The Muslim's Cell
As America and Britain prepare for war against a Muslim state, difficult questions inevitably arise about the situation facing the millions of Muslims now residing in Western countries. There are now approximately 15 million Muslims permanently resident in Western Europe and North America. During the previous Gulf War, when world opinion and most of the Arab- Muslim world were broadly united in condemning Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait - when even Hamas, the Palestinian Islam movement, tacitly backed the US coalition in contrast to Yasser Arafat’s support for Saddam Hussein - Egyptians, Syrians, Pakistanis and Saudis fought alongside the Americans. Yet a substantial body of Muslim opinion in Britain and other Western countries still saw Operation Desert Storm as an attack by infidels against a part of the Muslim umma. As the anthropologist, Pnina Werbner, observed, in 1991 the ‘Muslim street backed Saddam Hussein, from Karachi to Manchester’, creating a ‘counter-narrative’ or ‘resistive reading’ which reversed the image of Saddam Hussein as a vicious, tyrannical villain, casting him instead in the role of hero. During the current crisis, when public opinion in Europe and the Arab world is much more divided about the wisdom of attacking Iraq, with anti-American feeling throughout the Muslim world fanned by the George W. Bush administration’s apparently unconditional support for Israel, and when far from being seen to threaten its neighbours at present (if not at some hypothetical time in the future) the Iraqi government has lost effective control over two-thirds of its territory, domestic Muslim opinion in the West seems even more likely to side with Saddam. In the event of another war, the alienation and disaffection of Muslims in the West may become a factor to be reckoned with. Though very few commentators appear to have recognised this, it seems likely that France and Germany’s reticence in supporting America is connected to the relative size of their domestic Muslim constituencies. With 4 million Muslims, half of whom are citizens, France has more than twice the number of Muslim voters than Britain. In Germany in 1990, before unification made its full impact, Muslim Turks comprised 34 per cent of the country’s manufacturing force.
Since most of the material in the three books under review dates from before 11 September 2001 (9/11), the subsequent ‘war on terrorism’ and its conflation by the hawks Washington and Whitehall with the campaign against Iraq, none deals directly with this second round of the Gulf crisis and its problematic ramifications. Nevertheless, all three provide insights into the course of events that may flow from it, both internationally and domestically.
Reprinted in the aftermath of 9/11, Daniel Pipes’ collection of essays exhibits a certain triumphalism. As Judith Miller, the former Middle East correspondent of The New York Times, commented, the intemperate, polemical tone of Pipes’ writing may be forgiven, since long before the Islamist attack on New York and Washington he had been warning of the dangers of Islamism and was often ridiculed for his pains by Muslim apologists. Miller correctly suggests that it is often Pipes’ tone rather than the substance of his writing that raises the hackles of colleagues who have adopted a much more measured approach towards analysing the Islamist phenomenon. Having surveyed much of the same territory (both of us published books on the Rushdie affair), I find myself in agreement with many of Pipes’ judgements.
In line with the current Bush administration, which after an unfortunate reference to a ‘crusade’ against evil has carefully sought to reassure Muslims in America and worldwide that America’s ‘war against terror’ is not directed at them, Pipes distinguishes between traditional, or moderate, Islam ‘which seeks to teach humans how to live in accordance with God’s will’ and militant Islam or Islamism ‘which aspires to create a new order’. He shares with many contemporary scholars the view that Islamist fundamentalism is distinctly modern: ‘Though anchored in religious creed, militant Islam is a radical utopian movement closer in spirit to other such movements such as communism and fascism than to traditional religion.’ He stresses the movement’s vicious anti-Semitism (which combines religious Judaeophobia with Nazi ideas imported from Europe) as well as its totalitarian and anti-democratic character. He quotes the notorious statement of Ali Belhadj, the leader of the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) before the military intervention that prevented the FIS from winning at the polls, initiating Algeria’s costly and bloody civil war: ‘When we are in power there will be no more elections because God will be ruling.’
The problem with Pipes’ perspective is not so much that it is flawed, but rather that it is not balanced by data that would add depth and complexity to his arguments. The boundary he draws between Islamists and moderates or traditionalists is far too crude. ‘The notion of good and bad Islamists has no basis in fact,’ he declares, quoting Osmane Bencherif, a former Algerian ambassador to the US. ‘It is misguided to distinguish between moderate and extremists Islamists. The goal of all is the same: to construct a pure Islamic state, which is bound to be a theocracy and totalitarian.’
