Will the true Islam please stand up?

If you want to understand Islam in the modern world, you have to do
your homework. Newspapers splash spectacular and terrifying images of
Islamic militancy on their front pages. But it is impossible to make
sense of Islam and the Middle East from these snapshots. That is where
books like Gilles Kepel’s The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West and Roger Scruton’s The West and the Rest are invaluable.

Kepel stresses that Islam is not homogeneous. One of the reasons
for this is that there is not one body which speaks for Islam. Islam is
very much like fundamentalist Christianity. They have a Scripture but
lack an authoritative interpreter. Consequently, like Protestantism, it
tends to splinter. In Islam the cracks in the edifice are as old as the
generation immediately after the Prophet’s death. The Sunnis follow the
example of the “four rightly guided caliphs” who were his immediate
successors, while the Shi’ites revere the fourth caliph, Ali, and his
martyred son Hussain. Osama bin Laden, as a Wahhabist, a small and
uncompromisingly rigid sect of Sunni Islam, quotes some sections of the
Koran which other Muslims would prefer not to emphasise. But the Sufi
sect emphasises piety and mysticism. Recent interviews with Western
converts to Islam suggest that these converts did not join so that they
can blow up New York skyscrapers; they found a spiritual home in Islam.

Kepel insists that Westerners must
first distinguish between the religion and its followers before they
can assess whether authentic Islam is implacably hostile to the West.

For the majority of Muslims Islam is a spiritual home. As Roger Scruton has pointed out in his book The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat,
the attraction of Islam and its strength is its adherence to
transcendent values and its sense of community. According to Scruton
that is what the West has been losing ever since the 1960s and 70s and
the birth of the “culture of repudiation”. Core Western values and
institutions which created the West and its political, scientific and
technological superiority are repudiated by the very people who enjoy
them, sometimes in favour of Islam.

What about the uglier side of Islam: the suicide bombers, theocracy, and polygamy?

Kepel insists that Westerners must first distinguish between the
religion and its followers before they can assess whether authentic
Islam is implacably hostile to the West. Contrary to his media image,
bin Laden is an ugly thug, not a pious Muslim, he argues. His
blood-curdling exhortations to jihad have more to do with power than
piety. Osama comes from a wealthy Arabian family, but he is not a
member of the royal family and is therefore unable to get his hands on
its enormous cache of petrodollars. Within the last week, bin Laden
warned that the Saudi government could be toppled like the Shah of Iran
was in 1979.since they had violated God’s rules. Regime change in Saudi
Arabia, it seems, is bin Laden’s ultimate goal.

Bin Laden’s main accomplice and perhaps the brains behind
al-Qa’ida is Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Zawahiri is a radicalized middle
class Egyptian Muslim whose family lost its comfortable place in Egypt
under the socialist Nasser regime between 1952 and 1970. It is not hard
to see behind both men a resentment against those who have paid
lip-service to Islam while feathering their own nests. Even though both
men appeared in the video outside the cave after 11th September 2001
dressed like faithful Muslims and rebels against the “Great Satan”,
Kepel is not convinced by the show. “Despite their beards and the soap
opera costumes they donned for Arab television audiences, they had
ambitions and interests in common with hackers and cosmopolitan golden
boys everywhere,” he writes.

Kepel feels that bin Laden and his cronies are exploiting
simple Muslims’ religious zeal, anger at Palestinian oppression,
rankling folk memories of the Crusades, and resentment of the West’s
power. But what is the true Islam? President George W. Bush told the US
Congress shortly after 9/11 that “[Islam’s] teachings are good and
peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the
name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying,
in effect, to hijack Islam itself.” (1) This provoked a spokesman for
the Taliban to respond, “I am astonished by President Bush when he
claims there is nothing in the Koran that justifies jihad or violence
in the name of Islam. Is he some kind of Islamic scholar? Has he ever
actually read the Koran?” (2) Who is right?

Scruton’s book tries to find authentic Islam in its legal
system. He concludes that: “Islamic jurisprudence does not recognise
secular, still less territorial, jurisdiction as a genuine source of
law. It proposes a universal law that is the single path (shri’) to
salvation. And the shari’a is not understood as setting limits to what
can be commanded, but rather as a fully comprehensive system of
commands — which can serve a military just as well as a civilian
function. Nor does Islam recognise the state as an independent object
of loyalty. Obedience is owed first to God, and then, below him, to
those situated at greater or lesser remove in the web of personal
obligations. Nor is there any trace in Islamic law of the secular
conception of government that Christianity inherited.”

If this is correct, and not even the apologists who most try
to ingratiate themselves with the West deny it, then Islam is
incompatible with democracy, or indeed any form of secular government.

The apologists deny that Islamic women are oppressed. They
point to their legal rights (amongst which they can count female
initiated divorce, for example), their becoming more educated and their
understanding of supposed symbols of oppression, like the veil, as
liberating not enslaving. Female circumcision for example, does not
seem to be a part of Islamic law, just as quasi-pornographic billboards
in the West are no part of Christianity. Nevertheless, there are
stumbling blocks. One is the punishment for female adultery. There is
no ambiguity. It is in the Koran and some of the apologists for Islam
simply do not address the problem.

Polygamy is another obstacle. The justification of polygamy on
the basis that it is better for a girl to have a half a husband (or a
quarter of one) to protect her than none at all is hardly going to
convince well-educated and financially independent women.

The West has to deal with the terrorism of al-Qa’ida and it
also has to figure out its relationship with the growing numbers of
Muslims in its midst. If this is going to happen, the West needs to
understand Islam better, not just as a religion, but as a
socio-political reality. It also needs to listen to how Islam perceives
itself and the West. Eventually it will probably have to apologize for
some of the misery it has caused in the Middle East Muslim. Books like
Kepel’s and Scruton’s don’t give answers to all the conundrums, but
they make a valuable contribution to this understanding. If you only
read the newspaper headlines, you will never understand.

Martin Fitzgerald is a teacher at Redfield College in Sydney.



(1) George W. Bush. Address to Joint Session of Congress and the American People, Sept 20, 2001.
(2) Daniel Pipes, “What’s True Islam? Not for U.S. to Say”. New York Post. Nov 26, 2001.


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  • Martin Fitzgerald