Islam and the West

Theologocentrism distorts, according to one of the contributors to Islamophobia: The challenge of pluralism in the 21st century. It assumes a direct connection between Islamic theology and politics in the Arab and Muslim worlds, especially with regard to terrorism. On the contrary, many forms of anti-Muslim prejudice can be seen as examples of scapegoating, a social pathology that floats free from evidence, comparable to anti-Semitism. Yet all the books under review here indicate in varying ways that theology has to be one ingredient in our understanding of these difficult questions.

Islam and Christianity: Theological themes in comparative perspective by John Renard, a professor at Saint Louis University and a Jesuit, embraces a definition of theology receptive to all relevant sources of information – differentiated from more secular disciplines only by the acknowledgement of “some sort of divine impetus”. This, for him, is ultimately guaranteed by aesthetics and by personal contact with people of faith; but the more sceptically inclined reader will not be conscious of a barrier. Renard steps with faultless assurance across a minefield, dividing his material into four main sections: historical, credal, institutional, and finally ethical and spiritual. Without glossing over fundamental differences between Christianity and Islam – especially the Christian insistence on redemption through Jesus’s suffering – Renard shows how the reality has often been more nuanced. The deity that Muslims worship is often thought of by non-Muslims as severe and judgemental; but many Christians have such a concept of God as well, whereas many Muslims believe that God’s mercy always takes precedence. Again, one might expect images of transcendence to be the hallmark of Muslim prayer, since Islamic doctrine denies the divine–human intimacy of the Incarnation, and images of immanence to be more typical of Christian prayer; but in fact, images of both transcendence and immanence permeate devotional prayer in both traditions. And both propound “mimetic ethics”, the importance of emulating the example of their respective founders.

At a more learned level, Renard compares the Christian understanding of Jesus as God’s Word made flesh with the revelation of the word of God in the Qur’an (sometimes called “inlibration”). Early Muslim controversy as to whether the Qur’an was “uncreated”, that is to say co-eternal with God (the majority view), or “created” by him, as the Mu‘tazilites active in Basra and Baghdad contended, was analogous to disputes within Christendom concerning the relationships between the persons of the Trinity. Renard devotes two pages to the question “Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?”, noting that few Christians regard the God of the Hebraic Bible or Old Testament as incompatible with the triune God of Christianity.

The same conundrum is explored in a whole book, Allah: A Christian response by Miroslav Volf, professor of theology at Yale. It is not just a scholastic matter: in Malaysia, Muslim rioters have attacked churches in protest against the use of “Allah” to denote the God worshipped by Christians (which has always been the practice among Arabic-speaking Christians). Volf was among the drafters in 2007 of the “Yale Response”, published as an advertisement in the New York Times in support of “A common word between us and you”, which in turn was a response to Pope Benedict XVI’s controversial Regensburg lecture, widely understood to have been derogatory towards Islamic theology. “A Common Word” was drafted by Prince Ghazi, a nephew of the late King Hussain of Jordan, and signed by 138 Islamic scholars and intellectuals from different countries: it argued that the primary injunctions of Christianity – love of God and love of neighbour – are common to the Qur’an, the Torah and the New Testament. The identity of the God of the Bible and the God of the Qur’an, assumed by the drafters of the Yale Response, is strongly endorsed by Volf in his new book, and he insists that, though before September 11, 2001 the question seldom surfaced in discussions of Christianity and Islam, it has now become vitally important.

Malise Ruthven ventured a prediction in 1984, at the end of his groundbreaking Islam in the World, that – after many decades of politicization – a pluralistic, international religious culture of the future would emphasize the tradition of high Sufism. Influential leaders such as Professor Volf and Prince Ghazi are bearing out Ruthven’s prediction. Volf’s magnanimous personality shines through his work, as does his determination to shame all excuses for violence such as that which he witnessed personally in his early life in war-torn Yugoslavia. With a concept of theology narrower than Renard’s, he stresses that his book is intended mainly for Christian readers, many of whom may be persuaded by the fifteenth-century cardinal Nicholas of Cusa’s argument that the Qur’an’s rejection of the Trinity is based on a misunderstanding of the authentic Christian doctrine. “Numbers don’t work the same way with regard to God that they do with created realities”, writes Volf. But for Muslims the Qur’an is primary revelation in its entirety, and it does include the words, “Say not ‘Trinity’: desist”. Volf could have been less ambitious and driven home the undeniable, if blander message that all the world religions enjoin the virtues of love, justice and practical compassion. The “same God?” brain-teaser might have been left to adjudication by a higher power.

