is an editor at the New
Left Review and a frequent contributor to
CounterPunch. Letter To A Muslim comes
from Ali's new book, The Clash Of Fundamentalisms: Crusades,
Jihads And Modernity, published by Verso.
when you approached me after the big antiwar meeting in November
2001 (I think it was Glasgow) and asked whether I was a believer?
I have not forgotten the shock you registered when I replied
"no", or the comment of your friend ("our parents
warned us against you"), or the angry questions which the
pair of you then began to hurl at me like darts. All of that
made me think, and this is my reply for you and all the others
like you who asked similar questions elsewhere in Europe and
spoke, I told you that my criticism of religion and those who
use it for political ends was not a case of being diplomatic
in public. Exploiters and manipulators have always used religion
self-righteously to further their own selfish ends. It's true
that this is not the whole story. There are, of course, deeply
sincere people of religion in different parts of the world who
genuinely fight on the side of the poor, but they are usually
in conflict with organized religion themselves.
Church victimized worker or peasant priests who organized against
oppression. The Iranian ayatollahs dealt severely with Muslims
who preached in favor of a social radicalism. If I genuinely
believed that this radical Islam was the way forward for humanity,
I would not hesitate to say so in public, whatever the consequences.
I know that many of your friends love chanting the name "Osama"
and I know that they cheered on September 11, 2001. They were
not alone. It happened all over the world, but had nothing to
do with religion. I know of Argentine students who walked out
when a teacher criticized Osama. I know a Russian teenager who
e-mailed a one-word message - "Congratulations" -
to his Russian friends whose parents had settled outside New
York, and they replied: "Thanks. It was great." We
talked, I remember, of the Greek crowds at football matches
who refused to mourn for the two minutes the government had
imposed and instead broke the silence with anti-American chants.
of this justifies what took place. What lies behind the vicarious
pleasure is not a feeling of strength, but a terrible weakness.
The people of Indo-China suffered more than any Muslim country
at the hands of the US government. They were bombed for 15 whole
years and lost millions of their people. Did they even think
of bombing America? Nor did the Cubans or the Chileans or the
Brazilians. The last two fought against the US-imposed military
regimes at home and finally triumphed.
feel powerless. And so when America is hit they celebrate. They
don't ask what such an act will achieve, what its consequences
will be and who will benefit. Their response, like the event
itself, is purely symbolic.
I think that Osama and his group have reached a political dead-end.
It was a grand spectacle, but nothing more. The US, in responding
with a war, has enhanced the importance of the action, but I
doubt if even that will rescue it from obscurity in the future.
It will be a footnote in the history of this century. In political,
economic or military terms it was barely a pinprick.
the Islamists offer? A route to a past which, mercifully for
the people of the seventh century, never existed. If the "Emirate
of Afghanistan" is the model for what they want to impose
on the world then the bulk of Muslims would rise up in arms
against them. Don't imagine that either Osama or Mullah Omar
represent the future of Islam. It would be a major disaster
for the culture we both share if that turned out to be the case.
Would you want to live under those conditions? Would you tolerate
your sister, your mother or the woman you love being hidden
from public view and only allowed out shrouded like a corpse?
I want to be honest with you. I opposed this latest Afghan war.
I do not accept the right of big powers to change governments
as and when it affects their interests. But I did not shed any
tears for the Taliban as they shaved their beards and ran back
home. This does not mean that those who have been captured should
be treated like animals or denied their elementary rights according
to the Geneva convention, but as I've argued elsewhere, the
fundamentalism of the American Empire has no equal today. They
can disregard all conventions and laws at will. The reason they
are openly mistreating prisoners they captured after waging
an illegal war in Afghanistan is to assert their power before
the world - hence they humiliate Cuba by doing their dirty work
on its soil - and warn others who attempt to twist the lion's
tail that the punishment will be severe.
I remember how,
during the cold war, the CIA and its indigenous recruits tortured
political prisoners and raped them in many parts of Latin America.
