There may be a corner of Purgatory, unremarked by Dante, where those of us who have worked in journalism and the media will be required to review a lifetime’s hack-work and to confess our intellectual sins before being admitted to Paradise. In preparing reviews and articles for this book - the product of some 30 years’ observation and commentary on Islam and the Middle East - I have striven to pre-empt the recording angel by weeding out banalities and fits of intemperance before he (or she, or it) gets to see it, and confronts me with some horribly embarrassing copy.
As a scriptwriter at the BBC World Service, I was required to make programmes and write commentaries on a wide variety of topics - domestic politics, economic and industrial issues, even theatre and the arts - as well as Arab and Islamic questions. I am aware of how wonderfully approaching deadlines - symbolised by the hands of the synchronised clocks that still surface, unmelted, in my dreams - serve to concentrate the mind, forcing words into consciousness, on to the page and from there into the microphone. But I also recognise that the demands of the media are ephemeral, and that true comprehension is not to be found on the spotlit surface of events, but rather in the deeper human structures and configurations that we think of as cultures. For a writer, radio has its virtues. The greatest of these is the imperative of clarity, based on a simple, technological fact: while a reader can re-read a sentence on the page of a book or newspaper, the listener doesn’t get a second chance. But radio also has its drawbacks: the medium is by definition transient - ‘in one ear, and out the other’ as the saying goes.
In my case, the search for clarity of phrasing - however imperfectly realised - has been matched by a quest for understanding. When it comes to Islam and the Middle East, this cannot be achieved without some heavy intellectual spadework: a knowledge, however inadequate, of its languages; a grasp of its history and its anthropologies; a recognition that religious experiences and identities are meaningful for some people; and a sufficient awareness of one’s own culture to be able to make meaningful correspondences between different cultural systems, so that terms and concepts that seem alien are not entirely ‘lost in translation’.
In approaching the Islamic world, my preliminary spadework was not the mandatory university course, but rather a spell of living alongside the Huwaitat Bedouin in southern Jordan during my ‘gap year’ before attending university, and a year of Arabic study at the Foreign Office-funded Middle East Centre for Arab Studies (MECAS) at Shemlan, in Lebanon, after I had graduated from Cambridge (in English Literature). MECAS, where the Foreign Office trained its Arabists, was widely known as ‘the spy school’. The locals assumed that the place, set in the splendid hills overlooking Beirut airport, was some kind of James Bond establishment, where we learned the black arts of seduction, cryptology and murder (if only...). I recall an uncomfortable conversation with a taxi driver who took me to downtown Beirut, half an hour’s drive from Shemlan:
‘You’re at the spy school, madrasat-al jassousiyya,’ he said.
‘Nonsense,’ I replied, ‘It’s just a place where they teach you Arabic.’ ‘OK,’ he said, ‘What about Kim Filibee and Georgie Blake?’
The cabbie was well-informed. Before his defection to the Soviet Union, the spy Kim Philby, who had worked as a correspondent in Beirut, had close associations with the school. George Blake, who fled to the USSR in 1966 after escaping from Wormwood Scrubs Prison, where he was serving a 42-year sentence for espionage, had actually been picked up at MECAS by Special Branch detectives.
‘Wrong team,’ I tried to explain. ‘Both were working for the other side.’ My sojourns in Jordan and Lebanon were informative, but only the beginning of a quest for understanding. Arabic and other Muslim languages may help, but they are not sufficient for embracing the phenomenology of Islam, or the rich mosaic of Muslim ideas and societies, in an increasingly complex, globalised world. As I suggest in my critique of Bernard Lewis (see page 24) the textual knowledge or ‘coal-face scholarship’ of which he is such a distinguished example can actually be misleading, unless it is accompanied by a certain empathy and the intellectual humility that comes with a willingness to learn from non-textual human sources (including those conveyed by the social scientists and anthropologists whom Lewis clearly disparages).
