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A Fear of Ideas

3:AM columnist David Thompson talks about Islam, freedom and denial with the Muslim novelist and exile Tahir Aslam Gora.

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Tahir Aslam Gora is a Canadian-Pakistani writer, novelist, poet, journalist, editor, translator and publisher with over 20 years experience in the media industry. Gora founded Gora Publishers in 1987, which published more than 200 works of literature and books on the social sciences. He also served as editor-in-chief of the socio-political weekly, Hafta, and the literary journal Rujhanaat. In 2005 Gora translated into Urdu Irshad Manji’s book, The Trouble with Islam. He is currently translating Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel. Gora writes a column for The Hamilton Spectator and is currently working on two manuscripts; one on Canadian multiculturalism, the other on Islam and the need for its transformation into “a humane theology.” In Pakistan he was a noted critic of religious intolerance. He fled to Canada in the spring of 1999 following threats to his life.

Denial

3:AM: On an all but weekly basis, the British left’s mainstream newspaper, The Guardian, publishes articles by Muslims who insist, somewhat vaguely, that Islam teaches peace, tolerance, etc. “No religion on Earth can possibly condone such a vile action,” wrote Ajmal Masroor in the wake of the latest bungled terror attacks. “Islam teaches its followers that taking one innocent life is like taking the lives of the whole of humanity.” This is pretty much the standard line, repeated time and again: Vague assertions that never actually address the specific theological claims of those who enact terror in the name of Islam. At best, we hear dubious figures like Salma Yaqoob arguing, belatedly, that “Muslims must… not deny there is an intolerant, sectarian strand of Islam that provides fake theological justifications for terrorism.” Yet Yaqoob seems unable to demonstrate that these justifications are indeed “fake” or merely, as she claims, some “sectarian perversion.” Like so many others, she appears unwilling to register the fact that this “intolerant strand” of Islam is, in many cases, part of mainstream Islamic belief – enshrined to varying degrees in the major schools of Islamic jurisprudence and endorsed by many theologians at prominent Islamic institutions – including Al-Azhar University, the nearest thing to a Sunni Vatican.

I have no doubt that Mr Masroor and countless others conceive Islam as a benign spiritual endeavour, and that they recoil from the idea of atrocity in the name of their religion. But recoiling isn’t enough and denial is absurd. It’s quite clear that many Muslims do conceive their faith as a mandate for violence, xenophobia and coercion, and those who do conceive their faith in this way cite Muhammad’s own words and deeds as the ultimate sanction of their actions. Would you agree with this assessment, and could you elaborate on your own experiences with the denial of theology as a motive for terrorism?

TG: It seems that the Qur’an is a pretty political book, and inconsistent. It treats issues differently from one instance to another. This huge inconsistency can make Muslims confused. Based on this confusion, many Muslims have for centuries excluded non-Muslims from their orbit. In addition, the traditional script of the Qur’an exhorts repulsion of ‘others’ much more than acceptance. Many Muslims are unwilling to realise even for a minute that the Qur’an was written and compiled by the pioneers of Islam through different political stages. Instead, many take the book as the final verdict of God. These Qur’anic teachings have been enforced by Sharia even more strictly than the Qur’an itself over the centuries. Now, for many, the whole essence of Islam is repulsion of others.

Today the spokespersons of Islam are ignoring fundamental realities in a fake attempt to show global harmony. They are trying to show Islam as a religion of peace. They blame the foreign policies of Britain and the USA for every misery in the Muslim world. Left-leaning groups across the world are allying themselves with Muslim fundamentalists because of a common hatred of the USA. So many leftwing academics are facilitating the denial and conspiracy theories of Muslims. Interestingly, we, as Muslims, have been accusing others of denying the ultimate ‘truth’ of Islam, hence calling them infidels. Actually, many of us are now in denial as to the religious roots of terrorism. According to our own definition of infidel, we can be viewed as being infidels. Without acknowledging the sin of denial, we can’t rectify our misdeeds. That’s the reason I have proposed the New Islam project, to encourage that realisation.

Opportunity

3:AM: Your New Islam project calls for, among other things, democracy, gender equality, freedom of belief and freedom of speech. Your online statement says, “Muslim societies cannot find the track of reality and truth without the adoption of real freedom of expression.” It seems to me that freedom of expression and the open testing of ideas would also, ultimately, have huge economic benefits too, as would the equality and education of women. Will the prospect of material benefit be enough to bring about change?