While it is true that Islamism, in common with other fundamentalist movements, contains many unacknowledged borrowings from the secular Jacobin tradition, these borrowings have attached themselves to ‘traditionalist’ Islam through a seamless web of connections. To take one, obvious, example: the al-Qaeda organisation generally assumed to be responsible for the 9/11 attacks on US embassies in East Africa, the USS Cole and other atrocities, may have been spearheaded by modern Islamist ideologues, such as Mohamed Atta, the Egyptian architect who flew American Airlines flight No. 11 into the World Trade Center; but al-Qaeda was protected in Afghanistan by the Taliban, whose theology is rooted in the reforming traditionalism of the Indian Deobandi School. The Taliban’s principal sponsors were the fundamentalist governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, facilitated locally by Pakistan intelligence. Because of its dual provenance, bin Laden’s propaganda appeals to a wide spectrum of Muslim constituencies. Basing his pitch initially in the sense of outrage that many traditionally-minded Muslims feel about the presence of ‘infidel’ US troops in the Arabian peninsula, he has broadened his message to embrace all the major sources of current Muslim discontent, including Palestine, Chechnya and Kashmir, along with the more general anxieties voiced by many ‘moderate’ Muslims about the corrupting effects of Western consumer capitalism and changing gender relations. Though Pipes is correct in arguing that there has been a politicisation or ‘ideolo- gisation’ of religion in Islam (as in Protestant fundamentalism, orthodox Judaism, Hinduism and even Buddhism in parts of the world) it is difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle the use from the abuse of religion in the field of ideas. All religions contain a repertory of myths, symbols and values that can be adapted to suit particular circumstances. The utopian myths promulgated by the Islamists are not just add-ons or borrowings from occidental ideologies: they are better understood as hybrids or graftings, where contemporary modes of political action (‘armed struggle’ redefined as ‘jihad’, or the anarchist’s slogan ‘propaganda of the deed’ Islamicised as ‘a fury for God’) are authenticated by reference to traditional sources - the famous ‘sword verses’ of the Qur’an, the Prophet’s own battles, or the eschatological traditions in the collection of Ibn Kathir that are currently doing the rounds, in English, among Muslim students on American campuses.
If the challenge of political analysis is to distinguish between benign and harmful ideas in the realm of action, Pipes signally fails in his task. As Mamoun Nandy explains in his essay in Muslims in the West, the undifferentiated image of the Islamists promoted by Pipes and other media commentators, including many whose views are close to those of the ‘hawks’ in the current US administration, distorts reality by failing to distinguish between different types of political activity. Islamist groups such as Hamas or the Islamist Associations in Egypt have engaged in terrorist violence, but they are also involved in a range of activities, including social, humanitarian and educational work which might even bring social stability by compensating for the failures and corruption of the Palestine National Authority and the Egyptian government. Isolating the ‘extremists’ is not the straightforward task suggested by the Israeli and US governments. Nandy argues:
This simplified, confrontational version of reality draws strength from the simplified, confrontational images found in American discourse. By lumping Islamists together in one group and perpetuating an aggregate image of the West’s Middle Eastern enemies,
US foreign policy bolsters the ideological credit of those who claim to defend all Arab or all Muslim interests in the face of a unified foreign threat.
This generates responses similar to the counter-narrative Werbner noted in the case of the Mancunian Muslims she studied in 1991.
In contrast to Pipes, who rails against the ‘political correctness’ which, he claims rather bizarrely, privileges Muslim-Americans in contrast to members of other faith communities, the scholars in Haddad’s collection strive to find a balanced view of the situation facing Muslims in the West. Estimates of the numbers in North America vary widely, from the 5 to 8 million claimed by the American Muslim Council to much more modest figures claimed by scholars. One scholar, Karen Leonard, claims that Islam is poised to displace Judaism as ‘second to Christianity in the number of its adherents’. But the impact of this statement depends on how one defines ‘adherent’. A 1987 study by Yvonne Haddad and Adair Lumis estimated mosque attendance by Muslim-Americans at between 10 and 20 per cent, far below the 40 per cent church attendance estimated for the Christian population. At the top end of the spectrum the picture is one of prosperity and growing public recognition, with Muslim prayers offered in Congress and the recent appointment of America’s first Muslim ambassador (to the admittedly rather modest post of Fiji). The 1990 census placed immigrants from South Asia well ahead of other groups in terms of income and educational attainments, with the highest proportion of newcomers working in management and the professions. Though Muslims from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh may not outweigh the numbers of Hindu and Sikh immigrants, the general ethos is such as to make South
Asians seem a ‘particularly privileged group’ with a reputation for being ‘model immigrants’, making them ‘conspicuous and powerful in Muslim American discourse and politics’. Often classified as ‘white’ rather than Asian-Americans or Muslim-Americans, they fare better than immigrants from Arab countries, who are more likely to be victims of prejudice.
Even before the attacks of 9/11 produced massive round-ups and detentions of young men of ‘Middle Eastern’ appearance, Muslims from Arab lands were faring much less well than their South Asian co-religionists. They are more likely to see themselves as victims of media prejudice (with numerous Hollywood blockbusters depicting Arabs and Iranians as terrorists); while Arab students on university campuses find themselves in conflict with Jewish students over US support for Israel. ‘Arabic-speaking American Muslims ... are more heavily invested in diasporic politics’ than their South Asian confreres, especially those originating in India, for whom Pakistan ‘did not quite become a homeland’. Furthest down the social scale are the African-American Muslims, who find in Islam a way of nurturing their African roots and developing a separate, non-Christian identity, which has set them at odds with Muslim immigrants from Asia. Though many followed Malcolm X and Wallace (now Warith al-Din) Muhammad in embracing orthodox Sunnism, deserting the separatist and racially driven apocalypticism of the Nation of Islam (NOI) founded by Wallace’s father, the charismatic ‘Prophet’ Elijah Muhammad, African-American Muslims still tend to give ‘asabiyya (group solidarity) precedence over membership of the umma, the universal Muslim community.
