prophecy about this. For years, Muslims had complained of negative representation. There were no major terrorist acts. Now, of course, some people will say, “You see, we were right!”. But they are wrong. Allport  has written of the self-fulfilling nature of representation (though it may be mediated by ambivalence) and it seems that this repeated representation of Muslims as terrorists has become a reality. The distinction between representation and reality has been further blurred by references to Bin Laden’s similarity to Blofeld – the arch-enemy of James Bond – in the Sunday Times (October 7). Even a Downing Street source said after the Northern Alliance went into Kabul: “Things are going to be a bit messy. This was never going to unfold like a Steven Spielberg movie” (Independent on Sunday, 18 November).
One obvious winner in the past months has been the media. No doubt much will be written in the years to come about the media and September 11. There are many areas for analysis: the overlap between fact and fiction, the effects of the repetitive display of images of extreme violence, the symbolism of the attack, the representation of otherness, the challenge of language, and the totalisation of discourse. Of these, it is the latter that most interests me. This was probably the first time since the globalisation of the media post-internet and satellite TV that discourse was total. Meaning that there was no space for difference. Poor Pakistan! The whole world was staring at Pakistan with accusative eyes on the Thursday after the Tuesday. “Either you are with us or against us!” And who could disagree in the face of such total carnage, the destruction of two buildings that championed America like no other? Or was it the number of lives that were lost that constituted the real disaster? I can’t help feeling that the destruction of the two buildings means more to some than the three thousand lives. How could there be disagreement after such total mayhem? And total mayhem means total discourse. We could only think through the words and the images that we were seeing.
The media, which usually struggles to capture major audiences, suddenly found itself serving captive audiences. There was no other topic of conversation (whence the British government’s timed press releases). The language devoured us all. Muslims were objectified as a global Other at that moment, through the image of Usama bin Laden. Muslims generally have no problem opposing the hegemony, in fact we quite enjoy it, but at that time, the horror did not escape us. We felt also. But the bombings on Afghanistan (which were presumably ordered to meet public opinion before the month ran out) changed the moral landscape again and the total language no longer exerted its hold over us. I think that Western governments lost the one opportunity they had to make serious headway towards conflict resolution.
The acceptance of Islam can only come about after Western agencies cease to caricaturise Islam and the sharia. (See Euben’s “Enemy in the Mirror”  for a grown-up discussion on comparative political theory in which she examines the similarities between Islamist political discourse and the writings of Arendt, Bell, Bellah and Taylor.) Cultural theorists would say that I am being too optimistic. The increase in stereotyping and caricaturing is related to the increasing threat of a certain sort of ‘political Islam’. That is, as this Islam advances on the public scene, stereotypes will be constructed in order to make it seem threatening, different, alter to our ego. The Taliban were used precisely for this reason. Story after story hit the papers emphasising their complete otherness to the idyllic, Surrey middle-class lifestyle. How representative were the Taliban of the world’s one billion Muslims? Or the numerous expressions of political Islam? And how representative were the media stories about the Taliban of the Taliban themselves? I’ll return to this later. I remember a series on BBC2 last year called “Behind the Lines” in which Sean Langan, a journalist, visited Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Palestine, interviewing a series of Others. The argument being put forward was that here is a line which divides us from a fascistic Them (in almost every programme Langan spoke about how he could not say what he wanted, or about how he was being followed, Orwellian style), and hence we have two blocs. The democratic, secular West and the fascist Islamic East. Of course, had he visited Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and the like, the argument of freedom (political) and Islam would have been turned on its head. The line is not so clear anymore. The convenient story not so believable. He did, as it happens, visit Egypt, but according to inside sources the BBC pulled the programme for “technical reasons.” I am no great defender of political Islam, the Islamist cake will most probably be a modernist cake in postmodernist times  (with an Islamic cherry on top), but surely other nations have rights to representative government? The Western media’s support for what in many cases are appallingly tyrannical regimes belies their commitment to freedom.
But this is not the end of it. The above position is justified by suggesting that Muslims are actually against freedom, and especially the freedom of women. This is another area requiring grown-up discussion. Feminists who rage against Muslim treatment of women monopolise the banner of freedom (so that the girl who wears hijab is oppressed but the girl who wears a miniskirt is free) while concurrently failing to recognise the involvement of women in the Muslim resurgence. Instead, desperate lists are produced and fake scenarios rehearsed (men throwing acid on the faces of women) detailing oppression after oppression. The arguments that such feminists propose assume an individualism that is crude and rooted deeply in Protestant culture valuing the public role and work ethic of the self-sufficient male. And all must converge on this model. The grown-up discussion on individualism versus communitarianism and gender relations allows for a bit more flexibility. Crude individualisms advanced as enlightenment positive truths are not the answer. Two questions to be asked here are: is it necessary for one discourse which is culturally specific to one society and historical experience to be universalised? The feminists would surely reply by pointing out that this is exactly what religion assumes. So feminism (a crude version) is now a religion? Secondly: can feminists be racists as well? Well, the feminist community has been there before and the answer is yes. Feminism does inform the present debate and it seems that it legitimates the bombing, such that, “Because the Taliban oppress their women, we can bomb them.” Is it any wonder that the papers took issue with Question Time immediately after September 11 by printing a large picture of the sister in hijab who spoke assertively against American foreign policy? What could they not tolerate: her opinion or her challenge to their stereotype of Muslim women?
And blessed are they who in the main
This faith, even now, do entertain.
Wordsworth, ‘Ode to Duty’
A fairer representation of an assertive Islam is a huge problem, and I am not sure that enough in the West have a sufficient sense of fair play for this to happen. So perhaps there is another way. Let us recognise that we do accept the sharia when money (or oil) is involved as in the case of Saudi Arabia, and so it is possible when it suits our interests. Perhaps, I am simplifying the matter. An ideological analysis would suggest that the two master signifiers in the Muslim world are Israel and oil. The value of any country and its applicant leader depends on their answers to these two questions. So a Muslim leader can be good if he accepts the Oslo peace process, even if he is bad for his own population. A Muslim leader can similarly be good if he is co-operative towards our oil needs, even if he is corrupt. The Muslim masses know this, and they know that they are on the receiving end of both policies. The caricaturing of Islamic law is merely one of several ideological strategies aimed at maintaining the position of the master signifiers. The right of any Muslim country to self-determination is easily brushed aside. Recent events show that attempts to maintain this hegemony have lead to increasing radicalisation and therefore more violence. I would suggest that an accommodation with political Islam in fact serves the long-term interests of Western stability. Otherwise, radicalisation and the cycle of violence will continue.
Cycle of violence. Now there’s an interesting phrase, used repeatedly by the US State Department over the last year in regard to the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. “We urge both sides to show restraint.” “We call on both sides to cease this cycle of violence.” No right, no wrong. No strong, no weak. Only a “cycle of violence.” There has been a cycle of violence in the Middle East for the past three decades. The US and other Western governments built up Saddam Hussein and his army in order to fight Iran in the Eighties, and then spent the nineties bombing them down again. They simultaneously trained Usama bin Laden and friends,  and are now currently bombing them. Who will we train now in order to bomb them in 2012? The American foreign policywonks are probably repeating the Hardy line to each other: “That’s another fine mess you got me into!” Which way to turn? So much danger around. If I was scared of nature, I would use the analogy of dropping someone into the middle of the Amazon forest and asking them to make their way to the sea.
“Give me your hand!”
“If we live, we live together, if we die, we die together!”
“Scared of what?”
”You don’t know me.”
“I know about you.”
“Give me your hand!”
