The Shrinking Sphere

Malise Ruthven

  • Islamic Britain: Religion, Politics and Identity among British Muslims by Philip Lewis
    Tauris, 255 pp, £9.99, October 1994, ISBN 1 85043 861 7
  • The Failure of Political Islam by Olivier Roy, translated by Carol Volk
    Tauris, 238 pp, £14.95, October 1994, ISBN 1 85043 880 3

Are the Muslims of Bradford, ‘Britain’s Islamabad’, incurably militant? There have been troubles in other cities with Asian Muslim populations, but the Muslims of Bradford have shown a consistent pattern of refusing to ‘take insults lying down’. They first demonstrated their militancy during the Honeyford affair in 1984-5, when the headteacher of the Drummond Middle School, 90 per cent of whose pupils came from Muslim families, was forced into early retirement after publishing anti-Pakistani remarks in the Salisbury Review. The city became notorious in December 1988 for the public burning of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Although not the first group of Muslims to demonstrate their sense of outrage in this fashion (the first burning actually took place in Bolton) it was the Bradfordians who knew how to grab the headlines, by alerting the media and selling them videos of the event.

The recent Bradford riots, said to have caused more than one million pounds’ worth of damage, have been blamed on insensitive policing. The Police Complaints Authority is currently investigating 15 complaints, including one of alleged assault on a young mother carrying a baby. The wider causes to which the riots are attributed include a familiar litany of problems: high unemployment among a growing, unqualified, youth population, racial discrimination and harassment, drug dealing and prostitution. All these problems afflict Asian populations in other cities and do not usually lead to rioting. It may be, however, that the tolerance of Bradford Muslims had been stretched beyond breaking point by the issue of prostitution. Lumb Lane, a notorious red-light area in the Manningham district, has seen a growing confrontation between the pimps and prostitutes who used to own the streets and the Asian families in the area. Just when the police, aided by groups of local vigilantes clad in baggy jeans, trainers and bomber jackets, felt they had reclaimed the streets from prostitutes and kerb crawlers, an ITV drama series called Band of Gold came out, bringing in hordes of new customers from as far away as Germany. The same psychosocial ingredients – transgressive sexuality, community honour and religion – that exploded during the Rushdie affair seem to have been present. The rage may not have been religious in any strict sense of the term: the young British Asian men from Kashmir or Sylhet who vented their anger are not necessarily the same people who regularly attend the city’s mosques. During the anti-Rushdie demonstrations in Hyde Park in 1989 I noticed that those who carried the most blood-curdling slogans seemed least familiar with the forms of prayer and most reluctant to participate in communal worship. But in Britain, as in the rest of the world, the word Muslim (like the word Jew) can convey secular identity as well as religious faith. Tariq Modood, an astute commentator on British Muslim affairs, states that where ‘racism and cultural contempt are mixed with Islamophobia,’ a reactive assertiveness crystallises into what he terms ‘Muslim pride’ – an assertiveness that ‘may at times owe as little to religion as political blackness does to the idea of Africa’.

Philip Lewis, a resident of Bradford with firsthand knowledge of its complex and often divided Muslim communities, did not anticipate the latest round of troubles to afflict the city. Rather he offers a cautiously optimistic view of accommodation and change. He cites with approval the anthropologist Pnina Werbner’s contention that ‘stress on cultural independence’ can constitute ‘a protection from stigma and external domination ... The one-way deterministic approach which defines immigrants as victims is unable to account for the dialectic process which interaction between the immigrant group and the state generates.’ Despite the evidence of militancy, Lewis succeeds in dismantling ‘the myth of an undifferentiated “fundamentalist” Islam’. ‘Fundamentalism,’ he argues, ‘is a useless word for either description or analysis. Its pejorative overtones of religious fascism obscure the diversity of traditions within Islam’ ignoring in particular ‘the vitality, popularity and persistence of Islamic mysticism’ in Britain. In Bradford it was the largely non-political and mystically-inclined Barelwi sect (thought to control at least half Britain’s 1,000 mosques) which took the lead in the anti-Rushdie agitation, setting the agenda for the most forceful expression of Muslim feeling ever witnessed in Britain. Lewis shows how the Bradford Council of Mosques, a model of cooperation between different Muslim sects established on the initiative of Bradford City Council, tried to orchestrate the campaign against Rushdie and Penguin, his publishers, until the issue was hi-jacked by the Ayatollah Khomeini for very different purposes. His account, though without any new insights, is fair and judicious, locating the source of scandal not in the abstract domain of Muslim ‘fanaticism’ but in the specific concerns of a group of South Asian Muslims who saw the book as an attack on the honour of the Prophet Muhammad, their most revered religious symbol.