‘Why Islam?’ I used to be asked. ‘Are you a Muslim?’ a BBC colleague queried, evidently bemused at the thought that anyone outside the Islamic faith community could find the Islamic world interesting or exhibit some knowledge about it. It may be the case that expertise on aspects of Christianity - New Testament scholarship, for example - is largely restricted to believers or professionals who belong to the faith, but the fact remains
that Christianity in a wider sense, as a dominant belief system that leaves vast residues in literature, art, architecture and music, remains a pervasive presence in our Western culture. Islam (by contrast) is configured in most Western peoples’ minds as ‘other’. (The American historian, Richard Bulliet, addresses this issue in one of the books reviewed in these pages.) Because our (Western) culture is received without question, absorbed, as it were, by osmosis, the idea that a monumental statue, or classical portico, or even a nude centrefold spread from a girlie magazine may appear ‘Christian’ to the non-occidental, simply never occurs to us.
In the West, when we use words such as Christianity or Christian, the assumption may be that we are talking mainly about matters relating to people of faith, a presupposition that is reflected in our use of words such as Islam and Islamic. As a consequence, it becomes all too easy to confuse cultural engagement with belief and belonging. There is a world ‘out there’ comprising approximately a fifth of humanity and its variegated cultures, which is informed in some cases by Islamic beliefs and practices, but is not necessarily religious.
The great American historian, Marshall Hodgson (1922-68), whose three-volume masterwork, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, published posthumously in 1974, has been a major influence on my thinking, tried to address this problem by distinguishing between phenomena he described as Islamic (pertaining to the religion) and those he described as Islamicate (deriving from regions where Muslims were culturally dominant, but not necessarily based on religion). Thus poetry celebrating wine can be described as Islamicate, but not Islamic.
Hodgson’s terminology - he was a great coiner of new terms, which he hoped would avoid the generally Eurocentric bias infecting the study of Islam - has never really caught on, except in some academic circles, but the distinction remains an important one. It informs many of the books - and my essays about them - that feature in the following pages. For example, in critiquing Christopher Caldwell’s account of the threat posed by Muslim immigrants in Europe (see page 187), I suggest that he makes assumptions about Muslims as believers that may be exaggerated. Virtually everyone living in Western countries celebrates Christmas, yet only a minority go to church - and a significant part of that minority may be once-a-year attendees who have only a vestigial connection with Christian beliefs. The same applies, a fortiori, to attendance at weddings and funerals. Muslims who observe Ramadan or the big religious festivals may be conforming, like regular Christmas-observers, to long entrenched social patterns. The suggestion that such observance implies strenuously held religious beliefs is clearly overdrawn.
None of this means, of course, that there are no dangers posed by Islamic radicalism, or that Islamic belief systems are somehow innocent of atrocities committed using Islamic references. The following pages include extensive review articles written in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, DC. A more detailed expression of my thoughts will be found in A Fury for God: The Islamist Attack on America (Granta Books, 2002/3) The point to make here is that Islamic labels can serve to mobilise and legitimise. They form an extensive part of the political repertory. ‘Islam’ - to express this crudely - serves as a kind of ‘branding’, an argument made, in a different context, by Carl Ernst in his critique of a Pakistan High Court judgment, where ‘Islam’ is compared to Coca-Cola (see page 7). My argument, in A Fury for God, is that the ideology needs to be distinguished from the labels used to ‘brand’ it. This has an important bearing on discussion about the much abused term ‘Islamo-fascism’ which I have been accused of coining.
I plead guilty to having used the term, in an article in The Independent newspaper in 1990, in a glancing reference to the authoritarian regimes that are now being challenged by protestors throughout the Arab region. I doubt if I was the first person to use this term, though I did not consciously borrow it from anyone else. It has stuck to me (like the proverbial albatross) because internet search engines largely stop at 1990, when ‘wiki-history’, as it were, began. Usages prior to that time are lost in the dust of libraries.
There may be parallels between today’s Islamists and 1930s fascists but, I would argue, the differences are more compelling. Fascist movements require organisation, discipline, a unified leadership and a monopoly over the ideology. It may be the case that some Islamic movements - such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood - exhibit the first three qualities, but I would argue that sustaining a monopoly over the ideology - in this case, the interpretation of Islam, is an impossibility. The discourses of Islam, like those of other religions, are too rich and varied to allow themselves to be welded into a single doctrinal system. The dangers facing Muslim societies at the present time come from anarchy, on one side, and a restored authoritarian rule on the other. ‘Islam’ is not the danger - but neither is it the solution.
Saint Jacques de Nehou, France