Robert Dannin’s fascinating study, Black Pilgrimage to Islam, relates a number of individual conversions with a view to explaining how African- Americans would want to ‘fashion themselves into a double minority by converting to Islam’. After exploring numerous facets of the African- American experience with insight and subtlety, based mainly on interviews and direct observation, he concludes that the rituals of Islam and its heroic narrative themes serve to resolve the ‘historical tensions of African- American society by concluding that liberation from racial domination and spiritual redemption are one and the same’. As painstakingly respectful of his subject as Pipes is dismissively offhand, Dannin’s account brings to life a side of American life rarely accessible to outsiders.
His chapter on prisons in the state of New York is especially illuminating. With Muslims - most of whom are converts - representing more than 16 per cent of the total prison population of 70,000, and an impressive 32 per cent of all African-Americans incarcerated by the state (excluding the large population of municipal prisons), the appearance of Islam as an alternative religion and culture in the prisons is quite remarkable.
‘Prison is a bizarre and violent “university” for those who reach maturity behind bars’, in which the brutality and corruption of the streets in the downtown ghettos are vastly magnified. Far from teaching the skills that will enable an inmate to lead a law-abiding life after his release, prison effectively destroys his sense of personal integrity by methods that include ‘physical brutality, psychological manipulation and frequent homosexual rape’. Conversion to Islam allows the prisoner to use his right to freedom of worship to ‘circumscribe an autonomous zone whose perimeter cannot officially be contested’. The new Muslim’s Islamic identity and membership of the worldwide umma means a ‘fresh start, symbolised by a new name, modifications of his physical appearance and an emphasis on prayer’. The prison mosque becomes an alternative focus of authority. The Muslim’s cell ‘can be recognised by the absence of photographic images and the otherwise ubiquitous centerfold pin-ups of naked women’. The Islamic regime’s strict opposition to homosexuality acts as a ‘counter-disciplinary resistance’ to the dominant hierarchies of prison life, where ‘sexual possession, domination and submission represent forms of “hard currency” ’. Muslim prisoners persist in resisting the ubiquitous body searches ostensibly used to find drugs, but are actually employed to humiliate inmates. They claim, plausibly enough, that since their religion forbids alcohol and narcotics, there is no reason to probe their orifices. The Islamic prison regime extends into the outside world. Inside the prison, the
Shari‘a (Islamic law) becomes an autonomous self-correcting process administered by and for Muslims ... So widespread is the fierce reputation of the incarcerated Muslim that the most ruthless urban drug dealers carefully avoid harming any Muslim man, woman or child lest they face extreme prejudice during their inevitable prison terms.
Dannin’s study provides few indications that the black Muslim organisations inside US prisons, with their superior leadership and discipline, will acquire a political direction in the event of conflict between the US government and a Muslim state. Indeed, the authorities had every reason to encourage the Islamic prison missions as a force for stability and rehabilitation. During the prison rising in Attica in 1971, the Muslims acted as mediators, protecting the guards who had been taken as hostages. Post 9/11, however, there are ominous signs of change. As the Wall Street Journal reported on 7 February 2003, at least one black Muslim prison chaplain with links to Saudi Arabia has been preaching that bin Laden is a hero, that the atrocity of 9/11 was inflicted by God, and that the victims of the atrocity ‘deserved what they got’. Given the growing religious influence of Saudi-funded Wahhabi Islam in both Asian-American and African- American mosques throughout the United States (as well as in many other parts of the world), it is only too likely that there are other state-funded imams who share his views. The Islamist movement has been fuelled by petrodollars from its inception in the 1970s. The fact that the Saudi leadership is now one of its targets does nothing to diminish the force of its appeal to Muslims who feel themselves to be victims of Western policies, or their co-religionists living in the West who empathise with them. If the hawks in Washington persist in singling out Iraq for attack while other violators of the international order, such as Israel or North Korea, are treated diplomatically, America, like Britain, will find itself with a sizeable, disaffected minority in its midst. Fears about ‘asylum-seekers’ fuelled by the tabloid press miss the point. The ‘war against terror’ already has a domestic dimension, one that seems bound to loom larger as the war unfolds.
Published in The Times Literary Supplement, 28 February 2003.
The books reviewed were:_
Robert Dannin (2002) Black Pilgrimage to Islam. New York: Oxford University Press.
Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad (ed.) (2002) Muslims in the West: From Sojourners to Citizens. New York: Oxford University Press.
Daniel Pipes (2002) Militant Islam Reaches America. New York: W. W. Norton.