On a Quest for Secular Piety

Tarek Fatah personally asked me to review his book, Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State (CM). It has been reviewed very favorably indeed in the Canadian media, especially the Asper-family owned newspapers. The right-wing National Post published long excerpts from the book in serial form, and frequently runs op-eds by Tarek. His basic thesis is that religion and politics should be separated in Islam. Although it has major flaws, it also has many attributes of interest and will be thought-provoking on the relationship between religion and politics, and between Islam and the West.

A flawed book with some thought-provoking ideas

The experience of reading the book is a jarring one. Tarek frequently overreaches, making claims beyond what the evidence provides. “the pain we suffer is caused mostly by self-inflicted wounds, and is not entirely the result of some Zionist conspiracy hatched by the West.” (pg. xi) How IMF restructuring or repeated US bombings, invasions, and occupations are “self-inflicted” is unexplained. Sentences like that also put all Muslims together, though the politics and problems in different Muslim societies are different. CM includes preposterous statements about “nations such as India and China, with few natural resources other than their burgeoning populations” (pg. 325). India and China in fact have tremendous natural resources (especially agricultural resources) that are exploited to the fullest because of their large populations.

Tarek also says “being Canadian has had the most profound effect on (his) thinking”, and lists his Canadian heroes, which include both men and women, French and Anglo-Canadians. But his list does not have Louis Riel or Joseph Brant or any other indigenous person. Tarek’s references to “ordinary Canadians” don’t include the country’s indigenous people or the crimes that were done to them. It is striking though, given his emphasis on Canadian-ness and his expressed desire to hold a mirror up to the Muslim community, that he shows a blind spot for Canada’s disgraceful colonialism.

The book is also jarring because of bombast and cliche. Phrases like “the Palestinian movement cannot be allowed to degenerate into a fad for out-of-luck leftists in search of a cause… When these rich armchair anti-imperialists spout on Palestine, they seem to do it out of an addiction, not a commitment” (pg. 74) occur throughout, and make the whole book very demoralizing to read. The use of phrases like “the new found love affair between the left and the Islamists” (pg. 318) make a case by insinuation, a problem found throughout the book, especially when describing Muslim organizations in the West and money they receive from Saudi Arabia and other places. His newspaper columns are no different, and are part of what makes it an easier choice to simply discard what he has to say.

On the other hand, CM also offers interesting information, especially about Islamic history and recent debates in the West. His attacks on rigid doctrine, internalized racism, and illiberal politics are valid and important. He has more than once presented me with obvious things I hadn’t thought about. When Maher Arar was being tortured in Syria, for example, he wondered why people didn’t demonstrate at the Syrian consulate, but only the US and Canadian consulates. To be sure, to send someone somewhere to be tortured was horrific, but shouldn’t some anger be directed at the torturer? When a Palestinian refugee was threatened with deportation for having been a member of the PFLP (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a leftist Palestinian formation that Canada has deemed “terrorist”), Tarek wrote an open letter to the Canadian Prime Minister saying he, too, had been a member of the PFLP and so if al-Yamani was going to be deported, so too should he be. For reasons like these, Tarek deserves better than casual dismissal. If the flaws can be filtered out, what remain are important questions on very serious matters worthy of debate.

Tarek divides his target audience in five parts. First, Muslims, who he hopes to persuade of his central thesis: that being a good, pious Muslim, to follow the Qur’an and the five pillars, does not require a particular form of state, and that trying to create an Islamic state can only lead to calamity. Second, “ordinary, well-meaning, but naive non-Muslims of Europe and North America”, who he hopes to persuade that Islamists are not authentic anti-imperialists. (pg. xiv) Third, “conservative Republicans in the United States and their neo-conservative allies in the West” who he hopes to persuade that “dropping bombs helps the foe, not the friend.” Fourth, Arabs, “who have suffered at the hands of colonialism”, whose “cause is just”, but who “need to recognize that… the plight of the Palestinians has been abused and misused by their leadership for ulterior motives. They also need to fight internalized racism that places darker-coloured fellow Muslims from Africa and Asia on a lower rung of society.” (pg. xvi) Last, “Pakistanis who deny their ancient Indian heritage”, and who, as a consequence, “have become easy pickings for Islamist extremist radicals who fill their empty ethnic vessels with false identities that deny them their own ethnic heritage.” (pg. xvii) Because I suspect I have only limited access to only the second part of Tarek’s target audience, this review will focus on what is of interest to the “liberal and left-leaning”.

