Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has a thoughtful and for the most part well-reasoned expression of concern in this morning’s Independent entitled “Mobs in the Middle East, Salman Rushdie’s new book, and how progressive Islam fell to the barbarians.” At least that’s the way it looks, at first reading, though the histrionic title may give the game away. I hope she is wrong when she says:
It’s more or less over for progressive, liberal Islam. Many of us who’ve tried to keep alive the thoughtful, humane, cultured beliefs and practices of our parents and enlightened scholars can barely breathe or speak after the last wretched week when benighted mobs raved and killed across Muslim countries – some of them newly free and supposedly democratic.
But then she goes on immediately to say:
The Arab Spring turned to vicious winter and dashed naïve expectations and hopes. Casting out dictators does not necessarily bring wisdom, responsibility and self-control.
Surprise! Surprise! The key word here is “naïve”. It had never occurred to me, at least, that, just because despotism fell, we were in for a peaceful future. Huge convulsive changes are taking place in the Middle East, and we do not know the shape of the future, but certainly, no one should have expected that these despotisms would have turned at once into peaceful, freedom loving democracies. Religion had too large a hand in the so-called “Arab Spring” for the outcome to have been other than tumultuous. Religion is like that. Or did people just forget?
Revolutions, particularly violent ones, or religious ones, however apparently peaceful, do not, as a rule, bring about peace. Whoever first wrote the words of Jesus about bringing, not peace, but a sword, understood this. The rage and the hatreds can last for generations, even centuries. Egypt’s revolution was relatively peaceful, or so it seemed, and the transition to elected governance seemed peaceful as well, but the final shape even of Egypt’s future is by no means secure. The Tunisian regime, too, was also overthrown without serious upheaval of civil life, but democratic or not, its future, if anything, may be a bit worse than its past. Human Rights Watch has already urged Tunisia to fix serious flaws in its draft constitution to include
the status of international human rights conventions ratified by Tunisia, freedom of expression, freedom of thought and belief, equality between men and women, and non-discrimination.
But there is no sign that these things are even understood in Islam. The newly elected president of Egypt seems not to understand them at all, even though he was himself educated in the United States, where two of his children were born. He has asked President Obama to sanction the idiots who made the execrable and amateurish video, posted on YouTube, now convulsing the Muslim world. No – more than that, much more – for the Egyptian Prime Minister, Hisham Qandil,
told the BBC that Western nations should revise their domestic laws to “ensure that insulting 1.5 billion people, their belief in their Prophet, should not happen and if it happens, then people should pay for what they do”. [see here]
And can we doubt that Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s president, had the same thought in mind when he spoke with President Obama, and complained about the YouTube video that seems to be at the heart of the protests which led to the deaths of American diplomats, one of them one of the stauchest friends that Muslims had? The protests in Egypt before the American embassy became so intense that, without instruction from their own government, embassy officials apologised for a video for which they were in no way responsible. We are often told not to treat the Muslim world as a totality, that there are many peace-loving, reasonable Muslims, who should not be lumped in with baying masses crying for blood, and I have no doubt that this is true. Yet this seems not to be the way that many Muslims view themselves when their loyalty is at stake. When they are angry they suddenly become a bloc of 1.5 billion people whose ire it is ruinous, we are to understand, to arouse.
Ms. Alibhai-Brown, sadly, saw fit to align herself with the mob. No, she didn’t grab a placard that said “Behead those who insult the Prophet”, but she did say this:
Modernist Muslims, amalgams of the West and East, comfortable with the multiple identities, have no part to play. We are written out, quashed. By whom? By the barbarians who have taken over mosques, schools, homes, hearts and minds. And also by Western political and cultural warriors and agents-provocateurs who derive inordinate satisfaction from playing and inciting Muslims, zapping away as if playing an electronic game. [my italics]
It is unclear to whom she is referring. Though she speaks about the stupid YouTube video, she spends far more time complaining about Sir Salman Rushdie and his friends and other libertarians who are
up and about chanting hymns about freedom of expression in his name and having a go at religions and followers.