It has been open season against Islam. Writers who normally struggle to put a few hundred words together and labour to find an issue of sufficient importance, have been presented with an opportunity to provide their analysis of a world event. Except that most of them don’t have a clue. Especially in relation to the issue that supposedly lies at the heart of this crisis: Islam and the West. Assumptions, stereotypes, even ignorance become acceptable replacements for informed opinion. For example, Peter Beaumont in the Observer (October 14) writes of Bin Laden sharing Khomeini’s conception of Islamic revolution (e.g. the vilayet-e faqih) when most people who know a thing or two about both the Iranian revolution and the Jihad movement know that they don’t agree at all. Salafism and Shi‘ism have different notions of authority. But the trajectory of radicalism is too good a narrative to ignore, as Khomeini passes the baton relay-style to Bin Laden. (Interestingly Rashid Rida becomes a co-radical in the same article!) Similarly, Salman Rushdie, that great expert on Islam , wrote in the Guardian (October 6) like a Tory proselyte, erupting with right-wing discourse all the way through his article. Not that I am a leftie. But correct me if I am wrong; wasn’t Rushdie a leftie in a previous decade? Note, then, the shift to the right-wing talk of “Let’s smoke ’em out!” It seems that the terrorists are not the only desperate people. Well, one interesting point to note from Rushdie’s essay is his list that proves that “fundamentalists” (sic) are tyrants. Leaving aside the confusing terminology (since it is the norm), he suggests in this list that Muslims are against accountable government. He is obviously ignorant of the Islamist claims of non-accountability against the Saudi the Egyptian regimes. In fact, accountability is one of the most recurrent arguments of Islamists. (Other members of the list included beardlessness and sex. I can reassure Mr Rushdie that we are innocent on both accounts. On the first, women don’t have to wear beards, and on the second, the Prophet encouraged sex as a charitable act.) One should take note of how Rushdie’s writing supports the hegemonic rationale for numerous corrupt Muslim governments. Thirdly, Henry Porter in the Observer (October 14) argues the Eurocentric view (great timing!) that Islam needs to experience a reformation. If he knew more about Islam then he would know that the closest thing that Islam has had to a reformation has led to the problems that he is trying to explain. But he doesn’t.
The Observer and the Guardian would no doubt be upset. Why don’t I criticise the real ignoramuses of other papers  for their jingoistic, half-baked diatribes? Exactly. I think I can get a conversation with the Observer and the Guardian, and their coverage on the whole has to be commended as brave and important. The secularists, much to my non-surprise, have managed to use these events to play their favourite game, “Who can bash religion the most?” Of course, Dawkins, a professor of the Public Understanding of Science (irony of ironies) at Oxford, always wins hands down. Religion, Mr Dawkins, is keeping the peace at the moment. The day we all follow his selfish gene hypothesis, much in the style of American foreign policy, will be the day that this world lurches much closer towards anarchy. But Mr Dawkins has not been alone. There have been numerous Muslim-bashers out roaming the pages, and I play a game with myself while reading their pieces. Two questions are to be asked of each: “How many Muslim friends have they got?” and “How many books on Islam have they read?”. Of course, two ducks makes them expertly qualified. It is more amusing on TV, watching them mispronounce names, get their history wrong, their facts wrong, and stumble over the geography, but hey, here come the experts. If it wasn’t so serious, but it is serious. Two and a half cheers for Fred Halliday (no Islamophile) for at least being an expert.
Thinking about the recent Islam week on BBC2, I remember the extent to which Islam and being Muslim oversignifies all other categories. Islam is a total discourse.  All actions have to be related back to God, and hence the futile attempt to philosophically (as opposed to politically, which is less of a problem) marry Islam with freedom, since ultimately all actions have to become subservient to God, if not now, then on the Day of Judgement. The human imperative is to reconcile free will with the Will of God. So for a Muslim, Islam is totalising, and if you ask me of the phenomenology of it, in a liberating sort of way. Yet, what is strange about the non-Muslim observation of Muslims is the extent to which Islam is so significant as the key source of categorisation. “Do you do that because of your religion?” How often are we asked this? How often are we explained away because of some crude caricature of our faith? And how little are we actually heard? As national conversation on the television or in the newspapers seeks access into the phenomenology of so much that represents the alternative, there remains still an absence: “What are Muslims like?”
Muslims may wonder what non-Muslims think about them. Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth” provides an answer, albeit fictional. Joyce, a woolly middle-class do-gooder, decides to take in Millat, an angry, confused, young Muslim, for tutoring. She comes to the conclusion through the aid of her doctor friend Marjorie, that Millat suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder: ADD. Joyce and Irie, a friend of Millat’s, discuss how best to deal with Millat:
“Because if Marjorie’s right, and it is ADD, he really needs to get to a doctor and some methylphenidate. It’s a very debilitative condition”.
“Joyce, he hasn’t got a disorder, he’s just a Muslim. There are one billion of them. They can’t all have ADD”.
Joyce took a little gasp of air. “I think you’re being very cruel. That’s exactly the kind of comment that isn’t helpful”. 
I don’t think that British or Western people are ignorant of Islam. It is not that they don’t know, it is mostly that what they know is factually incorrect or unrepresentative.  They know, for example, about the fatwa, the book burning in Bradford, hands being chopped off, the stoning of adulterers and forced marriages. (They also know about the Alhambra, the Taj Mahal, zakat and hajj but the scales are tipped heavily on one side.) There is enough mistrust of Islam for accusations to stick without checking as Islam occupies the space of feared, threatening, mistrusted Other. Said’s book Covering Islam  provides some of the reasons for why this is the case. These examples occupy the fore of Western imagination as it interacts with Muslims, such that as soon as a Muslim opens his mouth, the retort comes back “But what about the fatwa?”. Trapped is he who doesn’t have his answers already prepared. What is the point of dialogue beyond such retorts? Excusing, explaining, apologising: “But you don’t understand …”
Voltaire and Montesquieu differed in their understandings of the Ottoman Empire. For Montesquieu, the Ottoman empire represented a phantasmic, despotic Other whereas Voltaire was more cautious.
There is plainly no question here of splitting Voltaire and Montesquieu. On the level of evidence, Voltaire is right, and without doubt the analysis of the Asiatic regimes developed by Montesquieu – be it the Ottoman, Persian, Mogul or Chinese empires – rests on partial information and partial interpretation. Correct though these criticisms may be, however, it seems to us none the less that they in no way detract from the force of the concept of despotism as elaborated and deployed by Montesquieu.
There was a force to the false narrative which, it seems, is being replicated today. We live in a society in which visual culture dominates oral culture. Ichheiser has said: “Looking at each other is the most primary form of conversation”.  Our eyes have taken over from our ears. The distance that separates us can be maintained by looking but not by hearing. Much of what we find out about others is through reading. It’s so much easier than listening to someone, especially someone we might know. People don’t talk to each other, they find out about each other through newspapers and books, and so misinformation is crucial towards maintaining separation. I remember sitting across from a lady on a train in London. She was reading White Teeth. She might have been reading about Millat Iqbal, the young lad who gets wrapped up in a fundamentalist group called KEVIN (were they too illiterate to realise?), and through Smith’s novel maybe she could have begun to understand why young Muslims become radicalised, like the young Muslim sitting opposite her? I doubt it. If modern cultures allowed for more open conversation, then maybe people would talk to each other on trains, even across differences. Who knows, we might even begin to understand each other a bit more.
Is there a fear of the Muslim voice? I remember watching Question Time after the attacks. I noticed the trepidation before a Muslim spoke. “What will they say this time?” “Will they be reasonable?” The silence before the storm. Except that usually there wasn’t a storm. He/she would generally sound quite reasonable. But I remember the fear, I felt it myself, “I hope they don’t say anything stupid.” There is a fear of the Muslim voice, perhaps we are scared to hear criticism, perhaps we are afraid of their anger, perhaps they don’t make sense. One point, though, to note about Usama bin Laden is that that old dictum has been proved true: “If you say something often enough, people will learn how to pronounce it.”
The release of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon last year was met with public acclaim. The critics were pleased that a non-English language film had done so well. A film that was at ease in another culture was celebrated as marking the beginnings of Western openness. But just as the huge wooden doors of tolerance were being pushed open, along came the Taliban. The Taliban, of course, don’t employ spin doctors. But this doesn’t mean that media personnel don’t make money from them. The Taliban have the unfortunate accolade of being the indirect employers of reverse-spin doctors. These are those who spin the message away from the desired result, and there’s plenty of them. Their spinning has justified Western prejudices against other-worlders, and huge gates of tolerance have been shut again for another few years. The repetitive showing of images of violence and the easy stereotyping of “bearded fanatics” and “oppressed Muslim women” has reassured liberals that they are in fact right. This is not the only moral Other. One section of the liberal-left adopted the Taliban as their supreme moral Other. Another section has opted for the US as their supreme moral Other. Superficially, these two groups may seem similar except that their intended targets are poles apart. But I think further analysis will find that though both groups aim to occupy the same political space, their analyses are in fact diametrically opposed in terms of basic concepts, the most crucial being power.