Though Lewis writes with considerable sympathy about a community – or rather, series of communities – beset by conflicting economic and social pressures, he does not evade the conceptual and theological difficulties facing a religion whose triumphalist character was forged under conditions of conquest and global dominion. One symptom of the way Islam is ‘programmed for victory’ at source, as it were, is the law of apostasy by which men such as Rushdie may be condemned to death for leaving the faith into which they were born. Lewis cites several statements by Muslim preachers and editors which reveal that religious imperial ambitions still hold sway even in Britain, where Muslims are a relatively small minority. It seems clear that most of the ‘ulama (religious scholars) in Britain are unequal to the task of formulating a theology appropriate to societies in which individuals are offered freedom of religious choice. Yet as Lewis points out, this is the situation that now faces approximately a quarter of the world’s Muslims, who live in predominantly non-Muslim societies, ‘Religious freedom for the individual, as enjoyed by the West, is not seen as a positive good but rather an unfortunate necessity to be borne.’

There are some indications that the situation may be changing and that significant Muslim organisations are moving in the direction of voluntarism. Although the puritanical Deobandi sect – the second largest group of British Muslims – has yet to renounce the essentially political aim of having Muslim law accepted by Parliament, their principal offshoot, the Tablighi Jamaat, is explicitly pietistic and non-political. It is also one of the world’s fastest growing Muslim sects, with a presence in more than ninety countries from Malaysia to Canada. Even within Muslim majority countries it avoids the argument that Islam must supply the framework for political life. A similar trend towards the separation of religion and politics is observable even in the formerly militant Jamaat-i-Islami, the South Asian counterpart to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which has recently toned down its message in an effort to recruit converts in the West.

As in Bradford, so globally: the Islamic militancy that dominates the headlines proves, on closer inspection, to offer a less formidable challenge to a secular, hedonistic West than appeared to be the case 16 years ago. The Iranian revolution, hailed in 1979 as an Islamist victory, has failed to break out of the Shi‘ite sectarian enclave in which it occurred. The failure of Shi‘ites to rise up against Saddam Hussein between 1980 and 1988, despite his murder of their leaders, proved that in Iraq at least national allegiances were stronger than sectarian or religious ones. The overwhelming majority of Iraqi Shi‘ites fought loyally for Iraq during the First Gulf War. However much pressure it may have been subjected to, this majority (and Arab Shi‘ites make up about 60 per cent of the Iraqi population) has shown no interest in a war against the Iraqi state. The same inference must be drawn from Iran’s failure to intervene after Operation Desert Storm, when Saddam Hussein attacked the holy Shi‘ite cities of Najaf and Kerbala. The interests of the Iranian state took precedence over religious solidarity or the protection of the holiest shrines of the Shi‘a.

Iran is exceptional in having Shi‘ism as the state religion. As representatives of the Hidden Imam who, like Jesus, is expected to return one day to restore justice and peace to a world torn by conflict, the Shi‘ite ‘ulama constituted a separate estate comparable to the Christian clergy with responsibility for dispensing individual moral guidance and upholding the Shari‘a (religious law). They benefited directly from religious taxes and as trustees of religious endowments they administered large tracts of land – which from the Sixties brought them into conflict with the Shah over the latter’s ambitious land reforms. When the Shah’s regime collapsed, the ‘ulama, with their independent network of mosques, schools and properties, were able to take power under the radical banner of Khomeini, who broke with tradition by insisting on the active guardianship of the ‘ulama during the absence of the Hidden Imam. As mujtahids (independent interpreters of the Koran and other holy texts) the Shi‘ite ‘ulama incorporated a good deal of modern thinking into their understanding of the religious tradition – enough to make it possible for many of them to occupy positions of influence or power in a modern state.

The situation in Sunni countries like Algeria is more problematic, for no contemporary Islamist leader possesses authority comparable to Khomeini’s. The traditional Sunni ‘ulama, who for centuries had been subordinate to state power, had seen their role as guardians of the religious law restricted to the areas of family law and personal status. The task of bringing Islamic precepts into line with modern realities has largely been undertaken by thinkers and leaders from outside the ranks of the ‘ulama. Intellectuals and activists like the Indo-Pakistani Sayyid Abu’l Ala Mawdudi (d. 1979) and the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb (executed by Nasser in 1966) were mostly laymen without official ranking in the religious hierarchy. The radical movements they espoused (the Jamaat-i-Islami in South Asia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) contained a mixture of modernist and traditional elements.