Insofar as Allah: A Christian response sets out to rebut unbalanced and prejudiced views of Islam, it is a valuable corrective to what has come to be known as Islamophobia. One of the most intriguing contributions to the debate about Islamophobia has been by the anthropologist Pnina Werbner, who argues that it is a form of scapegoating given a particular edge because political Islam evokes for Europeans the folk memory of a punitive, inquisitorial Church. In Islamophobia, Chris Allen sets out to give a history of this disputed concept after centuries of wars and colonial domination – and to clarify its proper use today, mainly in the British context. He shows how the primary political discourse associated with newly established migrant communities shifted from “colour” in the 1950s and 60s to “race” and “blackness” in the 1970s. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the Satanic Verses affair of 1989 turned attention to Islam, and the Runnymede Trust responded in 1997 with an influential report, “Islamophobia: A challenge for us all”, published by its Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia.

Allen contends that the Runnymede Report was superficial. It was certainly a skilful distillation by the secretariat of the diverse views of the commissioners, whose composition was weighted towards interfaith expertise. He accepts that “Islamophobia” is a problematic word, especially because it implies a passive, quasi-medical condition, unlike the more active “anti-Semitism”; but it has gained currency, whereas “anti-Muslimism” has not. Allen concludes his book with his own definition, running to some 200 words.

Though Allen acknowledges three levels of Islamophobia, he seems not to realize that they need to be attacked in distinct ways. First is the level of ideology, which includes comparative theology and is imprinted with the history of Muslims’ relations with the rest of the world. This level can be approached in a spirit of rational argument, through the media and the educational system. Second is the level of prejudice, which is often irrational and can only abate over a period of time as individuals come to change their assumptions in response to experience. Prejudice can be opposed, but it cannot be legislated against in a society that allows freedom of thought. Third is the level of behaviour – including adverse discrimination, hate speech and violence – which can be banned and proportionately punished by the law. It is only at the third level, that of legal sanctions, that precise definition is necessary or practicable in this complicated lexical field. “British Muslims” are defined not only by religious affiliation but by ethnic and class markers with porous boundaries, and the same is true of Muslims in France or the United States with their different histories of immigration. In British law, the concept of “religiously aggravated crime” has taken root.

Islamophobia: The challenge of pluralism in the 21st century, edited with skill by John L. Esposito and Ibrahim Kalin, is a collection of eleven articles by American and European scholars, both Muslim and non-Muslim, with an introduction by Esposito. Together the authors give a comprehensive, well-documented account of the historical roots of present-day Islamophobia in white supremacism and in the colonial manoeuvre whereby Muslim societies were both eroticized and stigmatized; also of the more recent tensions in Muslim–Western relations that were brought to a head on September 11, 2001. Specially notable is Anas Al-Shaik-Ali’s contribution, which shows without difficulty that “works of art and literature are not necessarily gospels of love and peace or espousers of the highest and noblest virtues but rather have been used to spread prejudice, falsehoods, stereotypes, and myths that incite people to conflict”. He concludes with the stronger thesis that Islamophobia is “the hallmark of present-day mass fiction”, adducing the series of Evangelical, apocalyptic novels by Tim LaHaye entitled Left Behind that have sold many millions of copies in the US.

No careful reader of these two books on Islamophobia is likely to be left with the impression that it is a negligible threat to civic harmony, or merely an accusation used by Muslims to deflect criticism. It is unlikely to weaken in the short term, especially if an apparently rudderless and deflated Europe casts around for minorities to blame. Yet the attribution to Muslims of a choiceless victimhood needs to be questioned. By contrast, Akbar Ahmed, the Pakistani anthropologist now resident in Washington, describes in his Journey into America: The challenge of Islam (2010) the high incidence of prejudice against Muslims in the US, but he also insists that “self-reflection and self-criticism” among Muslims is necessary to set future directions. Neither book on Islamophobia attempts to give insight into the intense debates that are current among Muslims, for instance on the question of religious freedom.