The presence of Muslims in Britain has been raised again as questions are asked about our loyalty to the Queen. I look at this issue from a slightly different perspective. Imagine, in an ideal liberal world, there would be no Muslims in Britain. Instead, they would all live far away in distant countries which we could visit if we wanted to. We would not have to hear their constant complaining about rights, local and international, we would only have to endure their company at global conferences which only last for a few days. Things would be so much easier. I disagree. The most important contribution that the Muslim community makes to this country at present is not cultural (meaning the restaurants – why is it that multicultural events are always about pakoras and bhangra?) but political, though it should be spiritual. Our strong-mindedness may be irritating, but it serves to hold up the political parties, lobbies and commentators to their claims. We constantly remind politicians of the universal applicability of their pious hopes. We refuse to let easy answers slip away, we inform the debate with knowledge and experience, we place Britain (as a country that is still struggling with these debates) at the centre of the world discussion on Islam, indeed we improve the quality of the debate. This is without extensive participation in the media: look at the number of writers in the press who have written about Islam and Muslims and check to see how many of them are actually Muslim. Is this why Edward Said chose to begin his influential “Orientalism” with Karl Marx’s: “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented”? 
What about those British Muslims that are fighting with the Taliban? Déjà vu? The same questions were asked during the Gulf War when some British Muslims were interrogated about their loyalties. I would agree with the mainstream, “If you’re going to go, then don’t come back.” The stories, true or false, raise the spectre of the enemy within and it are a powerful narrative to argue against. In fact, there isn’t much anyone can do, once the label has been fixed. If I deny, then I am told that I am lying, and to accept is become a traitor. Maybe this is about a drowning nationalism holding on to the nearest scapegoat? As it drowns, it points to the treacherous Muslims: “Can you not see why you need me?” I am using here Sayyid’s argument from his book A Fundamental Fear. He suggests that the decentring of Europe permits Islamism to emerge. Taken from the vantage-point of the dominant discourse, Islam can be seen as justification for various discourses that are past their sell-by date. I would suggest that we have witnessed several discourses utilising recent events as opportunities to prop themselves up, even though they are either suffering severe wounds or critical, internal fractures. These include (all in a very general but absolutely necessary way): liberalism, feminism, materialism, and nationalism. Since the voice of Islam is either unheard or unintelligible, these discourses are able to prolong their shelf-life for perhaps a few more years by holding up a lazy caricature and then shooting it down.
Madness. Civilisation. These words are used to frame our moral discourse because we don’t at present have an understanding of the word “wrong”. The hijackers were mad. What kind of madness was it? Schizophrenia? I think not. When we say mad, we actually mean that we don’t know what to say, we don’t understand, we cannot categorise them.  So they must be mad. To guess at their mind set, I don’t think that they were mad. I think that they had become in true twentieth-century fashion numb to suffering. They could see their own death and the death of thousands of others ahead of them, but they had become numb to suffering, perhaps numb to moral discourse. They had heard Western political leaders sidestep the murder of tens/hundreds/thousands of Muslims one too many times and they had moved from the stage of intense pain to numbness. This is the point at which Islamic law steps in, and holds us back, for I too am numb to suffering. If Muslims are to be critical of themselves, and indeed now they need to be so, they should ask about what has happened to Islamic law that can abandon its traditional self so completely to permit some acts which are so obviously forbidden. I leave this question to those who are more knowledgeable on this than I, but I urge the average Muslim like myself to think about their relationship with the law, because the law is a blessing, it protects us even from our own selves. We are living in times when laws and rules, rights and wrongs, don’t mean much. One million people use cannabis every week against the law in Britain and the argument for legalisation is “Well, so many people break the law, so let’s change it”. Muslims have to be careful that they don’t join in. The law is sacred in Islam, as the expression of a divinely-guided consensus. As soon as this is challenged and doors are opened for furious men to re-read the scriptures themselves and ignore the scholars, then we will begin to arrive at destinations that we did not intend.
We are passing through a weak phase in our history and we should not feel the need to defend every Muslim for any action. Unfortunately, some Muslims can do certain things which are not only forbidden in themselves, but can also lead to the dishonouring of Islam and threaten the safety of other Muslims. We cannot say on these occasions that we must defend our co-religionists at all costs. We have to have some moral standards which do not reflect a base nationalism; our ethics have to override our sense of community. In fact, this is what is needed for the whole of mankind. The ulema have all condemned the actions of September 11, and it needs to be understood that if there is a particular way of thinking through Islamic law that can lead to this, then we have to understand it, analyse it and then condemn it also. Akbar Ahmed’s book on Postmodernism and Islam is one of the lesser attempts at tackling one of the key issues of the modern age. Sayyid and Sardar are better.  However, Ahmed does say one thing which I believe is pertinent to the current Muslim predicament. He says that the media may succeed in changing Muslim character. I believe that they have, to our detriment. Angry, suspicious, closed-hearted, fearful, narrow-minded, ignorant (frankly), impatient. I know and understand why we have become like this, but I, all praise be to Allah, have moved on, and I urge others to do so. The Muslim scholar and mystic Ibn Ata’illah says in his Hikam: “The source of every single disobedience is being pleased with oneself.” It is time that we recognised our own faults.
The media not only distort character, they also distort our analysis of the situation. Can there be any doubt that our proposed solutions to the Muslim predicament are determined heavily by the media focus upon crisis events, victims and violence? Does this not valorise a political/military solution (hence the rapid rise of such groups during the nineties)? Instead, the Quran says: “Verily, Allah does not change a situation of a people until they change what is in themselves”. Perhaps the media makes us conveniently shift the focus away from our own selves, for indeed are we not responsible for our situation? Iqbal’s Jawab-i Shikwa, written almost a hundred years ago, is perhaps as relevant today as then: “If you are faithful to Muhammad, then I am yours. This world is nothing, the tablet and the pen will become yours.”
I fear that as the situation progresses, we will let the media decide our agenda for us. A similar thing happened during the Rushdie affair. Muslims began to support Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa even though Sunni Islam had a different fatwa. Because the media were asking “Whose side are you on?”, many Muslims by jumping quickly through a few logical hoops decided that they were for Khomeini. Similarly, we have to be careful that the media do not push us to argue for positions that are simply forbidden – haram. That is, that in order to defend Islam from the accusations of non-Muslims, we decide to take up positions which distort the Islamic perspective.
The last decade or so has seen the increasing radicalisation of the Muslim position, especially within the British national public sphere. This can be demonstrated by referring to the choice representative of national newspapers of “Islamic fundamentalism”. The first such representative was Kalim Siddiqui who was probably the most radical and strong-minded defender of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa during the Rushdie affair. The second choice representative was Omar Bakri Mohammed, a former leader of Hizb ut-Tehrir and now leader of the al-Muhajiroun faction, who is more assertive in his pronouncements but generally against the use of violence. The third is Abu Hamza al Masri, a spokesman for the Salafi Jihad movement, who is more assertive still and believes in the use of violence. Kalim Siddiqui was popular in the early nineties, though he gave way to Omar Bakri Muhammad in approximately 1993-1994, while Omar Bakri Muhammad gave way to Abu Hamza in the late nineties. All three represent small minority affiliations in the Muslim community. This progressive radicalisation of the Muslim representative was paralleled by the accompany radicalisation of Muslim youth after the Gulf war, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir and Palestine. The events of September 11 reversed this process. The death and destruction seemed to be at the hands of Muslims. There was now a tendency towards moderation as many Muslims began to decry the radicalised alternative, “We must stop this madness!” But the bombing of Afghanistan put a stop to that too.
Reading the media over the last two months or so has made me realise how much the radicals and the Islamophobes need each other. One such Islamophobe, Kilroy-Silk, had decided to focus one of his complex television discussion programmes on the issue of Muslims in Britain fighting against the British alongside the Taliban. Omar Bakri Mohamed had been invited to join the discussion. A campaign (mainly by Muslims) began to e-mail, phone and fax those involved with the production of the programme in order to persuade them to prevent Omar Bakri Mohamed from participating. Eventually the campaigners succeeded, but Kilroy-Silk was furious (cf. his article in the Express on Sunday, 11 November). I felt while reading his article that perhaps there is a symbiotic relationship between Islamophobes and extremists. They need each other.
There are calls for a Muslim reformation. What do they mean? Where is the Islamic Catholic church whose authority should be challenged? Is it not the absence of religious authority that has brought us to where we are? So what is meant, demanded, by this call? The last person on earth whom Muslims would be prepared to listen to on such issues is Salman Rushdie, a Pip to modernity’s Miss Haversham (“I would do anything to please you, Madam”). Yet he wrote in the Guardian (3 November) “Let’s start calling a spade a spade…”, meaning that this is indeed a war against Islam, and “the world of Islam must take on board the secularist-humanist principles on which the modern is based, and without which their countries’ freedom will remain a distant dream.” Perhaps this is what is meant by a Muslim reformation: secularism, not scripturalism. But then to what extent should Islam be modified for it to be deemed acceptable? Could somebody please provide a list of all appropriate changes that we should make in order to become worthy citizens of this new moral order? Of course, I jest. Let’s call a spade a spade. Islam doesn’t need to take on board secularist-humanist principles, this would never be sufficient, for secularist-humanists have problems with basic religious beliefs such as God and accountability in the Hereafter. It is not the legal periphery of Islam that is the problem, it is its spiritual centre. As we have seen in Britain, the adoption of such an approach has led to the demise of religion itself.