During the Vietnam war the US violated most of the Geneva conventions.
They tortured and executed prisoners, raped women, threw prisoners
out of helicopters to die on the ground or drown in the sea,
and all this, of course, in the name of freedom.
Because many people
in the west believe the nonsense about "humanitarian interventions",
they are shocked by these acts, but this is relatively mild
compared with the crimes committed in the last century by the
Empire. I've met many of our people in different parts of the
world since September 11. One question is always repeated: "Do
you think we Muslims are clever enough to have done this?"
I always answer "Yes". Then I ask who they think is
responsible, and the answer is invariably "Israel".
Why? "To discredit us and make the Americans attack our
countries." I gently expose their wishful illusions, but
the conversation saddens me. Why are so many Muslims sunk in
this torpor? Why do they wallow in so much self-pity? Why is
their sky always overcast? Why is it always someone else who
is to blame?
we talk I get the impression that there is not a single Muslim
country of which they can feel really proud. Those who have
migrated from South Asia are much better treated in Britain
than in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf States. It is here that something
has to happen. The Arab world is desperate for a change. Over
the years, in every discussion with Iraqis, Syrians, Saudis,
Egyptians, Jordanians and Palestinians, the same questions are
raised, the same problems recur. We are suffocating. Why can't
we breathe? Everything seems static: our economy, our politics,
our intellectuals and, most of all, our religion.
every day. The west does nothing. Our governments are dead.
Our politicians are corrupt. Our people are ignored. Is it surprising
that some are responsive to the Islamists? Who else offers anything
these days? The US? It doesn't even want democracy, not even
in little Qatar, and for a very simple reason. If we elected
our own governments they might demand that the US close down
its bases. Would it? They already resent al-Jazeera television
because it has different priorities from them. It was fine when
al-Jazeera attacked corruption within the Arab elite. Thomas
Friedman even devoted a whole column to praise of al-Jazeera
in the New York Times. He saw it as a sign of democracy coming
to the Arab world. No longer. Because democracy means the right
to think differently, and al-Jazeera showed pictures of the
Afghan war that were not shown on the US networks, so Bush and
Blair put pressure on Qatar to stop unfriendly broadcasts.
For the west, democracy
means believing in exactly the same things that they believe.
Is that really democracy? If we elected our own government,
in one or two countries people might elect Islamists. Would
the west leave us alone? Did the French government leave the
Algerian military alone? No. They insisted that the elections
of 1990 and 1991 be declared null and void. French intellectuals
described the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) as "Islamo-fascists",
ignoring the fact that they had won an election. Had they been
allowed to become the government, divisions already present
within them would have come to the surface. The army could have
warned that any attempt to tamper with the rights guaranteed
to citizens under the constitution would not be tolerated. It
was only when the original leaders of the FIS had been eliminated
that the more lumpen elements came to the fore and created mayhem.
Should we blame them for the civil war, or those in Algiers
and Paris who robbed them of their victory? The massacres in
Algeria are horrendous. Is it only the Islamists who are responsible?
What happened in Bentalha, 10 miles south of Algiers, on the
night of September 22, 1997? Who slaughtered the 500 men, women
and children of that township? Who? The Frenchman who knows
everything, Bernard-Henri Levy, is sure it was the Islamists
who perpetrated this dreadful deed. Then why did the army deny
the local population arms to defend itself? Why did it tell
the local militia to go away that night? Why did the security
forces not intervene when they could see what was going on?
Why does M Levy believe that the Maghreb has to be subordinated
to the needs of the French republic, and why does nobody attack
this sort of fundamentalism?
We know what we
have to do, say the Arabs, but every time the west intervenes
it sets our cause back many years. So if they want to help,
they should stay out. That's what my Arab friends say, and I
agree with this approach. Look at Iran. The western gaze turned
benevolent during the assault on Afghanistan. Iran was needed
for the war, but let the west watch from afar. The imperial
fundamentalists are talking about the "axis of evil",
which includes Iran. An intervention there would be fatal. A
new generation has experienced clerical oppression. It has known
nothing else. Stories about the shah are part of its prehistory.
