Thursday, May 6, 2010

Faces of Islam

"Hope lies in building a progressive Islam from within.
We must do all in our power to support progressive forces,
not turn our back on them in a failed understanding of what progressive Islam is."




I have argued in previous articles that Islam presents a unique challenge to the integral community and to progressive forces in general. In the past I have concentrated on some specific issues; the question of Islam as a religion of violence and the specific response to the cartoon controversy. People who have corresponded with me about these articles have indicated a need for a more comprehensive overview that places these issues in context. This article attempts to explain the tapestry that is Islam with the specific aim of helping the integral community determine which Muslim voices represent orthodox Islam, moderate Islam and progressive Islam.

Indonesia is the most populous Muslim nation on the planet. It is also regarded as a moderate Muslim nation. Lilis Lindawati of Tangerang, a satellite town just outside Jakarta, might dare to disagree. She was arrested for being a lone female out at night. She was bundled into a van whilst she was waiting for a bus after finishing her shift as a waitress. She was charged for being a prostitute despite the fact she was married, had two children and was three months pregnant. The evidence for her being a prostitute? She was wearing too much make-up and was wearing 'tight' clothes. She repeatedly protested that she was married but the police and the judge refused to contact her husband to check her claims. The judge even stated, “There is powder and lipstick in your bag, that means you are lying to say you are a housewife.” The mayor defended the decision saying, “A good girl would not stand in the street with that kind of dress.” The mayor also happens to be the brother of the Indonesian Foreign Minister, Hassan Wirayuda. It was simply a show trial aimed to control how women dressed. Lilis Lindawati was in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was jailed for three days. Twenty six other women were also charged for similar 'offences'.

This is a foretaste of the new Indonesia. Draconian censorship laws are before parliament that will curb freedom of expression in film, theatre, literature, photography and the media in general. They will also ban displays of public affection and curtail how women dress.

Yes, you say – but this is just the actions of a few conservatives. I wish. As it turns out so-called moderate Muslim organizations also support the new laws. The only people fighting them are a coalition of artists, intellectuals and feminists; people we might regard as progressive.

The term moderate means little. It only has meaning in relation to a position that has been defined as extreme. A moderate is simply someone who is less extreme.

This is where many in the West have been fooled. They grab onto to the term moderate Muslim as if the 'moderate' in question believes the same sort of things a moderate Westerner might. This is often far from the truth. Many moderate Muslims are very conservative by Western standards. So much so that the term moderate is next to useless. It is a Western term that has little bearing on the reality of Islamic politics.


Sunni, Shia, Deobandi, Bharelvi, Ahhmadiya, Wahhabi, Ismaeli, Ithna Asharia, Alawi, Druze, Bidati, Dawoodi Bhoras, Usuli, Alavi Bhoras, Naqshbandiya, Darvish, Chisti, Zaidis, Kharijites, Khatmiyya, Tijaniyya, etc, etc.

These are the names of some of the many Islamic sects. Some are ultra-orthodox and some are moderate, none can be said to be progressive. If we in the West are ever going to understand Islam we need to understand that there are important differences between Islamic sects and between the different ethnic groups within Islam.

I would rather use the specific names of the various groups when discussing Islam. If we discuss Pakistan we must understand the differences between the Deobandi and the Bharelvi. If we discuss Iraq we must understand the difference between the Usuli and Alavi Bhoras in Shi'ite politics. If we want to discuss Sufism we must understand that some Sufi sects are ultra orthodox – there is a vast difference between the Naqshbandiya of the Caucasus and the Naqshbandiya in the US – the Naqshbandiya in the Caucasus are jihadis.

I understand that this complicates matters – and this is why people revert to generalizations and simplisms such as 'moderate' Muslim. But I'm afraid it's important, especially when a supposed moderate Muslim is put forward as a spokesperson for Islam. He or she may not be a legitimate spokesperson at all, just a spokesperson for the views of the sect he or she belongs to.


No spokesperson can speak on behalf of all Muslims. Islam is not an homogenous entity. No one can speak on behalf of the 'real' Islam. There is no 'real' Islam.

Islam is divided into two broad categories of Sunni and Shia. The Sunnirepresent around 75% of all Muslims. Many 'moderate' Muslim spokespeople are Sunni. The word Sunni comes from the Arabic sunnah, which means 'the path' or 'the way' or 'the tradition'. The Sunni tradition is the collective wisdom of jurists and scholars derived from four sources; the Koran, theHadith, fiqh – the judgments of the jurists, and customary law. Over time there has been considerable debate over how to apply Islam to a variety of novel situations. The Koran is not a panacea, it is a set of guiding principles.

The Hadith are the alleged sayings of the Prophet and of his Companions. They provide further illumination on the Koran. But it is here we face our first difficulty. There are several collections of Hadith and not all Hadith are recognized as legitimate. Even Muslim scholars admit that some Hadith were fabricated to advance one or other side in a dispute. So it became important that some form of consensus was formed amongst scholars. This is where we get into our second difficulty. There really is no consensus.

It was once said that a hundred schools of thought flourished amongst the Sunni. Such diversity presented a political problem that threatened to tear the Caliphate apart. Around the 10th century political pressure was exerted and the hundred schools were narrowed down to only four. Orthodox Sunni Islam now only recognizes four madhhab, or schools of jurisprudence -sharia. They are named after the jurists who developed the canon; Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki and Shafi'i. All orthodox Sunni Muslims adhere to one of these madhhab.

This is important to understand when we come to define the difference between an orthodox Sunni and a moderate.

The Shia (advocates) formed after a dispute over succession. They believe that the three Caliphs after Mohammed are illegitimate. As far as they are concerned the true succession passed from Mohammed to his cousin and son-in-law, Ali. Authority in Shia Islam resides in the Imam, originally the direct hereditary descendent of the Prophet. There are two major Shia sects, the Ismaili (or Seveners) and Ithna Asharia (or Twelvers). The Twelvers are the dominant sect but there are also important divisions within these two sects (Yemen has a small group of Fivers – Zaidis). These groups get their name from a dispute over the succession of the eighth Imam – the Seveners recognize Ismail as the true Imam whereas the Twelvers recognize Ali ibn Musa, who eventually became the eighth Imam.

The Twelvers also believe that the 13th Imam is hidden and he will return as the Mahdi to restore Islam as the dominant faith. This doctrine believes in an Islamic final days scenario. The President of Iran is a follower of this belief and he seems bent on hastening the Islamic 'end days', much like his fundamentalist Christian counterparts.

Shia believe that the Imam is divinely guided and many believe in the 'infallibility' of the Imam. But again, given that there are many different sects there are also many different divinely guided Imams. Anyone following Iraqi politics will know there are differences between al-Sistani and al-Sadr, and differences again with the Shia in Iran and Iraq. Final judgment in interpretation of sharia rests with the representative of the Imam, the Grand Ayatollah.

Things are complicated further by the fact that numerous small sectsdeveloped around charismatic leaders. This is an essential key to understanding the current crisis in Islam. The lack of any central authority has meant that hundreds of sects have developed around charismatic leaders, usually given the honorific of sheikh (teacher). Many of these sects are Sufi – meaning they practice a form of Islamic mysticism, but as I said above there is enormous variation in the Sufi sects with many being quite orthodox. Sufism is not always the benign mysticism portrayed in the West.