The call for a Muslim reformation is in one sense a call for a liberal Islam. The subjugation of Islam to the heart’s command may provide opportunities for the emergence of liberal Islam, but it is the same hermeneutic that leads to an Islam that advocates violence. Rendering the interpretation of law to the heart’s desire may not lead to the desired outcome. In fact, the present political climate tilts the balance heavily away from any conciliatory interpretation of Islam, quite the opposite. But the line that establishes the Western moral position (if there is such a thing) is in a perpetual state of motion. Are all others condemned to play catch up from now on? Or will they be permitted to establish themselves as alternatives? If others are to play catch up, then maybe one way that they could try to break ahead is by asking what is post post-modernism and making sure they get there first? Ultimately though, Islam has a stronger historical claim than liberalism, having lasted longer while establishing itself across a wider spectrum of cultures. Islam doesn’t require a reformation; liberalism needs to de-centre itself.
The cinematographic power of the images of September 11 could perhaps be explained as modernity’s hara-kiri. The world watches two planes fly into the Twin Towers on TV through satellite communication. Is this the end of modernity? Is this what is meant by the numerous references to “the challenge to our whole way of life”? Were the events of September 11 the result of modernity’s disregarded children returning to their homes? Or perversely, were they the championing of modernity? That modernity could only be attacked through modernity itself – thus establishing it as the sole surviving grand narrative? That in its moment of supreme weakness, modernity established its universal strength? Or is it all about postmodernism and Islam? How strange that the images on our TVs fluctuate between the city that symbolises postmodernism unlike any other, New York, and the villages of Afghanistan that symbolise the most pre-modern of eras. It is as if the trajectory of progress is being narrated visually. I wonder if bombing Afghanistan would have been so easy if it had been a modern or postmodern country? Or does it make it more difficult? Do their traditionalism and clear Otherness facilitate our bombing? Or does their poverty make us gulp out of shame? Probably both.
About the Taliban themselves and the numerous stories concerning their ultra-Otherness, I am sceptical. Remember the “babies-in-incubator” story that was employed prior to the Gulf war to demonstrate Iraqi barbarism, and which later turned about to be false? Politics and the media, already as siamese twins, tend to merge into one body during war efforts. I remember Malcolm X’s comment about the Japanese (or the Germans?) and the Russians, and how the American media so swiftly switched public opinion pre-1945 and post-1945, and wonder whether the same is not happening now. Were the Taliban not welcomed a few years ago by the US embassy in Islamabad as a stabilising force? The numerous photographs, TV footage and eyewitness accounts are to be taken with a pinch of salt. I am not saying that the media lie, they only strategically misrepresent.
Strategic misrepresentation? Let me give you an example. The Ouseley Report  published in Bradford in the aftermath of this year’s riots was extensively covered in the media. A salient claim was that religious schools in Bradford have led to segregation and in fact are implicitly the cause of the race riots (see The Observer, September 30). This point has been repeated again and again, especially as evidence against the government’s proposed scheme to expand the number of faith schools, and became a sub-narrative to the September 11 attacks. The report, however, also includes the following points: there is a white flight from ‘Asian inner city’ areas towards the suburbs (point 2.5.1), Islamophobia is regarded as prevalent in the schools and community (point 2.5.5) and the police “collude with non-intervention” in the drugs problem (point 2.5.10). These points are never mentioned, even in the liberal press. Instead, the blame is laid at the door of the sole Muslim school in Bradford which is supposed to have caused the riots. It is a girl’s school. Correct me if I am wrong, but I didn’t see any girls rioting. The mass of non-Muslim readers, not knowing any better, would have been content with the story of religion yet again dividing and disrupting society. The truth of the matter is far more complicated, and much less gratifying. The point about Algeria mentioned earlier is relevant here. The denial of freedom in the name of freedom through the distortion of facts is happening in front of our very eyes.
So the Afghanis can taste freedom now. Cinemas, pop music, how could anybody tolerate life with such huge absences? A question that I ask myself is to what extent Afghanistan should approximate to Western cultural practice for the various Western lobbies to be satisfied?. (I know, I’m homogenising Western culture.) Polly Toynbee’s article “Behind the burka” in the Guardian (28 September) was an angry critique of the treatment of women in Afghanistan. Reading the article again, it is obvious that her ink must have burnt from the intensity of her hatred. It couldn’t have taken her long to write it. Anyway, that evening the television schedule offered the following choices at approximately 11 pm. BBC1: Jo Brand. ITV1: Lily Savage. CH4: Graham Norton. What does this say about gender in Western culture, except that it is somewhere between swings and roundabouts. Perhaps, that’s what irks some intolerant feminists so much, that Islam provides a reasonable, working model for gender.  Holding up the burka in order to shoot it down helps the intolerant feminist avoid facing the consequences of gender disruption (which have yet to be assessed).
If the key question is: How do we make the world safer, then immediate and obvious answers are: American troop withdrawal from Saudi Arabia, a ceasing of intelligence agency interference in Muslim countries especially in relation to the move towards representative and accountable government, a return of Israel to pre-1967 borders at least, secure environmental protocols, and fairer global economic trade agreements. Long term answers relate to shifts in industries reliant upon oil and warfare. Can the world’s brains not think up alternative ways of making money? Those who read books know this. But the game of modern-day politics is to avoid the obvious and excuse the inexcusable. I ask myself two questions as I listen to the experts: “How close do they get?” and “What excuses will they offer?” The second question is the linguistic equivalent of hide and seek. Self-explanatory? Perhaps these two strategies could be called the strategies of prevarication and containment. A third question that I ask myself is, “Do they know any better?”
Terrorism is inherently related to fear. The fear of disruption, disorder, chaos. The violation of our structured world, our life, our concerns, our … Where does this “our” end? It ends probably where the threat of terrorism begins. A fear of disorder that was realised so spectacularly on September 11. “Things have changed forever.” Have they? If the US had not bombed Afghanistan, then maybe. But they did. And at that moment Usama bin Laden won the war. A rich man who lives as if he is poor won the war when the richest nation on earth began to bomb one of the poorest nations on earth. So things have not changed. Well, not for the rest of the world, and for the short term anyway. Long term, things may have changed. And I think the greatest effect of the events of September 11 on the US has been and will be symbolic. A confident and secure nation will never feel the same way again. The worrying thing is that in post-moral times, the events of September 11 do provide a strong moral basis for action. But that is all that Western leaders have. And they will need much more if they wish to move beyond rhetoric. I fear as I type that I am typing in vain. Albert Camus said “If our speech has no meaning, nothing has meaning”.  Make no mistake about it folks, this ain’t a crusade. It’s only an escalation in the cycle of violence. Is losing language worse than losing life?
The heart ordered the voice:
“Hold yourself, until I say”,
And the cynic ran away.
Any correspondence to email@example.com
© S. M. Atif Imtiaz
(1) Freud, S. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (trans. J. Strachey) 14:275. London: Hogarth. 1953-1974.
(2) There is some disagreement as to the exact number of victims. The BBC in the immediate aftermath suggested that up to 50,000 could have died. However, Michael Ellison writing in the Guardian (October 28) quoted New York City officials as putting the figure at 4,964. The New York Times suggested 2,950, the USA Today proposed 2,680, the Associated Press 2,625 and the American Red Cross which had received $500 million in donations towards supporting the families of the deceased suggested 2,563. Why is it that if I were to say that there is no independent confirmation of these figures, replicating the BBC’s response to casualty figures from Afghanistan, I feel that I am somehow less of a human being?
(3) In attempting to explain how the Holocaust could have happened, social psychological studies into the nature of fascism suggested that the authoritarian personality forced the silent masses into submission (cf. Adorno, T. W. et al. The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper and Row. 1950). Any such examination today would have to include the role of the media as an agent for comatisation.
(4) Both papers can be found in: Tamimi, A. Power-sharing Islam? London: Liberty for Muslim World Publications. 1993.