The premises of Chasing a Mirage

CM’s explicit thesis, that religion and politics ought to be separated in Islam, rests on several implicit theses. The most important of these is that Islam, or political Islam, is the major reason for what is wrong in places like Pakistan, Saudia Arabia, Iran, Palestine, and immigrant Muslim communities in the West. Tarek sometimes acknowledges colonialism and occupation (though he is more dismissive of the idea that there might be racism against Muslims in the West), but also blames Islamist doctrine and ideology as a cause (as opposed to primarily an effect, to which we will return).

From this flows the second implicit thesis, that there is something unique about Islam in this respect. When Europe went through Renaissance and Enlightenment, Christianity and Judaism advanced, and Islam remained behind. “While most of humanity has come to recognize the futility of racial and religious states, the Islamists of today present (the) sordid past as their manifesto of the future.” (pg. 19) Failure to separate religion from politics in culture and theory left the way open for Islamists (Syed Qutb, Abul Ala Maudoodi) to create doctrines based on the politicized use of religion.

The third implicit thesis is that in politics, Western-style democracy is the best form. Tarek is a Canadian by choice, he reminds the reader, and cherishes the freedom that he finds in the West, where “the only Arabs who today vote without fear of reprisal” live (pg. xvii). Islamism is bad for the West and for Muslims in part because it causes Muslims to “refuse to integrate or assimilate as part of Western society, yet wishes to stay in (its) midst” (pg. xiv). Also, there is nothing wrong with Islam itself, nor any other religion. Only the combination of religion and politics is undesirable, and CM remains constantly respectful of the basic tenets of Muslim religion.

From these premises, Tarek in Part 1 goes through a series of case studies. Pakistan’s politics have been distorted by Islamism and were distorted from the start. The Saudi regime, with the US guaranteeing its safety in power and its unimaginable oil wealth, reaches out and sponsors Islamism all over the world. Iran’s Islamists destroyed the leftist revolutionaries who they came to power with, and then imposed their will on a reluctant society in brutal and totalitarian ways. And Palestine has been hijacked by Islamists within and without. Next, in Part 2, Tarek reads medieval Islamic history from the death of the prophet Muhammad through to the Damascus, Baghdad, and al-Andalus caliphates. The point of this reading is to show that this past provides no useful guidance for political conduct in large, complex, industrial societies. In Part 3 he moves on to contemporary case studies: He concludes that the recent attempt to apply Sharia law in Ontario for personal disputes between Muslims was a very bad idea. Democratic laws have to apply to everyone and everyone must receive equal protection. He concludes that the doctrine of jihad in Islamism, which, he says, is not about inner struggle but about war, should be discarded. And while he supports the right to wear the hijab, he argues that it is an arbitrary convention without a solid basis in the Qur’an or core Muslim religion. Finally, he concludes that Islamists and Islamism should be strongly confronted in the West, by democrats of all kinds, Muslim and non-Muslim. Since they hold illiberal views, Islamists should not be allowed to use liberalism to undermine its foundation.

Before assessing CM’s conclusions, it may be useful to state my own rather different premises, for understanding the problems experienced by the societies CM discusses (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Palestine, and the Muslim diaspora) as well as some of those he does not.