These young men and women are sure about one thing if nothing
else. They don't want the ayatollahs to rule them any more.
Even though Iran, in recent years, has not been as bad as Saudi
Arabia or the late "Emirate of Afghanistan", it has
not been good for the people.
Let me tell you
a story. A couple of years ago I met a young Iranian film-maker
in Los Angeles. His name was Moslem Mansouri. He had managed
to escape with several hours of filmed interviews for a documentary
he was making. He had won the confidence of three Tehran prostitutes
and filmed them for more than two years. He showed me some of
the footage. They talked to him quite openly. They described
how the best pick-ups were at religious festivals. I got a flavor
of the film from the transcripts he sent me. One of the women
tells him: "Today everyone is forced to sell their bodies!
Women like us have to tolerate a man for 10,000 toomans. Young
people need to be in a bed together, even for 10 minutes . .
. It is a primary need . . . it calms them down. "When
the government does not allow it, then prostitution grows. We
don't even need to talk about prostitution, the government has
taken away the right to speak with the opposite sex freely in
public . . . In the parks, in the cinemas, or in the streets,
you can't talk to the person sitting next to you. On the streets,
if you talk to a man, the 'Islamic guard' interrogates you endlessly.
Today in our country, nobody is satisfied! Nobody has security.
I went to a company to get a job. The manager of the company,
a bearded guy, looked at my face and said, 'I will hire you
and I'll give you 10,000 toomans more than the pay rate.' I
said, 'You can at least test my computer skills to see if I'm
proficient or not . . .' He said, 'I hire you for your looks!'
I knew that if I had to work there, I had to have sex with him
at least once a day.
you go it's like this! I went to a special family court - for
divorce -- and begged the judge, a clergyman, to give me my
child's custody. I told him, 'Please . . . I beg you to give
me the custody of my child. I'll be your Kaniz . . . ["Kaniz"
means servant. This is a Persian expression which basically
means 'I beg you, I am very desperate'.] What do you think the
guy said? He said, 'I don't need a servant! I need a woman!'
What do you expect of others when the clergyman, the head of
the court, says this? I went to the officer to get my divorce
signed, instead he said I should not get divorced and instead
get married again without divorce, illegally. Because he said
without a husband it will be hard to find a job. He was right,
but I didn't have money to pay him . . . These things make you
age faster . . . you get depressed . . . you have a lot of stress
and it damages you. Perhaps there is a means to get out of this
. . . "
Moslem was distraught
because none of the American networks wanted to buy the film.
They didn't want to destabilize Khatami's regime! Moslem himself
is a child of the Revolution. Without it he would never have
become a film-maker. He comes from a very poor family. His father
is a muezzin and his upbringing was ultra-religious. Now he
hates religion. He refused to fight in the war against Iraq.
He was arrested. This experience transformed him. "The
prison was a hard but good experience for me. It was in the
prison that I felt I am reaching a stage of intellectual maturity.
I was resisting and I enjoyed my sense of strength. I felt that
I saved my life from the corrupted world of clergies and this
is a price I was paying for it. I was proud of it. After one
year in prison, they told me that I would be released on the
condition that I sign papers stating that I will participate
in Friday sermons and religious activities. I refused to sign.
They kept me in the prison for one more year."
Afterwards he took
a job on a film magazine as a reporter. "I thought my work
in the media would serve as a cover for my own projects, which
were to document the hideous crimes of the political regime
itself. I knew that I would not be able to make the kind of
films I really want to make due to the censorship regulations.
Any scenario that I would write would have never got the permission
of the Islamic censorship office. I knew that my time and energy
would get wasted. So I decided to make eight documentaries secretly.