(5) For further reading: Burgat, F. and Dowell, W. The Islamic Movement in North Africa. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1993.
(6) But what about Kosova? How can a Muslim explain the recent bombing of Yugoslavia by the US and Britain in order to protect a Muslim population? It certainly confounded expectations, and experience, and that is why Islamists remain mute on this issue. It remains as one example against a whole list of counter-examples. International politics and Popperian falsificationism simply don’t add up.
(7) Ali, T. and Brenton, H. Iranian Nights. 1989. Aired on Channel 4: 20 May, 10.25 pm.
(8) The consequence of a denotation of barbarism is the civilising process which requires political control and military action.
(9) Quoted on The Late Show aired on BBC2, 8 May 1989, 11.15 pm.
(10) Mannheim, K. Ideology and Utopia (Trans. E. Shils) p. 43. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 1972.
(11) Ichheiser, G. ‘Misunderstandings in Human Relations: A Study in False Social Perception‘. American Journal of Sociology, 55 (suppl.). 1949.
(12) For examples of how seemingly liberal ideas can be used towards illiberal ends see: Parekh, B. ‘Decolonising liberalism‘, in Pieterse, J. N. and Parekh, B. (eds.). Decolonising the Imagination. London: Zed Press. 1993. Said, E. Culture and Imperialism. London: Vintage. 1993. Wetherell, M. and Potter, J. Mapping the Language of Racism. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester/Wheatsheaf. 1992.
(13) Pieterse, J. N. White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture. London: Yale University Press. 1992.
(14) For further reading: Pereira, W. Inhuman Rights: The Western System and Global Human Rights Abuse. New York: Apex Press. 1997.
(15) George, S. Feeding the Few. Washington: Institute for Policy Studies. 1979. George, S. A Fate Worse than Debt. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1988. Shiva, V. Biopiracy. Cambridge, MA: South End Press. 1997. Shiva, V. Stolen Harvest. Cambridge, MA: South End Press. 1999.
(16) Locke, J. Two Treatises of Government , p.140. London: J. M. Dent and Sons. 1989/1690.
(17) Sayyid, B. S. A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Islamism, p.118. London: Zed Books. 1997. See also a Jewish attempt to provide common ground between internal critics of the West and religious faith: Sacks, J. The Persistence of Faith: Religion, Morality and Society in a Secular Age. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson. 1991.
(18) Giddens, A. Beyond Left and Right. Cambridge: Polity Press. 1994.
(19) Simms, B. Unfinest Hour: How Britain Helped to Destroy Bosnia. London: Penguin Press. 2001.
(20) Baudrillard, J. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Sydney: Power Publications. 1995.
(21) Allport, G. W. The Nature of Prejudice. New York: Doubleday Anchor. 1954.
(22) Euben, R. L. Enemy in the Mirror: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Limits of Modern Rationalism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 1999.
(23) “Sociology suggests that you cannot have modernisation, technology, urbanisation and bureacratisation without the cultural baggage that goes with it and this baggage is essentially a post-Enlightenment system of thought”. Turner, B. S. Orientalism, Postmodernism and Globalism, p.8. London: Routledge. 1994.
(24) For further reading: Johnson, C. Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. New York: Henry Holt and Company. 2000.
(25) See Sardar, Z. and Davies, M. Distorted Imagination: Lessons from the Rushdie Affair. London: Grey Seal. 1990.
(26) The Telegraph published an Islam supplement on Thursday 15 November presumably to counter the misconceptions that other papers were spreading.
(27) Sayyid, B. S. A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Islamism. London: Zed Books. 1997.
(28) Smith, Z. White Teeth, p. 434. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 2000.
(29) Minorities have been found to appear in the news as individuals in stereotypical roles (criminals, rioters) or as members of controversial organisations ; see Van Dijk, T. Racism and the Press, p.85. London: Routledge. 1991.
(30) Said, E. W. Covering Islam. London: Vintage. 1997.
(31) Grosrichard. A. The Sultan’s Court: European Fantasies of the East, p. 34-35. London: Verso. 1998.
(32) Ichheiser, G. ‘Sociopsychological and Cultural Factors in Race Relations’. American Journal of Sociology, 54, 395-399. 1949.
(33) Said, E. W. Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1995.
(34) Rose, D. ‘Representations of Madness on British Television: A Social Psychological Analysis’. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of London, United Kingdom. 1996.
(35) Ahmed, A. S. Postmodernism and Islam: Predicament and Promise. London: Routledge. 1992. Sardar, Z. Postmodernism and the Other: The New Imperialism of Western Culture. London: Pluto Press. 1998. Sayyid, B. S. A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Islamism. London: Zed Books. 1997.
(36) Ouseley, H. Community Pride not Prejudice: Making Diversity Work in Bradford. Bradford: Bradford Race Review. 2001.
(37) “…the logic of Islamism is threatening because it fails to recognise the universalism of the western project”. Sayyid, B. S. A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Islamism, p. 129. London: Zed Books. 1997.
(38) Camus, A. Notebooks 1942-1951 (trans. J. O’Brien) p. 23. New York: Modern Library. 1965.
Paper presented at the “Exploring Islamophobia” Conference jointly organised by FAIR (Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism), City Circle, and Ar-Rum at The University of Westminster School of Law, London, on 29 September 2001.
Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim
There is a proverb “The pen is mightier than the sword” which expresses well the idea of the power, if not the sacredness, of the word, and perhaps there was an echo of this idea in President Bush’s recent statement that the “war against terrorism” had begun with a “stroke of the pen.” There was a television programme recently about the ten hardest men in Britain, and I assumed it was going to be another of those offerings glorifying brute strength or glamourising vicious gangsters. Well yes, there were some tough nuts in there, pretty well all of them hard men in television serials, but the hardest ones were judged to be not those who used their fists but those who used words, and rated top of this class, the prizefighter, was Jeremy Paxman, the presenter of Newsnight on BBC2.
So we understand the immense power of words. But with that power comes a truly awesome responsibility. In speaking of the language of Islamophobia, it would be a very simple matter to give examples over the last two weeks of the abuse of that power, what William Dalrymple castigates in a recent article in The Independent as the “ludicrously unbalanced, inaccurate and one-sided” images of Islam perpetrated by what he calls the “scribes of the new racism” even in our quality broadsheets. This is not, of course, a new phenomenon. In 1997 The Runnymede Report had described Islamophobia as marked by “brazen hostility, bordering on contempt, for the most cherished principles of Islamic life and thought, reaching an apoplexy of hate in the modern Western media who represent Islam as intolerant of diversity, monolithic and war-mongering.” As Dalrymple says, “such prejudices against Muslims – and the spread of idiotic stereotypes of Muslim behaviour and beliefs – have been developing at a frightening rate in the last decade” and “Anti-Muslim racism now seems in many ways to be replacing anti-Semitism as the principal Western expression of bigotry against “the other”.
What is so much more encouraging is the fact that politicians and writers of this quality, insight, intelligence and humanity are increasingly speaking out against this pernicious, corrosive and virulent form of bigotry and it would be a simple matter too to refer to a great many articles I have seen like Dalrymple’s which are truly civilised and humane and do not bandy about words like “civilisation” and “humanity” as mere rhetorical incantations or militant banners to promote the poisonous and ignorant doctrine of the clash of civilisations.
Let Western civilisation always hold fast to one of its founding principles in the Platonic vision which places reason and dialogue above rhetoric and emotional manipulation. And all those voices in political life and the media who have upheld this vision deserve our profound thanks, for what they are writing and saying is completely in accordance with the universal spirit of Islam and the many sayings of the Prophet (saws) which teach us to use words as well as actions in such a way that we become, in his words, “a refuge for humankind, their lives and their properties.” – a refuge forall of humankind, not for any single group or vested interest. Said the Prophet, “The true Muslim does not defame or abuse others” and “the perfect Muslim is he from whose tongue and hands mankind is safe.”
Now, I’ve said that it would be a very simple matter to give examples of Islamophobic language, but I want to go deeper than simply dredge up old clichés. We’ve all heard again and again the tired old clichés which stigmatise the whole of Islam as fundamentalist, ideological, monolithic, static, unidimensional, implacably opposed to modernity, incapable of integration or assimilation, impervious to new ideas, retrogressive, retrograde, backward, archaic, primaeval, medieval, uncivilised, hostile, violent, terrorist, alien, fanatical, barbaric, militant, oppressive, harsh, threatening, confrontational, extremist, authoritarian, totalitarian, patriarchal, misogynist, negatively exotic, and bent on imposing on the whole world a rigid theocratic system of government which would radically overturn every principle of freedom and liberal democracy cherished by the Western world. I have to say that I don’t know a single Muslim who embodies even one of these characteristics, and I have Muslim friends and colleagues in all walks of life and from many cultures all over the globe.
