Re: “Progressivism's End,” by and
Where’s the “thought-provoking new vision of Canada” you promised for the September issue?
The lead essay, “Progressivism’s End,” by David Eaves and Taylor Owen, is little more than a sophomoric rant against a mythological Left — which the authors seem unable or unwilling to define — combined with a love song about U.S. politician Barack Obama. Just what is, and where is, that pesky wabbit called the Left the authors keep referring to? Is it the “traditional baby boomer progressives” they mention? The “neo” prefix and the “ism” suffix each appear nearly 20 times in this 3,000-word essay. By itself this classic symptom of poor writing and muddled thought should have signalled your editors to reach for their red pens. Is a call to apply Japanese manufacturing techniques to Canadian health care supposed to be a vision? In old-fashioned plain English this is called a scheme; vision must offer insight or foresight. Would the authors dare recommend importing the other part of Japanese corporate culture, that which demands senior managers commit suicide when they bring shame to the organization? We shouldn’t hold our breath.
Your next essay, “American Distractions” by John Robson, also starts off with a paean to Obama as well as more references to “progressives.” (Is that the current word-of-the-month in undergraduate poli sci classes?) Robson opines that U.S. president Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society project of the 1960s “really did furnish the model, or at least a significant inspiration,” for Pierre Trudeau’s vision of a Just Society. Eh? Other than the use of the word “society” in both titles, where are the similarities? Under Trudeau we got the National Energy Program, bilingualism and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. How did LBJ’s Great Society inspire these? One could argue with equal or greater justification the Just Society took inspiration from the welfare states of Europe. But readers shouldn’t be surprised at the author’s ignorance of Trudeau’s biography or global events, since Robson admits to being “a U.S. historian by training.” By the time one struggles to the end of this essay, hoping for a scrap of “vision of Canada,” the author offers nothing more inspiring than “my proposal is to take a very deep breath and remind ourselves what our institutions are for and how they are meant to work.” Prose such as this barely merits a yawn.
What about the third essay, Andrew Ng’s “Positive-Sum Politics”? His approach is epitomized by a question he asks: “If U.S. politics is indeed entering a phase of convergence, should Canada follow?” Another academic asking — yet again — how Canada should react to events in the United States bespeaks of the most tired and tiresome characteristic of intellectual thought in this country. In other words, despite formal independence Canada remains a colony where independent thinking is neither encouraged nor expected. To anyone observing the U.S. presidential campaign, replete with candidates calling each other names and mass demonstrations (nearly a thousand people were arrested at the Republican convention in St. Paul), Ng’s claim that “the United States is emerging from … a period of unhealthy polarization” is derisible.
If these three essays represent the standard of work produced by our university-trained intelligentsia, then I’d like the tax money I’ve paid toward post-secondary education refunded. I expect more from the ivory tower than research based on Wikipedia and analysis derived from opinion polls. If it is not possible to articulate a vision of Canada without referring to Obama and U.S. politics, then imagination in this country is deader than a skunk on the Highway of Heroes (formerly known as the Macdonald-Cartier Freeway), and with similar consequences.
Re: “Political Islam Versus Secularism,” by
In his critical review of Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State by Tarek Fatah (“Political Islam versus Secularism,” September 2008), Nader Hashemi has demonstrated a warped and one-sided view of Muslim history, something he is quick to accuse Fatah of repeatedly. His claim that Islamic history is largely free of internecine tensions over minute differences in dogma is not supported by documented evidence. Hashemi, in comparing western and Islamic history, fails to acknowledge obvious parallels that point to a continued presence of religious and sectarian strife within both cultures. The Fatimids were wiped out by Saladin, the Abbasid rulers promoted the Asharites over the Mutazila or vice versa according to personal preference, resulting in the frequent persecution of ordinary citizens. Furthermore, contemporary Muslim society is riven by bloody conflicts. Hashemi appears to be turning a blind eye to the daily bloodbaths in parts of the Muslim world where fundamentalism is gaining ground. Wouldn’t this be enough reason to advocate the separation of religion and state?
Another glaring flaw in Hashemi’s review is his deliberate omission in not addressing human rights abuses in Iran. Chasing a Mirage devotes a considerable section to the political culture of contemporary Iran under the Ayatollahs, however Hashemi, being an Iranian himself, has conveniently dodged this subject in order to avoid being challenged over what is undeniable reality.
I do not recall ever having read a book review with such selective commentary until I read the review of Tarek Fatah’s Chasing a Mirage written by Nader Hashemi.
Fatah did not spend as much time writing about Turkey as he did discussing the situation in Iran. Yet Hashemi, of Iranian background, seems to have declined to challenge Fatah’s narrative on fundamentalism in Iran, and concentrated on Turkey and other countries. In my judgement, that borders on intellectual dishonesty.
