Faith fuelled by a modern world

Islam and the Myth of Confrontation
March 21, 1997

For a millennium", Pat Buchanan declared in his campaign for the American presidency in 1992, "the struggle for mankind's destiny was between Christianity and Islam; in the 21st century it may be so again." Will Islam's holy fighters be knocking again on the gates of Vienna as they did in the 17th century? Not quite so, writes Fred Halliday in his Islam and the Myth of Confrontation. The "myth of confrontation" with Islam urgently needs to be disentangled before the issue turns into a real source of tension, or even a new cold war.

Much of the perception of Islam as a threat, Halliday asserts, originated in the particularist approach to the Middle East of many scholars. The universal "laws of humanity" were perceived as simply inapplicable to these exotic societies where people's minds are still framed by Islam. Pointing at the authoritarian nature of Islamic law, its barbaric call for the amputation of limbs and the Muslims' unconditional submission to God's will, the Middle East was portrayed as being immune to the progress of civilisation. No wonder then that the happy message of democracy has not taken root in the Middle East. Instead, one finds fundamentalists challenging the West with their backward-looking ideology and glorification of the early days of Islam.

Ironically, these cliches about Islam have often been taken up by Muslim leaders. According to Halliday, "Islamist rhetoric matches that of the West not, as was the case with communism, by presenting an opposite picture, but by appearing to confirm it." These leaders took pains to reject western values of secularism, democracy and the rule of civil law by referring to the seventh century dogmas of Islam. Consequently, a shared conclusion was drawn that the two intrinsically opposed worlds of Islam and the West could not be reconciled.

Halliday believes that both the West's and Islam's prophets of confrontation are wrong. "This book should, in this sense, be equally unwelcome to both groups of people." Islam does not make Middle Eastern societies more peculiar than other regions of the Third World. For example, Iran's revolutionaries tried to portray their grasp of power as truly "Islamic". However, their concept of an Islamic republic was as much a contemporary phenomenon as was the socioeconomic disruption that brought its proponents to the streets. Also those Muslim leaders who looked for an "authentic" formulation of "Islamic human rights" came forward with novel arguments in spite of the ancient religious principles they evoked. Halliday concludes that Middle Eastern societies and Islamic fundamentalism are shaped by contemporary political forces, not by something as illusionary as an eternal Islam.

Tackling the widely expressed fear of an Islamic threat to the West, Halliday convincingly argues that "it is absurd to see Muslim countries as in some general sense menacing the West". Notwithstanding their rhetorics, Islamic movements are also more concerned with changing national politics than with instigating a world revolution. Regrettably, Halliday's arguments are less elaborate when it comes to explaining the lack of democracy in the Middle East. True, Islam as such has not much to do with this, but Halliday's pretty outdated theory of oil revenues fattening authoritarian states is as static and ahistorical as the culturalist explanations he despises. Indeed, as Halliday admits, his strong critique of culturalist and essentialist views of both Islam and the West "will not in itself do much to dispel the confusion surrounding the issue of "Islam' in the contemporary world". In spite of this, the book is mandatory reading for policymakers and students of international relations who seek balanced views in a debate in which the right questions have often been obscured by emotions.

Reinoud Leenders is tutor in Middle East politics, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Islam and the Myth of Confrontation: Religion and Politics in the Middle East

Author - Fred Halliday
ISBN - 1 86064 004 4 and 1 85043959 1
Publisher - I. B. Tauris
Price - £35.00 and £12.95
Pages - 255

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