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The Tragic Illusions of an Islamic State

By Tarek Fatah

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Wiley, 410 pages, $31.95


By Noah Feldman

Princeton University Press,

189 pages, $23


Negotiating the Future of Shari'a

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By Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im

Harvard University Press,

324 pages, $35

Tarek Fatah is a larger-than-life figure on the Canadian media landscape. A former leftist in his native Pakistan, he became a media pundit and, now, a Muslim reformer. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the London and Madrid bombings, he has written prolifically on the failure of Canadian Muslim institutions and their leaders, and on Islamism, the politicization of Islam.

Chasing a Mirage is dedicated to the memory of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto and Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, both brutally murdered by Pakistani jihadis. He describes his plural Muslim identity as shaped by Islam, Hinduism and other religious and secular traditions. He identifies himself as a secular Muslim. He laments how his plural South Asian heritage is being effaced by "Arab Islam." By that he means to say the late 20th-century effacing of South Asian Islamic heritage (Sufi and syncretic) by a more recent imported Arab fundamentalist version.

In this book, one part memoir, one part Islamic history lesson and one part polemic, he offers up his understanding of what's wrong with Islam today. His righteous anger is directed at the idea of an Islamic state, a cherished utopian goal of Islamist ideologues for the better part of the 20th century.

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Fatah begins by turning his attention to the murder of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the democratically elected prime minister of Pakistan and father of Benazir Bhutto. It was a sad day for Pakistan. However, Fatah asserts that "the Islamists" were responsible for Bhutto's hanging in a Rawalpindi jail cell in 1979. They were not. Zia ul Haq, Pakistani military dictator, was responsible. To be sure, ul Haq was backed by the Jamaat-e Islami (JI), a Pakistani Islamist party, but he was also backed financially by American benefactors. It was during this era of an Afghan anti-Soviet jihad that the jihadi paramilitary movements took root in the soil of Pakistan.

One modern ideologue who constructed the ideological façade of an Islamic state was Abul Ala Maududi, an Indian Muslim who was initially opposed to the creation of Pakistan. He eventually emigrated and became the founder of JI. Many of the modern understandings of an Islamic state are due to Maududi's tireless theorizing: that non-Muslim minorities have limited rights, women cannot be the head of an Islamic polity, gender segregation is good and proper, and sovereignty belongs to God (and those who best understand God, such as himself).

Maududi, like other Islamist ideologues, put forth his understandings of Islam during the period of European colonization and decolonization. Hence, within the DNA of these ideas is a deeply xenophobic understanding of Islam and a hostile conception of the West. Ironically, his ideas have become popular within diaspora Muslim populations of the West, especially those in Britain.

One assumption that permeates Fatah's book is that Islamism is a throwback to a medieval past. Hence his need to show that the Islamic past was never as glorious as the glorious present. Nevertheless, Islamist ideology owes as much to Western ideas as it does to Islamic ideas. In fact, Maududi's ideas were so alien to some traditional Indian Muslim scholars that they called them "Maududism," and one scholar went so far as to say, "Maududi is not even qualified to be an interpreter of Islam." He returned the compliments by denouncing the traditional religious scholars.

Interestingly enough, Maududi died in upstate New York, where he was treated for a heart condition. During the 1940s and 1950s, he was animated more by fear of godless communism and criticized the United States for providing insufficient support to existing Muslim regimes in their fight against socialist movements and ideologies.

Fatah makes no mention of Fazlur Rahman, one of the 20th century's great Muslim modernist intellectuals and Maududi's ideological nemesis. Rahman, a modernist Islamic scholar fluent in Greek, Arabic, Urdu and Persian, was intimately conversant with both the classical Islamic theological and philosophical traditions. He offered a modernist exegesis of the Koran and was able to offer a critical interrogation of Islamist understandings of Islam. Embroiled in controversy, he was later forced to flee Pakistan, and took refuge at The University of Chicago, where he taught for many years.