In my long academic life, I have observed Islamic fundamentalism creeping in the system in Pakistan, first with Abul Ala Maudoodi, and later shoved down the throats of Pakistanis by a fundamentalist and vile military dictator, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. I have also studied and written extensively about fundamentalist mullahs in Pakistan and in the Middle East, including the Wahabi regime in Saudi Arabia as well as the fundamentalists ayatollahs in Iran. Hashemi seems to have avoided all this.
Yes, Kemal Ataturk’s Turkey would have been a secular democracy if the Turkish constitution had not allowed the military takeovers in Turkey. Iran allows its citizens, both men and women, to vote, but it cannot be classified as a Muslim democracy because the top ayatollah has final authority. Even in Indonesia, Muslim fundamentalists are known to interfere with the state’s affairs. For example, they want Ahmadis to be declared as non-Muslims, as is the case in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, among other places. A similar situation is emerging in Iran in regard to the Iranians of Bahá’í faith.
A genuine system of democracy does not allow these things; only a fundamentalist regime does.
Hashemi has mentioned some of the right-wingers such as Daniel Pipes, Mark Steyn and Bernard Lewis. I think these people are Islamophobic to the extent of hating Muslims. However, like Fatah, I have defended their right to express things as they see them.
Although I do not deny Hashemi’s right to review this book, his review of Chasing a Mirage is not balanced.
It was disappointing to read Nader Hashemi’s review of Tarek Fatah’s Chasing a Mirage. While I may not agree with everything in the book, I found the review hostile and inaccurate. Unlike serious academic reviews that specifically critique content, the reviewer makes a few denigrating remarks about the author and the book, and provides a lengthy discussion of his own views on secularism. Impressed with Freedom House’s ranking of civil liberties, he picks Turkey and Indonesia as cases that supposedly refute Fatah’s claims about the dangers of Islamism, and conveniently avoids reference to the countries discussed in the book except for Palestine. Praising religion-based parties in these two countries, he declares: “left-wing parties and secularist intellectuals cannot claim credit here.” A minimal familiarity with politics and history suggests that without the existence of strong secular movements in these two countries, Islamists would not be much different from their peers elsewhere in demanding the rule of sharia: Indonesia had one of the largest communist movements in the world, and the strength of Turkey’s secularism is well known.
The review is full of assertions that are substantiated by assertions of other like-minded authors. We don’t see, for example, any reference to authoritative works of Abdullahi-an-Na’im, who has demonstrated that an “Islamic state” has never existed, or works by Abdelwahab Meddeb and others.
What prompted this response is Hashemi’s claims about secularism in Muslim-majority countries. We are told that since Muslim societies did not have religious wars like Christendom, “no inner political dynamic” in favour of secularism emerged, they “never had the need to think about secularism,” and their experience of secularism has been “largely negative” because it was an “alien ideology” imposed “top-down” by colonial and post-colonial states. He also implicitly assumes that in these societies everyone is religious. On the basis of these unsubstantiated claims, it seems Muslim-majority countries are essentially different from the West. Evidently, new anti-modernists share some of the views of the old Orientalists!
Attributing the push for secularism only to states ignores the rich history of the struggles of thousands of secular intellectuals, writers, poets, artists, professionals and politicians. The sketchy familiarity with modernist history in these societies inevitably obscures the reality of political suppression, always in full support of the clerical establishment, as the reason why secularists could not “earn” secularism.
The reviewer also seems to confuse public sphere with state, for no one has denied the “participation of religious groups in the public sphere.” The issue is keeping them out of the state, without which no democracy is possible. The example of a powerful Islamic state, the reviewer’s and my native country Iran, which he consciously avoids discussing, is a case in point. After 30 years in power, the mullahs are faced with strong secularist movements, women and youth, among others, which the regime has to keep at bay through sheer force and suppression, garnering a low rank in the Freedom House rankings.
It was very disappointing indeed to read Nader Hashemi’s unkind review article of Tarek Fatah’s seminal book, Chasing a Mirage. Sadly, having agreed with most analyses and reappraisals of history, religion, culture and politics by Nader Hashemi, I wonder why he has written all these in undermining Fatah’s well-argued book on the ahistorical, dangerous and degenerating concept of Islamic State and Muslim apologia and perpetual finger pointing—mainly the West—for all the problems afflicting the global Muslim community.
I am not aware of any book, not by celebrities or established authors other than Fatah, getting so much publicity and reviews—positive to extremely positive—within weeks of its publication. We know Tarek Fatah was never known as an Islamic scholar, political scientist or historian until the publication of this path-breaking work. By now we also know that he has surpassed many established authorities on political Islam and those who have worked on problems of retarded growth and development—economic, political and cultural—in the Muslim World, in general, and the state of ignorance and ambivalence of the mullahs and their followers, in particular.