Other sects are groups within the general category of Sunni or Shia. TheWahhabi, the dominant sect in Saudi Arabia, follows the teachings of the Hanbali scholar Sheikh Mohammed Abd al-Wahhab (1703-92). TheDeobandi sect, prominent in Pakistan, was formed by the Hanafi scholar Maulana Mohamed Qasim Nanotyi in the Indian city of Deoband in 1866. These two sects are ultra-orthodox and form the back bone of the Islamist ideology. The Taliban are Deobandis who formed an alliance with Sheikh bin Laden's Wahhabi 'al-Qaeda' sect.


As scholars and jurists struggled to apply the Koran's teaching they realized that some passages contradicted others and that some passages were clearly about a specific time and place. If the terms orthodox and moderate have any meaning then that meaning is derived from the way the Koran is interpreted.

Irshad Manji states the problem bluntly:

Far from being perfect, the Koran is so profoundly at war with itself that Muslims who 'live by the book' have no choice but to choose what to emphasize and what to downplay…Which, by the way, liberals do as much as militants, airbrushing the negative noise of the Koran at least as much as our opponents expunge its positive pronouncements.

An example of two contradictory passages are:

There shall be no compulsion in religion 2:256

Fight those among the People of the Book who do not believe in God and the Last Days, do not forbid what God and His Prophet have forbidden, and do not profess the true religion until the pay the poll tax (jizya) out of hand and feel themselves subdued 9:29

The first passage is often quoted by moderate Muslims to prove that Islam does not force anyone to convert to Islam. The second passage however, clearly states that the 'people of the book', Jews and Christians, must be fought until they submit to the authority of the Prophet. If there is no compulsion in religion then why seek to impose a punitive tax? If there is no compulsion in religion then why penalize Muslims who convert to another religion (sharia calls for the death penalty for apostates).

The usual method of resolving such a conflict is through a process of legalistic argument where other passages of the Koran and supporting material from the Hadith, and fiqh are compared to judge the true intent of the Koran. Where these sources have nothing to say Islam usually reverts to local custom. The differences between the four madhhab are often about the different weightings given to each of these four sources. For example, the Shafi'i madhhab recognizes the custom of female circumcision whereas the other three do not.

However, scholars have also accepted two guiding exegetical principles. I have already mentioned one in 'The Myth of Islam as a Religion of Peace'. This is the principle of abrogation which says that later passages modify earlier passages. This is just common sense and recognizes that Mohammed understood what he meant when he uttered an earlier passage and that, being divinely inspired, he could not contradict himself.

Using the principle of abrogation the earlier passage of 'no compulsion' is modified by the later passage. In this way it is understood that there should be no compulsion provided the people of the book are righteous as defined by the Koran. Other passages in the Koran clearly indicate that the 'no compulsion' edict does not apply to mushrikun (polytheists) and kafirun(unbelievers). In fact, as a result of proper exegesis it turns out that there can be considerable compulsion in matters of religion.

The definition of orthodox and moderate really hinges on the second exegetical principle, that of contingency. Many passages in the Koran clearly describe particular cases that cannot be read as universal principles. An example of this is that the Koran makes exceptions for the Prophet.

Prophet, why do you prohibit that which God has made lawful for you, to please your wives?…God has given you absolution from such oaths. 66:1, 2

One famous exception is that Mohammed had thirteen wives whereas the Koran ordinarily restricts a Muslim to four.

The principle of contingency leads to considerable difference and controversy over interpretation. Orthodox Muslims regard most of the Koran as universal and fixed. Moderates believe that many of the passages are contingent to the time, place and circumstances in which they were written.

It is fair to say that there is something of an interpretive civil war within Islam. Orthodox Muslims accuse moderates of compromising and watering down the Koran. The more radical orthodox accuse the moderates of apostasy, of ceasing to be 'true' Muslims. The moderates in turn accuse the radical orthodox of misinterpreting the 'true' Islam.

By using the principle of contingency the two contradictory passages can be interpreted as follows. The moderate will claim that the first passage is universal and therefore overrules following contingent passages. The orthodox will claim both passages are universal and revert to the principle of abrogation.

Now, as I have said above, there is no central authority in Islam and there has been no resolution of this interpretive conflict. The average 'devout' Muslim will simply defer to the judgment of his or her local mullah or imam on such matters. If that mullah belongs to the Wahhabi or Deobandi school then it will be an ultra-orthodox teaching. If the mullah or imam belongs to the Bharelvi, Bidati or Ismaeli sect then they are likely to receive moderate teachings. It depends on the mullah or imam and there are often sharp differences within the same sect. One mullah trained at Egypt's al-Azra university may be more radical than another, a mullah in one city may be more moderate than a mullah in another city, one mosque may be more radical than another in the same city. Algeria allows polygamy but neighbouring Tunisia does not. They are culturally and linguistically connected and both adhere to the Maliki madhhab so why the difference? In Algeria the weight of opinion favoured the first part of a Koranic passage allowing polygamy whereas in Tunisia the weight of opinion favoured the exception to polygamy, that a man must treat all of his wives equally. The Tunisian scholars argued that a man could not treat all his wives equally so it was impossible to allow polygamy. Of course one might wonder why the Koran would allow it if it was impossible…

The Algerian feminist, Mareime Helie-Lucas and co-founder of Women Living Under Muslim Laws says this:

For we have to state that Islam, just like any other religion, is not homogeneous. Islam gives birth to various interpretations of the texts that founded it, from the most progressive to the most fundamentalists. The least one can say is that, at this moment in history, fundamentalism prevails and progressive interpreters, including feminists theologians, are in danger. Most men theologians have been threatened and often executed in our countries for their readings of the texts allowing, to various degrees, freedom for women, for non Muslims and for non believers. So far no women theologians have been murdered, but many are under threat.

Islamic politics is essentially about different sects and their related political associations competing for ideological control of the Muslim masses. It is a common rhetorical tactic to claim to represent the 'true' Islam. Moderates and radicals both make the claim to represent the 'true' Islam. Who do we believe? The Wahhabi and Deobandi have put considerable resources into controlling the debate. Although it is numerically smaller the Deobandi nonetheless control 60% of Pakistan's mosques and most of the Islamic schools, the notorious madrassa. The Wahhabi have the financial support of Saudi oil wealth and have spent millions on building mosques, schools and charitable organizations. Saudi/Wahhabi money went into building my state's (Victoria) largest Muslim secondary college, King Khalid.


I am often surprised at how many progressive Westerners have forgotten large slices of history, particularly in relation to the Middle East. During the 70's a fog of forgetfulness descended and the history of the Middle East became dominated by a post-colonial rewriting of inconvenient facts, particularly the imperialist ambitions of Islam.

It must be remembered that during the Great war the Ottoman empiresided with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire to form the Central powers. This was an interesting choice because the Ottomans had previously aligned themselves with Britain to protect their province of Egypt and with Russia to protect its northern borders. It was also curious because the Ottomans had previously controlled much of the Austro-Hungarian empire, including the Hungarian capital Budapest (1541-1686).

