ONDON -- "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 for ourselves?
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
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