"Chasing a Mirage" is Book of the Month at New York University
Chasing a Mirage:
The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State
By Tarek Fatah
(John Wiley & Sons Canada, Ltd, 2008)
Reviewed by Dale F. Eickelman
Dale F. Eickelman is the Ralph and Richard Lazarus Professor of Anthropology and Human Relations at Dartmouth College.
New York University: Center for Dialogues
...a compelling and fascinating “view from the edge.”
Hasan al-Turabi (b. 1930), the Sorbonne-educated leader of the Muslim Brothers in the Sudan and a former attorney general, forcefully stated a quarter-century ago that “because all knowledge is divine and religious,” a chemist, an engineer, and an economist have all become ‘ulama,’ or authoritative interpreters of the Islamic tradition.
Tarek Fatah’s Chasing a Mirage reminds us that journalists also fit al-Turabi’s characterization. Fatah currently hosts a weekly television show in Toronto and frequently contributes to Canadian newspapers and magazines. He describes himself as a former left-wing student activist in Pakistan who subsequently became a print and television journalist until political conditions induced him to move to Saudi Arabia in 1977; he worked in advertising there for a decade before immigrating to Canada in 1987.
Chasing a Mirage is an unapologetic and unremitting polemic for a secular Islam that gives no quarter to those who support any other view of the role of religion in politics and society. As Claude Lévi-Strauss might have said in another domain, Mirage is “good to think with,” but the lumping together of all Islamists—those who advocate an explicit role for Islam in politics—from the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD to the present, inadvertently deflects attention away from how individuals, like groups, learn to compromise and modify their objectives over time.
Mirage is a self-described cry from Fatah’s heart “to my co-religionists, my Muslim sisters and brothers,” to remove their blindfolds and the “shackles of conformity that have stunted their development for so long.” [p. xii] Fatah writes, “I am an Indian born in Pakistan; a Punjabi born in Islam; an immigrant in Canada with a Muslim consciousness, grounded in a Marxist youth.” He also writes that Muslim society is “lost in the sands of Sinai with no Moses to lead us out, held hostage by hateful pretenders of piety,” a condition “further compounded by a collective denial that the pain we suffer is caused mostly by self-inflicted wounds.”
“Being Canadian,” Fatah writes, has had the most profound effect on his thinking, impelling him “to swim upstream to imitate the giants who have ventured into uncharted waters” before him, including Louis-Joseph Papineau, Tommy Douglas, Agnes Macphail, and many others. Canada has allowed him to “speak out against the hijacking of my faith and the spectre of a new Islamo-fascism.” [pp. xi-xii]
Fatah states that the hijackers are the Islamists, and he distinguishes between them and Muslims—thus excluding Islamists from claiming a Muslim identity. Islamists, he says, seek an “Islamic State,” which requires theocracy. Muslims, on the other hand, “merely desire a ‘state of Islam.’” [p. xii] These opposing currents, he argues, have characterized Islamic practice since the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 CE. In South Asia, Muslims in Pakistan live in an Islamic State, while Muslims in India live in a “state of Islam.” [p. xv]
According to Fatah, since the death of the Prophet, Islamists have sought political power, while Muslims have opted for “intellectual and pious pursuits.” Muslims are responsible for Islam’s contributions to human civilization; Islamists chase “the mirage of an Islamic state” and cling to “mythologies of the past.” [p. xiii] Islamists have “contempt” for “liberal social democratic society, yet liberal and left-leaning Europeans and North Americans” are infatuated by their apparently anti-establishment stance.
At the same time, the warmongering by the “neo-conservative proponents of the so-called war on terrorism” has been a gift to “Islamist proponents of a worldwide jihad.” [p. xiv] Fatah hopes that “non-Muslims realize that deep inside the soul of all Muslims lives a Rumi, an Averroes, and a Muhammad Ali, and that “equity and social justice run through every fibre and gene of the Muslim psyche. Poetry, song, and dance are as much a part of our culture as piety, modesty, and charity.” [p. xv] He acknowledges Arabs as the first Muslims, but excoriates them for inept leadership and “internalized racism,” before moving on to the diaspora of Pakistani youth “being taken for a ride by the Islamists.” [pp. xvi-xvii]
Mirage offers gripping descriptions of political excess but won’t win any prizes for journalistic accuracy. It opens with a dramatic account of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s execution in Rawalpindi—not Rawaloindi [p. 5]—and quickly moves on to cite a 2001 claim by Egyptian economist Samir Amin that Mahmoud Taha’s 1985 execution in the Sudan went unreported in the “Western Media.” [p. 6] A moment’s research on Google or the New York Timeswebsite would suffice to correct this inaccuracy, invoked to support the claim that the “West” is complacent in the face of Islamism in the all-encompassing and ahistorical way that Fatah defines it.