The Ottomans chose the wrong side of history and along with the Austro-Hungarian empire it collapsed after the war. The Austro-Hungarian empire broke up and became Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Yugoslavia. The Ottoman empire was similarly disestablished to become a host of new countries based on prior Ottoman provinces; creating the countries of Turkey, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. Many Arabs used the period of instability to carve out independent emirates, such as Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, etc. Of course, as victors Britain and France had considerable say. Isn't it always thus? Sharia is quite clear about this – to the victor goes the spoils. Had the Central powers won the map of Europe would be quite different and the Ottomans would not have hesitated in being a colonialist power.

The two 'new' countries of most interest are Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Modern Saudi Arabia was formed when the Saud family used Ottoman weakness to wrest control of the land they believed was theirs from two rival families, the al-Rashid who held the province of Riyadh and the al-Hashemi who controlled the province of Mecca.

Saudi Arabia is the Holy Land, the heartland of Islam. It has always been puritan in outlook with the Arab tribes maintaining a harsh interpretation. Interestingly these people are the direct descendents of the people who created Islam. If anyone could claim to represent the 'true' Islam surely it is these tribesmen?

Mecca is the centre, geographically, spiritually and symbolically. It reserves a peculiar right for itself – to forbid non-Muslims from entering the city. It is the only city, along with Medina, to disbar members of rival faiths. In contrast Muslims are free to enter any city on the globe. One test you can perform to distinguish a progressive from a devout (moderate or orthodox) Muslim is to simply ask them if non-Muslims should be allowed to live in the city and even set up their own places of worship – a right afforded to Muslims in other countries. Many Muslims will be offended at the thought. This indicates a high degree of hypocrisy of course, an hypocrisy many Westerners seem to ignore or excuse. Muslims should be free to practice their religion but also be free to deny others the same right.

This indicates a central problem within Islam, a tension between the geographic and symbolic heart of Islam and the periphery, those non-Arab cultures that have converted to Islam.

The Saud's have tried to undertake much needed reform but it has always been a struggle. The Sauds came to power with the help of a tribal coalition called the Ikwhan (Brethren). However the Ikwhan were disturbed by the Saud's desire to introduce infidel technology and modern reforms and there was a revolt in 1927 with over a thousand killed. In 1979 the grandson of one of the Ikwhan killed in the revolt of 1927 took control of the Grand mosque in Mecca. Osama bin Laden is the ideological inheritor of the Ikwhan legacy. Because of the protests of the ultra-orthodox the pace of reform has been slow.

Turkey presents a different history. It was originally the home of the Western Roman empire and for a time the centre of Christianity. It was Islamicized after a series of invasions, particularly by Turkish tribes who had converted to Islam. The Ottoman empire was formed by Kinsik Oghuz Turks.

Unlike the Arabs the Turks inherited an already rich culture that dated back to the Persians and Greeks - many influences modified the barren Islam of the Arab tribes. The Ottoman empire grew to be one of the largest empires the region had ever seen. However, by the time of the early 20th century it had declined dramatically in power, wealth and influence. The intelligentsia and reformist elements in the army were getting restless and formed the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) and in 1908 the 'Young Turks' as they were called, seized power. After the defeat of WW1 Mustafa Ataturk became the founder and president of modern Turkey. He followed the example of the Young Turks and instituted wide reaching reforms, including the control of religious clerics. He founded a modern, secular state.

Now is not the place to go into an extensive history, my point is to show that there is an historical tension within Islam between an Arab vision of pure and undefiled Islam of the heartland and a reformist tendency found amongst non-Arab Muslims. It is no surprise that the three most 'moderate' Muslim nations are on the periphery. Turkey has applied to become part of the EU and Indonesia and Malaysia are perhaps the furthest from the geographic centre.

In the centre the clerics control the government, on the periphery the government controls the clerics.

Many progressives read Muslim politics in terms of Western imperialism. This is not the determining factor. The rise of orthodox power can be seen as a reaction to the secular and nationalist remake of Turkey. For decades after WW1 Muslim countries such as Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Syria, etc, tried to follow Turkey's example and played with various forms of nationalism. TheBa'ath party of Iraq and Syria chose a kind of totalitarian, socialist nationalism originally inspired by Nazism. Nasser of Egypt tried a form of Pan-Arabic nationalism which became increasingly totalitarian. Syria and Egypt even tried a short lived attempt at unification, the United Arab Republic (1958-61).

Many progressives think that the recent wave of Islamist violence is a reaction to recent events. It isn't. The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1929 as a reaction to the secular and modernist reforms of the day. They attempted to assassinate Nasser in 1954. Hamas, who recently won government in Palestine, is an offshoot of the MB.

The heartland has always been in opposition to the reforms of the periphery. The Islamists have always been a part of the political scene and have always been opposed to secularist, nationalist and modernist experiments.

And this is another test to determine who is a progressive and who is orthodox – where do they stand in relation to the issue of centre and periphery?


The 'average Joe' Muslim is like every average Joe, interested in getting a good job and spending time with his or her family. The ideological battles within Islam are largely irrelevant and the truth is that the average Joe Muslim, like his average Joe Catholic cousin, may not be particularly observant or theologically aware. They just want to get on with life.

However, being a Muslim places some unique pressures on the average Joe. One of the five pillars of Islam is loyalty to the Islamic community, theummah. The Koran constantly warns him of the evils of the mushrikun andkafirun. The Koran clearly states:

Believers, do not seek the friendship of the infidels (kafirun) and those who were given the Book before you, who have made your religion a jest and a diversion. 5:56

Prophet, make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites, and deal sternly with them. Hell shall be their home, evil their fate. 66:9

A lifetime of Koranic teaching and a cultural narrative warning Muslims of the dangers of the infidels inculcates a natural sense of suspicion and isolation, and a natural sense of superiority. This is made worse by a peculiarly Muslim sense of victimization. The Islamic narrative includes the story of how the polytheists of Mecca betrayed the Prophet and exiled him to Medina - the Muslim calendar begins with the exile to Medina. Then in Medina the Jews betrayed the Prophet and aligned themselves with the hated polytheists of Mecca. This persecution complex became exacerbated at the time of the Crusades. The term 'Crusader' is now a common pejorative used to refer to Christians as the persecutors of Islam. Of course, this persecution narrative is bizarre when you consider that Islam defeated the polytheists, Jews and the Crusaders and went on to pose a real threat to Christian Europe. Both Egypt and Turkey were once important centres of Christianity – who was persecuting whom?

Thus, the average Muslim feels a sense of intense loyalty to a fellow Muslim above any loyalty to a non-Muslim. The recent protests and riots over the cartoons are a good example of both this persecution complex and the sense of loyalty to Islam. Whilst it was largely the radical orthodox who took to the streets a large number of moderate Muslims also condemned the cartoons. In doing so they encouraged the rioters. Very few moderate Muslims actually argued in favour of free speech – the rhetoric was largely about an attack on Islam; a persecutory reflex.