An alternative set of premises

I agree that religion and politics ought to be separated. But I believe that political Islam is primarily an effect of what is wrong in Muslim societies, not a cause. Explaining the causes of the problems of the third world is beyond the scope of a book review. But a “left-leaning” explanation would look for causes related to economic and political inequalities within and between societies. While these may have pre-existed colonial encounters (Jared Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel is devoted to explaining why the geography of Europe gave it certain advantages for conquering the rest of the world) they were intensified by them. Millions of indigenous people of the Americas died building wealth for Europe and the American states (see Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America). Millions of Africans died in slavery and colonialism (see Basil Davidson, The African Slave Trade). Throughout Asia, lands and resources were taken over through military conquest, or sometimes through finance, without firing a shot. These encounters distorted the colonizers: they lost their ethical sense, they developed doctrines of racism and exclusive notions of religion, and locked the world into constant warfare.

But by far the greatest trauma was suffered by the colonized These societies were not perfect before colonialism destroyed them: they too were full of caste (see BR Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste) and class hierarchy, patriarchal traditions and religion, and militarism and violence of their own. But colonialism intensified all of these and used them to its own ends. The former colonies tried to make sense of what had happened to them and how to free themselves from it (one one very important aspect of this attempt, see Vijay Prashad’s Darker Nations). Their responses included nationalism and communism, both of which were brutally attacked by the Western powers (on these attacks, see William Blum’s Killing Hope). Religiously based nationalism in these parts of the world was often seen as less threatening by the West.

This is where political islam enters the picture in Muslim societies. Tarek is right that it does not provide the freedom and equality so badly needed to address the other urgent problems of our societies. But without a comparative perspective (which is adopted for example by Eqbal Ahmad, one of Tarek’s heroes and one of my own) one is left thinking there is something especially bad about Islam or Muslim societies. This is a convenient belief for Western readers who want to believe the current “war on terror” might be justified. But an equally strong case could be made, and has been, about the caste, irrational belief, and hierarchy in East Asian cultures, or African cultures, or Indian culture, or East Europe, or Latin America, or Europe or America itself — and if the West were at war with these societies such cases would receive greater attention here.

I do not believe that Islam has a monopoly over the failure to separate religion and politics. I believe that all religions are systems of authority, based on irrational belief, that mostly cannot meet the burden of proof for the demands they make of their believers. A distorted, politicized Christianity is a clear and present danger in the United States (see Chris Hedges’ American Fascists, Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? and watch Jesus Camp). Similar problems exist with Israel and Zionism (see Michael Warchawski’s Towards an Open Tomb, or Uri Davis’s Apartheid Israel). As a result I disagree with Tarek’s statement that “most of humanity has come to recognize the futility of racial and religious states”. If only it were so.

I believe that the rest of the world, including the Muslim world but especially indigenous peoples and Africans, have paid a blood price so that those in the West could live in comfort and freedom. Democracy in the West is worth defending to the degree that it can look in the mirror of these atrocities, condemn them, and redress them. Self-congratulation about Western achievements, freedoms, or superiority in rewarding itself with what it stole from others is harmful to this necessary self-examination. Massive inequalities in Western societies and between the West and the rest of the world distort democracy, ethics, and the possibilities for decent survival on the planet. Dealing with these distortions is the most urgent political task at hand.

We all grow up and live in a world of traumas, hierarchies, and inequalities, and we all rebel against these in different ways (see Bruce Levine’s Commonsense Rebellion for a diagnosis of everything alcoholism, drug abuse, gambling, sex addiction, and workoholism as problematic ways of rebelling against meaninglessness and lack of control in daily life). Constructive, collective, political rebellion is what many of us strive to do and hope to see. But there are more problematic ways of rebelling, some of which can sometimes have perverse effects, and these are sometimes better rewarded by the institutions that produce the ills we’re rebellin against.

Because it is usually the oppressed who have to free themselves (and their oppressors), and because many of those powerless and under attack and fighting back (sometimes in ways that are themselves distorted) are Muslims, an examination of the current role of Islam, and religion in general, in politics is important. So, too, is thinking about what that role could or should be. CM’s value is in contributing to that debate.