This book is not all about Islamic history, politics and culture, or about a critical comparative appraisal of Islamic and western civilizations, as one would assume from Hashemi’s review. It seems the reviewer is only critiquing only two chapters out of a total 14—”Islam’s Arab Empire” and “Islam’s European Venture.” Although Hashemi has tried to point out why the West, unlike the Muslim world, has attained economic prosperity, political stability, cultural refinement, tolerance, rule of law, respect for human rights, by imputing these developments to the Reformation and grassroots-based secularism he has totally ignored some other important factors in this regard. He has totally ignored important factors behind the Crusades, geographical discoveries and the Renaissance, and how western Europeans’ quest for knowledge, access to sources of raw materials and markets in the heyday of Muslim civilizations in the East and West eventually transformed them into the most advanced and developed nations by the early 18th century.
Hashemi’s comparing Fatah with Islamophobes such as Bernard Lewis and Daniel Pipes is really unfortunate. His citing Vali Nasr’s lopsided argument that “conservative-based Muslim parties and politicians will likely lead the way toward a democratic transition in the Muslim world” is appalling—as if one day al Qaeda, Hamas and the like will espouse democracy and secularism! Hashemi’s sweeping assertion that only European Christians (Catholics, Protestants and others) fought each other on the eve of the Reformation and Renaissance, turning bulk of them into admirers of secularism, amounts to travesty of historical facts. His denial of similar bitter conflicts in the Muslim world is grossly ahistoric, as one can go on and on throughout Islamic history cataloguing hundreds of bitter sectarian conflicts—Shiah–Sunni, orthodox–Sufi, free thinkers–mullah, Wahhabi–non-Wahhabi, Assassin Ismaili–Sunni. Consequently Hashemi’s argument that European secularism was a by-product of internecine religious conflicts, and thus grassroots-based and indigenous, and that the absence of similar conflicts among the Muslims explains the absence of secular values among Muslims is not convincing at all.
An objective review of Chasing a Mirage demands a balanced appraisal of some of the core chapters of the work. Hashemi should have critiqued Fatah’s most important contribution, his demarcating the differences between the concepts of Islamic State and the state of Islam, for the sake of objectivity. One wonders as to why Hashemi did not shed any light on Fatah’s important chapters, “Politics and Theology of Islamic States,” “Pakistan—Failure of an Islamic State,” “Saudi Arabia—Sponsor of Islamic States,” “Iran—The Islamic State” and “Palestine—Future Islamic State?” The way Hashemi has only blamed the West for whatever has gone wrong with the Muslim world is very unfortunate. His ignoring the fact how Muslim clerics, intellectuals and leaders kowtowed to the West working against the best interests of Muslim countries (for example, Ayatollah Kashani’s opposition to the nationalization of the British oil companies in Iran, mentioned by Fatah) is astounding. One expected a much more nuanced and objective review from Hashemi, who is a quite well-known and promising scholar of Islamic history, politics and culture.
Reviewing a book as controversial as Tarek Fatah’s Chasing a Mirage was bound to be a very challenging task. However, one would have expected a senior scholar such as Nader Hashemi to address the task at hand with objectivity and equanimity. Unfortunately he enters into a vain polemic with the author and never rises above that level. The result is useless meandering and rambling about a point that the reviewer thinks is central to his criticism: that Fatah “assumes secularism rather than argues for it.” Hashemi quotes Akeel Bilgrami who made this brilliant observation originally. According to Bilgrami “secularism has to be earned, not assumed.”
However, Fatah’s work is not about the historical and sociological preconditions from which secularism emerges, but rather to establish that secular democracy is infinitely a better and morally superior type of government than an Islamic state. Furthermore, he demonstrates with solid data from our times that the resuscitation of the Islamic State has invariably spelled disaster for Muslim societies. Who in his right mind would hesitate to acknowledge that Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan (under the Taliban) have been anything but neo-fascist polities where all the norms and values of civilized politics have been routinely trampled underfoot by the imposition of barbaric laws and practices that the clerics believe God has ordained forever?
The case of Pakistan is somewhat less severe thanks largely to the fact that even General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (1977–1988), a fundamentalist by conviction, did not dare dismantle completely the liberal features of the Pakistan constitution. The so-called Islamic laws that he imposed undoubtedly brutalized society, but Pakistan continued to be a relatively open society even then. The current spate of terrorism that makes Pakistan one of the most dangerous places in the world has a different explanation from the politics of Islamic state building.
Hashemi maintains complete silence on the practice of contemporary Islamic states and therefore evades meeting head on Fatah’s objections to it.