The average Joe is usually confounded and disturbed by the bad publicity Islam is getting. He is likely to interpret this in terms of the persecution narrative and seek to defend Islam. This leads to what many progressive Muslims have called a simple denial of the very real problems facing Islam. Somehow the terror attacks on New York, Bali, Madrid, London and the literally thousands of other attacks have nothing to do with Islam. At its worst the persecution narrative leads to bizarre conspiracy theories where the culprit is usually Mossad in connivance with the US. When Sunni insurgents attacked the al-Askari mosque in Samarra the Iranian president Ahmadinejad accused Israel and the US.

What this means unfortunately, is that a Muslim's loyalty is often torn between Islam and the laws of the country they live in. It also means that many Muslims will tend to support the radical orthodox rather than support an infidel, Jew or Crusader – if forced to choose.

The denial of Muslim culpability usually takes the form of the retort, 'but the radicals represent a tiny minority.' This is a disingenuous argument because nobody knows the extent of support for the orthodox view. But we do have some clues that it is far more extensive than Muslims want to admit.

  • In 1990 the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a radical orthodox political party inAlgeria, swept the local elections, winning 54% of the vote. Six months later they won 188 of 231 seats in the first round of the parliamentary elections. The army considered an Islamist victory a danger and staged a coup.
  • In the recent Palestinian elections the radical orthodox party, Hamas, defeated Fatah and is in the process of forming a government.
  • In the recent Egyptian elections independent candidates aligned to the banned Muslim Brotherhood made significant gains in local elections.
  • In Syria there has been a revival of orthodox belief with a 30% increase in mosque attendance.
  • In Indonesia the province of Aceh has been granted autonomy and the ability to apply sharia.
  • In both Indonesia and Malaysia orthodox political parties gain power in local districts and attempt to apply sharia. In one district in Malaysia three men were jailed for converting to Christianity, in another the mayor imposed the hijab on girls in local schools.
  • In Afghanistan the civil constitution cannot overrule sharia. This has led to a recent situation where a man faces death for converting to Christianity.
  • In Bangladesh the orthodox JMJB uses intimidation to impose Islamic values.

On top of this orthodox Muslim governments hold power in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Sudan, Somalia, Niger, Mauritaniaand Mali. Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, who are still a threat to the new government. Parts of Pakistan are under orthodox rule and the radical orthodox are engaged in attempts to overthrow Musharraf and to end Indian rule in Kashmir. The war in Iraq has descended into a civil war with orthodox Shia likely to gain the upper hand. In nearly every other Muslim country the radical orthodox present a serious problem. I began this piece by pointing out that the 'moderate' Islamic nation of Indonesia is about to introduce draconian censorship laws sponsored by orthodox Muslims.

The truth is that the orthodox are making substantial gains, even in the moderate Islamic nations of Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey. How could this happen if the orthodox were such a tiny minority?

The situation is this; most Muslims are unaligned, even indifferent. They just want a quiet life like everyone else. But forced to make a choice they will often choose orthodox Islam over an alternative they consider to be compromised by association with infidels. Fatah lost the election because of corruption and incompetence. Hamas had built a good reputation with its community work. But this does not mask the fact that all Palestinians knew what Hamas stands for. They knew exactly who they were voting for. This is the dilemma facing the progressive forces within Islam. The masses will vote for Islamists if they think their lives will be better. They do not have a loyalty to democratic ideals – they have a loyalty to Islamic ideals.

Unfortunately this does pose a threat to non-Muslim nations with a significant Muslim population. There is nothing sinister about this. Most people have torn loyalties. A good example of this has been the recent 'race' riots in Sydney. For some years there had been a law and order problem in the beach side suburb of Cronulla. The local residents had complained of groups of Lebanese Muslim youths harassing women and behaving in a threatening manner. Things came to a head when three life guards were bashed. A protest rally was organized to urge a greater police presence to curb the problem. This rally was hijacked by white racists who whipped up crowd anger, resulting in a riot and the bashing of innocent bystanders of 'middle-eastern' appearance. This bought immediate condemnation from many Australians who were ashamed of the actions of the crowd. However, what followed was worse. For three nights the police struggled to control car loads of Lebanese Muslim youths who retaliated by bashing any 'Aussie' who got in their way and smashing over 200 car windows and a number of shop windows.

It has been interesting to follow the debate that resulted. The Australians were not inclined to make any excuses for the behaviour of the crowd. It has been uniformly condemned. However members of the Muslim community have sought to make excuses for the resulting revenge attacks. The NSW police said that they have made a number of arrests of 'white' Australians in connections to the riots. They said that family members had come forward to identify the culprits. However the police also complained that they had failed to make similar arrests amongst the Lebanese Muslim community and they had met community resistance. On the second night of the riots a rumour had been spread that Australians were going to attack Sydney's largest mosque, the Lakemba mosque. Around two thousand people turned up to protect the mosque. The rumour was false. The next night a church hall was burnt down. (This is a pattern found elsewhere, Muslims fear attacks from 'crusaders' and to defend themselves end up attacking Christians disproportionately – in Indonesia over two hundred churches have been attacked or destroyed and in Nigeria the cartoon controversy resulted in an attack on innocent Christians, with around fifteen killed).

Here we see the consequences of the persecution narrative playing itself out. Muslims were attacked, so there was immediate retaliation, retaliation that turned out to be more severe than the original riot. When a rumour that the mosque was going to be attacked was spread two thousand turned out to defend it. In the subsequent debate Australians indicated remorse and shame but many Muslims shifted the blame to the 'racist' Australians, ignoring the racism of the Muslim Lebanese youths. Then the Muslim community drew a protective shield around itself and have refused to co-operate with police. This is an example of Muslims defending Muslims against non-Muslims, a result of the persecution complex and the concept of the ummah.

The really interesting thing about this is that Muslims account for only 1.5% of the Australian population, Buddhists account for 1.8%. As a result of Muslim complaints about persecution the government has created a special Muslim Advisory Council. There is no Buddhist Advisory Council. There is also a proliferation of Muslim organizations claiming to represent the 'real' Islam with a consequent internal political battle over territory.

Out of this small population of Muslims, the great majority of whom are average Joes, the police have had to arrest a small number of radicals. An Australian, Jack Thomas, was charged for receiving funds from al-Qaeda. He has freely admitted he trained with al-Qaeda and met bin Laden. Whilst he was there he met another Australian, David Hicks, who has also freely admitted training with al Qaeda. Late last year police arrested a group of Muslims associated with an independent radical 'sheikh', Abu Bakr Benbrika, who had been quoted as saying 'my religion does not tolerate other religions.' In my previous article 'What's All This Fuss About Cartoons' I quoted another Australian Muslim, Wassim Doureihi, saying:

There is no possibility of harmonious co-existence between Islam and the West because there is a fundamental conflict. Ultimately, one has to prevail.

All of this fuss from a religious community representing only 1.5% of the total population? And this is not a problem? The fact is that Muslims represent the only terrorist threat in Australia – there have been no arrests of Christian, Jewish, Hindu or Buddhist terrorists (thought the Tamil community is under investigation for possible financial links to the Tamil Tigers).

