Books Review

ISLAM AND THE WEST: REFLECTIONS FROM AUSTRALIA

Edited by Shahram Akbarzadeh & Samina Yasmeen UNSW Press (University of New South Wales Press Ltd).2005 ISBN 0-86840 679-1 Reviewed by: Mohd Asim Siddiqui

Catastrophes happening in small countries often do not affect the world too much. However, if the country happens to be the United States of America and the catastrophe the 9/11, it is bound to have great impact on the world. It changed the world in more ways than one, affecting the life of even ordinary Muslims in distant lands who cannot distinguish between the twin towers and the twin brothers. It also brought into sharp focus the study of religion particularly that of Islam. In modern history the role of religion was never considered as important in understanding international relations as is the case now. The world never took so much interest in Huntington’s clash of civilization theory as it did after the tragic events of 9/11.Islam has not evoked the kind of interest in the West like it has in the last decade.

Islam and the West: Reflections from Australia (2005), carefully edited by Shahram Akbarzadeh and Samina Yasmeen, provides some perspectives on Islam and the Muslims in the context of the sad reality of 9/11.The book is a collection of essays and discusses the many faces of Islam, the many identities of Muslims, the media representations or misrepresentations of Muslims in countries like Australia and a host of other related issues. A point that emerges after reading many essays in the book is that Islam is not a monolithic category, that Muslim identity is not a fixed one and that there is no definitive Islamic opinion on international relations. The lives of Muslims spread across the world are marked by great cultural and ideological diversity. Quite a few essays in the book make a mention of terms like political Islam, radical Islam, Jihadi Islam and societal Islam. But, as Greg Barton in his essay included in this book suggests, “adopting a radical Islamist position by no means determines support for the use of violence and terrorism (119)”.It is true that there is a synergistic relationship between some radical versions of Islam but the vast majority of Muslims, living a peaceful life, are not even aware of the events which affect their life adversely.

Some of the essays in this book are of merely informative nature but they do give useful information which could have been developed further to arrive at some conclusions. The essay titled “In Search of Caliphate” dwells on the ideology of Hizb al Tahrir, originally a Jordan based outfit but now active in most of the Islamic world, and Al Muhajiroun, another Islamic organization which is inspired by the thoughts of Sayyid Qutb. Both these organizations “have been given a new lease of life since the launch of the US-led war on terror (41).Another essay titled “Islamic Religious Education and the Debate on its Reform Post-September 11”,as the title suggests, takes a look at the growth and decline of Islamic religious education in the pre-modern period and discusses questions related to its reform. Abdullah saeed, the author of this essay, tries to analyze the juridical-theological, philosophical-scientific and mystical-spiritual strands in Islamic education. Saeed rejects the notion that Islamic education is responsible for terrorism. “If Islamic religious education as such is responsible for terrorism and anti-Westernism, then we should be witnessing terrorism and anti-Westernism on a global scale.”

Moreover Sunni theological position speaks against creating trouble in the community and that is one reason, the author argues, why it does not raise its voice too strongly against autocratic, unjust and authoritarian rulers in some Muslim countries. Another essay titled “The Future of Political Islam in Afghanistan” provides useful information about the relatively recent strife-ridden history of Afghanistan. This paper is not easy to read as it includes too many details and indulges in too many generalizations.

The paper written by Samina Yasmeen dwells at length on the activities of Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish Muhammad, the two militant organizations active in Pakistan and carrying out their anti-India operations. Both these outfits, the author maintains, “shared a view of India as the main regional enemy of Muslims in South Asia” and equate Kashmir with home and believe in “winning freedom for Kashmiri Muslims (53)”.The problem with their approach is that they try to speak for all Muslims, even for those who totally differ from their world view. Both these organizations have had sympathizers in Pakistan army and government and have exerted an influence on Pakistan’s foreign policy. However, following the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, Pakistan was forced to curb their activities and had to distance itself from their ideology. Still they have not ceased to be a factor in Pakistan politics. “Fear of Indian hostility and ideas about Pakistan’s Islamic identity and related obligations to help other Muslims still persist among them (57).”In fact, they have started their work using different names and exercise a sort of relative autonomy in the changed circumstances.

Osman Baker’s paper talks about the responses to terror in Malaysia in a different light. He quotes heavily from an article titled “Who hijacked Islam” by Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar offers his critique of terror in very clear terms. While not exonerating the United States from its wrong policies, Anwar Ibrahim “emphasizes the internal, rather than external, causes of Muslim terrorism, citing three major causes: lack of political and social freedom, lack of Muslim participation in global processes at the non-governmental levels and the failure of the Muslim world to address major international issues of the umma(102).”

There are two very interesting papers in this book on Australian Islam. Both the papers look at the perception of Australian Islam in relation to Australian policy of multiculturalism and the present concerns about national security. Michael Humphrey argues that Islam is considered the religion of immigrants in Australia and there is a perception in Australia that the first generation immigrants “bring unwanted aspects of their past with them, especially internal political conflicts (139.” However, it is interesting to know that Muslim immigrants were conscious of their rights in a multicultural Australia from the very beginning and considered Australia “as dar al –Islam, a place to live a good Muslim life (143).”But 9/11 changed the entire complexion of Australian multiculturalism. “The Australian Government has shifted from a perspective of reconciliation to one of risk, from a future premised on social inclusion of diversity to one premised on social exclusion based on suspicion of the dangerous ‘Other’(133)”, in this case, the Muslims from middle-eastern countries. Fethi Mansouri’s paper also finds gaps in the Australian ideal of multiculturalism. He argues that though the Australian Government is not blind to the cultural diversity, it “asserts the dominance and power of an Anglo-Celtic Australian core at the heart of the nation, its institutions of power and the Australian identity(151”.Using the framework provided by Edward Said’s Orientalism, Mansouri critically analyses the Australian Government’s attempt, supported by a hostile media, to present the Other as defined by barbarism, subhuman attitudes and abhorrent parental behaviour. “The government appeared to be deliberately blurring the distinctions between Middle Eastern, Muslim and terrorist (156).”

In relation to the present international scenario, Samina Yasmeen, in the concluding piece of the book, identifies “two broad schools of thought (which) have emerged in the Muslim world at opposite ends of a spectrum (169).The contributions included in this book essentially voice the optimistic end of the spectrum, in other words, the moderate school of thought.

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