The reviewer adopts an even more problematic position when referring to Freedom House’s ranking of Turkey and Indonesia as polities that have made significant gains as liberal democracies: “What is intriguing about these gains for democracy is the seminal role played by religious-based parties and Muslim intellectuals—many of them with roots in political Islam. Left-wing parties and secularist intellectuals cannot claim credit here.”
Now, this is most surprising and disappointing. There is a logical fallacy in Hashemi’s reasoning and more importantly a betrayal of his own position that the historical context is important to understand the growth of liberal democracy and secularism. The logical error is inherent in the assumption that Muslim intellectuals, many with roots in political Islam, are more likely to support liberal democracy than left-wing parties and intellectuals. Had this been true, the movement for liberalism and democracy would have emanated among Muslims long, long ago. The contrary is truer. Whenever Muslim intellectuals have risen against despotic rulers, it has not been because those rulers had been lax in their personal conduct but because they were allegedly not imposing strict and cruel punishments upheld by the sharia. The classic example is the movement begun by Shaikh Ahmed Sirhindi, a Sufi of the Naqshbandi order, also known as Mujaddid Alf-Thani, against the Mughal rulers of the 16th century for allowing Hindu and Shiah to gain influence at the court of a formally Sunni empire.
On the other hand, when the Safavids came to power in Iran in 1501 they let loose a reign of terror to convert the Sunni majority Persia to Shiah. The Shiah ulema (clerics) issued a fatwa that killing Sunni ensured pious Shiah a place in paradise. The Sunni Ottoman retaliated by making their ulema issue similar edicts that made the killing of Shiah a pious duty of chaste Muslims wanting to gain a berth in paradise. Earlier, the Shiah had been expelled by force from North Africa and Egypt by Sunni rulers. The Ismaili Shiah sought revenge by resorting to organized terrorism that wreaked havoc in Sunni societies for a long period because their states and caliphates in North Africa had been destroyed by Sunni. The “assassin” and the “Old Man of the Mountain” were words and expressions coined to depict that terrorist movement.
Also, closer to our own times we find that neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran nor Afghanistan under the Taliban would have become theocratic tyrannies if leadership by Muslim intellectuals with roots in political Islam were the antidote. It would also have spared the world of the scourge of Islamism that today menaces the whole globe, causing death and destruction through suicide bombers manipulated by Islamic ideologues with roots most definitely in political Islam.
Moreover, sectarian killings and terrorism that currently pervade Muslim societies are not something new, but a cruel reminder of an iron law of Islamic politics: after the early years, whenever attempts have been made to revive the so-called Islamic State it has resulted in bloodshed. As the original Arab composition of the population diversified and other ethnic groups were assimilated into the Muslim Umma sectarian differences assumed a lasting character. Therefore subsequent revival of radical Islam has always resulted in more pronounced discrimination of religious minorities and persecution of deviant sects. One can add that the freedom and equality of women was never a concern of Muslim intellectuals at any stage and still remains largely neglected.
Therefore Hashemi’s claims about Muslim societies being relatively more tolerant are only partially true. He is right to the extent that by comparison pre-modern Muslim societies managed to deal with religious pluralism more successfully that their Christian counterparts because the Dhimmi system deriving from the Quran allowed the People of the Book—Jews and Christians—to live among Muslims as long as they paid the protection tax, the Jizya. On the other hand, Christians persecuted Jews in a comprehensive manner and later Catholics and Protestants and within Protestants, Calvinists and Lutherans bled each other white when they fought each other during the religious conflicts and wars of the 16th and 17th centuries.
Leaning on the authority of Noah Feldman, Hashemi assert that whereas in the West the secularist movement was indigenous in the case of the Muslim world it has been an extraneous imposition. Therefore, he writes, “in the past 200 years, the Muslim world’s experience with secularism has been largely negative.” One would treat such rhetoric with seriousness if he or his mentor, Feldman, could show that in countries that were never colonized the practice of government has been more liberal or tolerant. The contrary once again is truer. Neither the Arabian peninsula, which is now Saudi Arabia, nor Afghanistan was ever colonized. They were ruled by tribal and clan alliances and that continues. They succumbed more easily to the worst type of Islamic extremism. Iran also never became a western colony, although its territories were occupied for some length of time in the north and the south by the Russian and British empires. It too proved easier bait for the mullahs to take over power.
On the other hand, at least in the British colonies in south and southeast Asia the legacy of liberal constitutionalism has operated as a brake on extremism. Therefore, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Malaysia have not become full-fledged Islamic states despite many attempts.