I smuggled the footage out of Iran. Due to financial problems
I've only been able to finish editing two of my films. One is
Close Up, Long Shot and the other is Shamloo, The
Poet Of Liberty.
film is about the life of Hossein Sabzian, who was the main
character of Abbas Kiarostami's drama-documentary called Close
Up. A few years after Kiarostami's film, I went to visit
Sabzian. He loves cinema. His wife and children get frustrated
with him and finally leave him. Today, he lives in a village
on the outskirts of Tehran and has come to the conclusion that
his love for cinema has resulted in nothing but misery. In my
film he says, 'People like me get destroyed in societies like
the one we live in. We can never present ourselves. There are
two types of dead: flat and walking. We are the walking dead!'"
We could find stories
like this and worse in every Muslim country. There is a big
difference between the Muslims of the diaspora -- those whose
parents migrated to the western lands -- and those who still
live in the House of Islam. The latter are far more critical
because religion is not crucial to their identity. It's taken
for granted that they are Muslims. In Europe and North America
things are different. Here an official multiculturalism has
stressed difference at the expense of all else. Its rise correlates
with a decline in radical politics as such.
and "religion" are softer, euphemistic substitutes
for socioeconomic inequality - as if diversity, rather than
hierarchy, were the central issue in North American or European
society today. I have spoken to Muslims from the Maghreb (France),
from Anatolia (Germany); from Pakistan and Bangladesh (Britain),
from everywhere (United States) and a South Asian sprinkling
in Scandinavia. Why is it, I often ask myself, that so many
are like you? They have become much more orthodox and rigid
than the robust and vigorous peasants of Kashmir and the Punjab,
whom I used to know so well.
The British prime
minister is a great believer in single-faith schools. The American
president ends each speech with "God Save America".
Osama starts and ends each TV interview by praising Allah. All
three have the right to do so, just as I have the right to remain
committed to most of the values of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment
attacked religion -- Christianity, mainly -- for two reasons:
that it was a set of ideological delusions, and that it was
a system of institutional oppression, with immense powers of
persecution and intolerance. Why should we abandon either of
these legacies today?
I don't want you
to misunderstand me. My aversion to religion is by no means
confined to Islam alone. And nor do I ignore the role which
religious ideologies have played in the past in order to move
the world forward. It was the ideological clashes between two
rival interpretations of Christianity -- the Protestant Reformation
versus the Catholic Counter-Reformation -- that led to volcanic
explosions in Europe. Here was an example of razor-sharp intellectual
debates fuelled by theological passions, leading to a civil
war, followed by a revolution.
Dutch revolt against Spanish occupation was triggered off by
an assault on sacred images in the name of confessional correctness.
The introduction of a new prayer book in Scotland was one of
the causes of the 17th-century Puritan Revolution in England,
the refusal to tolerate
Catholicism sparked off its successor in 1688. The intellectual
ferment did not cease and a century later the ideas of the Enlightenment
stoked the furnaces of revolutionary France. The Church of England
and the Vatican now combined to contest the new threat, but
ideas of popular sovereignty and republics were too strong to
be easily obliterated.
I can almost hear
your question. What has all this got to do with us? A great
deal, my friend. Western Europe had been fired by theological
passions, but these were now being transcended. Modernity was
on the horizon. This was a dynamic that the culture and economy
of the Ottoman Empire could never mimic. The Sunni-Shia divide
had come too soon and congealed into rival dogmas. Dissent had,
by this time, been virtually wiped out in Islam. The Sultan,
flanked by his religious scholars, ruled a state-Empire that
was going to wither away and die.
If this was already
the case in the 18th century, how much truer it is today. Perhaps
the only way in which Muslims will discover this is through
their own experiences, as in Iran. The rise of religion is partially
explained by the lack of any other alternative to the universal
regime of neoliberalism. Here you will discover that as long
as Islamist governments open their countries to global penetration,
they will be permitted to do what they want in the sociopolitical
The American Empire
used Islam before and it can do so again. Here lies the challenge.