TG: Prosperity alone in Muslim world might not be enough to bring freedom of expression, equality and education of women. For instance, Saudi Arabia and many other Middle Eastern states are unable to enjoy freedom despite being relatively prosperous. We’ve also noticed that some rich Muslims, while enjoying their personal liberties, also sponsor Islamic extremism. Muslim nations, first, need to change their attitude towards life. They have to adhere to a tolerant attitude first. That’s why I have suggested in the outlines of the New Islam, “Muslim societies cannot find the track of reality and truth without the adoption of real freedom of expression.” After adoption of this attitude, they can easily move to equality and prosperity.

3:AM: Well, one hopes. But it seems to me that the ideas that are being expressed most freely are far from tolerant and that those who call for a more open-minded formulation of Islam are most likely to be intimidated or suppressed. One might note the recent experience of the reformist author, Taslima Nasreen, whose book launch ended in her being violently assaulted by Islamic lawmakers and members of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, whose piety entailed throwing chairs at a terrified woman. Hyderabad police even filed a case against Nasreen for allegedly “creating religious tensions” and writing “provocative literature” – which rather highlights the scale of the change in outlook that’s required. As you know all too well, Nasreen’s experience is far from unique. The moderate Islamic group, the Muslim Canadian Congress has helped draw attention to the spread of supremacist preaching and belief in Canada – and as a result has received numerous death threats from radical Muslims. And, as so often, the MCC’s acknowledgment of the problem, even with statements of fact, led to accusations of “insensitivity” and of “smearing” or “defaming” Islam.

And one might contrast such threats and intimidation with the openness and apparent impunity with which Islamist zealots can preach xenophobia and sedition at mainstream mosques here in the UK, as revealed by the Dispatches programme, Undercover Mosque. The makers of the documentary were, bizarrely, accused of taking inflammatory speeches “out of context”, though no actual evidence to support this claim was provided. And one wonders what kind of “context” would make the preaching filmed in the programme any less sinister and abhorrent. And, again, several prominent Muslim organisations and spokesmen directed blame at the programme makers for supposedly “fuelling racism” and creating “community tensions”, rather than at Abu Usamah who was filmed championing Osama bin Laden and exhorting violent jihad against non-believers, or Ijaz Mian, who told his audience that “You have to live like a state-within-a-state until you take over.”

It seems to me that critical introspection is not a popular activity among Muslim representatives or the major Islamic institutions, and those who do call for re-examination of how Islam is taught often find themselves at odds with Muslim “community leaders.” Perhaps more to the point, it’s difficult to see how one can encourage a reformulation of Islam without also challenging religious “sensitivities” and thus being accused of “smearing” or “defaming” Islam in the process. Those who do take on this enormous task will have to be prepared to face vehement hostility, and possibly worse. For change to happen is it necessary to first acknowledge the scale of the challenge?

TG: There are many challenges on the path of reforming Islam. Liberal, reformist Muslims have to deal with those challenges at each and every step. Liberal Muslims are not only silenced by literalist Muslims, but also by those non-Muslims who have developed the hollow pattern of being ‘fair’ and ‘tolerant’ to every religion. The existence of ‘political fairness’ among large circles of non-Muslim activists is actually a much bigger obstacle than extremist Muslims because those non-Muslim activists dominate the media outlets across the world and often ignore genuinely liberal Muslim voices. Here I would like to include an extract from my column from the Hamilton Spectator, which addresses the issue:

Even some Westerners suggest that the stance of the West regarding Salman Rushdie is a defining line between Islam and the West. But they don’t advise what the West was supposed to do in response to a death fatwa by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. Would they hand Rushdie over to Iran for the sake of harmony with Islam? More to the point, was there any such harmony before the Rushdie issue? From my perspective, the answer is no. The West was viewed as an infidel and sinful world long before this controversy. Muslims may argue it was because of the West’s support for Israel. But, looking further back, they may also cite colonialism as a cause of bad relations. They contend that much of today’s tension could be avoided if the West condemned acts such as caricaturing the Prophet of Islam, or if Rushdie were not awarded a knighthood. In arguing such delicate issues, though, we take in the whole course of history, but ignore its evolutionary aspect, which comprises a few fundamental human values. Freedom of expression is, perhaps, the most basic one.

