-- "This isn't about Islam." The world's leaders have been repeating
this mantra for weeks, partly in the virtuous hope of deterring reprisal attacks
on innocent Muslims living in the West, partly because if the United States is
to maintain its coalition against terror it can't afford to suggest that Islam
and terrorism are in any way related.
The trouble with this necessary disclaimer is that it isn't true. If this
isn't about Islam, why the worldwide Muslim demonstrations in support of Osama
bin Laden and Al Qaeda? Why did those 10,000 men armed with swords and axes mass
on the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier, answering some mullah's call to jihad? Why
are the war's first British casualties three Muslim men who died fighting on the
Why the routine anti-Semitism of the much-repeated Islamic slander that
"the Jews" arranged the hits on the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon, with the oddly self-deprecating explanation offered by the Taliban
leadership, among others, that Muslims could not have the technological know-how
or organizational sophistication to pull off such a feat? Why does Imran Khan,
the Pakistani ex-sports star turned politician, demand to be shown the evidence
of Al Qaeda's guilt while apparently turning a deaf ear to the
self-incriminating statements of Al Qaeda's own spokesmen (there will be a rain
of aircraft from the skies, Muslims in the West are warned not to live or work
in tall buildings)? Why all the talk about American military infidels
desecrating the sacred soil of Saudi Arabia if some sort of definition of what
is sacred is not at the heart of the present discontents?
Of course this is "about Islam." The question is, what exactly does
that mean? After all, most religious belief isn't very theological. Most Muslims
are not profound Koranic analysts. For a vast number of "believing"
Muslim men, "Islam" stands, in a jumbled, half-examined way, not only
for the fear of God — the fear more than the love, one suspects — but also
for a cluster of customs, opinions and prejudices that include their dietary
practices; the sequestration or near-sequestration of "their" women;
the sermons delivered by their mullahs of choice; a loathing of modern society
in general, riddled as it is with music, godlessness and sex; and a more
particularized loathing (and fear) of the prospect that their own immediate
surroundings could be taken over — "Westoxicated" — by the liberal
Western-style way of life.
Highly motivated organizations of Muslim men (oh, for the voices of Muslim
women to be heard!) have been engaged over the last 30 years or so in growing
radical political movements out of this mulch of "belief." These
Islamists — we must get used to this word, "Islamists," meaning
those who are engaged upon such political projects, and learn to distinguish it
from the more general and politically neutral "Muslim" — include the
Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the blood-soaked combatants of the Islamic
Salvation Front and Armed Islamic Group in Algeria, the Shiite revolutionaries
of Iran, and the Taliban. Poverty is their great helper, and the fruit of their
efforts is paranoia. This paranoid Islam, which blames outsiders,
"infidels," for all the ills of Muslim societies, and whose proposed
remedy is the closing of those societies to the rival project of modernity, is
presently the fastest growing version of Islam in the world.
This is not wholly to go along with Samuel Huntington's thesis about the
clash of civilizations, for the simple reason that the Islamists' project is
turned not only against the West and "the Jews," but also against
their fellow Islamists. Whatever the public rhetoric, there's little love lost
between the Taliban and Iranian regimes. Dissensions between Muslim nations run
at least as deep, if not deeper, than those nations' resentment of the West.
Nevertheless, it would be absurd to deny that this self-exculpatory, paranoiac
Islam is an ideology with widespread appeal.
Twenty years ago, when I was writing a novel about power struggles in a
fictionalized Pakistan, it was already de rigueur in the Muslim world to blame
all its troubles on the West and, in particular, the United States. Then as now,
some of these criticisms were well-founded; no room here to rehearse the
geopolitics of the cold war and America's frequently damaging foreign policy
"tilts," to use the Kissinger term, toward (or away from) this or that
temporarily useful (or disapproved-of) nation-state, or America's role in the
installation and deposition of sundry unsavory leaders and regimes. But I wanted
then to ask a question that is no less important now: Suppose we say that the
ills of our societies are not primarily America's fault, that we are to blame
for our own failings? How would we understand them then? Might we not, by
accepting our own responsibility for our problems, begin to learn to solve them
Many Muslims, as well as secularist analysts with roots in the Muslim world,
are beginning to ask such questions now. In recent weeks Muslim voices have
everywhere been raised against the obscurantist hijacking of their religion.
Yesterday's hotheads (among them Yusuf Islam, a k a Cat Stevens) are improbably
repackaging themselves as today's pussycats.
An Iraqi writer quotes an earlier Iraqi satirist: "The disease that is
in us, is from us." A British Muslim writes, "Islam has become its own
enemy." A Lebanese friend, returning from Beirut, tells me that in the
aftermath of the attacks on Sept. 11, public criticism of Islamism has become
much more outspoken. Many commentators have spoken of the need for a Reformation
in the Muslim world.
I'm reminded of the way noncommunist socialists used to distance themselves
from the tyrannical socialism of the Soviets; nevertheless, the first stirrings
of this counterproject are of great significance. If Islam is to be reconciled
with modernity, these voices must be encouraged until they swell into a roar.
Many of them speak of another Islam, their personal, private faith.
The restoration of religion to the sphere of the personal, its
depoliticization, is the nettle that all Muslim societies must grasp in order to
become modern. The only aspect of modernity interesting to the terrorists is
technology, which they see as a weapon that can be turned on its makers. If
terrorism is to be defeated, the world of Islam must take on board the
secularist-humanist principles on which the modern is based, and without which
Muslim countries' freedom will remain a distant dream.
Salman Rushdie is the author, most recently, of "Fury: A