In the preface to this collection of his weekly columns, written over the past six years for The National Post, novelist, essayist and poet George Jonas asks whether there is something about Islam that is conducive to the formation of extremist sects and radical movements? Is Islam a Petri dish in which a culture of fundamentalism thrives? Even to pose the question is enough to make liberals wince, he says; and yet, he is right to raise it. His answer, elaborated dartingly throughout the 48 little essays collected here, is arguably, yes.
The question is certainly crucial but will the attempt to formulate a plausible answer shed any light on the drastic predicament we find ourselves in today, caught as we are between the absolutist claims of murderous fanatics and the mushy and meaningless prevarications of wincing liberals? I have my doubts. For if Jonass question is recast, and Christianity substituted for Islam in his formulation, we should probably have to reply in the same way, except that arguably, yes, would become inarguably, yes.
A newly arrived Martian-an observer Jonas himself invokes-who examines the history of Christianity from at least the time of Justinian to the recent bloody troubles in Ireland, would be compelled to conclude that Christianity is conducive to the formation of extremist sects and radical movements. Nor would Christian scripture offer much by way of mitigation. After all, it was Christ, and not the Prophet Muhammad, who proclaimed, I come not to bring peace but a sword. The same can be said of the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament. There is nothing in the Koran quite so savage as the final line of Psalm 137, in which the Psalmist addresses Babylonian unbelievers, Happy is he who shall seize your children and dash them against the stones. These, and many other possible examples drawn from history and scripture (let alone the writings of the Church Fathers), would convince our Martian that Christianity was a religion wedded to violence, intolerance, and fanaticism! of the most intransigent sort.
Of course, Jonas knows this; his question is not merely rhetorical but seems intended more to provoke than to illumine. And that is good. For his real adversary throughout these incisive, brilliantly written, and often quite witty essays is not so much Islam, of which he has only a shadowy conception, but those smug and wince-prone bien pensants who imagine that the homicidal rage of jihadist Muslims can be appeased by a little tinkering with foreign policy or a vapid and meaningless respect for diversity. As Jonas remarks, It takes two to tango, but only one to mug. And he elaborates, Peace is a dialogue; war is a soliloquy. The non-Islamic world may cling to the illusion that Islam is tolerant and peaceful-Islam may be tolerant and peaceful, for that matter-but if Islam cannot, or will not, prevent fanatics acting in its name from terrorizing the non-Islamic world, sooner or later the non-Islamic world will find itself at war with Islam. This was written on Novembe! r 7, 2001-barely two months after the atrocities of September 11-and, sad to say, it is even truer today than it was then.
The excerpt just quoted shows both the strengths and the weaknesses of Jonass approach. It sounds the alarm, and rightly so; and yet, at the same time, it introduces a certain obfuscation all its own. What exactly is this Islam which Jonas hopes will prevent fanatics acting in its name? He never defines what he means by the term, trusting us no doubt to understand by Islam that ugly and virulent strain of the religion predominant in such places as Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. Apart from the fact that Islam has no central authority (that is part of the problem, at least for us), no papacy or council of churches, the use of such an abstraction is quite misleading. Again, if we substitute Christianity (or Judaism or Buddhism) for Islam in his sentence, its fallaciousness becomes obvious; would we really ever say if Christianity cannot, or will not, prevent fanatics acting in its name . . . ? Jonas sets up an abstraction and then proceeds to personify it.
He might have noted, in answer to his question, that there are indeed significant reasons why fanaticism can find if not its incentives, then much of its justification, in Islamic belief, especially as narrowly construed by Wahhabis and other fundamentalists. Jonas trots out the old notion that there is no separation of church and state in Islamic teaching; certainly this has been the case at times-and has been even recently, as under the thuggish Taliban of Afghanistan-but in practice Muslim rulers and their subjects knew very well how to distinguish between the two in matters of Realpolitik. Because Muslim jurists and others paid lip-service to a theocratic ideal-or even believed fervently in it-doesnt mean that it was invariably carried out (and, in fact, it usually wasnt). It seems to me that a better answer lies in the absence of any explicit prohibition on violence in the Islamic tradition; there is no Thou shalt not kill in the Islamic creed. Never mind that Chri! stians and Jews have ignored this commandment over the centuries, at least it stands written as an ideal, as a principle to haunt the conscience. Moreover, the Prophet Muhammad himself, as a man of his time, frequently resorted to violence against the adversaries of the nascent Muslim community. And because since his death in 632, the Prophet has served as an ideal model-what in Arabic is termed an uswah-the fact that he was a man of action, and sometimes a man of arms, has given some believers a sense of license to resort to violence, especially against those deemed unbelievers. Of course, most believers are drawn to imitate the many examples of Muhammads compassion and gentleness, his forebearance and humility; unfortunately, others, more selective in their zeal, prefer to imitate his warrior spirit. A simplistic reading of the Koran encourages this as well. For that scripture is characterised throughout by stark oppositions, not only between such natural signs as day ! and night, the changing seasons, male and female, but by a sharp delin eation between belief and unbelief, between believer and infidel; the sense of apartness, of distance from God, of something approaching defilement, with which unbelief (kufr in Arabic) is surrounded in the Koran can easily lend itself to a contempt for non-Muslims, especially in an unbalanced mind. Add to this the fact that such zealots dispense not only with interpretation and exegesis-fiercely rejecting any historical approach to either sacred texts or the traditions which emerged from them-but utterly reject any form of culture, as most of us understand it, and you have an explosive brew. In a Wahhabi kingdom such as Saudi Arabia, there are no theatres, no concert halls, no movie houses, no museums; there are bookstores but the titles available are limited to dogmatic theology and the occasional collection of verses on falconry. In such a context, in which the only civic space is represented by the mosque or the public square (reserved for the Friday beheadings), fana! ticism and intolerance feed on themselves and are fuelled as much by boredom as by belief.