I accept that in Australia the majority of Muslims are average Joes. What is not well understood is that they are made up of many different sects and ethnic groups. This means there are Wahhabi and Deodandi amongst them. Abu Bakr Benbrika represents an extreme form of Wahhabism. Wassim Dourehi represents a group associated with the Naqshbandiya, and so on.

The problem for the police is that no-one walks around with a sign saying 'I'm a terrorist'. By nature they act covertly. Yet the narrative of persecution and the concept of ummah lends even moderate Muslims to assume that the justified investigation of radical Muslims is an attack on all Muslims.

Any criticism of Islam is seen as an attack on Islam itself and met with considerable rhetorical aggression. This 'defensiveness' leads to a reluctance to self-criticism. There are serious problems within Islam, but many moderates will not accept that this is the case.

It doesn't matter how small the radical minority are if they are able to cause a disproportionate amount of trouble. It's the trouble that is the problem.

What exactly is the West supposed to do about Islamist violence? Pretend it's not there and hope it will go away?


The Islamic persecution complex and the cultural suspicion of infidels means that Islam is very sensitive to interference from non-Muslims. Post-colonial guilt leads many progressive Westerners to buy into this argument. It's an odd argument, particularly when you understand the history of Islam.

Islam was the first globalizing power. It was in Africa before the Europeans, it was in India before the British and it reached Indonesia and Malaysia before the Europeans. Islam had succeeded in converting a smorgasbord of cultures, including the Mongols, (often with considerable cultural insensitivity). The Europeans were often simply following in the footsteps of the Muslims. They succeeded finally because European technology outstripped Muslim technology.

I have difficulty in feeling sorry for the fate of the Muslim empire. I see Christianity and Islam as two sides of the same coin. Both have a missionary desire to convert the world to their faith.

If we are to be logically consistent in our objection to the errors of colonialism then we ought to also look at the negative impact of Muslim colonialist expansion on indigenous cultures.

  1. Orthodox Islam accepts slavery. Sharia law has not been changed. Throughout it's history in Africa Islam has benefited from an extensive slave trade. Slavery still exists today in Muslim North Africa. Unlike their Christian counterparts Muslim clerics have not been vocal in condemning slavery. Why? Because the Koran specifically permits slavery.
  2. The communal violence in India is a result of centuries of tension between the Hindu majority and the Muslim minority. Only 20% (this figure is disputed, with some arguing it is less) of Indians were Muslims yet they ruled India for far longer than the British. Kashmir is still a flash point.
  3. Islam was largely responsible for the decimation of Buddhism in Northern India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The largest Buddhist university of the time, Nalanda, was completely destroyed and the monks massacred.
  4. Islam also decimated much of the indigenous Persian culture, with many Zoroastrians (Parsees) fleeing to India.
  5. The indigenous cultures of SE Asia have faced centuries of Islamic colonialism. The latest flash points are Bali, with the Hindu majority increasingly nervous after a series of bombings (and the impact of the new censorship laws) and West Papua. East Timor, a Christian majority country faced years of vicious repression.
  6. Islamists are seeking control of three Malay speaking provinces in Thailand.
  7. Tensions still exist between Muslims and Christians in the Balkans. Milosevic has just died but his Serbian nationalism was simply an extension of a long standing Serbian resistance to foreign influence, including Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian rule. Many Balkan nationalists have regarded the remnant Muslim population as anachronistic.

One of the most disturbing claims of orthodox Muslims is their claim for the restoration of the Islamic empire. Under sharia law any land won in the name of Islam still belongs to Islam. This is based on the idea that what Allah gives, man cannot take away. Whilst many Muslims would rightly regard this as a dead cause radical Islamist groups do not. The return of Spain to Islam is on the agenda.

So it's interesting to see progressive Westerners claim Islam as the victim of European imperialism, particularly when orthodox Islam is every bit as imperialist as Christianity.

Of course it is true that Western powers have interfered in the Middle East, often with disastrous consequences. I have mentioned the stupidity of US Middle East policy in past articles, particularly in reference to the disaster in Iraq, which is now descending into civil war.

It is here that we face a complex problem. Islam is not homogenous. It is a civilizational complex. The problem for the West is that different elites within Islam want different things from the West. Even Osama bin Laden, were he to gain control of Saudi Arabia, would want Western technology. Yes, the West has interfered, but often at the request and co-operation of different elites within Islam. The famous case is the CIA's involvement in the overthrowing of Iran's elected president Mossadegh in 1953. The CIA assisted by funding orthodox clerics opposed to Mossadegh's secular reforms. In the Iranian revolution of Khomeini these same clerics finally gained absolute power. In an interesting swipe at the naïve left Tariq Ali, himself a leftist says:

Useful idiots from the Western European left who had arrived to participate in the fateful events were carried away by the fervour and excitement and began to chant the same slogans to demonstrate their solidarity. Because they didn't believe in them they assumed the Iranian masses, too, were being opportunistic. All this religion was froth; it would be blown away by newer and stronger breezes…It was not thus of course, but many wanted it to be so.

The Iranian masses were not being opportunistic, the Western left was. There are still leftists who see Islamism in this same opportunistic way. I've had people tell me that it would be better if Iraq was ruled by Shia fundamentalists if this meant the defeat of US imperialism.

The ruling families of the Arab states benefit enormously from oil. The al-Saud (Saudi Arabia), al-Sabah (Kuwait), al-Thani (Qatar), al-Said (Oman) and al-Khalifa (Bahrain) families, to name a few, have grown enormously wealthy as a result. Yes, the ordinary Muslim has suffered, but the internal politics are not about justice for peasants but which family or clan controls wealth and power. The problem is the tribal system. In the absence of central authority in Iraq the tribes and clans are now struggling for control. Under Saddam Sunni Arab clans connected to his clan, the al-Tikrit, benefited the most.

So who do you listen to? As a Western power which section of Muslim society do you listen to? Which elites are truly representative of majority Muslim opinion? Is there a coherent majority opinion or just a kaleidoscope of conflicting opinion? What if the majority opinion turns out to favour the orthodox view and vote for Islamist parties?

What progressives also forget in their myopic view of history is that the communist bloc was also vitally interested in the Middle East. The Western powers often interfered to block communist influence in Muslim states. The now famous case is Afghanistan where Britain and the US helped the mujahideen to overthrow the Russian occupation. Another case is the US's support of Soeharto to overthrow the left leaning Soekarno inIndonesia. But the question progressives must answer is would it have been better if the communist bloc was allowed to dominate? Communism was responsible for the death of tens of millions; Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot (Saddam Hussein greatly admired Stalin). Communism was a major abuser of human rights. China still has an appalling record. It has been said that the US props up right-wing dictatorships – and I suppose the communist powers weren't propping up left-wing dictatorships and applying the same underhand means? Which would you rather have, communist hegemony or Western hegemony? Would it have been better if communism had won the Cold war?

