Just old-style liberals wearing djellabas

Islam without Fear
August 6, 2004

The place is Cairo, the event is an attempt on a Nobel prizewinning writer's life by an Islamic extremist. "Naguib Mahfouz is heading for his weekly literary meeting when the criminal thrusts a knife into his neck... Shaikh Ghazzaly acts immediately. Rushing to Mahfouz's hospital room, he issues his ringing condemnation... The venerable Shaikh... does not hesitate to defy the threats of the extremists, question the religious and intellectual credentials of their leaders, and offer his own physical and moral presence to support the wounded novelist."

Raymond William Baker's Islam without Fear is not so much a history of the new Islamists - a group of moderate Muslim reformers that includes Islamic scholar Yusuf al-Qardawi, lawyers Kamal Abu Magd and Selim al Awa, journalist Fahmi Huwaidy, judge and historian Tareq al-Bishri, and the great late Shaikh Muhammad al Ghazzaly - as a hagiography, a manifesto. It is written in the present tense, as a sociopolitical thriller, and Baker goes so far as to imitate the satirical style of his heroes' pamphlets and articles.

Baker is not so much analyst as spokesman. He represents a growing and powerful trend in Western Middle East-related academia - a trend that has lent wholehearted support to a movement that takes expression region-wide and that, for want of any defining ideology, has been called reformist, modern, progressive, even liberal Islam.

In the past few years, a rash of scholarly works has been published that have drawn attention to the political and doctrinal programmes of these Muslim reformers. At their most basic, these books represent a desperate attempt to prove that Islam is more than Osama bin Laden. But there are two other, more powerful, considerations. The first is that a "lost generation" (Baker's term), brought up with the abuses of secular power, has turned more and more to Islam as an identity marker: only by recognising and promoting moderate Islamists will the West be able to channel widespread Islamicising tendencies away from the extremists. The second is that many scholars have come to the conclusion that none of the secularist regimes in the Arab world the West has supported for a half-century has anything liberal or legitimate about it, with grave consequences for Arab perceptions of the West.

For where once it was secularist, often socialist, anticolonial and pan-Arab, the "liberal" critique of authoritarianism, corruption, human-rights abuses and social inequality is now a (moderate) Islamist critique. And if the new Islamists would ban the odd novel, they are still good guys: good on democracy, good on the role of religious and ethnic minorities in the Egyptian polity, good on their refusal to take Sharia as immutable, good on human rights, good on women (Ghazzaly's four daughters are all studying for PhDs). They have appropriated the carrot of promised reform and have also proved resistant to the stick with which often tyrannical secular governments across the region have bullied the West into handing out saddle bags of cash since the 1950s.

These, perhaps unfairly, are the terms on which Baker makes his pitch for the new Islamists. They "stake out a third position between the Government and the extremists. Unlike official religious spokespersons, they clearly register the corruption, repression and unmet mass needs in existing structures and policies. They do so while making it clear that the ignorance and destructiveness of extremists constitute an even graver danger". Baker defines their position negatively: his study of the new Islamists is free of an analysis of their programme; it tells us more about the lunacy of extremists and the ineffectiveness of the Sadat and Mubarak governments.

But perhaps this is in the nature of things, for if the new Islamists are anything, they are old-fashioned, slightly conservative liberals, and liberalism is a position of opposition rather than doctrine. They represent a movement that offers a great deal of good to the Middle East - and to East-West relations. We should recognise and support this movement. But let us do so quickly, for even these gentle, educated, liberal, rational Muslims are turning against us. While they reject the jihadism of bin Laden, the invasion of Iraq and support for Ariel Sharon lead them to conclude that the US has made itself the "unavoidable and legitimate object of defensive jihad" for the whole Arab Islamic world.

Turi Munthe is chief editor, Beirut Review , and editor, The Saddam Hussein Reader .

Islam without Fear: Egypt and the New Islamists

Author - Raymond William Baker
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 320
Price - £19.95
ISBN - 0 674 01203 8

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