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Islam today is not the islam of the past
July 14, 2010, 1:37 pm
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A media reliant on scandal has colluded with self-promoting but marginal Muslim clerics to create a cycle of self-reinforcing myths around the Mohammed cartoons, writes Kenan Malik. The fear of causing offence has helped undermine progressive trends in Islam and strengthened the hand of religious bigots.

In Ireland seven people are arrested over an alleged plot to kill Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks, who had depicted the Prophet Mohammad with the body of a dog in the newspaper Nerikes Allehanda. In Aarhus, a Somalian axeman tries to hack down Kurt Westergaard, the most controversial of the Jyllands-Posten cartoonists. In London, Faisal Yamani, a Saudi lawyer, threatens to use Britain’s notorious libel laws to sue ten Danish newspapers that published the cartoons in the name of all 95,000 “descendants of Mohammed.”

Five years after Jyllands-Posten published its now-notorious caricatures, the reverberations are still being felt. And not just by the cartoonists. The threats and violence that continue to surround their publication have had a chilling impact upon writers, publishers, gallery owners and theatre directors. Two years ago, the American publishing giant Random House dropped The Jewel of Medina, a breezy, romantic tale about Aisha, the Prophet Mohammad’s youngest wife, after fears that it might prove offensive. When, last year, Yale University Press published The Cartoons that Shook the World, Jytte Klausen’s scholarly study of the cartoon controversy, it refused, much to her disgust, to include any of the cartoons. When the free speech magazine Index on Censorship, published an interview with Klausen about Yale’s decision, it too refused to show any of the cartoons.

“You would think twice, if you were honest,” said Ramin Gray, the Associate Director at London’s Royal Court Theatre when asked he would put on a play critical of Islam. “You’d have to take the play on its individual merits, but given the time we’re in, it’s very hard, because you’d worry that if you cause offence then the whole enterprise would become buried in a sea of controversy. It does make you tread carefully.” In June 2007, the theatre cancelled a new adaptation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, set in Muslim heaven, for fear of causing offence. Another London theatre, the Barbican, carved chunks out of its production of Tamburlaine the Great for the same reason, while Berlin’s Deutsche Oper cancelled a production of Mozart’s Idomeneo in 2006 because of its depiction of Mohammed. Three years ago, the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague removed an exhibition of photos by the Iranian artist Sooreh Hera that depicted gay men wearing masks of Muhammed. “Certain people in our society might perceive it as offensive”, said Museum director Wim van Krimpen. De Volkskrant, a leftwing Dutch newspaper, praised the museum for its “great professionalism” in excising the images. Hera herself received death threats. Tim Marlow of London’s White Cube art gallery suggested that such self-censorship by artists and museums was now common, though “very few people have explicitly admitted” it.

For many, all this suggests a fundamental conflict between the values of Islam and those of the West. The American writer Christopher Caldwell in his controversial book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, published last year, argues that Muslim migration to Europe has been akin to a form of colonization. “Since its arrival half a century ago”, Caldwell observes, “Islam has broken – or required adjustments to, or rearguard defences of – a good many of the European customs, received ideas and state structures with which it has come in contact.” Islam “is not enhancing or validating European culture; it is supplanting it.”

This idea of a “clash of civilizations” was first mooted twenty years ago in the wake of the Salman Rushdie affair by the historian Bernard Lewis and popularized a few years later by the American political scientist Samuel Huntingdon. Today, it has become almost common sense. “All over again”, as the novelist Martin Amis has put it, “the West confronts an irrationalist, agonistic, theocratic/ideocratic system which is essentially and unappeasably opposed to its existence.”

Yet, even as he goes along with the clash of civilizations thesis, Caldwell reveals its inadequacies. “What secular Europeans call ‘Islam'”, he points out, “is a set of values that Dante and Erasmus would recognize as theirs”. On the other hand, the modern, secular rights that now constitute “core European values” would “leave Dante and Erasmus bewildered.”

In other words, what we now regard as “Western values” – individual rights, secularism, freedom of speech – are modern values, distinct from those that animated European societies in the past. And it’s not just medieval Europeans who would reject contemporary European values. Many contemporary Europeans do too. The British writer Melanie Phillips is militantly hostile to what she sees as the “Islamic takeover of the West” and what she calls “the drift towards social suicide” that comes with accepting Muslim immigration. Yet she is deeply sympathetic to the Islamist rejection of secular humanism, which she thinks has created “a debauched and disorderly culture of instant gratification, with disintegrating families, feral children and violence, squalor and vulgarity on the streets.” Muslims “have concluded that the society that expects them to identify with it is a moral cesspit”, Phillips argues. “Is it any wonder, therefore, that they reject it?” Caldwell, too, thinks that while the West’s current encounter with Islam may be “painful and violent”, it has also been, “an infusion of oxygen into the drab, nitpicking, materialist intellectual life of the West”, for which we need to express our “gratitude”.

There is, in other words, no single set of European values that transcends history in opposition to Islamic values. Nor indeed is there a single set of western values today. The very values against which radical Islamists rail – the values of secular humanism – are the very values that so disgust some of Islam’s greatest critics.

If there is no such thing as a set of “European values” that transcend time, the same is true of “Islamic values”. Islam, like all religions, comprises both a set of beliefs and a complex of social institutions, traditions and cultures that bind people in a special relationship to a particular conception of the sacred. Over the centuries, those institutions and cultures have transformed the reading of the Qur’an and the practice of Islam. Religions, like all social forms, cannot stand still. Islam today can no more be like the Islam of the seventh century than Mecca today can look like the city of Mohammed’s time.

Islam has been transformed not just through time but across space too. The spread of the faith from the Atlantic Coast to the Indonesian archipelago and beyond incorporated peoples who fitted into Qur’anic scripture many of their old religious and social practices. What Pakistani Mirpuris see as traditional Islam is very different from that of North African Bedouins. And what British Mirpuris see as traditional is different from the traditions of Mirpuris still in Mirpur. “The key question”, the French sociologist Olivier Roy points out, “is not what the Koran actually says, but what Muslims say the Qur’an says.” Muslims continually disagree on what the Qur’an says, he adds dryly, “while all stressing that the Koran is unambiguous and clear-cut.”

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