Assessing the conclusions of “Chasing a Mirage”

Starting from these somewhat different premises, how do the conclusions of CM appear? Take the Sharia law debate in Ontario. Some Muslim organizations argued that Islamic law be used in binding arbitration to settle disputes between parties. Their principal argument, which CM does not mention, was that those principles were already being used in Jewish and Christian communities: if religious arbitration was okay for some religions, why not all? In the event, the Ontario government’s decision was the best one possible: rather than allowing it for all religions, Ontario struck religious arbitration down for all.

Should jihad be discarded, and hijab recognized as an arbitrary cultural convention and not a religious requirement? Yes, in the same way that all doctrines should be subjected to tests of ethics and reason and discarded if they fail those tests. The same is true for using the distant past, described in Part 2 of CM, as a political guide for the future. If some political idea, from history or elsewhere, will have good effects from a perspective of universal human values, then it should be used. If not, it should be rejected. These conclusions are similar to Tarek’s, though they come from different premises.

And what of the importance of challenging the illiberalism of the Islamists in the West? Here we have a more serious disagreement, not on the question of whether illiberalism should be challenged, but on where the illiberalism comes from and what should be done about it. Tarek, like Ed Husain in the UK (author of The Islamist) attributes the strength of Islamists in the West to the tolerance of “bleeding heart liberals” and “the left”. In doing so, he attributes more power to this social force than it actually has. Liberals are on the defensive everywhere in the West, and leftists are so marginal that one can only read about us as rhetorical foils in books on political topics. Decency and internationalism have plenty of followers in the West, to be sure. But it is not tolerance, but intolerance and the exploitation of legitimate grievances that others have failed to answer, that has strengthened religious politics.

How can we assess CM’s analysis of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Palestine? Pakistan was indeed founded on a religious basis, and the partition and confrontation between India and Pakistan did incredible damage to both societies over many decades. Saudi Arabia is ruled by a monarchy held up by the US military, that in exchange controls the population and uses its wealth to divert politics in religious directions. CM presents Iran from the perspective of some of its defeated leftists, who helped overthrow the Shah only to be destroyed politically (and, ultimately, physically, in mass murders of political prisoners in the 1980s).

CM’s chapter on Palestine, by contrast, is wholly without merit. Tarek offers the chapter as if it is strategic advice to the Palestinians, but like reading much of the North American media, one can come away thinking Israel’s occupation is a minor issue and that the central conflict is between lslamists and others. This is one of the confusions of Tarek’s politics in general. At times he adopts the tone of a self-critical leftist, who leftists ought to take seriously, at other times the self-congratulation of Western pundits, who leftists would normally dismiss because of lack of time. From both postures, he blasts leftists and anti-imperialists with, at times, ugly rhetoric. What’s more, since the cause of Palestine should be based on universal human rights and self-determination and Islamists (indeed Muslims, or Jews) have no special right to comment on it, Tarek’s dissident Muslim position adds nothing of interest to the debate.

Those concerned about the Palestinian cause could, no doubt, benefit from serious examination of how Hamas came to power and the Palestinian left became so marginal. It is important to think about how best to resist the agendas of Israel and the US (and Canada) for the Palestinians — an agenda of starvation and murder, it bears repeating — and how to relate to the significant social force that Hamas now represents in Palestine, for better or worse. But for that examination, one will have to look elsewhere — perhaps to Azzam Tamimi’s Hamas: A history from within, to some of Amira Hass’s reporting since the 2006 election, or Adel Samara’s critiques of “NGO-ization”.