The Islamists had made a choice. The communist infidels were a greater enemy, after all, communist states had no qualms in banning religion, at least the Western infidels allowed Muslims to practice their religion. So of course the mujahideen accepted Western help to overthrow the Russian occupation. The West's mistake was to believe that the mujahideen would not then turn on them, just as the clerics had turned on them in Iran. Bin Laden believes that the mujahideen caused the collapse of the Soviet empire, he hopes he can do the same to the West. And many US analysts praise their support of the mujahideen because it helped cause the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But this is the nature of the 'great game', a game Muslim powers have happily indulged in themselves. The oil rich families of the Arab peninsula happily sought Western protection against the communist threat.

I do not accept the easy assumption that this a clash of two 'separate' civilizations. In many ways they are simply two sides of the one coin - cousins. Both Islam and Christianity are offshoots of Judaism, each making an exclusivist claim about the final Prophetic authority; Jesus or Mohammed. Both were heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, particularly Plato and Aristotle. Islamic civilization had an enormous impact on Europe,particularly during the time it controlled Spain and Sicily – Shakespeare even included a Moor, Othello, as one of his major characters.

In turn the West is now having a major impact on Islam. Both cultures have always been linked. Islam sought to take over and replace Christianity as part of its narrative and Christianity has always seen Islam as its great rival, as indeed it was.

Globalization is inevitable. If it had not been Christian Europe who had discovered the final continent, the Americas, then it may easily have been Islam.

This is another clue to determining who is progressive and who is conservative. Progressive Muslims have always been syncretist, open to other cultures. The orthodox have always been isolationist and supremacist in outlook. The orthodox are always going to object to any kind of engagement with non-Muslims.

After the Spanish reconquest the Moroccan Maliki jurist, al-Wansharisi said that it was impossible for a Muslim to live under Christian rule, even if that rule was benign. It was therefore obligatory for all Muslims to leave Spain.

This isolationist attitude is still very much alive.


The word ijtihad is derived from the same root as jihad (JHD). It means independent intellectual struggle. It has a solid tradition with Islam. A Muslim is meant to question the Koran and struggle to apply it to the real world. It's a form of open intellectual inquiry.

The problem is that when the hundred schools were banned the jurists also stated that “the gates of ijtihad were closed”. This was the beginning of orthodoxy. Since that time the majority of both Sunni and Shia Muslims have deferred to the orthodox view. In the case of the Shia it is expressed in obedience to the Ayatollah of their sect. In the case of the Sunni it is obedience to the teachings of one of the four madhhab. Many so-called moderate Muslims are in fact orthodox in this regard. Their moderation simply extends to keeping their faith a private affair rather than making it a cause for political action.

The calls for the reform of Islam essentially involve restoring the role of ijtihad and weakening the power of the clerics and scholars who maintain the madhhab. However, those imams and mullahs in position of authority have no desire to give up their power and so the progressives calling for reform are often persecuted. Many reformist intellectuals and writers have faced censure from orthodox clerics, some having a 'death' fatwa issued against them. It doesn't matter if they themselves do not belong to the sect of the cleric. The fatwa is a direction to the cleric's followers. This is actually an important point. The West has the concept of jurisdiction – an offender can only be charged and punished by the appropriate authority. In the case of a religious offence the proper authority is the offender's denomination. It would be absurd for the Catholic church to accuse an Anglican of a religious offence. There is no such restriction in Islam. Thus the Ayatollah Khomenei was able to issue a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, despite Salman Rushdie not being born a Shia and having renounced Islam. Thus a reformer in Turkey or Egypt might face a fatwa from a cleric in Afghanistan and face an attempt on their life by one of the cleric's followers in Egypt.

This situation can become quite absurd with rival mullahs issuing fatwas against each other's factions.

Despite the constant threat of persecution there is nonetheless a lively debate amongst progressives and reformers. Much of this is taking place in Western countries where freedom of speech is protected (which is why the defence of freedom of speech is so important). There is for instance a growing movement to allow women to preach in mosques, particularly in the US and Canada. This movement had its origins amongst South African Muslims. But reformers still face difficulties in majority Muslim countries. In an article published in al-Ahram weekly, Margot Badran of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University, said:

It is in Muslim minority communities, especially but not only in the West, that moves toward new ritual practices have been most apparent recently. In Muslim minority communities, participation in mosque-centered activities -- especially congregational worship -- has an intensity of meaning and social significance different from that found in Muslim majority societies. In minority contexts, individual and collective Muslim identity is expressed and re-affirmed within mosque space. If they are made unequal in religious space it casts them as second-class Muslims. In Muslim majority societies, Muslim identity prevails in society at large. However, while they may be part of the religious majority, women have acquired greater equality in secular space than in religious space. Muslim women find themselves equal in the larger national/secular society and unequal in their own communal space.

In the same article she says that feminist ijtihadis have started to formulate a new Islam.

Since the final years of the 20th century women started to become part of new interpretive communities, producing compelling tafsir (analysis) and treatises on gender issues. While new female exegetes have commanded considerable respect in the global umma, they have also, not surprisingly, been discredited and maligned. However, if the messenger and her authority are attacked, the new gender-sensitive exegesis itself is becoming an authority. Meanwhile, it is becoming increasingly apparent that it is difficult to square Islamic notions of equality and justice with (secular) patriarchy still supported by conventional male religious authorities. The new Islamic feminist theorists and interpreters include: Asma Barlas (Pakistani), Riffat Hassan (Pakistani), Amina Wadud (African-American), Ziba Mir-Hosseini (Iranian), Qudsiyya Mirza (Iranian), and Aziza al-Hibri (Lebanese), to name just a few.

Now I would argue that many Muslim progressives face the additional barrier of being marginalised by progressive Westerners who have mistakenly bought into the Muslim persecution narrative. This persecution narrative just happens to fit rather neatly into the Western post-colonial guilt syndrome. This means that progressive Westerners are more likely to listen to a moderate or orthodox complain about Western injustice because it fits the prejudice of Western guilt. Yes, we are bastards and you are right, it is all our fault.

In contrast the progressive Muslim is likely to draw attention to the persecution narrative and instead point to Muslim culpability, urging Muslims to stop playing the victim and to get on with the process of reform. The Canadian Muslim lesbian, Irshad Manji states it bluntly:

It's up to us in the West to drop reactionary charges of racism against the whistleblowers of Islam and lead the charge for change.

In order to be able to assist the process of reform it is vital for progressive Westerners to learn to distinguish between the madhhabi and the ijtihadi, between the reactionary moderate and the true progressive. This applies equally to the integral community. I was startled to receive censure from someone who argued that I should pay attention to the writings of Karen Armstrong, who he claimed was a 'yellow' thinker. Huh? You see this is the problem we face. People are only skating the surface of this issue and simply cannot tell a serious writer from a populist. Karen Armstrong is regarded by many as a lightweight and an apologist. She is not taken seriously. She is a writer you might read if you were a beginner. She is certainly not a 'yellow' thinker. In fact her response to the cartoon controversy betrayed a classic 'green' relativist position.

How can we hope to assist progressive Muslims if we elevate populists to the status of second tier?

Irshad Manji has also commented on Western progressives lack of discrimination and basic understanding.