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What explains the appeal of Islamism today? Fareed Zakaria, in the aftermath of 9/11, penned an astute and widely read Newsweek essay, The Politics of Rage: Why Do They Hate Us? He made a simple observation that still is not sufficiently acknowledged. In much of the Arab Middle East, states are ruled by secular autocrats who have sidelined democracy, the rule of law, dissent and human rights. Some secular Muslim autocrats (Hosni Mubarak in Egypt is one excellent example) have been so successful in shutting down democracy that the only serious opposition is the mosque and the Islamists. Where democracy has flourished, the Islamists for the most part have had to temper their ideology to achieve electoral success.

The Islamists are not the only figures that draw political legitimacy from Islam. King Abdullah II of Jordan and King Mohammed VI of Morocco both claim to be direct descendents of the Prophet Mohammed. Ironically, their political legitimacy is derived from Islam on grounds similar to those of their Islamist opposition.

In Pakistan, a partially functioning democracy, the JI Islamist political party has never won a plurality in a federal election. How have they managed to get their agenda adopted? Successive military and secular regimes have attempted to use Islamic ideology to subsume nationalist and separatist identities (Bengali, Baluchi) or to obtain the support of smaller Islamist political parties. It was the populist Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, for example, who had the heterodox Ahmadiyya Muslim sect officially declared non-Muslim. Later, the JI would support a genocidal military campaign against separatist Bengali Muslims and claim that they really were not good Muslims.

Fatah's strongest and most charged material is on his insider-outsider status as a Canadian Muslim observing the pathologies of Canadian Muslim organizations or Western Muslim organizations, especially in Britain. The charge sheet is something like this: They are covertly sympathetic to Islamist movements, they hate the society they live in and they espouse values that are contradictory to life in a multicultural democracy.

What is disturbing is the large number of grotesque examples he can effortlessly draw on: Toronto-area imam Ali Hindy defending violent jihad; the Canadian Muslim leader who says Muslims opposed to the introduction of sharia law in Ontario are non-Muslims; the Kuwaiti politician speaking before a Toronto Muslim audience, saying, "Western civilization is rotten from within and nearing collapse." In one breathtaking incident, Toronto-area Muslim university students offered a defence of the Taliban.

In this section, I wish that Fatah had not written with such polemical ferocity, only so that his arguments would not be dismissed out of hand by his fellow Canadian Muslim critics. He raises important questions on the role of Muslim public figures in Canada and the West. The West is to be criticized for its shortcomings, to be sure, especially the United States and Israel. Yet these same figures appear incapable of adopting the same critical distance regarding Islamist regimes, movements and thinkers.

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More recently, the Canadian branch of the Islamic Society of North America invited Qazi Hussain Ahmed, head of the Pakistani Jamaat-e-Islami party, to speak in Toronto at an Islamic conference titled Our Youth, Our Future. One consequence of a politicized Islam and Wahhabi primitivism is modern Muslim illiteracy of a rich theological and philosophical tradition. Great sages such as Ibn Sina, Ibn Baja, Ibn Rushd, Ibn Tufayl and al-Farabi are today virtually unknown.

Noah Feldman, in his thought-provoking The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, asks the intriguing question: What explains the rise of popularity and support for sharia? He answers that in the case of autocratic Middle Eastern rulers, sharia is viewed as a check against absolutist power. In theory, it is a nice idea, but in practice, it has not materialized quite that way, if one examines the cases of Sudan or Pakistan.

However, Feldman's broader point is important: The rule of law existed prior to the advent of Western colonial domination, and ignoring the rich Islamic legal tradition is folly. As well, approximately 57 Muslim-majority countries use some subset of sharia-inspired legal code. It thus cannot be ignored for pragmatic reasons. Sharia in the West and in Western parlance is akin to Islamic brutalism. In the Islamic world, it has a more variegated meaning. For most Muslims, it means the metaphysical path of God. For Islamists, it means God's commandments that an Islamic regime must enforce.

Sharia's recent introduction in Sudan and Pakistan came through the military, not from some populist Islamist democratic groundswell for justice. Sharia was introduced to Pakistan on the watch of Zia ul-Haq, who directly appointed judges to a newly created Federal Shariat Court, thus bypassing an independent judicial appointment process. It is worth pointing out that the introduction of sharia law in Pakistan, especially hudood ordinances, have meant that hundreds of women were arrested for zina (sexual intercourse outside of marriage).

