This is Part III of the interview ‘Dialogue Between Bigots’
EDITOR: By Islamic states I mean the countries that are majority Muslim and whose power structures are in the hands of Muslims. Iraq is not an Islamic theocracy, but it is surely an Islamic state. It’s history, tradition and values are shaped by Islamic religion and culture. Let us narrow the discussion. Let’s focus on Iraq and it’s history since 1800 — though we must keep in mind the 1400 year weight of Islamic history and tradition in Iraq. I will rephrase the question. I am not sure that your statement that secular governments exist in the Middle East is true. There are governments who don’t emphasize Islam, except when convenient to retain power (e.g., Saddam), but the governments are Islamic in substance. Are there truly secular governments, like Sweden, for example? Actually, your comments below are a good response to the question as it was framed. I think you have answered the question very well 🙂 Why don’t you incorporate the comments below into your answer and we can take the discussion from there. This organic discussion is turning out well.
AR: Thank you for taking the time to put these clarifications together. i am glad that we are actually discussing these specific points because i feel that most American media is too quick to jump to use too many unconsidered labels and phrases when it comes to speaking about anything ‘Muslim’.
So in the same spirit – i think that you mean ‘Arab’ states, and not ‘Islamic’ ones. For example, India is a nation with a deep Islamic history, heritage and culture, but it is not an ‘Islamic’ state. There are 130 million Muslims in the country, and its laws and codes are deeply influenced by this heritage, but it is not an ‘Islamic’ state by any means. and more controversially, neither is Pakistan. There are powerful, state supported religious fundamentalist political organizations in the country and they have been allowed to distort the law or contravene the constitution, but the nation and its legal and civil code procedures are less influenced by dogmatism than by pragmatism. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws for example have been foisted on the country by fundamentalist mysoginists in the pay of authoritarian rulers searching for a support base but are contested daily by a battery of legal experts, women’s rights activists and citizens. There is nothing inherently ‘Islamic’ about them, other than a small group of fundamentalists shouting loudest to claim that they are. The voices of opposition often get lost.
We are too quick to grab the ‘sensational’, the demeaning, and to claim it as ‘Islamic’. Any Arab nation as any other is a contested space and in fact there is no one ‘Islam’. A Pakistani from Baluchistan will be horrified to sit with a Chechyan and vice versa! They would not recognize what the other calls ‘Islam’ where alcohol sits comfortably with namaz. Though there are common ritual practices, but like all cars with 4 wheels but that does not make the similar, the importance is in the differences. We are not merely our religions, and do not see our world only through that prism.
In Iran, with all its grandiose theocratic weirdness, can reveal a very modern and pragmatic approach to birth control and family planning. In Morocco recent adjustments to its family code captures the rich and complex dialogues prevalent in most any nation whether Arab or other. My point being that the social and legal laws of these country are far more complex, far more interesting when seen in the specifics and not just sweepingly called ‘Islamic’. There is little in common in the way issues of family planning, or inheritance or such are handled in Iran vs how they are handled in Lebanon for example. The richness of the region, the richness of the variety of peoples, ethnicities, cultures, histories, traditions of the region (the Middle East, South Asia, or any nation that is predominantly Muslim in heritage) is lost if we do not see the specifics.
Labeling a country as ‘Islamic’ hides more than reveals, obfuscates more than clarifies.
You are right that few if any country in amongst the Arab states can claim a truly ‘secular’ government and you are right that few if any country in amongst the Arab states can claim a ‘secular’ government such as Sweden. But even ‘secular’ governments reflect influences that would not be defined as secular. For example, would you contest the United States government and its administration, its supreme court and its recent adjustments against family planning laws are not influenced by conservative Christian thought? Would you call the USA a truly secular state when both Obama and Bush were at Saddleback church just this week, to say nothing of the many other churches both conservative and liberal, that they have been trawling through to get to ‘voters’? If America is a secular democracy, then why is it so important to constantly shake your religious credentials, to seek ‘counsel’ from influential (and really wealthy) pastors? See Kaplan’s ‘With God on their side’, or Woolride & Mickeltwaith’s ‘The Right Nation’ or Hedge’s ‘American Fascists’. But this is not just me reading in my apartment. I did an entire story for National Geographic magazine called ‘Religion and Power’ over the course of many months on the influence of the religous right on American society and politics.
The point being – nations and their laws have a lot of influences, and bring many centuries of heritage to them. But they need not necessarily only be determined from the point of view of a religious heritage. Pakistan is a Muslim state, but this heritage is not an all encompassing and exclusive influence on its laws or even its society.
