Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Islam and Modernity by Iftikhar H. Malik

The central thesis of this book is that over the past fifteen years, Muslims all over the world have been having a bad time. Probably the most revealing statistic quoted in the book is that seventy-five percent of the world’s refugees are Muslim. The indifference of western governments to the ongoing challenges facing the Muslim populations in the occupied territories, Chechnya, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Iraq have resulted, not only in immeasurable human suffering in these regions, but has also alienated the Muslim diaspora in the west. Also, most western governments have, on the whole, been insensitive toward the needs and sensibilities of their own Muslim populations – from the liberal establishment’s war on Islam with the advent of the Rusdie affair to the post 9/11 war on terror, those Muslims who would be best placed to begin a reconstructed discourse between Islam and the west have been discouraged, marginalized, demonized, and made politically impotent. The characterization of Islam as a repressive, intolerant, misogynist religion has grown continually more pervasive, and authoritarian governments in some Muslim countries have been held up as representative of Muslim civilization in its entirety. In short, Islamic culture has simply not been given a fair chance to participate in real discourse with its western interlocuters. This represents a tragically wasted opportunity for western Judeo-Christian culture and Islam to synthesize a civil society in which everyone would benefit.

Malik takes the opportunity here to explode a few comforting liberal myths about Islam – for a start, if Islam is so oppressive toward women, then why are most converts to Islam in western countries women? And why do many of them actually find their new faith empowering? Secondly, if Islam is intolerant, then why did Jews and Christians flourish and enjoy religious freedom in Muslim caliphates, including Spain, throughout the medieval world?

Malik begins his discussion of the historical interaction between Islamic and western culture with two chapters on Muslim Spain. His primary concern is with what he calls 'the Andalusia syndrome’ – anxiety experienced by Muslims over the complete disappearance of a Muslim civilization, as happened following the fall of the final Spanish caliphate of Granada in 1492. His central point here is that, in the grand scheme of history, Christians have nothing to teach Muslims about tolerance. This is where his problems begin, however – in order to illustrate the tragedy of this cultural genocide, he spends most of the time enthusing about what remains of Moorish architecture. Chapter 3, entitled “Muslims in Spain”, doesn’t actually pay a single reference to a single Muslim living in Spain today. A discussion of the practical difficulties experienced by Moroccan migrant workers might have been nice. But then it’s a recurring flaw with this book that the author just doesn’t seem to be interested in ordinary people. He does little more than to glance over the bread and butter issues of most concern to working-class Muslims (for most of the Muslims in Europe are working-class people) in Britain, France and Germany in areas like education, housing, residency status, obtaining work-permits etc. However, he spills a lot of ink on contemporary Muslim ‘intellectuals’ and historical figures, and writes about the need to redefine what it means to be a Muslim, the need for what he calls a “reconstructed Muslim discourse”. However, he doesn’t properly address the question of precisely who gets to conduct this discourse, or who gets to decide what it means to be a Muslim, but he does betray some intellectualist and classist biases in this regard. Early on, he goes so far as to suggest that it is the educated Muslim elites of the western world who should have this responsibility – great, another self-appointed cadre of people who get to make a living agonizing over something called 'identity’ – and in typical fashion, he writes in the epilogue, “on the margins one notices the emergence of smaller sections cogently and forcefully articulating fresher perspectives, away from the extremes of rejection or introversion. These diasporic clusters of artists, writers, activists and intellectuals – men and women of many different doctrinal and secular persuasions – have modestly begun expounding Muslim issues. These diverse individuals, who include Ziauddin Sardar, Rana Kabbani, Najma Akhtar, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Bashir Maan, among many others, have been totally misunderstood in their North Atlantic homes, while at the same time they feel cheated by the few fundamentalists who seem to have hijacked Islamic civilization by claiming to be its de facto representatives. These critical elements feel deeply let down over the continued corruption and impotence of the ruling elite in nearly all Muslim states. Yet, benefiting from the democratic and civic institutions in the west, these elements have begun a nascent tradition of self-questioning, which may augur well for a Muslim renaissance.” Malik runs into trouble on a few counts with this. Firstly, on a purely grammatical note, it makes my skin crawl when anyone uses the word ‘intellectual’ as a noun. It’s a bit like using the words 'breakfast’, 'lunch’, or 'summer’ as verbs – immediately very suspicious. In this case, the usage pidgeon-holes people and is implicitly elitist – it legitimizes a situation wherein certain people have the privilege of expressing their opinions for a living. It loosely suggests that “intellectuals” are somehow different to everyone else, and that their privileged position is therefore justified, whereas the adjectival usage of the word makes no such suggestion – it is simply a description of someone’s habits. But that aside, it is hardly a new phenomenon for an intellectual elite to feel let down by a political elite – it’s morally convenient, whether you’re Muslim, Christian, or you believe in the banana-god. Secondly, while Malik’s anger at the way in which his faith and ethnicity have been ‘hijacked’ by fundamentalists is understandable, he can hardly suggest that a discourse propagated by an intellectual elite is the antidote to fundamentalism. For a start, such a discourse presupposes social and economic privileges which suicide-bombers tend not to have. Several times, Malik comes back to the point that the ability of the Muslim communities in many western societies to collectively articulate their common interests has been curtailed by class divisions, but he never seems to consider the possibility that his own middle-class intellectualist biases might be a case in point. Also, his whole rationale betrays the hilarious assumption that “intellectuals” can change the world. As a professional historian, this may be hard for Iftikhar Malik to hear, but that simply no longer happens. Aristotle changed the world. Aquinas changed the world. So did Descartes. But Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Durkheim, etc didn’t – they changed how “intellectuals” think. Fine, we’re grateful (at least I am), but what’s that got to do with the course of world-history?