Curiously, Feldman views the Saudi jurists as the closest exemplar of the classical Islamic juridical tradition. This is awfully generous. As well, the claim that the jurists in the desert kingdom maintain judicial independence from the House of Saud is also contestable. Osama bin Laden complained about the Saudi jurists being subservient to the rulers and allowing U.S. troops to be stationed in the desert kingdom during the first Gulf War.

In Islam and the Secular State, Abdullahi An-Na'im, an Emory University law school professor, former director of Human Rights Watch/Africa Watch, and a former dissident in Sudan who once faced execution, says bluntly that the Islamic state never existed and has no future. An-Na'im has the unenviable task of arguing that, as a Muslim, he requires a state that is secular (neutral) and that sharia, when enacted by the state, is not God's law but state law enacted by legislators.

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An-Na'im lays out with candour and elegance the need for the state to be secular for all citizens, and explores Muslim polities in Indonesia, India and Turkey. An-Na'im is not above interrogating secularism, and finds the French and Turkish model not to his liking. He calls Turkish secularism authoritarian and views the Turkish Justice and Development (AK) Islamist political party as the harbinger of secularism in Turkey. Feldman also has high praise for the Turkish AK party. To further muddy the waters, this is an Islamist party that does not wish to introduce sharia law, but has the look and feel of a European Christian Democratic Party. Its stance on minority rights in Turkey is more nuanced than that of its secular opponents, and its policies are in stark contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the JI in Pakistan.

Tarek Fatah has provided a substantial contribution to the critique of the Islamic state and the state of Islam, especially in Canada. Islamist thinkers, for the most part, have not displayed the sophistication, the subtlety, the understanding of running a complex pluralist society, one in which citizens share equal and inalienable rights. But Fatah's argument is marred by gratuitous polemics. His scattershot approach strikes innocent bystanders, thus limiting the receptivity and effectiveness of his critique, which is a pity. Are Muslim women who wear hijab really Islamists, as is implied by one careless chapter title? Are North American Islamic institutions an Islamist peril to the West?

Chasing a Mirage seems not to have been fact-checked carefully. The broader arguments aren't affected, but the sloppy errors are a bit jarring. Maududi died in 1979, not 1976. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto died in Rawalpindi not Rawaloindi (a typographical error). The Turkish Caliphate was abolished in 1924, not 1925. Ali Abd Al-Raziq (1888-1966), who provided a deeply influential critique of the Caliphate and espoused the separation of mosque and state in 1925, did not have his book burned, nor was he declared an apostate. He was not a secular critic of a return to radical Islam; he was a senior sharia court judge in Cairo and the scion of a prominent Egyptian landowning family involved in liberal politics. To be sure, he was censured and defrocked by the Grand Council of the Ulema at al-Azhar University, and subsequently lost his judgeship. But when his older brother became Sheik of Al-Azhar, he returned to good grace. His seminal text is widely available and widely discussed.

Fatah shows discernment in his references to the late Eqbal Ahmad, a brilliant Pakistani progressive, anti-imperialist, activist intellectual. A cross between Antonio Gramsci and Hannah Arendt, he explored some of the most vexing problems confronting the Muslim and third worlds. Almost a quarter of a century ago, he wrote: "Never before in the history of Islamic peoples had there been so total a separation of political power and civil society. In the breach there is a time bomb. ... For the majority of Muslim peoples, the experienced alternative to the past is a limbo of foreign occupation and dispossession, of alienation from the land, of life in shantytowns and refugee camps, of migration into foreign lands, and, at best, of permanent expectancy. Leaning on and yearning for the restoration of an emasculated, often idealized past is one escape from the limbo; striking out in protest and anger for a new revolutionary order is another."

Not much has changed. The restive Muslim masses are ignored by the secular elites who rule their societies, and the war on terror has in large part distracted them from addressing pressing needs. One should not be surprised at the outcome.

Emran Qureshi is a fellow at the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School.

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