The strength of Mirage is that it brings a strong South Asian perspective to a topic all too often dominated by a focus on texts and contexts emanating from the Arab world. Unfortunately, Fatah sometimes too hastily assumes a consistent polarization of perspectives rather than acknowledging that extremist Islamist political movements, like their counterparts in other religions, often shift over time or contain embedded contradictions that can lead to open debate among believers. Thus, Fatah cites Article 2 of the Iranian constitution to claim that it acknowledges the absolute sovereignty of God, although principle 3.8 of that same constitution acknowledges popular sovereignty in conceding the people’s right to determine their own “destiny.” [p. 16] The Pakistani constitution of 1990 similarly sets up contrasting notions of sovereignty, reaffirming that “sovereignty over the entire Universe belongs to Almighty Allah alone,” while also invoking the intention of Muhammad Ali Jinnah (d. 1948), Pakistan’s founder, that Pakistan should be a “democratic state based on Islamic principles of justice,” ruled by elected representatives. Fatah’s account of the turbulent birth of Pakistan as an explicitly Islamic state in 1947 is one of the best sections of Mirage. In it, he reminds the reader of the 1953 Munir Commission report, which followed anti-Ahmadiyya riots in Punjab; the Pakistani jurists and Islamic scholars who made up the Commission could not agree on definitions of who is a Muslim or what is an Islamic state. Other chapters in the first section of the book quickly survey the Islamic claims of Saudi Arabia, Palestine, and Iran.
At times, Fatah’s compilation of bleak moments in recent political history is conventional, but at other times he hits home. The 1979 siege of the Great Mosque in Mecca by hundreds of armed fighters was a traumatic event for the Saudi state and its neighbors, yet it is not mentioned in the history books of any country in the region. [pp. 54-55] A forthright narrative of such events in Muslim-majority countries might contribute towards helping religious studies move beyond the inculcation of pieties unrelated to critical social issues.
The next major section of Fatah’s book debunks Islamic history as it is usually related in textbooks in Islamic states and by Islamist political leaders, who tend to narrate faith-based histories that avoid discussion of the resurgent tribalism, assassinations, and attacks on the Prophet’s immediate family that followed his death in 632 CE. For Fatah, the message of this early history is certain and constant: “For anyone who asks tough questions or suggests that all Muslims can learn from this, that politics should be kept out of religion, vilification awaits, and a possibility of the frightening stigma of apostasy.” [p. 90] Likewise, the “clarion call” of the Qur’an – that all humans are created equal – was forgotten, replaced with constant struggles characterized by tribal and ethnic conflict, civil war, murders and poisonings. [pp. 91, 137] Following Muhammad’s death, Fatima, the Prophet’s own daughter, had her property confiscated and her sons brutally murdered. In Fatah’s words, “Fatima was the Muslim Joan of Arc and she was left to burn on the stake as men squabbled with each other for the power they still seek, and which eludes them like a desert mirage.” [p. 101]
This narrative of the early Islamic centuries is intended to provoke, and it is built on a potpourri of mostly secondary sources. Fatah has a good eye for gripping narrative, but like the Islamists he decries, he invokes a version of history that supports his point: that in order to be properly understood, religion must be separated from political action. For his primary audience: English-speaking Muslims, he asks them to swallow the “bitter pill” that the early Islamic centuries were far from a golden age. With in-your-face rhetoric, Fatah passionately asks how Mu‘awiya (d. 680) -- founder of the Umayyad dynasty and a caliph, or successor to the Prophet Muhammad -- could be considered Islamic when he made “the cursing of Ali [the Prophet’s son-in-law] and the Prophet’s family as part of the hajj ritual.” [p. 160] “Can a state structured around the massacre of Prophet Muhammad’s own family be considered an Islamic State?” he asks. [p. 167] Spain under the Muslims fares no better, and Fatah cites an incident in which “Muslims were selling fellow Muslims as slaves in exchange for dogs and goats, all in the name of Islam.” [p. 182] Again, his main point is that despite the achievements of great intellectuals of the era, the Muslims of Spain “failed, as have other Muslims,” to develop an Islamic state that could accommodate political opposition. [p. 186] After reviewing other Muslim dynasties, he concludes that the Qur’an provides no doctrine of statehood and, inferring God’s intent, “this is because God never wanted state authority to have a role in the growth of Islam.” [p. 224]
Fatah’s approach to the shari‘a has stronger parallels in the contemporary Middle East than he realizes. Syrian engineer Muhammad Shahrur, for example, has consistently argued since his first book in Arabic, The Book and the Qur’an: A Contemporary Reading (1990), that Muslims must understand the Qur’an as if the Prophet’s message was revealed to us only yesterday and not distorted by intervening centuries of commentary by legal scholars. Shahrur’s most recent work deals directly with political Islam and terrorism, and within a few months the first major edition of his work to appear in English will be published under the title The Qur’an, Morality, and Critical Reason: The Essential Muhammad Shahrur, translated and edited by Andreas Christmann (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2009). Persian intellectual and revolutionary Ali Shariati, who has been described as the ideological father of the Iranian revolution, echoes many of these ideas for both Iranian and international audiences. In Pakistan, Nazir Ahmad, a former senior army officer, has written Qur’anic and Non-Qur’anic Islam (1997), which also argues for distinguishing between the “original” Qur’anic message and subsequent authoritarian distortions.