Leftists I’ve spoken to were dismissive. They disliked Tarek’s frequent and sweeping attacks on what he calls “the left” (I prefer to use the term “leftists”, since “the left” does not really exist in any organized form in North America in any case). Another anti-Muslim book, they guessed, part of a cottage industry designed to demonize the selected victims of Western foreign policy. Iraq is occupied, a million people killed. Palestine is occupied, starved, choked to death. Afghanistan is occupied. Iran is threatened. Deportations of Muslims are rampant in Western countries. Secret trials are occurring. The Egyptian regime receives billions in weaponry and subsidies in exchange for support of Israel’s occupation of Palestine and suppression of the population. Other dictatorships in Muslim countries receive similar largesse. Of course, to do all this to a group of people requires an industry to produce convenient stories about them. Anyone who can produce such stories will be rewarded handsomely, with sympathetic reviews, prominent placement in bookstores, and high sales for telling convenient things to people about what they are doing. Irshad Manji’s Trouble With Islam was part of this industry, and many might assume CM is as well. While Tarek refused Manji’s acknowledgement of him in her book, he called her “courageous” and expressed sympathy that she was being called opportunist and her message ignored in his own, a fate his book will share, in some quarters.

A better comparison than Irshad Manji might be to black conservatives in the US, such as Shelby Steele or John McWhorter, who draw on a worthy tradition of black self-help but emphasize it out of context to the degree that the central problem of institutional racism is lost.

In any case Tarek and CM should not be quickly dismissed. For all the book’s flaws, it does at times deal with serious issues seriously. It raises important questions about politics in immigrant communities and in poor countries. And although Tarek sometimes lacks compassion, makes cases by insinuation, ignores or blows off key parts of the story, misses crucial context, and makes claims well beyond his evidence, he also presents interesting arguments about history, discusses some neglected crimes whose main victims, after all, are Muslims, and is worth reading on contemporary debates even when you disagree. Unfortunately, to disagree with Tarek is to invite bombastic and overblown replies, but he also at times seriously attempts to engage in a way that might actually advance the debate on how best to advance decent values in both Western and Muslim societies. To advance that debate, it is worth assuming Tarek’s good faith and giving Chasing a Mirage a careful reading to separate the parts that are without merit from the parts that have some.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer and activist. He can be reached at: justin@killingtrain.com. Read other articles by Justin, or visit Justin's website.

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  1. Andres Kargar said on June 28th, 2008 at 1:11am #

    Blaming all problems of the Middle Eastern societies on political Islam rather than providing a class-based analysis of these societies and the movements within them is a recurring theme in the works of many (upper) middle-class, Western- educated intellectuals of the region.

    Political Islam is an ideology taken up by social forces and movements in the various countries and is very much class-based. The Islamic interpretations and practices perpetuated by the Saudi royal family, for example, differ sharply from the ideology embraced by the followers of Muqtada al Sadr in Iraq representing distinctly diverse class interests. Bunching these two together as “reactionary” political Islam would be a gross distortion of realities.

    Dazzled by the glitter of the so-called Western democracies, these ‘intellectuals’ do not realize that people do not sit by idly until perfect secular movements are born. This is the reality of class struggle. What they do not like to address is the question of why progressive secular forces have failed the people in many of these countries. Do they deserve any criticism for their failure?

    Are the Iranian democratic and secular leftists, for example, willing to accept any responsibility for their failure to organize to beat the Mullahs to power after the overthrow of the Shah? What about those members of the Iraqi ‘Communist’ Party who chose the path of collaboration with the occupation forces instead of resistance? Will the Iraqi people be embracing them, just because they claim to be democratic and secular, or the forces of ‘religously backwards’ Muqtada al-Sadr? I think the answer is obvious.

    Rhetoric aside, the Middle East is under attack today by the forces of imperialism and colonialism for its resources not its religion. The demonizing of the population as Jihadists and Islamists is pure propaganda, regardless of how progressive or reactionary Islam is. The reality is that the Palestinian or Iraqi Christians are suffering just the same as the rest of the Moslem population.

    Political religion, by the way, is not an exclusive feature of the Middle East or of the Moslem world. What’s more, it is not all reactionary. A good example I can give you is from solidarity work with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the eighties where the poor and the working class supported the liberation theology while the upper classes embraced the reactionary religion of Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo.