Monday, October 15, 2007

Lost in Translation (Sydney Morning Herald, 29/09/2007)

Waleed Aly, People Like Us: How Arrogance is Dividing Islam and the West
Picador; $32.95; 277pp

On 11 February 2006, the Weekend Australian’s Inquirer supplement published an article by Waleed Aly on the Danish cartoons controversy. (I remember this well because, beneath it, was an article on precisely the same topic written by your humble servant.) The piece was entitled ‘Selective Outrage’ and in it the author delivered a rocket to flag-burners and ‘free speech crusaders’ alike. Noting that the West is not so wedded to freedom of speech as it likes to think, and that many newspapers in the Islamic world are just as guilty of using cartoons to reinforce offensive stereotypes (especially anti-Semitic ones) as any of the doodlers at Jyllands-Posten, Aly suggested that ‘this affair has little to do with principle. Far from being a manifest clash of civilisations, it is a clash of hypocrisies.’

This is the starting point for People Like Us, which begins by reprising the cartoons debacle and goes on to suggest that this ‘clash of hypocrisies’ is indicative of a deeper crisis – a crisis that has to do with the ways the West and Muslims regard one another. As Aly put it in his Inquirer piece, ‘the grandstanding about inviolable principles’ was a cover for ‘pre-existing prejudices’. Bigotry and ‘contrarian defensiveness’ have combined to drive a wedge between us. Islam and the West talk across each other, projecting their own assumptions in the process.

Though Aly addresses Islamic intolerance, People Like Us is overwhelmingly addressed to the West and its ‘commentariat’. ‘It all begins with words’, writes Aly, before embarking on a painstaking survey of the many and various misunderstandings that intrude upon the public discourse. For example, commentators who like to insist on the separation of Church and State as a precondition for modernisation and liberalisation in the Islamic world miss the fact that no such concept as ‘the Church’ exists within Islam. Nor should we talk about ‘fundamentalists’ and ‘moderates’ in an Islamic context, for that, too, is a Western projection. As for ‘jihad’ … don’t get him started.

Much of this is fair enough. Many commentators would indeed do well to tidy up their semantic acts, especially those (largely right-wing) commentators whom Aly singles out for criticism (Mark Steyn, Ann Coulter, Melanie Phillips). The surprise, however, is what comes next. For Aly now goes on to argue that what Muslims need is not the Enlightenment prescribed by Western intellectuals, and certainly not a Reformation, but a rebirth of classical Islamic scholarship. What Muslims need is a sort of Renaissance. ‘It is now the non-derogable duty of classically educated Islamic theologians to communicate such classical norms to Muslim populations persuasively enough to expose the nihilistic, reactionary egotism of radical ideology for the heresy it is.’

This is a deeply eccentric argument – one based on a series of impressive non sequiturs, by far the most egregious of which is the proposition that the absence of a Church from which to extricate the State makes any talk of secularism irrelevant in an Islamic context. But of course such talk is not irrelevant. The use and abuse of clerical power in countries across the Muslim world is an inescapable modern theme. Those who argue for its limitation are certainly not confined to the West.

Indeed, I think Aly underestimates the desire within the Muslim world for precisely the kind of ‘enlightenment’ that he regards as a Western projection. Those for whom religious bullying and intimidation are a fact of life are highly unlikely to be impressed by Aly’s argument that what is needed is yet more exegesis and instruction from ‘classically educated Islamic theologians’. In my view – and in my experience – those who look to Holy Books to guide them through this veil of tears are rarely predisposed to tolerance, while those for whom only one book is needful are always predisposed to violence. I don’t think I’m being an intellectual imperialist when I say that the world needs less of this, not more.

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