However, as these movements have gained ground with mass support from the newly urbanised poor (the mustadhafin or ‘wretched ones’ from whom Khomeini drew his support in Iran), the message has gone down-market, with more naive and literal versions of the faith coming to the fore. For example, whereas in the past members of the Muslim Brotherhood adopted the typically modernist position that the Koranic penalties for theft (including amputation) should not be enforced until the perfect Islamic state, where no one could be driven to crime by need, had been instituted, the more traditionally-minded demand the restoration of these penalties, regardless of circumstances. Where modernists are ecumenically-minded, upholding Islam’s historical commitment to the religious liberties of the ‘peoples of the book’ (Jews and Christians, and by extension members of other scriptural faiths), traditionalist groups use the pretext of the struggle (jihad) against the ‘infidel West’ to attack foreigners, Shi‘ites or local Christians. The division between the Islamists and more traditional elements, or ‘neo-fundamentalists’ as Olivier Roy calls them, is drawn most sharply on the highly emotive question of the status and rights of women. Where the Islamists argue that the Koran endowed women with full civil and religious rights and that women should participate in social and political life so long as sexual segregation is maintained, neo-fundamentalists insist that woman’s place is the home. In Iran chador-clad women were highly visible in the street demonstrations that brought down the Shah; in the Algerian crisis, despite initial female participation in anti-government demonstrations, they have been conspicuous by their absence. FIS leaders are against women’s right to work, a right Khomeini conceded in 1979 (though he had opposed it in 1963). Where the Islamists, by no means all of them Shi‘ites, nevertheless look to Iran for their model, neo-fundamentalists, despite their attacks on the petrodollar princes with their pro-Western foreign policies, are more attuned to the Saudi model where women are socially invisible outside the home. Disagreement between the more progressive Shi‘ite mujahidin groups backed by Iran and neo-fundamentalists supported by Saudi Arabia over the right of women to vote was a major cause of the breakdown of the 1990 peace agreements in Afghanistan. Issues of personal status (wives, family, divorce) continue to be the main area of contention between Islamists and neo-fundamentalists in Egypt, Pakistan and other predominantly Sunni countries, with the latter demanding adherence to the letter of the Shari‘a but not the social and educational improvements demanded by the former.

The absence of a modernising hierarchy capable of enacting reforms makes it probable that the Algerian neo-fundamentalists will eventually win out, despite recent claims by Islamist opposition leaders that they are committed to religious tolerance and human rights. Unlike the Islamists, who try to embrace modernity on their own cultural terms, the neo-fundamentalists are rabidly opposed to everything that fails to conform to their received notions of Islam. A foretaste of FIS victory occurred in Algeria in 1990 when a large number of municipalities came under neo-fundamentalist control. Not only was alcohol banned but also rai (a blend of traditional music and rock); subsidies for athletics were abolished, nightclubs were closed and decrees were introduced making ‘Islamic attire’ obligatory. The victory of traditionalism at the micro-level, Olivier Roy predicts, is already being reflected in the Muslim world at large. In the very different context of Afghanistan, a country riven by ethnic and tribal divisions, the triumph of the Islamic mujahidin over the Russians led, not to an Islamic state, but to a return to a traditional, if reconfigured, segmentation and to power struggles that are more ethnic than ideological. The combined effects of the war and the Iranian revolution are leading to an increase in sectarian conflicts, notably in Pakistan, where Sunni militants are now preaching the jihad against Shi‘ite infidels. Despite the Islamist rhetoric from Algeria, where the war between the Islamists and the government has already cost some 40,000 lives, the overall picture is not of a concerted, or even coherent, challenge to the West and the corrupt and ‘infidel’ regimes it allegedly supports, but of a Muslim world in danger of being torn apart by local and regional feuds and rivalries, all conducted in the name of Islam.

