Book Review: Is There An Islamic Problem?

By Khalid Baig
Posted: 27 Rabi-u-Thani 1424, 5 June 2005

Title: Is There An Islamic Problem?
Essays on Islamicate Societies, the US, and Israel
Author: Shahid Alam
Publisher: The Other Press, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Year: 2004
Price: $16.95
223 pages.

In the imperial war on Islam, the battle for the hearts and minds of Muslims takes many forms. There are zealous holy men whose books always follow the bombs. There is a huge propaganda machinery assuring the Muslims that the war on Islam is not against Islam. There are music and entertainment channels targeting the youth and Muslim family. And there are dedicated intellectuals like Bernard Lewis and their acolytes in the Muslim world like Pervez Hoodbhoy who assure their readers that the problem is with Islam; it is obscurantist, anachronistic, rigid, and impotent; and to get out of their predicament Muslims must reform Islam and replace it with secular humanism.

The very first essay in this collection of twenty essays --- which also provides the title for the book --- dissects these arguments and shows them to be the intellectual nonsense that they represent. When did the Muslim decline as a world power begin? Pervez Hoodbhoy puts it in the 12th century; Bernard Lewis even earlier, in the 11th century. There's purpose behind this falsification of history: to show that Muslim societies declined because of deep flaws in their beliefs and outlooks i.e. in Islam itself. The earlier dates also help cause greater despair. If the problem has persisted for a thousand years, what hope can anyone have that it will be fixed tomorrow?

What actually happened was that beginning in the fifteenth century, Europe started to get ahead in gunnery and shipping. This launched Atlantic Europe on the path of global ascendancy through deepening cycles of cumulative causation. "In the long run, Europe's command of the high seas produced vast new sources of wealth through plunder, trade, shipping, banking, and overseas investments." This wealth stimulated manufactures as well as interest in science and technology. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Europe was ready to start its project to dismantle Islamicate empires and states in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.

The Industrial Revolution enabled it to produce better machinery of war. This ascendancy was then used to vivisect the Muslim world so it would be left without a core, to impede its industrialization, and to suppress formation of governments in it that would reflect the interests and aspirations of their people instead of the colonial masters. These historical developments, not the alleged flaws in Islam, caused the decline of Muslims concomitant with the rise of Europe.

After this engaging analysis, which demolishes all the foundations of pithy secularist arguments, Shahid Alam observes, "After more than eighty years of Kemalism, a military clique still calls the shots in secular Turkey, wages war against a fifth of its own population, trembles at the sight of women in scarves, and grovels to gain entry into the margins of European society. Do we want to litter the Islamicate landscape with yet more half-baked Turkeys?"

The analysis of Bernard Lewis's What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity is contained in Shahid Alam's essay, "Bernard Lewis: Scholarship or Sophistry." It exposes the Zionist propagandist who tries to disguise himself as an objective scholar. Bernard Lewis never locates the problem of Islamicate backwardness in its global setting, where backwardness has been endemic to all societies in the Periphery --- the non-western world --- including the Indian, Chinese, Islamicate, African and Latin American. His book is strewn with contradictions. He himself refers to ten accounts of Muslims travelers to Europe between 1665 and 1840, yet blames the Ottomans for being uncurious about the rising European power. He talks about failure of industrialization in the Muslim world but never mentions Europe's success in curbing it with military power.

The author then turns the question round (What went wrong?) to ask what went wrong with good old Jewish orientalists. Before the rise of the Zionist movement European Jews took the least bigoted positions in the field of oriental studies. Their discussion of religious and racial tolerance in Islamdom, toward Jews in particular, may have been an invitation to Europeans to incorporate the same. Yet, they could not survive the logic of the Zionist movement. The Zionist camp, led for half a century by Lewis, has a vested interest in demonizing Islam to justify usurping Muslim land as well as secure western support in this task.

The five essays on Israel trace the history of the creation of the racist, colonial, settler-state, established on the backs of imperial powers. This is straight talk: undeniable facts, reasoned analysis, logical and powerful presentation. The articles showcase clarity, courage, and character. The essays can be helpful to anyone with an open mind but with illusions about the nature of the entity. Other essays look at US foreign policy and show how the Periphery has been living in a US straitjacket. Such talk from an American Muslim invites the question, why are you here? --- answered beautifully in the beginning of "A History of September 11."

Writing for the mainstream audience on issues that have been framed with a thorough distortion by a sophisticated propaganda machine is not easy. Should one repeatedly tell one's audiences that everything they know about Islam and Islamic history is wrong? Or should one knowingly concede some points in order to focus on some others? On some issues, Alam seems to have made the second choice, but it leads to troubling results. The issues of secularism (p. 72) and women (p. 74) are cases in point. His invocation of extremist and other derelict sects as a defense of Islamic treatment of women is unnecessary. If Kharjites were right then Islam does have a problem. Similarly, his acceptance of the myth that nineteen Muslims armed with box cutters successfully hijacked four planes on the same morning, flew them perfectly into tall buildings, and caused these steal and concrete behemoths to disintegrate neatly --- just as they do in controlled demolition --- is ill-advised.

Nevertheless, this is a good book. In the days of the Patriot Act, the rise of the neocons, and their unholy alliance with the Zionists, Is There An Islamic Problem? by Shahid Alam (who is Professor of Economics at the Northeastern University, Boston, MA) is also an act of exceptional courage.

The book has a memorable ending: "The two American victories --- over Nazis and the Soviets --- do not translate into an ineluctable law of invincibility. The Islamicate peoples are not defending outmoded systems or some unnatural tyranny. They are defending something more basic: their lives, their livelihood, and the way they want to live." These are words of encouragement to all those involved in the noble resistance to imperialism. Shahid Alan aptly dedicates his book to "all the victims of Empire, who die and are maimed by the thousands every day of the year, including September 11."


In the final analysis, the historical verdict on the Arab national awakening is clear: it failed. While the leaders of the Arab nationalist movements created a discourse of Arab nationalism - a concept of nationhood founded on language and history - they failed to create a deep consciousness of Arab unity, one that would seek its goal in Arab political unity, in a single Arab statehood . . . Not even the successive defeats inflicted by Israel on various combinations of Arab states - in 1948, 1956, and 1967 - could create the impetus for unity, the desire to restore Arab honor, or mobilize to face the massive threat that Israel posed to Arab security. (p. 17)

Once again, we live in a world whose rules have been restructured to the advantage of the richest, both globally and within each country. Globalization and global poverty do not mix well. A growing cabal of billionaires, more visible and more united than before, now confronts growing masses of starving desperate and angry people in every quadrant of the globe. (107-8)

This book is available at the Albalagh Bookstore. Click here to view.