The pragmatic point of departure of Fatah’s chapter on the shari‘ais a 2003 attempt to introduce arbitration through shari`aprinciples as a legal option for Muslims in Ontario. (The proposal was based on a 1991 provincial law authorizing arbitration for private matters; the proposal led to widespread public debate and resulted in the 2006 banning of all religiously-based arbitration.) He then focuses on various books that show how the hududpunishments, which according to some sources include stoning for adultery and the amputation of limbs for theft, have no Qur’anic basis. Fatah also discusses contemporary hot topics including: Islamic banking; the various meanings of jihad as struggle in service of the faith; and the comically extreme statements by an Australian mufti comparing unveiled women to a piece of uncovered meat placed before cats in a street. [p. 287]. Given his Canadian perspective, he also includes the efforts by Islamists to recruit Canadian youth to extreme views. Fatah contrasts the vigorous efforts of organized Muslim lobbies in North America to defend the rights of Canadian Maher Arar, delivered by the U.S. to Syria for interrogation and torture, with their apathy towards the plight of another Canadian, accused by Egypt of being an Israeli spy working for Mossad in Toronto. The fact that this alleged spy was gay indicates to Fatah the hypocrisy of major Islamic lobbying groups claiming to accept “universal human rights.” [p. 315]
Fatah is not without humor. His “Manufacturer’s Warranty,” concluding with a smiley face, advocates using only the original Islam and not the bootleg versions of “unauthorized vendors” including “Ibn Taymiyah, Inc, Al-Wahhab Ltd,” and others. [p. 348] His bibliography juxtaposes standard secondary sources, popular polemic, and newspaper and magazine articles, including extracts from his own contributions to acrimonious contemporary debates among Muslims in Canada. The “Selected Bibliography” is vast but uneven, much like the book itself, with sources cited in the notes occasionally missing. (The book could have been improved by more careful copy editing.)
Fatah intends to provoke. His acrid tone is sometimes reminiscent of a literate Rush Limbaugh. But perhaps this is what is needed to provoke the Islamic “mainstream” in Canada to look critically at Islamic history and institutions, which are often uncritically invoked in contemporary debates over the role of religion in society. A different approach to other explicitly Muslim perspectives might indicate major shifts in how to think about tradition. Turkish political parties once described as Islamist-inspired have, since the 1990’s, ceased threats against the state and learned to participate fully in Turkey’s strictly secular political process. Islamic movements in Indonesia have also contributed to long-term stability and a working, if fragile, democracy after the long eras of Sukarno and Suharto. Likewise, most participants in India’s Islamist political party, Jamaat-e-Islami -- once a proponent of the kingdom of God on earth and an opponent of the secular state -- now sees itself working within India’s secular democracy.
Fatah is not one to offer polite silence. His scrappy and combative style will offend some, but get the attention of many more. For Americans, he offers insight into the vigorous contemporary debates in Canada over who speaks for Islam—and he has staked a clear claim for himself. Although Fatah is as categorical in advocating his views on Islam as his so-called “Islamo-fascist” opponents are in advocating theirs, his self-consciously combined Canadian and South Asian perspectives offer a compelling and fascinating “view from the edge.”