The yearning for an Islamic state has been bloody and fruitless. This is a major theme of Tarek Fatah’s heavily researched yet easily read book. He goes back to the origins of Islam to show the wrong-headedness of the notion. Mohammed, who developed the political system of Medina, did not try to replicate that model when he moved to take control of Mecca.
After the death of Mohammed, Fatah documents the rise to power of the first four caliphs, the “Rightly Guided Caliphs”. Rather than following some specific formula based on Islam, each attained his position in a different manner, with becoming a caliph depending on maneuvering and power politics. This same pattern follows throughout the history of Islamic political entities. One would, he claims, be hard put to find a Qu’ranic basis for their behavior.
The historical collapse of these countries he traces to various factors. Rather than adhering to the democratic ethos which he claims for the Qu’ran (though it does not forbid slavery), governments have been racist, with a strong Arab supremacist flavor, and special favor was given to descent from Mohammed. Nevertheless, his progeny were prone to being slain, as their special status was a threat to other claimants to power. Another factor was the curse of polygamy and concubinage, with the mothers conspiring to place their sons in power. It short, there was no standard way of determining who would come to power. As a result, any claim for an Islamic governance is historical nonsense. There has never been a state that can be identified as Islamic in any standard sense, certainly not on the basis of any reference to what Mohammed did or said.
Fatah also points out that the flowering of Islamic culture and learning, as it occurred in Spain and Iraq, was multi-cultural and tolerant. Where fundamentalism prevailed, so did stagnation. Orthodoxy suppressed progress, for which questioning and diversity are essential.
In the contemporary world, Fatah takes aim at such Islamic states as Iran and Saudi Arabia, Pakistan in the recent past, and Gaza as a burgeoning effort. He displays the ugly warts of each. While he decries the discrimination against women that these countries practice, he does not draw an obvious conclusion about the backwardness that they display. Quite simply, the suppression of half the population is going to be a drag on a country.
So far, so good. Then problems with the book arise. He suggests that Tariq Ramadan is slyly trying to slip a reactionary Islam into power in the West “when the soil was fertile,” because Ramadan said that the demand for sharia courts showed Muslims’ “lack of creativity.” This is character assassination. In covering for The Arab American News two consecutive conferences, one on Islamic finance and the other a conference of the Islamic Society of North America — Canada (ISNA), I had the occasion to put a question to Ramadan.
During the banking conference, there was, as expected, a denunciation of interest. So what, two speakers were asked, should a university student do? If he can’t afford to go to university without a student loan, should he take the loan or not go to university? The two respondents disagreed with each other, one saying that the sin of interest is paramount, while the other said that learning is more important than the prohibition of interest. I put the question to Ramadan after he had spoken at the ISNA conference. He answered that, in the West, we use interest. So, if Fatah has the goods on Ramadan, set them out. Innuendo is not acceptable.
Fatah spends print attacking Islamic finance as an entering wedge for sharia and Islamism. Perhaps, but he does not note the fact that in Muslim countries Islamic banking is quite secondary to regular banking in importance.
He criticizes the considerable influence of Saudi money in promoting the Wahabist form of Islam in mosques and Muslim institutions in Canada, the U.S., and elsewhere, and then he throws in Dubai’s financial support. What is missing is a recognition that Dubai’s Islam is far from that of Saudi Arabia. The fact that Dubai exploits foreign workers is deplorable, but so is Fatah’s sleight of hand in this conjunction of the Saudis and Dubai.
Fatah makes it sound as if ISNA is a Saudi Wahabist front organization. As I said, I covered the ISNA convention in Ottawa. My impression was that of a gentile, tolerant group of people. They were uncomfortable with homosexuality when the issue arose, but the woman chairing that session apologized to the gay man who was the speaker, saying that ISNA had not yet come fully to grips with the issue. The executive director of the Canadian Jewish Congress was an invited speaker, and when he said that his organization opposed the Danish cartoons, he was warmly and spontaneously applauded. The religious leaders and others who spoke defended a tolerant Islam. Only a few women in attendance wore the niqab, and a number did not wear the hijab, including the two daughters of Imam Zijad Delic, the Executive Director of the Canadian Islamic Congress.
In short, there is a lot in this book that is informative, but caveat emptor. He unnecessarily blackens people with whom he does not agree. Yet, there is one person to whom I unhesitantly recommend the book. Jeff Goodall, writing in the wildly right-wing webzine Free Dominion, accuses Fatah of being an Islamist and an apologist for jihad. Goodall desperately needs enlightenment on this matter, as on so many others.