Letter: Muslim world needs progressive voices, not a culture frozen in time

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The Independent Online
Sir: Since Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's feature on British Muslims' reactions to Bosnia ('Made to feel like trespassers on European soil', 5 July) dwells at some length on issues surrounding my novel The Satanic Verses, I hope you will permit me to comment.

Like her interviewees, I find it impossible to avoid the conclusion that the world community's shameful response to the continuing annihilation of the Bosnian Muslims is in some way connected to their being Muslims. It is worth mentioning, however, that outrage at this fact is by no means confined to the Muslim community - worth mentioning if only because Ms Alibhai-Brown's main purpose is to get at the 'underlying issue', which is that 'for years the majority of Muslims have felt misunderstood and demonised in the West . . . Bosnia is seen as the culmination of their process of alienation'.

The Satanic Verses deals centrally and, I think, sympathetically with these feelings of demonisation. But it also touches on a point I should like to develop here: namely, that the them-and-us rhetoric of victimisation, no matter how legitimate it may seem, creates as many cultural problems as it addresses.

It creates intellectual confusions, so that even as Europe is being rightly excoriated for failing to defend its very own Muslims, these same Muslims are being denigrated for being 'Muslims in name only'. Bosnia's Muslims are indeed secularised and humanistic, representing an attractive blend of Muslim and European values. By sneering at this hybrid culture, Ms Alibhai-Brown's respondents undermine their own case.

It creates moral confusions, too, so that when German racists burn Muslims in their houses the blame is very properly laid on the perpetrators; whereas when Islamic fanatics burn dozens to death in a hotel in Turkey, some Muslim commentators at once try to blame the targets of the Muslim mob, accusing them of such heinous - such inflammatory - offences as atheism.

Worst of all, it creates the risk that the community will fall under the spell of leaders who will ultimately damage them more than their present (real or perceived) enemies. Germany's sense of national humiliation after the First World War was exploited by Hitler during his rise to power; the Iranian people's wholly justified hatred of the regime of the Shah led them towards the great historical mistake of supporting Khomeini; in India today, the cry of 'Hinduism under threat' is rallying the nation's masses to the banner of Hindu fundamentalism; and now, here in Britain, Ms Alibhai-Brown tells us that 'moderation seems an obscenity'. Will the fatuous Dr Kalim Siddiqui be followed by more formidable extremist figures?

British Muslims may not wish to hear this from the author of The Satanic Verses, but the real enemies of Islam are not British novelists, or Turkish satirists. They are not the secularists murdered by fundamentalists in Algeria recently. Nor do they include the distinguished Cairo law professor and his scholarly wife who are presently being hounded by Egyptian fanatics for being apostates. Neither are they the intellectuals who lost their jobs and were arrested by the authorities in Saudi Arabia, because they founded a human rights organisation. However weak, however few the progressive voices may be, they represent the best hope in the Muslim world for a free and prosperous future.

The enemies of Islam are those who wish the culture to be frozen in time, who are, in Ali Shariati's phrase, in 'revolt against history', and whose tyranny and unreason is making modern Islam look like a culture of madness and blood. Ms Alibhai-Brown's interviewee Nasreen Rehman wisely says that 'we must stop thinking in binary, oppositional terms'.

May I propose that a starting place might be the recognition that, on the one hand, it is the Siddiquis and Hizbollahs and blind sheikhs and ayatollahs who are the real foes of Muslims around the world, the real 'enemy within'; and that, on the other hand - as in the case of the campaign on behalf of Bosnia's Muslims - there are many 'friends without'.

Yours faithfully,


As from: London, SW10

5 July