That same afternoon in Washington DC, anti-war organizers gave the stage to a Muslim cleric who, in October 2001, opined that “ the Zionists in Hollywood, the Zionists in New York, the Zionists in DC” are colluding against Muslims. If the US needs to reconsider its alliances, progressive Westerners need to do likewise. But you won't know how tawdry some partnerships are until you dare to ruin the moment and ask.

Marieme Hélie-Lucas has asked:

Where is the left movement? Where are progressive forces? They are eaten up from within by doubts and hesitations, precisely because of fear of being accused of racism, because of the colonial past, because of the actual discrimination against migrants from Muslim countries and communities. The left has given up its role and duties. It lacks political clarity regarding differentiating between 'Muslims', 'migrants', 'fundamentalists', thus serving unwittingly the interests of the two extreme rights in presence (the two 'rights' are European racists and orthodox Muslims). It has no analysis of its own to offer.


The European left miserably failed to take position at the time of the Rushdie affair – and European governments lacked political clarity regarding the political nature of fundamentalism, especially Denmark which hosted for decades the murderers, members of FIS, AIS, GIA etc... who enjoyed there a safe haven from where they could organize and finance, among other crimes, the killings and bombings against the people in Algeria. What happens on their soil now is only a consequence of long years of political inconsequence.

I think many people are simply intimidated. They are trying the ostrich approach and hiding their heads in the sand. But this is a problem that will not go away. We face decades of struggle. This is not the time to be polite. This is the time to be demanding of Muslims and to ask them where they stand. This is the time to shift the chaff from the wheat and ask the Muslim spokesperson who they represent.

This is not the time to act as enablers for persecution narratives, to act as a chorus for apologists and excuse-makers.

It's about time progressive Westerners paid attention to the internal debate within Islam and sided with those voices arguing for genuine reform.


One of the best examples of progressive confusion has been the issue of the hijab, the traditional Muslim head covering. This issue has revealed an interesting conflation of Western values and Muslim values. It provides a perfect example of progressive Westerners betraying progressive Muslims and instead supporting conservative Muslims.

Here's the real deal; progressive Muslim women do not wear the hijab. Simple as that. In fact they have spent decades campaigning against the patriarchal rules that impose the hijab on women. If a Muslim woman wears the hijab she is signaling either one or both of two things: her acceptance of orthodoxy and/or her loyalty to the concept of Islam as a victim of Western cultural imperialism. It's this last rhetorical tactic that grabs the sympathy of progressive Westerners, particularly those sympathetic to notions of cultural sensitivity.

It was interesting to watch the debate over the French government's proposal to ban the hijab in schools. Somehow the debate became about protecting a Muslim woman's right to wear the hijab. Seems fair – but nothing is ever as simple as it seems. The French law came partly in response to pressure from Muslim feminist concerns over the increasing influence of orthodoxy. Muslim schoolgirls had been reporting being pressured to adopt conservative dress, including the hijab. Marieme Helie-Lucas describes the situation thus:

In France it is only after the fundamentalist regime took over in Iran, that what came to be called 'the Islamic dress' was imported and introduced. Interestingly enough, it is not only in France but also at the same time in North Africa that this brand new 'Islamic dress' was introduced, where it is absolutely untraditional. This 'Islamic dress' has nothing to do with either the various traditional women's dress in North Africa, nor with the cultural adjustment that the foremothers made upon their arrival in France to endorse their new identity as working class women.

It became clearer and clearer over the years that this new veil was the spearhead of the war for political power that fundamentalists had launched in Europe too - once more using women's bodies. Boys were encouraged to seek integration into the French mores for themselves, while girls were in most instances forced into representing mores and values of 'tradition and religion' - that is, as interpreted by fundamentalists - thus living a painful and destabilizing contradiction between personal emancipation and defending communal identity, a contradiction that spared their foremothers.

For the orthodox this was not about human rights or the freedom to choose. It was an issue of religious and cultural rights – the right to impose tradition on its members without interference from anyone, especially infidels. The truth is that Muslim girls were often denied the choice to not wear the hijab – they were being forced by their parents and increasing community pressure. It is also important to understand that those Muslims who protested the French proposals had no intention of protesting against those Muslim countries that impose the hijab. No, this was about the right to impose the hijab, not the freedom to choose.

How bizarre then that progressive Westerners aided and abetted conservative Muslims in their campaign to pressure Muslim women to conform. Again Marieme Helie-Lucas has this to say:

Once more human rights organizations will objectively if not with intention help fascist Muslim forces to gain power, and they will once more come after the battle to defend our human rights when those will be endangered by the very forces they are helping right now. What a sad contradiction...

And finally,

Among the many women who came public on this issue, there are writers, film makers and professional women. Prominent exiled feminists from Algeria such as Zazi Sadou, have taken the same stand - knowing from first hand experience what it means to enforce this political banner that veil actually is on women's heads. They find it appalling that what some women risked their lives for in Algeria i.e. secularism and women's rights, may happen all over again in France.

One of the more bizarre defences of the hijab twists feminism to somehow support conservative dress. The West objectifies women and turns them into sex objects. The hijab becomes a feminist protest against this objectification by hiding the body from view. I have been surprised to hear Western feminists buy into this argument. This is a complete distortion. Women are meant to be free to wear whatever they want without being objectified, they ought to be able to dress in short skirts if they so wish. What an obscene distortion to suggest that women need to dress from head to toe and cover their hair in order to feel free from the male gaze.

But this is the type of compromise we see from so-called progressive Westerners who surrender the progressive agenda to appease orthodox Muslims under the mistaken belief they are being tolerant of cultural diversity.

And here is another clue to distinguishing progressives from moderates – the moderates make excuses for the hijab; the progressives want to get rid of it and they certainly don't wear it unless they have been forced to.


The historian Bernard Lewis describes how the Muslim scholar Sheikh Rifa'a Rafi' al-Tahtawi travelled to France in 1826 following Napolean's brief conquest of Egypt. The Sheikh describes struggling with the concept of 'freedom'. In Arabic the closest concept is simply not being a slave. After a time he realized that what Westerners refer to as freedom is closer to the Islamic idea of 'justice'. To a Muslim freedom is not an important concept. It is more important that one be treated justly.

In my article "What's All this Fuss about Cartoons?" I talked about democracy being founded on civic virtues. For democracy to work in the Middle East there must be the same sort of concept of civic virtue as there is in the West. Unfortunately this is not the case.

It is not only that Islam doesn't have a word for freedom, it doesn't have a word for citizen either. The idea of the citizen arose in Ancient Greece and was developed further in Roman times. The citizen was meant to have certain rights and duties and to exhibit civic virtues. The closest word in Arabic is muwatin, which means compatriot. In fact the Arabic world has not had the same idea as the Greek concept of polis.

What Islam did was provide a cause with which a disparate collection of tribal groups could unite. It is a vision in which religion, government and society are all subject to the Koran. There is no separation of church and state, no separation of the legislative arm from the judicial arm and no separation of executive power from legislative power. There is also no secular polis separate from the wider religious community, the ummah. Fellow Muslims are compatriots (and infidels of course, are not).

Where the West has civic virtues Islam has religious virtues. One is not a good citizen, one is a good Muslim.