There is one possible exception, and that is the first one, the most overused of all: “fundamentalist”. If this means certain fundamental beliefs such as belief in a supremely merciful God and in a divine purpose for mankind and all creation; belief that only God can dispense infinite justice although we must strive to embody some measure of justice and the other divine attributes in the conduct of our own lives; belief in a fair and inclusive society which balances rights and responsibilities, which values all people equally irrespective of their race, gender and religion, and which gives equality of opportunity to all men, women and children to realize their God-given potential; and belief in freedom from tyranny and oppression – well then, yes, I am a fundamentalist, and my fundamental beliefs will be shared by many people of all faiths.
But if to be a fundamentalist is to engage in any kind of cruelty in the name of any doctrine or ideology, whether religious or secular, including the murder of innocent people either by terrorists or governments, wherever they may be, then I am most certainly not a fundamentalist.
This defamatory list is a very obvious manifestations of what Francis Bacon, one of the founders of Western empiricism and modern science , called the “Idols of the Mind”, those crippling conditioned beliefs and prejudices which prevent us from learning by critical enquiry, observation and experience, and those who perpetrate them would do well to return to some of the hallowed principles of objectivity which supposedly underpin Western civilisation.
But there is a deeper dimension to these prejudices. Behind them is the demonisation of what is perceived to be a dark and dangerous manifestation of the “other”, the singling out of the most extreme position which can be imagined as somehow representative of the totality of Islam, as if there is one absolutely monolithic, cohesive and uniform Muslim mindset, a kind of immutable, undifferentiated abstraction. In view of the extraordinary size and diversity of the Islamic world, this fantasy about a monolithic and aggressive Islam is not merely the outcome of ignorance. It goes deeper than that. It is quite simply a psychological phenomenon, a pathological state. The very vehemence of the language with its absurdly simplified polarisation of reality into competing and mutually exclusive positions is itself symptomatic of deeply unconscious projections. That is what is so intractable about this pathology. The people who think like this are deeply unconscious of their own psychic processes, or, even more dangerously, they are people who are intentionally exploiting this tendency in the human being to dichotomise, to split reality into polar opposites, to see only black or white, and hence to foster division and confrontation.
In addition to the obvious stigmatisation of Islam through unanalysed clichés stereotypes and labels, we have to contend with grotesquely naïve and childish misrepresentations of what Muslims believe and how they behave, including articles by eminent university dons printed in tabloid newspapers which show an ignorance and intolerance of Islam as profound as that shown in much more lightweight material. That is what is extraordinary about Islamophobic ranting. We can find the same kind of hyperbole, distortions, inaccuracies and unsubstantiated generalisations coming from intellectuals and from the liberal establishment (though with longer words) as we do from empty-headed commentators whose only claim to having their comments on Islam published is that they are (or were) talk-show hosts.
Recent examples in national newspapers in the wake of the atrocities include such utter nonsense as the claim that “the Christian concept of forgiveness is absent in Islam”, or that “the concepts of debate and individual freedom are alien in Moslem cultures”, or that Islam is, uniquely, a “religion that sanctions all forms of violence”, or that the Taliban “desire to return Afghanistan to the mores of Arabia in the time of the Prophet”, or that Islamic law permits a Muslim man to divorce his wife immediately by sending a text message saying “I divorce you”, or that only Islam sanctions “suicide as a path to Paradise”, or, indeed, that the fanatical Muslim hordes are “already there in their thousands. And they are not going to respect weaknesses any more than Lenin did.”
And let us not forget the Internet as a source of Islamophobic utterances. If you have the stomach to trawl through and sift out some of the most obnoxious material you are likely to find on the planet, much of it written by native-speakers of English whose cultural illiteracy is only matched by their inability to construct an intelligible sentence in the English language, you may, if you are lucky, turn up sites which are capable of coherent syntax, if not coherent thought.
For instance, you might find the one set up by an organisation which supports, in its own words, “liberal-democratic pluralism and modernism as opposed to fundamentalism” and which maintains that “Islam was spread by the sword and has been maintained by the sword throughout its history” and that ”the myth of Islamic tolerance was largely invented by Jews and Western freethinkers as a stick to beat the Catholic Church”, or that there is “no way that Islam can ever be made compatible with pluralism, free speech, critical thought and democracy”. If you disagree with this, then, according to these people, you are, of course, an “apologist”.
I was shocked to read the headline of a broadsheet on Wednesday which proclaimed “No refuge for Islamic Terrorists”. Did this newspaper proclaim that there would be no refuge for Christian Mass Murderers after the massacre of Muslims in Bosnia? Thank you, Mr. Blair, for your statement on Thursday that the atrocities in America were not the work of “Muslim terrorists” but of “terrorists”. On the same front page there is an article about the execution of Islamic “militants” in China, several dozen Muslim men who had been fed alcohol with their last meal and then, stupefied by drink, driven to their deaths on an open lorry past laughing crowds. But is there any leading article or other comment which demands sanctions against China for such gross and barbaric abuses of human rights? Is there likely to be in the current climate which rewards Chinese and Russian support for an international coalition by turning a blind eye to the inevitable increase in the oppression of their own Muslim minorities? Will the Italian Prime Minister stand by his statement that human rights are one of the reasons why, in his view, the West is superior to Islam? Will he announce that the West is superior to China and superior to all those regimes, including those supported by Western powers, which abuse human rights? Will he speak out against those Italian cardinalswhose anti-Muslim statements have reinforced xenophobia in Italy and therefore threaten to undermine the rights and freedoms of Muslims?
On Thursday, the first thing I heard in the morning was a discussion about different types of terrorism, and the extraordinary suggestion that the real threat is not so much “ordinary” terrorism as terrorism motivated by “doctrine” and “ideology” (no rewards for guessing here which “doctrine” is referred to) as if we are supposed to believe that it is only the “others” who have any kind of belief-system.
And behind this is also the entrenched view that it is religion which must take the blame for so much violence in the world. In other words, the “doctrine” which feeds the worst kind of terrorism is necessarily religious doctrine. This unquestioned association between religion and war has been wheeled out time and time again in the media with almost no attempt to question it. Having heard this for the umpteenth time last week, I looked into it, and discovered some interesting facts. About 250 million people have been killed in the ten worst wars, massacres and atrocities in the history of the world. Of these, only 2% were killed in religiously motivated conflicts, in this case the Thirty Years War in Europe, which figures as number 10 in the list, and even then this 2% is based on what many scholars believe to be a grossly exaggerated death toll. The vast majority of deaths were the result of secular wars and exterminations, largely based on atheistic doctrines and ideologies. It is truly extraordinary how facts can be ignored in the need to confirm and strengthen cherished illusions.
I clearly haven’t the time today to unpick every example of Islamophobic discourse. This is an ongoing struggle being undertaken systematically and with increasing effectiveness and influence by the Media and Popular Culture Watch Project which is one of the major initiatives of FAIR.
But what I can do is draw your attention to some of the underlying characteristics of the way that political and social power abuse, dominance and inequality are enacted in the kind of discourse of which Islamophobia is currently a prime example. We need to understand the characteristics of such discourse, wherever it appears; we need to rigorously unpick and expose its deficiencies with the best analytical tools, to bring to light and make conscious its manipulations, because although we can of course do our own shouting in response to it, it is through the light of knowledge and understanding that we can most effectively counter it. And as the Prophet made it very clear, the “ignorant theologian” is equally damaging to Islam as the “ill-tempered scholar” or the “tyrannical leader.”
Now there is already an established academic tradition of unpicking such discourse in what is called Critical Discourse Analysis or CDA developed by such influential discourse analysts as Teun van Dijk, Professor of Discourse Studies at the University of Amsterdam.
According to Van Dijk, “much of racism is ‘learned’ by text and talk”.
CDA upholds that power relations are discursive, that is, that discourse is an instrument of ideology and is a means of perpetuating social and political inequality. Discourse analysis which unpicks the way such language works therefore has great explanatory power and is also a form of social action, because the discourse itself constitutes the society and the culture from which it emerges. I am reminded here of the words of the Prophet, who said: “Anyone of you who sees wrong, let him undo it with his hand; and if he cannot, then let him speak against it with his tongue, and if he cannot do this either, then let him abhor it with his heart, and this is the least of faith.” Critical Discourse Analysis, as a form of social action, is both undoing with the hand and speaking with the tongue.