Roy’s analysis of the conflicting Islamic currents is impressive in both its range and grasp of detail. This is an important book and deserves the widest possible readership. Since its original publication in French in 1992, events from Pakistan to Algeria have vindicated Roy’s analysis of the social and ideological forces at work in the Muslim world. The failure to which the title refers, like the failure of Communism, is connected to the inadequacy of virtue as a political principle. One need not deny the moral idealism of the Islamists (despite the atrocities the extremists have committed in Algeria and elsewhere) to recognise the poverty of their political philosophy. The great weakness of modern Islamic political thought, in Roy’s view, is the closed or virtuous circle in which it is trapped. Virtue as a political principle was tried in France in 1789: Islamist political principles may fall short of totalitarian terror, but they lead nowhere. Political institutions function only as a result of the virtue of those who run them; but virtue can become widespread only if society is already ‘Islamic’.

Rather than offering a radically new political vision for a Muslim world beset by tyrannical, corrupt and incompetent regimes, Islamism is proving incapable of unifying the Muslim world, or even changing the regional balance of power. The result, as Roy sees it, is little more than a bid for political power justified in Islamic terms. Despite a formal commitment to the solidarity of the Islamic umma (worldwide community) and even, in some cases, to a restored universal Caliphate, the Muslim national state remains the only plausible object of political ambitions. ‘From Casablanca to Tashkent, the Islamists have moulded themselves into the framework of existing states, adopting their modes of exercising power, their strategic demands, their nationalism.’ Although the Islamists are committed to the elimination of corruption, Roy argues that on acceeding to power they will face exactly the same alternatives that face the present regimes, as well as most other Third World governments: a tired and corrupt state socialism offset by a black market, or a liberal neo-conservatism constrained to follow the prescriptions of the International Monetary Fund, with occasional pious gestures in the direction of ‘Islamic banks’. The ‘restoration of the Shari‘a’ simply means that Islamisation will target personal law and penal law, as has happened in Pakistan.

This is not, however, a totalitarian onslaught comparable to attacks on intellectuals in Nazi Germany or the former Soviet bloc. Under the Islamist rubric, the family remains sacrosanct. Because the Shari‘a protects the family – the only institution to which it grants real autonomy – the culture of Muslims under neo-fundamentalist rule will become passive, privatised and consumerist. The practical effects of Islamisation entail, not a confrontation with the West, but rather a cultural retreat into the mosque and private family space. It is impossible to censor satellite dishes, videos, faxes, e-mail or access to the internet – except in small, highly urbanised areas. By attempting to silence indigenous artists like Tasleema Nasreen, Naguib Mahfouz or Yousuf Chahine, the Islamists are successfully attacking the public culture of the countries in which they operate. If the Islamists come to power, Muslims under Islamist rule will become passive consumers of, rather than active participants in, the emerging global culture. Despite recent bans on satellite dishes and attacks on the technicians who install them (many of whom have had their throats cut in Algeria), the militants will never be able to stop the flow of this consumption. Herein, Roy predicts, lies a savage irony: having terrorised the Muslim artists and intellectuals on whom local cultures depend, for challenging their narrow versions of Islam, the militants have cleared the way for the thing they most profess to hate: the Americanisation of their culture at its most vulnerable spot – in the bosom of the Muslim family.

Given Western dominance over international communications systems, there is a challenge and an opportunity here. The Muslim diaspora in Europe and the United States is bound to become an increasingly powerful force within the Muslim lands, not least because of the intellectual freedoms it enjoys and the greater access it has for getting its message across. Significant modernist thinkers like Muhammad Arkoun, currently residing in France, or the British Muslim philosopher Shabbir Akhtar, who came to prominence as a defender of ‘fundamentalism’ during the Rushdie affair but has since modified his views, may have only a marginal impact at present. But if Olivier Roy’s analysis is correct, their influence is likely to grow as the failure of political Islam to deliver on its promises leads to disillusionment and decline. With globalisation eroding the classic distinction between Dar al-Islam(the sphere of Islam) and Dar al-Harb (the sphere of war), the coming decades are likely to see a retreat from direct political action and a renewed emphasis on the voluntary, personal and private aspects of the faith.

For all the efforts of political Islam to conquer the state, on the basis of new collectivist ideologies constructed on the ruins of Marxism and using some of its materials, the processes of historical and technological change point remorselessly towards increasing individualism and personal choice – primary agents of secular modernity. Conflicts as different as those of Palestine, Kashmir and Algeria may continue to be articulated in Islamic terms, but the long-term prospects for Islam point to inevitable depoliticisation. Muslim souls are likely to find the path of inner exploration more rewarding than revolutionary politics. Sadly, much blood remains to be spilt along the way.