Admittedly, there is no equivalent in the history of Islam to the extreme persecution of Jews in Europe; and Muslims in Europe and the US today, being minorities, present no threat to religious freedom. But Muslims belong to the global umma, and it is not irrational for those who accept Enlightenment values to be phobic about the laws against apostasy and blasphemy current in some major Islamic states. The reformist Iranian scholar Mohsen Kadivar, in an article contributed to The New Voices of Islam: Rethinking politics and modernity, edited by Mehran Kamrava (2006), asserts that “most available interpretations of Islam do not welcome the freedom of religion and belief”, before going on to argue that a more correct interpretation of Scripture and valid traditions accepts the principle of “no compulsion in religion” (see 2:256 in the Qur’an). But Kadivar has been punished by eighteen months in an Iranian prison for his exegesis of Scripture, and many other reformists, in Iran and elsewhere, have suffered worse. Mehran Kamrava, in his introduction to The New Voices of Islam, noted that similar reformism is spreading throughout the world but is held back by four obstacles. These are: the lack of institutional support, opposition from the conservative religious authorities, opposition from governments – and finally, “an international environment that seriously undermines [its] message”.

The position of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the prominent Egyptian scholar, now based in Doha, is instructive. A gifted orator, he is often spoken of as a reformist, and he has published attacks on violent Islamic extremism. While some of his actions are conciliatory, for example his recent support for democratic elections and the rights of Egyptian Copts, he has also been known to praise Hitler for his treatment of the Jews. He is now banned from entering the United States or Britain, no doubt primarily on account of his support for suicide bombings against Israelis (on which he differs from the majority of ulama). Ibrahim Kalin, one of the editors of Islamophobia: The challenge of pluralism in the 21st century, reports that al-Qaradawi refrains from addressing the problem of Muslim extremism because of a fear that his writings could be used by Islamophobes to serve purposes contrary to his intentions, in which case he would be betraying his brothers and sisters in Islam. Clearly there is a problem here that neither of these books on Islamophobia is willing to tackle.

In The Missing Martyrs: Why there are so few Muslim terrorists, largely directed at American readers, the sociologist Charles Kurzman argues that the United States, with its homicide rate running at about 16,000 per annum, has overreacted to the 9/11 attacks – to the detriment of fundamental American values of justice and civil rights. The proportion of Muslims worldwide who support global terrorism is tiny, decreasing and not very competent – the primary bulwark against it being Muslims who are disgusted by its excesses. The US government lumps together al-Qaeda-style “globalists” with essentially nationalist movements such as Hamas. American policies towards the Muslim world should be judged, says Kurzman, by the extent to which they assist or undermine liberalizing movements. Survey evidence and voting patterns testify to a thirst for democracy, even in the least democratic Muslim nations. The main difference from liberal Western opinion is in the domain of gender and reproductive rights, though Christian and Muslim cultural conservatives share an opposition to homosexuality and single-parent families.

Muslim anti-Americanism, Kurzman argues, is “inelastic”; and one of the few changes in US foreign relations that might make a real difference, an Israeli–Palestinian peace agreement, seems unlikely. Among this book’s virtues is that it does not minimize the “bad news for Americans” that Islamist terrorists, fired up by brutal rhetoric, “really are out to get you”. But Kurzman has faith in the backlash against violence and in the power of liberalizing ideas. Some other analysts are worried that Western-inspired initiatives, such as that embarked on briefly by the RAND Corporation in 2004, to intervene in the theology of another religion may have unintended consequences, one of which is that progressive ulama are exposed to allegations that they are tools of Western intelligence services.