It is true that the secular elites that came to power in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world, including Indonesia, failed to promote enduring economic growth and development and were not favourably inclined toward liberal democracy. Although no excuse needs to be presented why this happened, but a reasonable explanation is that during the Cold War, while the Soviet Union backed the secular elites in the Middle East, the Americans placed their bets on conservative and fundamentalist regimes in that region. The support base of liberal democracy was weak in the Muslim world and the Americans, in typical realist calculations, came to the conclusion that bolstering Islamism among Muslims was the best way to build a bulwark against communism. In Pakistan they decided to arm and back the military while making symbolic utterances about the need to restore democracy.
Now, with regard to the historical and social circumstances that have made Turkish and Indonesian Muslim intellectuals favour some elements of liberal democracy, the following needs to be considered. Turkey was established as a secular national state by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1924. It was done in the face of stiff resistance from the clerics mobilized by the British to support a sultan who was virtually their captive and whose authority did not extend beyond his harem. First the British dismembered the Ottoman Empire, but then wanted to preserve it under a powerless sultan. Ataturk abolished the sharia as the law of the land. The Swiss code was introduced and Turkish women gained equal rights in marriage, divorce and inheritance. In fact, the right to divorce gave more power to women than men.
There is no denying that such changes were undertaken by an authoritarian state. After Ataturk’s death his successors did gradually open it up for democracy but all experiments failed because the Islamists that took part in the elections were wedded to the restoration of Islamic law and values, although they would not say it openly. Hence the Turkish army, which considered itself the custodian of the Kemalist secularist tradition, vetoed all attempts to bring Islamism into power through the democratic processes. Realizing that that there was no chance of them coming into power as long as they did not publicly abjure all allegiance to Islamism and instead declare themselves simply as conservative Muslims who favour “Islamic values and moral principles,” some members of the then Islamist party—the Refah Party led by Erbakan—broke away and founded the AKP, which is currently in power in Turkey. The AKP is considered by many observers to be a conservative Muslim party comparable to the Christian Democrats of the West. Only time will show if this is true, but the fact is that violent attacks in the streets of Turkish towns and cities against girls and women wearing western dress are reported daily by the Turkish press and television channels. So how deep is Turkish liberal democracy under the AKP remains to be seen.
The Indonesian case is different. The Indonesian elite has always adhered to a middle path in which the central role of Islam as the state religion has been acknowledged but, apart from the application of Islamic law to personal matters, the sharia has largely remained in suspension. Islamist parties were frustrated each time they took part in the elections and were rejected by the people. On the other hand, the spread of the jihad movement and networking with al Qaeda resulted in a number of terrorist outrages in Indonesia. The civilian government and military adopted stern measures against extremism. Under the circumstances, rethinking and reconsideration of strategy took place among the mainstream Islamist parties. They began to develop arguments in favour of liberal democracy, toleration of religious minorities and equal rights of women. The recent violent attacks on the Ahmadiyya minority of Indonesia, however, did not receive any condemnation from the mainstream Islamists and one wonders how genuine is the change of heart among them.
One can say that the Islamists who are currently showing interest in the democratic process and liberal ideas are comparable with former communist parties and right-wing parties with roots in fascism that decided to take part in elections and the process mellowed down their anti-democratic objectives and programs. The fact that liberal democracy is now firmly entrenched and rooted in western societies means that the extreme left and right parties have no chance of coming to power through elections. On the other hand, whether they are now fully converted to democracy and liberalism is to be questioned. European democrats continue to treat them with suspicion.
It is a pity that Hashemi did not take up some other controversial aspects of Fatah’s book. For example, Fatah’s argument that the Prophet Muhammad did not want to establish a state because he did not appoint his successor is patently unconvincing. The Sunni claim that by appointing Abu Bakr to lead the prayers during his illness he had indicated his will, while the Shia claim that he had announced Ali to be his successor in a famous speech at Ghadir Khumm. Both these incidents are mentioned by Fatah. More important is the fact that the Prophet had, under his undisputed leadership, established an authority at Medina that imposed laws and collected taxes and inflicted punishments within territories under its control. The same state, under his immediate successors and later the Umayyads went upon a successful military campaign of conquest and expansion for the more than a hundred years. All this makes no sense if there was no state to organize such activities.
Consequently the obsession among Muslims throughout the ages with establishing an Islamic state cannot be condemned as a grand conspiracy that started within hours of the Prophet’s demise in 632 and has never ceased since then. When people have nothing to talk about with pride in their own lives, they seek refuge in past glory, and the more removed they are from their utopia, the greater is their tendency for them to surround it with myths and jealously preserve that memory.
This is exactly what has been happening for many centuries now. Meanwhile the world has not remained still. It has gone through bitter ideological debates, wars, genocide, ethnic cleansing and other tragedies and traumas, and come to the conclusion that only a liberal type of democracy, respectful of religion but only as a private conviction, and in which all religious communities, ethnic groups, minorities, cultural groups and women enjoy freedom and equal rights, including group-based rights for the weak and historically disadvantaged, can serve as the basis of a fair and free society.