This means it can be difficult for a Muslim to obey an abstract 'civil' authority, especially a civil authority separate from religious authority. There is a disconnect, a sense that declaring allegiance to a civil authority such as a nation state is betraying the ummah.

It also means that many Muslims have difficulty in understanding key civil concepts such as freedom of speech. If the Koran provides a clear guide to life and Islam is a state of harmony then what does one need the freedom to say? If there is no concept of 'freedom' then the idea of being free to publish cartoons is nonsensical – far more important is the concept of justice as defined by Islamic law, and it was clearly an offence, an therefore an injustice, to publish an image of the prophet. This is not a clash of civilizations but a clash of concepts of virtue.

The Islamists are very clear about this. Democracy is un-Islamic, it is an infidel concept. Islamist political parties have gone on record as saying that whilst they are happy to use the democratic process to gain power they have no intention of retaining democracy once they get into power.

It is also important to add in light of the cartoon controversy that thefreedom of speech is closely connected to freedom of religion. The freedom of speech is also freedom of religious speech, it is the same principle that allows Muslims the freedom to practice their religion in the West, and it is also the freedom of progressive Muslims to speak out against orthodoxy, which they can often only do in the West. The Muslims who took to the streets in protest are the same zealots who would kill a man for converting to Christianity, they do not respect freedom of religion. And yet Western progressives would weaken this important principle out of a misguided sense of cultural sensitivity, a sensitivity to zealots? Ironic also that the moderate Muslims in the West who spoke out against freedom of speech would deny the very principle that allows them to practice their faith. Here it is useful to consider the state of religious freedom in the Muslim world. To begin with it simply doesn't exist in the heartland (nor do Muslims complain about this) and it is often modified in so-called moderate nations. The reality is that non-Muslims face regular discrimination in Muslim countries. Yes, Muslims want freedom to practice their religion and they complain loudly when they are discriminated against but they also stay strangely silent when non-Muslims are discriminated against.

The West only succeeded in further developing the idea of citizenship by a painful process of separating civil authority from religious authority. Islam has not undergone that same process. The mosque is still the centre of authority in Islam, even powerful dictators fear the mosque. Those Muslim nations who have had better success at forming nation states are at the periphery; who had prior cultural traditions that modified the pure Islam of the Arabs. In some instances Islam is held lightly and one's ethnic identity is held more strongly, thus allowing the building of a nationalist sentiment based on ethnicity, such as Turkey (land of the Turks), Malaysia (land of the Malays), Uzbekistan (land of the Uzbeks), etc.

Of course the issue is far, far more complex. Each community has its own particularities. But one thing is constant - the power of the clerics must be diminished – and even more important than that, the clerics and scholars themselves must agree and participate in the process. This cannot happen without the almost complete overthrow and rewriting of sharia, without overthrowing the madhhab and restoring ijtihad as an important principle.

This is where Western progressives commit the final betrayal of progressive Islam. In protecting moderate Muslims they are protecting religious Muslims, people who support the madhhab and the clerics. Progressive Westerners are effectively saying that they accept Islam as it is, they make no demand for Islam to change. Instead they constantly apologise for Islam, seek to excuse its faults and diminish its excesses – all under the misguided application of cultural tolerance.

In the end it is not Western or communist imperialists who undermine democracy in the Middle East but progressive Westerners who make no demands on Muslims to change.


If progressives have failed to understand Islam then conservatives have as well. The Iraq war was supposedly an attempt to impose democracy in the Middle East. The Neocon theory was that in removing Saddam Hussein the natural democratic impulses of the people would flourish.

The first mistake in this plan was to underestimate the isolationist tendencies of Islam and the persecution reflex. There was always the danger that a significant percentage of the population would see this, not as a war of liberation, but as an attack on the sovereignty of Islam and on Muslims, the ummah, themselves. There may be many Muslims who want change but they want the interference of infidels even less.

The second mistake was to grossly underestimate the desire for democracy in the Middle East. Many do not want freedom, they want justice. Of course the problem with this demand for justice is that it is based on a complex set of grievances, many of which are wholly internal. Amongst the many Arab tribes this justice may simply be the settling of a long standing inter-tribal grievances, particularly between those tribes with power and influence and those tribes in a lesser position. Some of the conflict in Iraq is between rival tribes and clans as they strive to gain the most advantage in the new order.

These grievances are often a matter of perception and not of fact, and certainly not of a kind that can be easily assuaged.

Wherever foreign governments have interfered in the Middle East they have often misread the situation. When England attacked Egypt in the Suez war they thought the Egyptian masses would overthrow Nasser, instead they united to defeat England. When Russia intervened in Afghanistan they encountered a fierce resistance. After the defeat of Russia Afghanistan descended into civil war. And now, in Iraq, the US is bogged down in a civil war, caught between rival insurgent groups competing for power, but all of them united in their hostility to the US.

What is the way ahead?

It is clear that the power of the clerics must be broken, but this can only happen from within. So anyone who is interested in seeing a positive change in Islam needs to support those internal forces pushing for change.

Of course the issue of economic injustice must be addressed, but again, this is largely an issue of perception. The recent election of Hamas has revealed just how dependent Palestine is on both the Israeli economy and foreign aid. As much as many Palestinians may want the destruction of Israel and the end of Western imperialism they would soon face economic ruin if these goals were actually realized. An independent Palestine would likely fall apart and become a failed state. Despite their nominal support for the Palestinian cause fellow Muslim states have not rushed in to fill the void. They have enough problems with their own economies. Besides, they also know the importance of the Israeli economy to the region.

The causes of economic injustice in the Middle East are complex. It is simplistic cant to suggest it is all the West's fault. How so? Western technology and capital investment has helped transform many Muslim economies. And where have the oil rich Arab states chosen to invest their funds? In the West rather than in infrastructure and education.

The West can't extract itself from the Middle East even if it wanted to. Islamist revolutions are destined to fail because they do not understand how dependent the Middle East is on the global economy. Isolationism will not work. The best hope for economic justice lies in open and innovative economies and open societies. If India can throw off the shackles of its colonialist past to become an emerging economic power then why can't the Middle East – given especially, that the Middle East has a vital, strategic resource it can use to raise capital? What of the trillions of dollars of oil revenue?

Hope lies in building a progressive Islam from within. We must do all in our power to support progressive forces, not turn our back on them in a failed understanding of what progressive Islam is.

The Muslim world is trying to find its way in the 21st century by dragging an a enormous boulder with it, but rather than get rid of the boulder they define themselves by that boulder – and then blame the world for their lack of progress. I will leave the final word to Marieme Helie-Lucas

I will first challenge the term Islamophobia. It is a success of fundamentalists' strategy that they have persuaded so many of the social forces that should be on our side in this struggle that being against their medieval views of religion can be equated to being against Islam. This is why, despite my personal secular options, I find it very useful to promote the work of progressive and feminist theologians - men and women - and their attempts to build the equivalent of a liberation theology in Islam, and to make respectful alliances with them. The more visible we make this trend, the more chances we have to break the monopoly over Islam that fundamentalists have managed to build for themselves, in today's world where religions have acquired a status of sanctity regardless of the politics they promote.

Ray Harris, March, 2006

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