What instead I do see and that which I think is the principal threat to minorities in Arab states and that we should discuss is this; most all Arab states have unpopular and unscrupulous leaders who have failed their nations and contorted their societies. These same unpopular leaders have exploited radical Islamic groups to bolster their power and allowed at times for these groups to contort their constitutions and civic code. This is of course not a uniform situation, but is true for Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the gulf states etc. In such nations religion is merely a tool of politics and power. The persecution of the Copts by the Muslim Brotherhood was a political move, one that in fact can change as the political demands change. In fact, the welcome that the Arab Christians receive in Syria could change in the future if the political dynamics change. So whether a minority has a hope of being part of the fabric of an Arab state requires us to look at the politics and power plays of that state, and the value placed on religious groups to grab and maintain power.
For example, Lebanon is a deeply divided sectarian country, but its wars began of the arrogance and bigotry of its Christian minority! In Lebanon they are not a persecuted minority, but in fact the instigators of tremendous horrors against fellow citizens. This is history though I have of course generalized here to make a point. But it would be wrong to run around stating that there is something inherently ‘Christan’ about their behavior or arrogance or violence in acts like the massacres at Sabra and Shatila. It would be in fact idiotic. I would be a fool to go searching into Lebanon’s 1400 year Christian heritage to understand their behavior, or trawl the bible to find some passages on rape! It can’t be understood merely from the prism of religion. We have to look at the real world, at specific political, secular events and actions, and more importantly that desperate quest for power and control that drives all men.
And this is no different than what is happening all over Europe for example, where a weird Islamophobia has taken over nations such as Denmark, Italy and France, where political leaders repeatedly refer to Europe’s imagined exclusively Judeo-Christian heritage and insist on separating themselves from the ‘Muslim disease’ etc. etc. Pankaj Mishra wrote a wonderfully clear piece about this recently called ‘A paranoid, abhorrent obsession’.
Creating such stark divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ of course helps us avoid the more complex questions; Europe’s tremendous economic problems in the last decade and related unemployment, the emergence of the EU and the associated sense of a loss of local identity (national identities being extremely important and entrenched here in Europe). These are the unspoken realities that are avoided by turning our wrath against poor, marginalized, and weak immigrant communities.
Europe is not just a Judeo-Christian civilization even if we go back to the Greeks whose main centers of culture and learning were always on the other side of the Bosphoros! But of course, Goytisolo’s life was spent arguing this, but a more recent book speaks about it rather clearly and well. You must read David Levering Lewis’ ‘God’s Crucible’.
I agree, I think we are best to discuss the modern history of Iraq, post WW II, post colonialism.
The weight of 1400 years of Islamic history in my opinion is not as relevant in shaping this country as the weight of a 100 years of colonial control and power politics of post-colonial influence. The Baath party is not an Islamic heritage left over, neither were the kings foisted on Iraq upon its creation during the demise of the Ottoman empire. And to not speak about the discovery of oil and its contorting effects on Iraqi politics would be criminal. Islam, Muslims, 1400 year heritage – this actually has little meaning and will not help us understand where we are today or why we are where we are today. I would deem it intellectually irresponsible, if not morally irresponsible, to seek the sourcs of Iraq’s trauma in ‘Islam’ or the ‘Koran’, when in fact the 12 year sanctions regime, the Oil For Food program, the repeated invasions and the current occupation seem to be more pertinent.
The dismemberment of Iraq has political and power drivers based squarely in the USA, driven less by issues of religion, and more by issues of oil, strategic depth, fear of Iran etc. We would be all naive and irresponsible to speak as if this was a necessary war, that lies were not told, that the nation was not forced into this mess because of the need and greed of a few in the neo-conservative movement. I would prefer that neo-conservatives were more honest about their intentions – the petty lies and childish language to hide their real intents are so amateurish that it only makes them look silly.
So cutting through all the nonsense, Iraq is just an occupation, its political structure conveniently created to serve American economic and military interests, and created I believe to ensure continued instability and weakness in the nation so that the US and continue to maintain an involvement and control, and in particular, control the important assets; oil, bases, police and borders. There are no nation building intents, not in Iraq nor in Afghanistan. There are merely control and own intents, and those too short term. The sectarian structure of politics is less due to any ‘heritage’ or ‘history’ or Iraq, but more based on a continuity of belief that occupied countries are best governed by divisions not unity. This is the oldest colonial model in the book i.e. find all the ethnic and sectarian dividing lines and exaggerate them through ethnically determined largesse. This is nothing new. Its boringly old in fact.
There are many models of governments in Muslim countries that are not sectarian, so there is nothing ‘natural’ about such a structure. It is always created, and historically we can see that occupying powers love to deal with divided communities because it makes it easier to control them. Its just simple politics and pragmatic administration.
I hope that this is not just proving to be a huge annoyance. The interview seems to have all but disappeared. But really, I appreciate your patience and tolerance of my long responses and digressions.