Consequently one can argue that the Islamic state serves no useful purpose any more, but Muslims all have the right to practise the five articles of their faith wherever they are: declaration of faith, prayers, fasting, alms giving and pilgrimage. Equally, Muslim majority states must give the same freedoms to religious and sectarian minorities living among them. I believe Fatah’s “state of Islam” is exactly about the right of all Muslims to practise their faith freely as individuals and in union with others and the right of others to do so too. In other words, let go of the Islamic state but hold fast to the cardinal principles of your faith because they are not bound by any commitment to a specific type of state.
With regard to Fatah’s painstaking research on the origin of some of the controversies at the time of the death of the Prophet, it is commendable that he presents both Sunni and Shia points of views, but is unable to draw consistent conclusions from that survey. Some of the incidents he mentions are poorly researched. Thus for example he laments that Fatima (the daughter of the Prophet) was denied by Abu Bakr inheritance and property from her father. The fact is that Fatima inherited the personal, ancestral property of the Prophet, which including some date trees and buildings. What the caliph Abu Bakr placed under the control of the state was the Bagh-e-Fidak (a fertile piece of land) had been gifted to him. Muhammad used its income entirely for welfare activities and for entering new converts and guests. By drawing a line between ancestral property and a public trust, Abu Bakr established a practice in favour of the welfare of the community against narrow private ownership.
Also, he describes Umar’s disbelief that Muhammad had died as histrionics, rather than as genuine grief or drama. Histrionics means playing a role or simply acting. After 1,400 years it is impossible to say with certainty which is the correct description. The concern with Bagh-e-Fidak and Umar’s delirious state of mind upon the death of Muhammad constitutes the typical demonization of revered personalities among Sunnis by the Shia, and one wonders if a secular scholar such as Fatah should take a partisan stand. On the other hand, the massacre at Karbala of Imam Hussain and his descendants and followers by the Umayads stands out as a great tragedy indeed. Not only Shias but also most Sunnis consider it a great tragedy indeed. The former have made it the centrepiece of their annual mourning rites, which also include heaping abuse on the three successors of Muhammad before Ali: Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman. No doubt such behaviour results in ugly brawls in Sunni majority societies and in Pakistan and Lebanon has resulted in regular sectarian killings.
In the context of a discussion on liberal democracy and secularism it is important to note the basic difference between Sunni and Shia legal theory (both traditions lack genuine political theory). While the Sunni declared from the outset the caliphate to be a secular institution, with the caliph qualified to rule on the basis of his origin in the Quraish tribe of the Prophet, but qualified it by conditions of merit and capability of the candidate, the Shia wanted it to be the exclusive preserve of Ali and his descendants through his wife Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter. Ali’s male children from other wives were disqualified from the status of infallible imams. Both positions are manifestly untenable with modern democracy and therefore there is no point taking sides in favour of one or the other.
I took the position that any review of Tarek Fatah’s book is certain to generate controversy and I myself could not avoid starting one. This is a great merit of the book. The author takes bold and daring positions and invites spirited responses. It should be read by all those who want to learn why the Islamic state is such an anachronism.
After reading Nader Hashemi’s scathing review of Tarek Fatah’s book, Chasing a Mirage, I was left wondering if he and I had read the same book. Not only did the review avoid touching on Fatah’s courageous and unique critique of the Islamic State, Hashemi demonstrated intellectual dishonesty by suggesting Fatah had advocated for secular dictatorships in the Muslim world. It seemed Hashemi was reviewing not the book Fatah wrote, but what he imagined Fatah had written.
At no place in the book does Fatah discuss the oppressive secular regimes that dot the Arab World. On the contrary Chasing a Mirage is an analysis of three countries that claim to be Islamic states—Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan. However, Hashemi curiously avoids any reference to these three countries where Islam was invoked as the source of state power and where hundreds of thousands have been killed in the name of Islam and the state. Did Hashemi miss these chapters altogether in his haste to pass judgement?
In the review, Hashemi mocks author Fatah’s concerns regarding the infiltration of Islamists in many Canadian institutions. Hashemi writes: “Recently, [Fatah] has devoted himself to exposing an alleged Islamist agenda in Canada that he claims has infected not only the Muslim community but also the CBC, the Canadian banking system and the Ontario Human Rights Commission. ‘There are within the staff [of the … commission], and among the commissioners, hardline Islamic supporters of Islamic extremism,’ he was recently quoted as saying.”
Perhaps we can add the Literary Review of Canada to this list.
My critics draw special attention to my ethnic origin. How bizarre and disturbing that they expect the content of a review to be determined by the birthplace of the reviewer’s parents.