Again, the same people claim there must be limits to free expression. And they don’t mind redefining those limits, especially in the context of increasingly multicultural societies in their own homelands. The emerging multiculturalism is threatening to give rise to even more conflicts between West and Islam. Such conflict has already been predicted by Samuel Huntington in his book, The Clash of Civilizations. Another famous intellectual, Noam Chomsky, doesn’t agree with Huntington’s formulation. Rather, he blames the United States and Britain’s political hegemony for all the miseries of today’s relationship. But neither Chomsky nor Huntington suggests how to retain such values as freedom of expression – values which are the pillars of liberal democracies and open societies. Snubbing Rushdie or condemning any caricaturist is not the remedy for this conflict. These intellectuals are forgetting the fact that supporting free expression was as difficult in the West about a century ago as it seems in the Muslim world today.

However, those Western scholars who shaped the new civilised world for us had support from many corners of their own societies, including from left-leaning groups. Unfortunately, in today’s world, brave Muslim scholars are barely getting any support from their Muslim societies. Indeed, many of the world’s renowned left-leaning intellectuals have taken a U-turn in their ideologies. They are now more obsessed with that face of multiculturalism which asks us to be ‘fair’ to all ethnic and religious groups. These intellectuals don’t seem to care much about the evolutionary development of their own societies. After the collapse of Communism, the leftists have apparently turned to the fundamentalists. Cowardly efforts to avoid conflict will not avert conflict, because the conflict has always been there. However, simply supporting the evolutionary thought process would tell the intolerant world to be more embracing of freedom of expression.

Self-Inflicted Miseries

3:AM: Earlier you mentioned freedom of expression as a precondition for prosperity and I very much agree. The physicist Taner Edis is one of many people to point out that the influence of Islamic belief in so many areas of life has seriously retarded the development of scientific research and technology, leaving much of the Islamic world at a major cultural and economic disadvantage. In other words, it is the acceptance of Islam as a Total Explanation and “complete way of life” that is doing great harm, not least by resisting – even punishing – the open testing of ideas. The technological and economic disadvantage that results is perceived by some Muslims as an affront to Islam itself, as if the Islamic social and political model should – somehow, mysteriously – perform better than decadent, free-thinking democracies. Similarly, while it’s true that British Muslims as a statistical group achieve lower educational standards and experience higher rates of unemployment, the role played in this outcome by Islamic ideas and Islamic cultural norms is rarely, if ever, discussed. Yet the relative success of other, comparable, immigrant groups, whether defined by race or religion, suggests Islam is a key variable, albeit an unmentionable one.

Despite this, it’s not clear to me whether there’s enough reformist momentum for Muslim cultures generally to look outside of Islam and evolve, or whether conservative elements will prevail and compound the problem by insisting religion plays an even greater role in cultural and intellectual life. I’m not a religious man, but it seems to me that free enquiry can only erode whatever is obsolete, inaccurate and dysfunctional in a religion. Surely whatever is useful, even supposedly numinous, will be unharmed by the freedom to test ideas?

TG: I am more concerned about many self-proclaimed modern or liberal Muslims. I have met thousands of fellow Muslim men and women, working as doctors, writers and professors, but still viewing Islam as a “complete way of life.” They call themselves liberals. I cannot understand how Islam or any religion could be a complete way of life. I believe in spirituality and creativity. I had my own perception about the creative forces of the Universe. I am not here to denounce the history of religions. I am humble and trying to relate today’s realities with the ever changing mechanism of our Universe. I cannot find the relevance of Islam with today’s realities. So, I am proposing amendments to Islam in order to maintain an Islamic identity, but also to encourage compatibility with fellow human beings. In my opinion, without accepting the mismatch of Islam with today’s realities and without going into unconditional debate with open minds, we, the Muslims, can’t accomplish economic, scientific, artistic and social developments.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
David Thompson is a freelance writer whose work appears in The Observer, The Times and The Guardian. He is also a regular contributor to Eye: The International Review of Graphic Design. An archive of his work can be found at his website.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, September 11th, 2007.