Politics and the Prophet

Malise Ruthven

  • Lords of the Lebanese Marches: Violence and Narrative in an Arab Society by Michael Gilsenan
    Tauris, 377 pp, £14.95, February 1996, ISBN 1 85043 099 3
  • The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World edited by John L. Esposito
    Oxford, 480 pp, £295.00, June 1995, ISBN 0 19 506613 8
  • Unfolding Islam by P.J. Stewart
    Garnet, 268 pp, £25.00, February 1995, ISBN 0 86372 194 X
  • Islam and the Myth of Confrontation: Religion and Politics in the Middle East by Fred Halliday
    Tauris, 256 pp, £35.00, January 1996, ISBN 1 86064 004 4

For too long Islamic studies have existed in an academic ghetto which reinforced the essentialist view shared by the Islamologues, that Islam was somehow ‘different’ from the West. A more fruitful approach is taken by Michael Gilsenan in Lords of the Lebanese Marches, based on field work he conducted in a Sunni Muslim rural area of North Lebanon during the early Seventies, before the recent civil war. This beautifully written book describes the culture of masculinity in its multiple refractions through violence and narrative, joking and play, a world where status and power are organised vertically, where big landowners use the small landowners as their strong-arm men to control the sharecroppers and labourers at the bottom of the social hierarchy and to compete for supremacy with their rival lords. Sharaf, ‘the honour of person and family, which is particularly identified with control of women’s sexuality, is crucial to the public, social identity of men.’ The sharaf of the mighty is linked with the destruction of the sharaf of others: great lords gain honour by ritually humiliating subordinates, whom they force to transgress their own codes of honour. Not surprisingly, life at the bottom is brutish and insecure. The poorest women and their children must undertake work that others regard as shameful. They are powerless to resist sexual exploitation or abuse by their masters. It is not so much these actions themselves, as the stories to which they give rise and which give them meaning, that interest Gilsenan. ‘Men struggle to reproduce, memorialise and guarantee narratives of being and place in the world against the ruptures, absences and arbitrariness mat continuously subvert them.’

The story of the rape of a 13-year-old peasant girl by a landlord’s son before the helpless eyes of her parents, who were compelled to watch by the rapist’s armed bodyguards, becomes ‘a metaphor of rule. Rape stands not only for a whole “backward” agrarian set of relations constructed on violence, but by extension, for relations of power and property within the modern state.’ Maleness and brute strength are at the centre of these narratives. A quarrel over a prostitute rapidly acquires a heroic dimension, becoming a ‘narrative of status, honour, blood and violent revenge’. In the public recital of the conflict, which leads to several murders, the original motive and setting are suppressed because the squabble was ‘culturally loaded with negative value and no setting for serious confrontation between men of honour’. Humour and the art of ridiculing one’s social inferiors confirm the social pecking order. Greater than the threat of being murdered (a common occurrence in these pages) are the shame and danger of ‘being taken to demonstrate publicly, not a proper concern for sharaf, but the discrepancy between the proper assertion of capacity and empty pretension’. This applies to modern trades and occupations as much as traditional ones. A chauffeur-mechanic, for example,

had to be able to talk, knowledgeably, about the machines and swap stories. He was expected to know what kind of tractor was good for what job, the costs and capacities of all the new models, and to talk with assurance and eventually some connoisseurship about any car on the street. Most important, he had to know the limits of his own competence. It was no use affecting a skill one did not possess, since one could so easily be exposed as a fool.

Islam is conspicuous by its absence. Though the society Gilsenan describes is a Muslim one, the patriarchal themes he uncovers and celebrates – the obsession with gender and status, the assertion of power through violence – are to be found in many non-Muslim Mediterranean societies, as well as others further afield, and this calls into question the widely held view that Islamic texts or values can of themselves be held responsible for types of behaviour that underpin male supremacism.

The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World includes articles on feminism and Muslim counter-feminism which suggest that many of these values are now being challenged. So, too, is the narrow association, in Western minds, of Islam and terrorism, although this is no easy matter: the suspicion that the God of Abraham delights in sacrificial blood and human carnage is not entirely groundless. In the most intractable of all conflicts, between Israelis and Palestinians, the brave and painful efforts of human peacemakers are being systematically unravelled by the God who feeds his chosen agents contradictory messages. Baruch Goldstein, who was responsible for the massacre of Arab worshippers in Hebron in 1994, is, like the late Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, a martyr for those Jews who believe that the divine manifests itself in real estate. The suicide-bombers of Hamas take things a stage further in their identification of territory with the sacred, wrapping themselves in explosives and fusing martyrdom with murder. Secularists have many crimes to answer for in this century, but the return of God to the public domain heralds blood, not brotherhood. Although Muslims and the scholars who come to their defence argue that the actions of Hamas are unrepresentative, that terrorism emanates from Ireland, Sri Lanka, the Basque region, even Oklahoma (where revolutionary anarchism meets Christian eschatology), some of the mud, or Semtex, inevitably sticks.

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