Rather than discuss an individual country, such as Iran, I provided a structural critique of the central theme of Fatah’s book, namely religion-state relations in Muslim societies, to illustrate the author’s superficial knowledge of Muslim politics. Moreover, I’ve provided extensive media commentary on Iran over the past seven years. Charges that I am reluctant to discuss clerical despotism are spurious.
Saeed Rahnema seeks to undermine my argument that Indonesian Muslim groups have made important contributions to democracy. He claims that the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) deserves credit for moderating these organizations, an entirely false claim as the PKI was brutally crushed in 1965, long before the events that I refer to with respect to an Islamic transformation. Since then the PKI has had a negligible role in influencing Indonesian politics, especially among Islamic currents.
Rahnema digs a deeper hole for himself when he writes that I “confuse public sphere with state, for no one has denied the ‘participation of religious groups in the public sphere’.” Has he not heard of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front or Tunisia’s Al Nahda, all of which have been banned by their governments? Moreover, in Turkey, religious-based political parties have been repeatedly banned. These facts suggest that the confusion is on his part, not mine.
I never claimed that “everyone is religious” in the Muslim world. However, it is clear to anyone who has visited a Muslim majority society that religion is a key marker of identity for the vast majority (especially in rural areas). While this may change over time, do I really need to footnote this truism?
Saeed Rahnema and I have deep philosophical differences on religion and politics. Like Fatah, Rahnema subscribes to the erroneous view that there is a global consensus on secularism, especially in the non-western world, and that the normative role of religion in government was arrived at through democratic negotiation and bargaining with strong input from civil society.
My position is categorically different. In the Muslim world, there has been no democratic consensus on the normative role of religion in government. These debates are in their infancy and, as I argue in my forthcoming book, one cannot de-link debates on democracy today from debates on the normative role of religion in government. They are occurring simultaneously, which partly explains why Muslim politics are so vertiginous. In short, political secularism needs to be socially constructed not ideologically affirmed. Rahnema is guilty of projecting his secularity onto the Muslim world, resulting in a distorted view, especially where religion and politics intersect.
Farzana Hassan attributes to me a position I do not uphold. I never claimed that “Islamic history is largely free of internecine tensions.” I say something quite different. Because she is unfamiliar with the origins of political secularism in the Anglo-American tradition—especially the relationship between religious toleration and political order—she cannot see how different the experience of religion-state relations has been between the West and the Islamic world.
Finally, I would like the LRC readers to know that Tarek Fatah has commented on my review. On his extensive Muslim Chronicle e-list, he distributed my essay while referring to me as a “termite” (email him or me for the full text). This was a Freudian slip on his part. Termites are insects that are to be exterminated. This confirms my suspicion that in terms of tolerance and political pluralism, Mr. Fatah is the mirror image of the Islamists whom he critiques.
Re: “The Dove is Never Free,” by
Ian Smillie’s review of two memoirs by past leaders of Médecins Sans Frontières (“The Dove Is Never Free,” September 2008) astutely captures the reputation of our medical organization, fractious contradictions and all. The rich culture of internal debate within MSF means that no critiques are ever so stinging as the ones we inflict from within. It’s how we face our human, therefore flawed, nature as humanitarians.
Smillie draws a distinction between MSF and development agencies such as CARE and Oxfam in terms of length of stay in a given country. While it’s true that we respond to emergencies and always try to hand over projects we’ve established to government health ministries or to development agencies for the longer term, our experience in Sudan (present since 1979), Democratic Republic of Congo (since 1987), Myanmar/Burma (since 1992) and Somalia (since 1991) shows that the come-and-go image of MSF—an image we are often guilty of reinforcing—is more a goal than a reality. Sometimes a lack of others to take over requires us to establish a presence or stay in a location for many years.
The reviewer critiques James Orbinski for failing “to explain clearly how humanitarians can work with unfettered independence in an enterprise where all money—even $10 donations—has strings.” Here’s how we try, at least: MSF doesn’t accept money from the U.S. government or many other governments in order to prevent political involvement and minimize perceptions of political involvement in our operational choices. Contributions from the Canadian International Development Agency are less than 16 percent of MSF Canada’s total revenue, and this funding for specific medical projects bypasses places where Ottawa may have a role in domestic affairs such as Haiti and Darfur, Sudan. MSF goes where the needs are greatest, not the pots of grant money. Our motivation is apolitical, but we cannot get around the fact that we work in highly politicized environments. That’s why we constantly push to defend our independence no matter how much militaries and governments blur the lines between their “humanitarian” work and ours.
More to the point, 80,000 individual Canadians support MSF’s work without any strings attached. After the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2005, MSF was the only agency to say publicly “We have enough for this!”—and redirect the generosity of donors toward all the less publicized, although equally lethal, humanitarian emergencies. It’s a credit to Ian Smillie that he works as tirelessly as we do to champion this kind of independence of action.
Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders
Re: “The Noisy Christian Right,” by
You surprised me. I had not expected the LRC to review Michael Wagner’s Standing on Guard for Thee at all, ever (Michael Valpy, “The Noisy Christian Right,” September 2008). And for sure, I had not expected to read a review that was so thoughtful and full of warm praise, balanced analysis and gentle criticism. Wrongly, I had assumed that the LRC, being a lonely liberal voice of Canadian literati, would heap scorn and ridicule on a book about and in support of the Christian Right, and that Michael Valpy, who was once referred to as the “one lonely liberal … at The Globe and Mail” would not be so kind and encouraging to an author whose views could not be farther from his own.
As a conservative, I was far more disappointed in Wagner’s book than Valpy appeared to be. It fell short on three fronts. First, it desperately needed a better editor, indeed if it had one at all. (It screamed of being self-published.) Second, it entirely ignored Quebec and the sea change following the Quiet Revolution, when Quebec transformed itself from a fortress of conservative Catholicism into the most profoundly secular society on the continent. Third, the book failed to identify the insurmountable barricade to any effective action by the Christian Right—their inherent extreme exclusivity. It is difficult to forge common cause when your theology consigns most of your potential allies to an eternity in hell. I grew up in the Plymouth Brethren. Only we had the whole truth about everything. With a few exceptions we were sure that all those who attended Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran and, most definitely, United churches were unsaved. Catholics were in league with the Evil One.
Even today the Christian Right erects so many barriers among its own adherents that any prospect of its becoming a big tent movement is a pipedream. A few minutes of Googling will turn up a plethora of organizations all claiming to be the voice of social conservatism in Canada. A Canadian version of a Christian coalition has yet to happen. Tristan Emmanuel’s website is currently promoting a seminar exposing the “tyranny of Islamic Fundamentalism” and the threat of introducing polygamy to Canada via the Muslems. This is not the way to form an effective political alliance.
And so the Christian Right in Canada will remain fractured and ineffective. Wagner’s book, as Valpy points out, while trying to be a positive account of an indigenous Canadian phenomenon succeeds only in describing battle after battle, all lost. The Christian Right has been ineffective in Canada not just because our culture is more European, more discreet and private about our religious convictions, but also because the Canadian religious right can be relied on to be their own worst enemies.
And so it is easy to be gentle with them, even a little condescending. After all, they are absolutely not a threat to anyone. Maybe that’s why Michael Valpy and the LRC were not nasty to them. In a weird way, they are mirror images of each other. Are not both the Christian Right and the literary elite of Canada voices crying in the wilderness, equally fighting for a cause that is long lost, and equally being overwhelmed by a mass culture that threatens them with irrelevance?
Kahshe Lake, Ontario
Re: “One and a Half Cheers,” by
Duff Conacher wants to strengthen the role of members of Parliament in checking prime ministerial power, and so do I (“One and a Half Cheers,” September 2008). The main difference between us is that I think electing parliaments in which no party has a majority in the House of Commons is our best bet for strengthening the power of MPs, whereas he prefers a dubious legislative program for regulating parliamentary affairs.
Among the laws Conacher wants passed are statutes regulating confidence votes and the nomination of political party candidates, and another “requiring Cabinet to consult meaningfully with the public—and make the results public—before any significant decision is taken.” The latter sounds like government by plebiscite. All of these laws would, of course, be interpreted by the courts. I would prefer to let Parliament itself develop its practices and procedures more informally.
To say that majority governments “have been all powerful and unfettered” would indeed be an overstatement. But it is not a claim I make. My argument is that since the Trudeau years there has been a marked trend toward a system of prime ministerial government in which power is concentrated, as never before, in the Prime Minister’s Office. I believe that this trend is most likely to be arrested by minority governments that must work with other parliamentary parties to produce policies that a majority of Canadians support.
Was I guilty of overstatement in claiming that nine of the twelve minority governments we have had at the federal level were able to achieve a good deal? Conacher would deny that Mackenzie King’s three minority governments achieved very much. Maybe he has a point about King’s 1925–26 government that was brought down by the customs scandal. But that minority government, collaborating with Labour and Progressive members, was preparing the innovative legislative program of his third minority government. If King does not score high in the number of laws passed during his first three administrations, it is not because his party lacked a majority in the House, but because he was a cautious politician even when he had a majority and Canada in the 1920s was just emerging into a era of legislative activism.
My main point about the effectiveness of minority governments is that what they get done represents policies favoured by a majority of the electorate, whereas the accomplishments of majority governments typically respond to the views of 40 percent of the electorate. I prefer being governed in a more inclusive way. I trust Duff Conacher does too.
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