Multi-layered world but riven by rivalries

Journey into Islam
September 21, 2007

Akbar Ahmed takes us on a passionate and ambitious journey towards understanding the contemporary Muslim world. Ahmed, a civil servant in Pakistan in the 1960s, is now a Western-based academic. He was accompanied on his quest by three young companions, two US students and a research assistant. The book is a travelogue, winding through the findings of case studies from Turkey, Qatar, Syria, Jordan, Pakistan, India, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Ahmed boldly puts forward three socio-cultural models of "practising Islam", all with their roots in India. In a way, these constructs sound more like cultural geographical models deriving from three distinct locations in North India: Deoband, Ajmer and Aligarh.

In six interwoven - almost soul-searching - chapters, ranging from "The struggle within Islam" to "The clash of civilisations", Ahmed attempts to present a perceptive study of a contemporary, varied Muslim society.

He highlights the changing identity of young people, and contemporary, as well as historical, role models. Particular emphasis is given to the "religious, tribal and sectarian rivalries" that he strongly believes are the main causes of conflicts and contention in the Muslim world.

In presenting the kaleidoscope of Islam, the author canonises particular people, from the radical head of a remote madrassa in India to President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan.

The reader is continuously reminded of the holistic anthropological approach of this study; the commentary oscillates between the historical past and comparative religious and theoretical discourses. There is also extended discussion of Osama bin Laden and the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as well as references to Madonna, Oprah Winfrey and Martin Sheen.

Ahmed is careful to provide a balanced view of the Muslim world, but some of his casual theoretical references, for example, Samuel Huntington, Milton Friedman, Anthony Giddens, Emile Durkheim and Adam Smith, and his exclusion of Edward Said's work (particularly his Culture and Imperialism and Peace and Its Discontents ) suggest a particular ideological stance.

There is also an endgame recommendation chapter suggesting that Western policymakers should engage with radicalised groups.

Several issues need addressing, however. Historical contexts, for example, go largely forgotten in the book.

After the Second World War there are several events that are significant because of their sheer unexpectedness. The rise of Black September, a radical faction of the Palestinian Liberation Front that came to prominence in the late 1960s, is one such case. The calculated destruction of aeroplanes belonging to Western airlines on a desert landing strip, the rise of al-Fatah (especially the acts of one Leila Khaled), and the murder of Israeli athletes during the Munich Olympics in 1968 were major news stories across the world.

After the Six Day War in 1967 and the loss of the Gaza Strip, Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yassir Arafat rapidly became identified across the Middle East as the champion of the newly dispossessed Palestinian people.

Yet in the West, a rather different representation of him emerged: the flamboyant bandit of the East. Arafat, Khaled or Abu Nidal (a Palestinian political leader, mercenary and the founder of Fatah - more commonly known as the Abu Nidal Organisation) had never been identified as leaders of the Muslim world, but as time went on they quietly attracted admiration across the Muslim world as religious heroes.

The 1980s, too, were marked by several significant events: the overthrow of the Shah and the rise of Imam Khomeini in Iran; several major wars - the Iran Iraq war, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the increasingly violent civil wars in Palestine, Israel and the Lebanon; and the bombing of the US army headquarters in Beirut. In the 1990s, while communism declined in Europe, the so-called "Revolutionary Islamic Countries" emerged.

Then there is globalisation, which the book, despite its title, also fails to address.

Overall, Ahmed gives us practically everything one might want to know about contemporary Muslim societies. But he fails to deconstruct internal conflicts among Muslim states such as the ferocious military crackdown by West Pakistani forces in East Pakistan (later Bangladesh), or the shifting of the power balance and resulting conflicts in Palestine and the role of the intifada.

One wonders whether the findings of this volume would have been very different had the case studies included Bangladesh, Palestine, Algeria and the UK.

On the night that Ayatollah Khomeini died in June 1989, a respected Middle East academic from the School of Oriental and African Studies told a BBC Newsnight interviewer that "the West should realise that Khomeini has created an alternative society, which is bound to survive".

As the African proverb says: "Until the lions have their historians, tales of hunting will always glorify the hunter."

Tasleem Shakur is director of the International Centre for Development and Environmental Studies; co-ordinator/senior lecturer in human geography; editor, Global Built Environment Review ; and co-editor, South Asian Cultural Studies , Edge Hill University.

Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization

Author - Akbar Ahmed
Publisher - The Brookings Institution
Pages - 323
Price - $28.95
ISBN - 9780815701323

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