And this largely unidentified crowd of freedom loving people would be more convincing, she says,
if, in the interim years, they had spoken out against powerful Zionist censorship, or [instead of worrying about Kate Middleton] had commented when other women’s bodies are [sic] routinely exploited.
So fixated are they on tyrannical Muslims [she continues] that they cannot or will not see all those other ways that speech is controlled and punished.
But, again, she does not identify any of these alleged offences against freedom, and instead is content to wave ambiguously, as if to suggest that this almost justifies the raging mobs which she identifies with the barbarians who have quashed the humane, liberal Islam, the loss of which she so much regrets — though she does not explain how they were able to take over “mosques, schools, homes, hearts and minds.” (I assume she is speaking of Britain when she says this.)
She complains that there doesn’t seem to be a reasonable Islam with which to identify, and deprecates the violence convulsing so much of the Middle East. But beneath the surface of her writing she seems to be seething with barely concealed rage and finds it hard not to express her contempt for the West and its purported freedoms, where speech is in fact, she suggests, selectively repressed. She complains that, instead of engaging with Tom Holland and his “outlandish” theories about the origins of Islam, his critics “are told to get angry and they do so.”
Most of the protesters will know nothing about the film or book [she writes]. But their emotions are as easily inflamed as tinder.
But her own, barely suppressed emotions, are dry and crackling too. She speaks of Tom Holland’s outlandish theories about Islam, as though she knows that they are outlandish. Has she taken a critical look at them herself, I wonder? And why is it so easy to inflame the emotions of the crowds, to lead them to commit or threaten murder in the name of their offended prophet, even if they are outlandish? Holland would not be the first historian to have got things wrong.
I have now watched Holland’s documentary, though I have not read his book. It is mild and questioning, to a large extent sympathetic to the hurt that some will feel because he asks questions about traditions that are widely regarded as holy. He seems largely sympathetic to Islam, and obviously has great respect for its holy places. But he is a modern historian, and he wants to understand. He is trying to produce an explanation for the rise of Islam which, he thinks, is not sufficiently explained by Islam’s own self-understanding. He brings his critical mind to bear on the problem. Has he got it right? Certainly, he has raised enough questions to raise doubts about the traditional understanding. Is it one-sided? I don’t know, since I don’t know what the consensus is amongst scholars working in the field. Should he have broached this contentious subject in a popular medium? Of course he should have, even though the Georgetown University scholar whom he consults – Seyyed Hossein Nasr – says that Holland has nothing to teach Islam — which raises questions about Nasr’s objectivity.
But we are used to that. Christian scholars play the same game all the time. They know that their beliefs are challenged by the historians, yet they go on believing just the same. What many believers have not learned is how to perform the balancing act between what they believe and what is known.The vain attempt to square Christianity with science is evidence of that. And just like Nasr, Christians still insist that their beliefs are firmly grounded in history, regardless of what historians may say. This kind of balancing act has been going on for more than two centuries now. Alibhai-Brown speaks of “[m]odernist Muslims, amalgams of the West and East, comfortable with their multiple identities,” but they can never be really comfortable with their multiple identities, anymore than Christians can be. That is why she speaks of the raging crowds as “severely goaded and provoked,” even though all that rage seems to have been prompted by nothing more than the actions of a small and contemptible group of people who made an amateurish video with no histoical or aesthetic merit (and who may themselves have felt goaded and provoked)? There must always be a nagging doubt that perhaps the old stories are simply wrong, that the history is not secure, and that religious belief will remain forever an uncomfortable intrusion in a world in which knowledge is prized above belief. In such a world the True Believer, in Eric Hoffer’s sense, knows that only barbarism is really the answer. What is creationism, after all, but a milder version of barbarism? The only way out of this morass is knowledge. The more we know, the less we will defend with our lives beliefs that do not rise to the level of knowledge.