By contrast with all these deskbound studies, the swashbuckling Franco-American anthropologist Scott Atran gives us in Talking to the Enemy a rich, baggy book that combines reportage from several of the world’s hotspots, and forensic analysis of the conspiracy behind the Madrid train bombing in 2004, with accounts of psychological experiments and reflections on the evolution of human sociality and faith-based civilizations through sacralized norms. Atran holds that people do not cognitively process religious beliefs in the same way as they do facts.

His general condemnation of recent American foreign policy is in accord with Charles Kurzman’s – for instance, when underlining the deep differences between the Taliban and al-Qaeda which the Coalition ignored. But he sees opportunistic terrorism as largely driven by small-group dynamics rather than religious ideology, so that Western encouragement of liberal imams is of limited relevance. Atran’s analysis of the suicide attacks carried out or attempted by marginal groups is inadequate to account for their routinization in Iraq, where they have claimed about 12,000 civilian lives since 2003, and in Afghanistan. He is on stronger ground when he argues that the Salafi Islam of Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Yemen and elsewhere is the host on which the viral jihadist movement rides, “not unlike the relationship between Christian fundamentalism and white supremacism”; but mainstream Salafis are “the most vociferous and effective opponents of violent jihad”. Another example of the strength of religious values – which Atran adduces to criticize the militant atheism of Richard Dawkins and others – was the actions, during the massacres in Rwanda, of the many Muslims who saved thousands of non-Muslims, both Tutsi and Hutu, when churches, governments and secular NGOs turned away. Talking to the Enemy was published before the Arab Spring, which has given the author new grounds for hope. Atran’s book shows up the intellectual poverty of the “counter-terrorist studies” that have come to underwrite much official policymaking in the United States.

From Atran’s scattershot, we turn finally to the sharper focus of Robert Lambert’s Countering Al-Qaeda in London. Lambert, an officer since 1980 in the Metropolitan Police Special Branch, established the Muslim Contact Unit (MCU) in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 to work empathetically and in partnership with London Muslims. He retired in 2007, a year after the MCU was wound up and replaced by the “Prevent” strategy to counter terrorism, which was in turn reviewed by the Coalition government in 2011 to include prevention of non-violent as well as violent extremism. In 2010, Lambert completed a doctoral thesis on his experiences at the University of Exeter, where he now co-directs the European Muslim Research Centre. His book presents an inside account of a successful project in North London to empower Muslims to remove Abu Hamsa and his violent supporters from the Finsbury Park mosque, and a second project to help Muslims in Brixton to challenge the influence of violent extremists, including Abu Qatada and Abdullah el Faisal. Lambert strongly defends the MCU’s approach against its critics, who claim that it gave legitimacy to extremist groups and that Lambert’s evenhandedness as a policeman was vitiated by his disagreements with British foreign policy and his espousal of the Palestinian cause.

A new complication arose after the publication of this book, when it was claimed, and not denied by him, that Lambert had served undercover with the Special Demonstration Squad between 1984 and 1988, posing as an activist in the environmental group London Greenpeace. Since the MCU banked heavily on the principle of trust as opposed to intelligence-gathering, his personal credibility with Muslims was thus somewhat compromised. With the knowledge of Lambert’s past in mind, it is difficult not to be put off by the self-important (and repetitive) style of Countering Al-Qaeda in London. Yet the nub of Lambert’s argument stands. The MCU’s interlocutors were mainly Salafis or of a similar persuasion, having little in common with the middle-class British religiosity that is hospitable to Sufism. Salafi theology generally opposes vehement challenges to the political status quo, but it has acquired in the British context some of the qualities of a working-class movement. (The high-minded admonitions of Professor Volf and Prince Ghazi cut no ice in Brixton.) According to Lambert, the new counter-terrorist programme launched by David Cameron will cause many of the Muslim Londoners who worked in partnership with police to be recast as “subversives”, in the same category as the violent extremists they have bravely tackled over two decades. It is unfortunate that controversy surrounding the undercover work of the younger, longer-haired Detective Lambert should cloud what ought to be a rational debate about counter-terrorism and Islamophobia in Britain, informed by a better understanding of Muslims in all their variety. The broad terms of the debate apply equally at the global level.

Jonathan Benthall is an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at University College London and the author of Returning to Religion: Why a secular age is haunted by faith, 2008.