Another failure of this book is that while Malik refers to some “mutualities” between Islam and the west, he doesn’t actually go into any. For a start, there is a huge shared heritage. There are certain things which we have in common with Muslims which we don’t share with Hindus or with the Chinese, for example – like, say, our existential worldview, and our tendency toward an historical group-consciousness (that is, our tendency to see history, not just as the human past, but as a dynamic process, as the story of everything that has ever changed us.) This is why I am always left somewhat uncomfortable with the “Islam as opposed to the west” equation. Although this development predates Islam, we did not Europeanize the peoples of South-Western Asia. They Europeanized us. Alongside Judaism and Christianity, with its historical connection to Zoroastrianism, the first existential religion, Islam is an inherently European worldview.

There are some good questions in this book like, for example, what precisely do we mean by ‘integration’ – in many western societies this word is taken to mean wholesale assimilation. There is ultimately, however, a lack of overview here – between his discussion of the historical context of the fall of Muslim Spain and the crusades and his overly-journalistic treatment of the social environment in which many European and American Muslims live, Malik never makes a plausible effort to weave the strands together. This book is a lot less than the sum of its parts.

On a purely anecdotal note, thus far in my life, I have lived in two predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods – one in Cologne and the other in London. A lot of what I saw impressed me very much – but especially the work-ethic, the self-discipline, and the concern for social decorum. My enduring memory of Bickendorf is arriving at the front door of my apartment building with a second-hand fridge I’d bought for twenty deutschmarks. But there was a problem – my flat was on the third floor and the German taxi-driver was refusing point-blank to help me lift it up the stairs – not part of his job-description. He drove off, and I smoked a cigarette cursing him and thought about what to do. Out of desperation, I walked to the corner-shop, and used hand-signals (on my arrival in Cologne, I spoke barely a word of German) to convey my situation to the Turk behind the counter. He surmised instantly that I had a problem of some kind. He followed me outside, and saw the fridge on the pavement. I pointed toward the third floor, shrugged, and said 'bitte’ a few times. He smiled, grabbed the keys out of his pocket, and closed his shop for five minutes to help me. He owed me nothing. He didn’t know me from Adam. There was just a fundamental level of anonymous decency in Bickendorf that I’ve never experienced anywhere else. Anyway, reading Iftikhar Malik’s book, I sometimes got to thinking about Bickendorf and my Turkish shopkeeper friend, whose name turned out to be Ahmed, and who became a drinking-buddy, and I wonder just how much Ahmed would give a shit about a “reconstructed Muslim discourse”. “Reconstruction” is a chattering-classes buzzword. It usually amounts to nothing more than the commodification of ethnicity. It’s what people do when they have the time and the cash to play with. But for Ahmed, being a Muslim was about believing what he needed to believe in order to put in the fourteen hours every day it took to keep his family afloat.

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