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Islam under Siege
Book Review
Yoginder Sikand

Author: Akbar S. Ahmed

Publisher: Polity Press, Cambridge

Year: 2003

Pages: 213

ISBN: 0-7456-2210-0


The collapse of the Soviet Union has led to a unipolar world, with America left as the only global super power. Maintaining global hegemony requires the presence of an ideological enemy to justify one’s own imperialist agenda, and it is thus not surprising that with the demise of communism, radical Islamism has now taken that place for the American establishment. If both Islamists as well as their American adversaries are to be believed, the world is now heading for a global clash of civilisations, with the ‘West’ pitted against the ‘Muslim world’.

This book is a forceful plea for sanity at a time when voices for moderation and balance seem to have been overwhelmed by shrill muscle-flexing rhetoric. Akbar Ahmed, a leading Pakistani scholar, argues that the clash of civilisations thesis, so central to both American imperialist as well as radical Islamist discourse, is deeply flawed. It assumes the existence of monolithic civilisational blocs, which is far from being the case. Strong links, economic, political, social and cultural, tie all regions of the world together, and no part of the world can remain hermetically sealed off from influences emanating from outside. Then again, the very notion of a homogenous ‘Western’ or ‘Muslim’ world is itself misleading. Today, several million Muslims live in the West. Likewise, both the ‘West’ as well as the ‘Muslim world’ are deeply fissured by internal divisions of class, race, ethnicity, sect, language and so on, which makes the use of monolithic categories to describe them completely fallacious.

Akbar opines, and rightly so, that many Muslims today consider Islam to be under siege from a range of perceived enemies. This, in his view, owes to a number of factors that have led to a situation of deep crises in large parts of the ‘Muslim world’. The existence of dictatorial regimes in many countries generally backed up by Western powers, the complete lack of internal democracy and the co-optation of large sections of the ‘ulāma by ruling elites have led to new, militant forms of Islamic expression as a means to ventilate protest and dissent. The blind aping of the West by ruling elites is seen by many as a hidden western conspiracy to destroy Muslim culture from within. Western imperialism, as evidenced most clearly in America’s unflinching support to Israel, further compounds the problem, further confirming the belief of Islam being under grave threat from a range of ideological foes who come to be perceived as ‘enemies of God’. Recent events, such as the invasion of Afghanistan and now Iraq, only seem to have further confirmed this widespread conviction.

The sense of being under siege then turns to anger and violent rage, Ahmed says, because the traditional mechanisms for conflict resolution have now collapsed. The Sufi orders do no longer have popular appeal in an age of rampant and crass consumerism. Now, protest takes the form of militant rhetoric, which can then easily escalate into violence, especially since the enemies—particularly Western imperialism—are seen as so menacing. Paraphrasing the famous medieval north African Muslim scholar, Ibn Khaldūn, Ahmed refers to this as  ‘hyper asabiyyah or ‘super-tribalism’, wherein the world is seen in stark Manichean terms, with the good (pious Muslims) and the evil (all others) engaged in a bloody struggle for world domination.

Understanding the roots of alienation and anger in large parts of the Muslim world is not to condone it, Akbar tells us. Rather, it is indispensable in order to explore suitable means to effectively deal with the problem. On a broader level, of course, this has much to do with the political processes over which individuals have no control—structures of global imperialism, entrenched local elites backed up by America and so on. Yet, Akbar argues that there is much that individual Muslims can and should do. He reminds his readers that Islam, like any other religion, can be interpreted in diverse ways in order to support a diverse range of social and political agendas. The task before the concerned believer today, he says, is to explore those understandings of Islam that promote openness, dialogue with people of other faiths and working together with them for social justice. Akbar does not appear to see the traditional scholars as fully willing or even equipped for the task, for their understanding of Islamic jurisprudence is one that, in many respects, remains frozen in a medieval mould. This, then, urges him to call for a reconsideration of the notion of the ‘other’, based on the Sufistic concept of sulh-i-kul or ‘welfare of all’ that is rooted in an acknowledgement of our common humanity. New understanding of what it means to be Muslim today, based on a contextual ijtihād, Akbar seems to suggest, is urgently required in order to creatively respond to the manifold challenges that Muslims are today faced with.

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