Of course, despite his title, Jonas is not claiming to present a survey of Islam. These are essays prompted by the onrush of events. And though events have inevitably overtaken certain of his best points, his comments are almost always interesting as well as cogent. For example, since September 11, 2001, Western politicians have gone out of their way repeatedly to dissociate Islam from terrorism, and not always very convincingly; the thought occurs that perhaps they protest too much. By contrast, Osama bin Laden and his raving sidekicks insist that there is in fact a war in progress between Islam and unbelief, Islam and the West; and in the occasional pronouncements he makes from his burrow-now furnished, it seems, with a beard-tinting salon-Osama continues to proclaim jihad. But what of mainstream Muslim leaders and spokesmen? Why have they remained largely silent? As Jonas remarks,
The actual leaders of Islam remained curiously quiet. Aside from some obligatory condemnation of terrorism-usually coupled with an admonition that the West should give more support to Muslim countries and less to Israel-they said little. We rarely heard Muslims in the West pledging loyalty to the countries in which they lived, but much from President Bush and other Western heads of state announcing their loyalty to their countries Muslim residents. In fact, our leaders made such a fuss that a Martian landing on Earth on September 12 might have thought that what happened in New York and Washington the day before wasnt Muslim terrorists massacring three thousand Americans, but American terrorists massacring three thousand Muslims.
This was written on October 23, 2001, and the silence since has, if anything, only deepened. Not so long ago, I was in Piccadilly in the heart of London and found my way blocked by a chanting mob, all carrying expertly printed placards; they turned out to be Muslims in their thousands, angrily denouncing the publication of those rather silly Danish cartoons which most, if not all, of them had never actually seen. They had been told that the cartoons caricatured the Prophet Muhammad; their fury had been whipped up by local preachers and opportunistic demagogues. The few protesters and hecklers on the fringes of the march were promptly arrested, even though the signs the protesters carried verged on incitement to murder, an indictable offence in Britain. It struck me then that if only Muslims had turned out in such numbers after the horrors of September 11, and the subsequent subway and bus bombings of July 2005 in London, and had made unmistakably plain their rejection of mas! s murder carried out in the name of Islam, a decisive turning point might have been reached. Nothing of the sort occurred. By a zany and repellent illogic, whenever Muslims are implicated in acts of terror, many other Muslims suddenly see themselves as the real victims and react with outrage. And in a way, they are right; they are victims, though not in the manner they think. They have allowed their faith to be appropriated and disfigured by murderers and psychotics. So grotesque has the situation now become that it verges on the farcical. The recent arrest of an English teacher in the Sudan for allowing her young pupils to call a teddy bear Muhammad, and the spectacle of bloodthirsty crowds howling for her execution, baffle belief, in the broadest sense of the word. Even the most hardened multiculturalist would be hard put to prattle about respecting the sensitivities of cultural difference in the face of this outburst of inflamed stupidity.
The great teddy bear abomination occurred too recently to be the subject of Jonass comments in this collection, but he is very good on similar absurdities. His book joins a growing list of other wake-up calls, a new and necessary genre since September 11. The list includes Melanie Phillipss alarming Londonistan of 2006, and-in the last year-Mark Steyns typically outrageous but compelling America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It, and David Solways The Big Lie: On Terror, Antisemitism, and Identity, easily the most brilliant and closely argued of the three. Reflections on Islam, by its very occasional nature, is neither as polemical nor as extensively documented as any of these. But Jonass lucidity, rare common sense, and disdain for fashionable cant, along with his elegant prose, put the book in that prescient company. Eric Ormsby
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