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Questions we ignore


It is easier to dismiss jihadis as brainwashed foot soldiers. Tougher to realise that “Islamic fundamentalism” provides many with answers, however flawed or distorted, to questions we do not even bother to ask.

Photo: AP

Sceptical response to the "war on terror": Muslims protesting pre-dawn arrests in the U.K. recently

ZIAUDDIN SARDAR is one of the very few writers who have managed to say something perceptive and balanced in the wake of Islamic “jihad” and the Western “war against Terror”. As such, when even Sardar succumbs to the reductive analysis that, basically, jihadis are empty-headed, brain-washed morons (“The Terror of Self-satisfaction”, New Statesman, April 23), I find it more disturbing than all the bombs dropped on Iraq or suicid e attacks by Islamic terrorists.

From our perspective (and I speak firmly from the West, which is where I am located geographically and discursively), it is easy to spot the rot coming from Islamic fundamentalists: their inane analysis of modernity, as offered in texts attributed to Bin Laden and others, or their copycat anti-Semitism are just two obvious instances. Again, not having bought the hard-sell of Bush and Blair, we can also spot the obvious rubbish coming from various born-again imperious crusaders in the West. But can we spot the rubbish that we ourselves — educated, left-leaning, open-minded that we are — have been pushed to spout more and more often under the new circumstances inflicted on us by Bin, Bush, Blair and Sons, Unlimited?

Illuminating story

Let me tell you a story. When I last returned to my hometown in Bihar, I was visited — as is the case in such places — by anyone who knew me, or had known my father, or my grandfather. And sometimes even by people who knew my mother, or grandmother. As I had a reputation — vain-gloriously exaggerated by family and friends in a small and backward place — as an “internationally-published writer”, a number of these visitors turned out to be people with literary ambitions.

One of them offered me a book, privately printed, on the “Middle East”. I shuddered to flip through it, but there was no polite way I could refuse to do so. I had already been told that the book discussed Israel, and I hardened myself for the usual invective. More so, as I knew that the person offering it to me, and the author (let us call him X), would be considered Muslim fundamentalists by most liberals in the West. It turned out, however, that I was mistaken. The book did not fulminate against Jews. In fact, it argued that Jews and Muslims share (and had shared) much. Then, it argued — somewhat more predictably — that Jews have been turned into scapegoats by powers (and religious Christians) in the West in order to control the Middle East.

I suggested to my benefactor that perhaps X’s second thesis revealed a degree of paranoia and had to do with his overly religious (Islamic) view of the world. He was surprised. He drew for me a verbal map of Asia-Africa-Europe. Then he traced on that map how “Europeanised Christianity” had been encroaching upon the Muslim world for “300 years”, and how every century the Muslim world had been shrinking and was now hardly left with a country without Western military presence.

Dealing with difference

Not tending to think in terms of “Muslim” or “Christian” worlds, I was taken aback by this view of history. I did not agree with the version provided by X or the man who had given me X’s book, as I prefer seeing matters in term of Capitalism, modernity etc., but I could not dismiss him as a moron. By no means. True, he is not the kind of fundamentalist who would toss bombs, or not yet anyway. He might share the kind of anger and frustration that I have also heard in the voices of Muslim youth who are capable of violent reaction. Could I simply dismiss his version of history? Could I tell him that he was a brain-washed person, whose humanity was being “flushed out” by Islamic fundamentalism (as Sardar puts it in New Statesman)?

I know — and I agree with Sardar — that a jihadi suicide bomber is another matter. Any person who can take the life of innocent bystanders must have lost some essential part of his humanity. And yet, when did this loss t ake place? How did it take place? And why? It is these questions that we sweep under the carpet when we focus on the jihadi suicide bomber, rather than on the Islamic fundamentalist. The jihadi suicide bomber is too much the Other: he, and it is mostly a he, is beyond our comprehension. But he is not beyond the comprehension of most Islamic fundamentalists. Ask them about it, and you will find out that they, even when they disagree, do not view the jih adi suicide bomber as an Other, someone who can only be understood in terms of absolute negativity (Bush’s “evil”) or absolute emptiness (Sardar’s “flushed humanity”).

Attractions of an ideology

No, most Islamic fundamentalists can comprehend the jihadi suicide bomber. And most of us can comprehend the Islamic fundamentalist, if we do not reduce him or her to the absolute otherness of the “suicide bomber”.

Flying back to Denmark and later in England, I discussed the attraction of Islamic fundamentalism with a number of young people. All of them were from Muslim backgrounds, though many were non-religious. Their reaction to both the “war against Terror” and the discourses of “Islamic jihad” was sceptical — and this scepticism did not always depend on how religious the student was. But then I found a vague pattern of difference between religious Muslim stu dents and students from Muslim backgrounds who did not practise their faith. It appeared that the religious students had a greater sense of a world community, often but not always a “Muslim community”.

I looked around and noticed that despite academic discussions of globalisation, the actual socio-political and legal reality in places like Denmark or England was strongly defined along national lines. And even more so, if you came from Africa and Asia — for, the relative mobility available to European Union citizens would be seldom extended to you. The political discourse was often — more in Denmark and Austria, less in England or France — in terms of national identities, sometimes conflated with “European-ness”. However, the lived experience of these students was predominantly that of “globalisation”. In this context, suddenly, I realised that at least some of them related to religious Islam as a “progressive” category. It provided for them a clear acknowledgement of aspects of their varied identities that exceeded national boundaries.

Absence of an alternative

Perhaps if Socialism had not been dismissed in Europe or mostly reduced to nationalist protectionism, these young men and women might have had another discourse about being citizens of the World, and not just citizens of Denmark or England, or immigrants. Lacking that alternative, Islam appeared to at least the religious students to be more in tune with their present — and the future — than the discourses implicit in the rhetoric of politicians who worried about “Islamic fundamentalism”. These students were not fundamentalists, but perhaps some of them would not need to be “brain-washed” in order to be recruited to some version of Islamic fundamentalism in the future?

It is time for us in the West to realise that Islamic fundamentalism — in very different ways in Afghanistan, Iraq, Denmark and the U.S. — is providing many people with answers, however flawed and distorted, to questions that we do not even bother to ask at times, especially in the privileged West. Sometimes these answers come from the past — as in the case of the Madrassa students who, mostly reared on a staple diet of dysfunctional Islamist propaganda served as education, seldom have a choice but to turn to narrow, fundamentalist versions of Islam. But sometimes the answers are attempts to cope with the present, grope towards a better future. Above all, these are answers to questions that worry many men and women. Even if we disagree with the answers, we have to face up to the questions. We cannot ignore these questions simply because, given our affluence, passports, careers or location, they do not concern us overly.

Tabish Khair’s novel, Filming: A Love Story, is to be published by Picador this month.

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