There is an excellent survey of CDA by van Dijk with an exhaustive bibliography which is easily accessible on the following website. This article contains a rigorous exposure of the way discourse promotes and sustains racism, by promoting prejudiced social representations shared by dominant groups (usually white, European) and based on ideologies of superiority and difference. This is done by analysing some fragments of a book misleadingly entitled The End of Racismby Dinesh D’Souza (1995), a book which embodies many of the dominant Eurocentric supremacist ideologies in the USA, and which specifically targets one minority group in the USA: African Americans. This book is one of the main documents of conservative ideology in the US and has had considerable influence on the debates on affirmative action, welfare, multiculturalism, and immigration, and on the formulation of policy to restrict the rights of minority groups and immigrants.
I emphasise here that the discursive moves and ploys used in this book are the same moves and ploys that are used in all such discourse, including Islamophobia, and I hasten to add that we should also be very clear that the same tools of analysis need equally to be brought to bear on “Westophobic” discourse and all forms of discourse which seek to foment strife, division, hatred and confrontation. If I make a strong case against Islamophobia today, this does not mean that I do not value the strengths of Western civilisation.
Here are some of these discursive moves and ploys , as identified in van Dijk’s analysis of just a few fragments of D’Souza’s book. I’ll point up as far as I can the way in which these ploys are also used in Islamophobic discourse, but I hope you will make your own connections too.
By denying, mitigating, euphemising or explaining away your own defects you make them invisible or harmless. A characteristic ploy here is to generalise or universalisethem or make them seem natural. Thus, we are told that racism is “a rational and scientific response” to primitive peoples and was in any case “widespread among other peoples”. Thus, racism is an ‘all too human’ characteristic of ethnocentricism. It is simply ‘caring for one’s own’. In this way, generalisation is made to appear as explanation. Van Dijk claims that this is “one of the most common moves of ideological legitimation: abuse of power is not a self-serving, negative characteristic of dominant groups” but is innate, “genetically pre-programmed” and “biologically inevitable”, so there is nothing we can do about it.
“The Greeks were ethnocentric, they showed a preference for their own. Such tribalism they would have regarded as natural, and indeed we now know that it is universal.” (533)
Notice the use of positive-sounding words like “human”, “natural” and “universal” to give respectability, even nobility, to tribalism. And how often have we been told in recent days how “natural” revenge is, and how “universal” and “humane” are the principles enshrined in the self-image of the West and supported by the whole “international community”, whatever that is.
Mitigation and denial is also accomplished through the use of euphemisms, that is the substitution of mild, polite, saccharine, evasive or roundabout words for more direct and honest ones. We have become more familiar with this ploy, and the related one of omission of key words, through the honesty and integrity of those journalists who are trying to use words to tell the truth.
Here are some familiar examples, with thanks to Brian Whitaker, among others:
targeted killing (assassination/murder by death squads/extra-judicial killing/execution)
collateral damage (civilian casualties)
killed in crossfire (shot by soldiers or snipers)
settler (illegal settler)
areas (communities/neighbourhoods) – the implication here is that people who live in “areas” are less civilised than those who live in communities or neighbourhoods.
suburbs (illegal settlements)
the international community (the West?)
a divided city (a city with 99.8% Arabs)
disputed territory (illegally occupied territory)
provocative act (criminal act according to international law)
There is a novel justification for euphemisms which I have recently heard from journalists. Apparently, column inches dictate that shorter terms have to be used to save space. “Settler” is only two syllables, whereas “illegal settler” is five, so the use of “settler” saves space. If so, why are the long words “neighbourhoods” and “communities” used to describe where the in-group lives , whereas “areas” is used for the out-group? Why, indeed, are the six syllables of “Islamic Terrorists” used in a headline on Thursday when space would have been saved by using only the three syllables of “Terrorists”?
And why is the mouthful “international community” used in cases where it clearly refers to “The West”?
Another well-known argumentative ploy is to invoke ignorance.
“It is impossible to answer the question of how much racism exists in the United States because nobody knows how to measure racism and no unit exists for calibrating such measurements.” (276)
Notice the use of academic jargon, and the appeal to scientific credibility. This is a clever ploy because, in a culture mesmerised by the supposed omniscience of scientists, most people dare not question “lack of scientific evidence”. By the same token, we can pretend to ignore the existence of all manner of self-evident and awkward truths, including the very existence of Islamophobia, under the banner of scientific respectability.
Self-glorification is one of the most obvious and characteristic way to promote a positive self-image, and D’Souza’s book is full of glowing admiration for Western culture and accomplishments.
“What distinguished Western colonialism was neither occupation nor brutality but a countervailing philosophy of rights that is unique in human history” (354) – and by the way, colonialism is also legitimated in terms of scientific curiosity.
We are entitled to say in response to this that the supposedly unique philosophy of rights so selflessly propagated by Western colonialism was in fact prefigured and surpassed in the first truly pluralistic society established by the Prophet in 7th century Medinah, a vision which nurtured those splendid multicultural and multi-faith civilisations in Islamic Spain, Sicily, the Levant, and in the Mughul and Ottoman Empires.
“”Abolition [of slavery] constitutes one of the greatest moral achievements of Western civilisation” (112) – notice here this extraordinary reversal used to enhance the positive characteristics of European civilisation, which sits oddly with the justification and mitigation of racism as a natural and all too human inclination.
We are all familiar now with the vocabulary of self-glorification, first in the recent debates about multiculturalism which have included explicit assertions of the superiority of the supposedly mono-cultural virtues of “Englishness”, and more recently in reactions to the atrocities in America, which have included insistent repetition of words like “civilised”, “freedom”, “humanity” and of “good” versus “evil”. And on Thursday, we heard the Italian Prime Minister explicitly ascribe “superiority” and “supremacy” to the West over Islam. It has been encouraging to see that there is not a single political leader who has supported his completely out-of-tune remarks, and it was good to hear British government ministers, including David Blunkett and Claire Short, repudiate them yesterday as “offensive, inaccurate and unhelpful”. But it has raised a new discussion in the media about the differences between Islam and the West and once again all kinds of colourful figures are wheeled out to give their opinions on Islam. I heard one such figure on the Today programme yesterday, having flippantly admitted that he knew very little either about women or Islam, proclaim that the main difference between Islam and the West was the fact that women in Islam were 3rd class citizens. The implication was quite clear: the West is superior to Islam for this reason. Notice the appeal to the moral high ground in this kind of self-referential and self-congratulatory superiority.
To bring some light into this discussion, I recommend a look at the website of the Australian Psychological Society, particularly the section on Language, Social Representations and the media (www.aps.psychsociety.com.au/member/racism/sec3.html) which makes a very clear statement of the way in which “the media are cultural products central to the construction of social realities and to communication between groups and across cultures…..Media coverage of group differences, and often group conflicts, tend to highlight and exaggerate, oversimplify and caricaturise such differences”. A classic study from 1961 of this phenomenon is on cross-national images of the ‘enemy’ which showed that the cold-war images US citizens had of Russia were virtually identical, or the ‘mirror image’ of the views that the Russians had of the US.
The same source makes an important statement about “political correctness”. It can be anticipated that some commentators will suggest that the reluctance of other political leaders to endorse the Italian Prime Minister’s remarks is merely a matter of “political correctness”. It is important to realise that “while genuine political correctness can be a strong force in encouraging more humane reasonable and human behaviour, it is invariably represented by opponents as undermining free speech in the service of minority group interests….Dismissals of genuine and effective anti-racism initiatives as ‘merely’ politically correct thus legitimises racial intolerance….”.
Now, van Dijk pointedly remarks that “it is only one step from an assertion of national or cultural pride and self-glorification to feelings of superiority, derogation and finally the marginalisation and exclusion of the Others”. And indeed, I would add not only marginalisation and exclusion, but ultimately persecution and genocide. We can go directly here to Islamophobic discourse without referring to van Dijk’s analysis.
A classic example is the shaping by Serbian orientalists of a “stereotypical image of Muslims as alien, inferior and threatening” which “helped to create a condition of virtual paranoia among the Serbs”2. As I have said, this is a pathological condition, and its pathology is absolutely transparent in its good vs. evil, “us and them” language. And language which uses the rhetoric of “either you’re with us or against us” partakes of the same psychically fragmented condition. It has been extraordinary to see the hatred which has been aroused by those who have refused to submit to this oppressive, self-righteous and divided mentality and have been courageous and clear-thinking enough to say so. Tony Benn is an example, and the furore he caused on Newsnight on Thursday night, while always retaining his own dignity, could not even be contained by the No. 1 hard man, Jeremy Paxman.
