View Printable Version :: Email to a Friend
Islam, Muslims and the US: Essays on Religion and Politics
Book Review
Yoginder Sikand


Author: Asma Barlas

Publisher: Global Media Publications, New Delhi

Year: 2004

Pages: 144

Price: Rs.350 (India), $20 (elsewhere)

ISBN: 81-88869-09-0


The ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis has occasioned a veritable flood of writings seeking to prove the compatibility or otherwise between two entities defined in monolithic terms as ‘Islam’ and the ‘West’. The very notion of two such radically distinct entities has been, and rightly so, questioned, and numerous scholars have pleaded for a more nuanced and contextual understandings of relations across what are often defined as civilizational boundaries. This collection of essays by the noted US-based Pakistani scholar Asma Barlas does the same, seeking to locate the issue of Muslim responses to the West in a broad historical framework.

Barlas contends that the ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis is entirely misplaced. By treating the ‘Muslim world’ and the ‘West’ as two radically distinct, indeed antagonistic entities, it ignores both internal divisions and conflicts within both these ‘worlds’ as well as significant overlaps and connections. Yet, she says, particularly in the aftermath of the events of 11 September, 2001, Muslims are increasingly depicted in the Western media as a monolith, generally presented as a menacing threat to the West. In this way, Muslims are denied their individuality, as all Muslims come to be seen as somehow complicit in an all-out war against the ‘West’. She contrasts this with the ways in which Jewish, Christian or Hindu extremists are generally portrayed in the Western media. They are treated as aberrant individuals, and not as representatives of their faith communities or religious traditions as a whole. Hence, for instance, Hitler is seen as a tyrant, but is not presumed to represent ‘Christian terrorism’. In a sense, Barlas argues, the demonization of Muslims is a legacy of the fierce polemical battles between Christians and Muslims from the times of the Crusades, which are today being revived under different circumstances.

Another major problem with the ways in which Muslims are often portrayed in the media, Barlas points out, is that conflicts involving Muslims and others, in particular the ‘West’, are generally described without locating them in a wider historical context. Without seeking to condone these conflicts, which often take violent tones, Barlas says they must be seen, in part, as a response to Western imperialism, past and present. In this regard, she makes the obvious point that the problem of Islamic extremism cannot be solved simply through military means. Rather, it requires that the West take major political initiatives such as sincerely working to resolve the Palestinian issue. Barlas sees the US administration as doing precisely the reverse, however. Rather than seriously addressing the political factors that have led to such an explosive situation it has cut down on civil liberties at home, invaded Iraq, and still shows no signs of pressurizing the Israelis into making any concessions. All this and more is leading to mass resentment against America among many Muslims, she warns.

Rebutting the claim that militancy in some parts of the Muslim world stems, at root, from a supposed vehement opposition to democracy in Islam itself, Barlas contends that it is precisely the denial of democracy and the brutal slaughter of masses of innocents, in which the United States is deeply involved, that fuels the flames of discontent and protest in much of the ‘Muslim world’. If at all the Americans were so concerned about democracy in the Muslim world, she rightly asks, how does one explain the cozy relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia, one of the most authoritarian regimes in the world? By no stretch of imagination, she adds, could the sanctions imposed by America on Iraq, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, be called democratic. Nor, too, can the American bombing of Afghanistan or the Anglo-American invasion and occupation of Iraq, in which, to date, a hundred thousand people have perished.

Barlas warns about the dangers of the ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, with the US refusing to back down from its aggressive imperialist agenda. She dismisses as worthless the efforts on the part of the US to search for ‘moderate’ Muslim allies, saying that, as the US sees it, such voices are those that simply toe the American line. As a Muslim moderate herself she sees this as a major challenge and threat to voices of sanity in the ‘Muslim world’, who can now easily be branded as ‘imperialist agents’ by their radical Islamist opponents.

At the same time as Barlas forcefully critiques American imperialism she also passionately argues against Islamist extremists, who, like the neo-conservatives in the American establishment as well as Zionists and Christian fundamentalists, see the battle between ‘Islam’ and the ‘West’ as a cosmic struggle between good and evil. She insists on the need for moderate Muslims scholars and activists to engage in the struggle for Islamic discursive hegemony. If they do not, she says, the extremists will monopolize the field, thus further reinforcing the deeply-held notion of Muslims being pitted against the rest of the world.

A large section of the book is devoted to discussing the theoretical framework of what Barlas sees as an understanding of Islam that is relevant in the contemporary context. She refers with approval to the Iranian scholar Abdul Karim Soroush, who makes a clear distinction between religion as absolute truth, on the one hand, and human understandings of religion, which are always limited and historically conditioned, on the other. By doing so, Barlas critiques the tendency to valorize one or the other understanding of Islam as absolute or normative. She uses this distinction to critically interrogate patriarchal understandings of Islam, claiming that these understandings do not represent an authentic reading of the Qur’an, which, she says, preaches absolute gender equality. Although she does not directly do so, the same principle could be used to challenge understandings of Islam that are predicated on the notion of all non-Muslims being, by definition, ‘enemies of Islam’, a belief that is widely held in some radical Islamist circles.

As a scholar-activist, Barlas writes with a passion that stems from her personal commitment to social justice, critiquing both Western imperialism and Islamist extremism at the same time, both of which she sees as grave challenges to humanity. As a collection of articles that were earlier published in a newspaper, this book is aimed at a broad readership. It would, nevertheless, be of interest to specialists as well, in addition to just about anyone concerned at the way the world is heading.

For Questions on Islam, please use our

Replica Handbags Bottega Veneta fake Bvlgari fake Celine fake Christian Dior fake Gucci fake Gucci Bag fake Gucci Wallet fake Gucci Shoes fake Gucci Belt fake Hermes fake Loewe fake Louis Vuitton fake Louis Vuitton Belt fake Louis Vuitton Calf Leather fake Louis Vuitton Damier Azur Canvas fake Louis Vuitton Damier Ebene Canvas fake Louis Vuitton Damier Graphite Canvas fake Louis Vuitton Damier Infini Leather fake Louis Vuitton Damier Quilt lamb fake Louis Vuitton Embossed Calfskin fake Louis Vuitton Epi fake Louis Vuitton Game On Monogram Canvas fake Louis Vuitton Jewellery fake Louis Vuitton Key Holder fake Louis Vuitton Mahina Leather fake Louis Vuitton Monogram Canvas fake Louis Vuitton Monogram Denim fake Louis Vuitton Monogram Eclipse Canvas fake Louis Vuitton Monogram Empreinte fake Louis Vuitton Monogram Seal fake Louis Vuitton Monogram Shadow fake Louis Vuitton Monogram Vernis fake Louis Vuitton Monogram Watercolor fake Louis Vuitton New Wave fake Louis Vuitton Shoes fake Louis Vuitton Since 1854 fake Louis Vuitton Strap fake Louis Vuitton Taiga Leahter fake Louis Vuitton Taurillon leather fake Louis Vuitton Transformed Game On canvas fake Louis Vuitton Utah Calfskin fake Louis Vuitton X Supreme fake Mulberry fake Prada fake YSL fake