A Tale of Two Islams

Asghar Bukhari is an interesting chap, a relatively moderate Muslim who has a good way with words and doesn’t appear to be afraid of calling ‘bullshit’ on any particular side in any debate. Not that I agree with him on anything and everything, maybe 50% on a good day, but nonetheless, he writes well and it makes you think.

This article made me think. It’s about how Islam is portrayed, historical context and a number of other things. I want to address some of what he says here.

The first is the story of Western political elites. Their story is about Islam. They tell you that Islam (or if they can’t be honest ‘ Islamism’), is a threat to the world, that this medieval religion is violent and barbaric, a faith that leads to violence and one that the West must take action against in order to defend itself. It is a story that inevitably leads to a clash of civilizations.

I am both sympathetic to the point that the political and business elites will exploit anything to make a buck and flex their muscles and unsympathetic to the idea that Islam is, somehow, completely blameless. As an atheist and anti-theist I believe that all religion is a threat to the world. In the west I don’t think Islam is as big a problem as it has been presented to be (as compared with Christianity, especially in the USA) but it is a real and growing problem. It is a bigger problem than numbers would suggest because it is strident, militant and uncompromising. Christianity and Judaism have been ground down into a more liberal form by The Renaissance, Enlightenment and secularism in a way that Islam has not (Turkey, perhaps, being somewhat of an exception to varying degrees down the years).

Islam is a violent faith, many of its practices and beliefs are barbaric and anti-human. This is also true of Judaism and Christianity, but they choose to ignore or minimise those parts most of the time. Islam, it seems, at best tries to excuse them. You can argue that these areas (child marriage, female oppression, non/religious oppression, genital mutilation, honour killings, wife-beating, murdering homosexuals and apostates) are down to culture or a ‘wrong’ interpretation of Islam but they are very widely held on an individual and national basis and are a problem.

None of which changes the fact that the powers that be have exploited Islam as the new bogeyman in order to perpetuate a mentality and militarism that really has no place in the post Cold War era. There are threats – nuclear proliferation and terrorism – but these are overstated and, more importantly, made worse by the people who claim they’re protecting us. I wouldn’t trust an Iranian Supreme Leader with access to the bomb in the context of a belief in an afterlife any more than I was comfortable with George ‘God told me to do it’ Bush with his finger on the button. It also doesn’t change the horrific human rights abuses ongoing because of Islam (or in the name of Islam if you prefer).

Muslims also tell a story, and it also involves Islam. This is the one that could get you killed. They tell a story of an American Empire pushed by Israel and its lobby and old European hatreds into yet another war against Muslims. In their story the West had been waging wars to uphold the manufactured borders across the Muslim world and maintained them by propping up ruthless dictators. The resulting deaths and broken lives now measured in their millions.

American pseud0-imperialism is also a problem and as a Brit I wish our government would stop going along with everything they do, but our democracy is ailing and unrepresentative and most people are at the point where they simply don’t care any more. So what can one do?

I refuse, however, as an individual who just happens to be white and to be British by accident of geography, to be held accountable for the criminal actions of my government. The operations in Afghanistan were – at least – slightly justified but other actions undertaken by the coalition were not. The war in Iraq was illegal under international law and I make no bones about that.

Israel is a complicated issue but the fact is that there are people there now and we have to deal with the situation as it is. Religion complicates this matter horribly and makes it hard for people to compromise. Any solution is going to have to be based on sharing, in the manner of Northern Ireland, a glacial process towards mutuality. It’s that or genocide one way or the other. This would be so much easier if religion hadn’t gotten involved.

The West is unlikely to abandon Israel without something extremely major happening, largely because of guilt over the events of WWII but also because they are surrounded by enemies using extremely worrying rhetoric and have strategic value. Plus, you know, they’re just people like everywhere else in the world. Separate from their government and its actions.

What makes me wary of this narrative is that it is a) not entirely accurate and b) plays into anti-semitism and paranoia about Jews. In discussions with even seemingly moderate Muslims the conspiracy theories run rife (including 9/11 inside job conspiracies) and it’s not that unusual to run into someone retelling the blood libel or referencing the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It’s all a bit uncomfortably 1930s. Of course, my sympathy for Israel is tempered by the fact that they seem to have learned nothing about the treatment of others from their own harsh treatment and the plight of Palestine is always heartbreaking.

Black lists are complied, previously apolitical institutions like Universities and the Charity Commission are used to spy on and intimidate Muslims into silence. If that failed, calling them ‘extremists’ was a catch-all and could smooth the way to silencing them by putting them in prison or house arrest, ASBO’s, press vilification, black mail and harassment by the intelligence services. The power structure was guaranteed public support, they had been taught to fear these ‘buzz words’ surprisingly even Muslims were silent — no one after all wanted to be seen defending an ‘extremist’.

There are problems the other way too. Asghar slipped into racial language a couple of times in the article describing actions as being ‘white’ rather than actions of government. Similarly there is an extremely stifling atmosphere when it comes to critical examination of Islam. If it’s not fear of the – often violent – backlash from Muslims it’s fear of being branded a ‘racist’, ridiculous when you’re criticising a religion. Of particular concern to me of late is the aggressive nature of Muslim creationism which, while decades behind the rhetoric of Christian creationism seems to have a much tighter grip on Muslim youth (if such a term can legitimately be used). This is a concern in the west where we want more people in STEM roles and should be of enormous concern in Islamic nations because it will be contributing to holding back progress and development in those nations.

And these men and women are no longer willing to accept that they must live under Western backed dictators, in Western manufactured states and do not think their lives are cheaper than anyone else’s. They do not see it is their lot in life to see their people slaughtered by drones or kidnapped never to be seen again — they intend to stop it.

And this is what we should have encouraged. For me, as a left-liberal and progressive sort of chap the Arab Spring held a great deal of promise – promise that hasn’t fully materialised. We should have been supporting what was going on, not dithering. This is what a genuinely ethical foreign policy would have been, to provide aid to dissidents and the young, intellectual, progressive revolutionaries. Instead those movements, one by one, seem to have been eclipsed by the very sort of radicalised Islam we were allegedly fighting against in the first place.  An opportunity to draw a line under the past, shake hands and look to the future appears to have been squandered.

Muslims are human beings. No human being can live under an unjust order for ever. Eventually they will fight to overturn that order — and that is exactly what they are doing.

And this is the situation across the world, though not as starkly obvious. In Britain our political system is unrepresentative and unresponsive. Apathy towards politics in the general population is at an all time high and the ones who should be taking to the streets are divided against each other by a blaming culture. People struggle to survive, with no time or thought to change while bankers and warmongers continue to get sleek and fat. Their budgets and bonuses never get cut.

Where do we go from here? I don’t know. I hope something good will come of all these geopolitical shifts but it remains to be seen.

Still, Islam’s unreformed and absolutist theocratic rule is no better than the dictators it would displace, perhaps worse. Probably worse. The USA and its tag-alongs trying to ‘win hearts and minds’ while bombing and shooting people is no solution either.

Where we are now, the differences look irreconcilable.

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