As is true of virtually all of the people of Europe, including the English, today’s Bosnian Muslims are an amalgam of various ethnic origins. Yet what the Serbs did was to differentiate and isolate the Muslim community “by creating “a straw-man Islam and Muslim stereotype” and “setting and emphasising cultural markers” which focused on Islam and the Muslims as alien, culturally and morally inferior, threatening and, of course, exotic, but in a perverse, negative way. The Serbs applied the label “Islamic fundamentalist” freely to all Muslims, who were seen as reflections of the “darkness of the past”. They claimed that “in Islamic teaching, no woman has a soul”; that “the tone of the Qur’an is openly authoritarian, uncompromising and menacing”; that the reading of the traditional tales in A Thousand and One Nights predisposed Muslims (in their words gave “subliminal direction” to the Muslims) to torture and kill Christians; that the destruction of places of worship belonging to other faiths is an obligation on all Muslims; that the “banning of tourism and sports” in Islam inevitably led to “xenophobia” and “segregation”, and so on.
It is quite clear that these Serbian orientalists, “ by bending scholarship and blending it with political rhetoric….defined Islam and the local Muslim community in such a way as to contribute significantly to…. making genocide acceptable”. And what allowed them to play such a role? It was “the extensive media exposure they enjoyed in Serbia”, as much as “their participation in official propaganda campaigns abroad”.
At this point, I will not trouble to examine the profusion of derogatory statements which have been made against Islam and Muslims not only in the last two weeks, but over the last ten years. I will only point to the evidence of how the distorted analysis of Islam by the Serbs, played out in the media, made the transition from pseudo-scholarly anlaysis to advocacy of violence and ultimately to genocide. Such is the outcome of words used without truth or responsibility. To see so many stereotypes in the Western press so similar to those invented by the Serbs is quite chilling.
Other discursive structures, strategies and moves I can only touch on these here. They include:
The well-known argumentative ploy of casual reference to “scholarly” studies so as to give weight and authority to fallacious arguments.
The use of presuppositions and premises which are taken to be held by everybody: “We all know that….”, “The reality is….”, “The truth is….”,
The familiar disclaimer of the apparent concession: “Of course there is some prejudice, but….”
The number game of comparative statistics – always used in favour of the dominant group.
After this focused linguistic analysis , I would like to finish by affirming the wider spiritual perspective which must inform this discussion. Years ago, when I was lecturing in Psycholinguistics at the University of Edinburgh, I had a strong academic interest in the relationship between language and mind, language and attitude, and language and prejudice, but it is only in recent years in my engagement with the faith, knowledge and civilisation of Islam that I have begun to understand how vital it is to understand the nature of language from a spiritual perspective and how sacred is that trust borne by all of us who use language to inform, educate, influence and persuade others.
And to use words like “spiritual” and “sacred” in relation to the use of language is simply another way of saying that to use language wisely and well is the mark of the fully human being.
The Greeks also understood well the responsibility imposed on mankind by the gift of language and the fierce debates about the role of rhetoric were most notably expressed and distilled in Plato’s affirmation that philosophical dialectic (that is the testing process of critical enquiry through discussion) is utterly distinct from and immeasurably superior to rhetoric, which, if not firmly subordinated to knowledge and reason, is roundly condemned as nakedly exploitative emotional manipulation.
It is this legacy which has ultimately ensured that “in the contemporary usage of all modern European languages….the word rhetorical is unfailingly pejorative [i.e. disparaging, negative]. It implies “ dissembling, manipulative abuse of linguistic resources for self-serving ends, usually in the political context…”1 How often have we heard in recent weeks from intelligent commentators of the dangers of “cranking up” the rhetoric and the need to “tone it down” in the interests of reason, restraint and proportionality. And, sad to say, how often have we heard too a new version of Orwellian Newspeak which admits only one version of reality, only one interpretation of events, and which discredits all alternative perspectives as evidence of complicity with terrorists.
And let us not forget the use and abuse of images as well as words in our increasingly visual culture. By “language” I mean both the verbal and the visual vocabulary and syntax. We are entitled to ask what on earth is implied by the juxtaposition of a picture of Muslim women praying next to an article entitled “Cradles of Fanaticism”. This speaks for itself. The intention is very clear. In this equation, to pray is to be fanatical. Elementary logic tells me that this must mean that all people from all religious traditions who pray are fanatics. This is the kind of shameful material I would have used when as a teacher of English I taught young people how to recognise the way they were manipulated by propaganda in the media. I wanted them to gain the essential critical thinking skills, as well as the qualities of empathy, tolerance and respect for diversity, which are presumably valued by civilised, humane and freedom-loving peoples.
But it is important to realise that from an Islamic perspective language is not just a tool of critical enquiry, rational debate and discussion which advances human knowledge, important as this is, but is a divine gift to mankind, a mark of his special status in the divine order.
The Qur’an says that God “imparted unto Adam the names of all things” (2:31). On one level this can be interpreted as the capacity for conceptual thought which is empowered through the definition and distinction inherent in naming, a capacity not shared even by the angels, who are commanded to prostrate themselves before Adam in recognition of his status as Khalïfah, or vicegerent, a term denoting man’s stewardship of the earth as a consequence of his being made in the image of God.
In another sense, the names are the letters from which all words are constructed (notice how we name the letters – we say alif, ba, alpha, beta, and so on). The proportioned script of Arabic lettering has the remarkable property that the shapes of all the other letters are generated in strict geometric proportionality by the alif (or more correctly from the dot, which defines the length and surface area of the alif). This is what gives Arabic calligraphy its sublime visual harmony. Alif is the first letter, the upright stroke, symbolic of our erect, Adamic, human nature orientated vertically towards remembrance of our divine origin.
We have heard much in recent days from politicians, military strategists, commentators and the general public about the need for a “proportional response”. Everyone with humanity feels this instinctively, because it part of the innate disposition (fitra) of the human being who is created, as the Qur’an says, “in due measure and proportion”. But proportionality in Islam is not just a quantitative and material matter, a question of deployment of forces. It is a qualitative matter, a defining marker of human character and spirituality, which in its primordial condition is in a state of balance and equilibrium.
So the “names” are not simply tools for logical thinking, for making fine distinctions. From an Islamic perspective, letters and words are the very substance of the created universe, emanating from the Divine Word which is the origin of all creation and in which all concepts find unity and reconciliation. It is therefore a sacred trust to use words which are fair, fitting, balanced, equitable and just, words which are in “due measure and proportion.”
In this conception of language, the letter is not an inanimate component of an abstract concept, but is a living entity, and the words which are formed from these letters, the phrases, clauses, sentences and paragraphs have the power to diminish or enhance our humanity. The word is in fact a deed, an act in itself, which carries the same responsibility as that taken in doing and acting. We have the expression “in word and in deed” and this encapsulates this wisdom, this convergence between speech and action.
“Art thou not aware how God sets forth the parable of the good word? [It is] like a good tree, firmly rooted, [reaching out] with its branches towards the sky, yielding its fruit at all times by its Sustainer’s leave. And [thus it is that] God propounds parables unit men, so that they might bethink themselves [of the truth]. And the parable of the corrupt word is that of a corrupt tree, torn up [from its roots] onto the face of the earth, wholly unable to endure.” (Qur’an 14:24-26).
Correctives must always be applied to what is out of balance. Islamophobia is a reality and it needs to be corrected, not by using the word itself as a label to stifle just criticism, not by defensive hostility, and not by shouting louder, but by knowledge, by reason, by detailed work, and above all by the example of our own humanity.
28 September 2001
Dr Jeremy Henzell-Thomas served as the first Chair of the Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism (FAIR) and the Executive Director of the Book Foundation. He has worked in education for many years, having taught at primary, secondary and tertiary levels, both in the U.K. and overseas. Most recently he has held a lectureship in Applied Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh and the post of Director of Studies at an UK independent school.
1. Robert Wardy, Chapter on Rhetoric (page 465) in Greek Thought: A Guide to Classical Knowledge, edited by Jacques Brunschwig and Geoffrey E.R. Lloyd. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2000.
2. Norman Cigar, The Role of Serbian Orientalists in Justification of Genocide Against Muslims of the Balkans, Islamic Quarterly: Review of Islamic Culture, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 3, 1994.