Is There An Islamic Problem? Essays on Islamicate Societies, the US and Israel By M. Shahid Alam. Pub: The Other Press, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, September 2004. Pbk:$15; pages: 240. (available from www.ibtbooks.com)
September 11, 2001, is indeed a historic landmark, especially for those Americans who had never before known what it means to be victims and to bear the pain of living in perpetual fear; and for the Muslim world, coming to terms with its devastating consequences.
Three years have passed since then, and the investigations of 9-11 have failed to answer various questions or solve the mystery of who the perpetrators and their backers were. Facts are being buried; emotions are being inflated; a poison of fear and hatred is being injected into the bloodstream of civil society around the world. Yet only the cause of 9-11 remains a mystery, not its effects. The events and consequences that flowed from 9-11 also followed a definite blueprint. US president George Bush did not wait for the results of any investigation before declaring a “crusade”; Benjamin Netanyahu, former prime minister of Israel, did not hesitate to say that the attacks on America are “very good” for relations between the US and Israel.
Bush’s “crusade” struck the Muslim world with terror and awe. Operation Infinite Justice was renamed Operation Enduring Freedom, but this renaming made little difference. Residential and non-residential areas alike were bombed; children, women and men became “collateral damage”; the Taliban were removed from power; avenues were set up for the gas pipeline through Afghanistan. It was a well-executed plan: the same old colonial wine in yet another new bottle.
President Bush took a monstrous line: “You are either with us or against us.” Ayatullah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, Rahbar (Leader) of Islamic Iran, responded with impeccable logic and political authority when he said, “we are neither with the Taliban nor with America, but with the people of Afghanistan.” Responsible Western intellectuals, such as Noam Chomsky and Edward Said, refused to endorse Bush’s pseudo-logic. Many Muslim intellectuals in the West also dared to take issue with Bush’s rhetoric. One of them was Shahid Alam, professor of economics at Northeastern University, Boston. The essays that he wrote after September 2001 were intended to neutralize some of the “collateral damage” inflicted by the literary and military bombardment that accompanied the “war on terror”.
Three years after that “fateful day”, Shahid Alam’s essays, in which he “tried to make historic sense”, have been collected and reissued in one volume. The title of this book asks a vital question for West and East alike. Twenty chapters are consciously placed and aptly demarcated into three sections: “Islamicate Societies and the West”; “Arabs and the United States”; “Palestine and Israel”.
Alam’s language flows with life and vibrancy: “September 11 was a souvenir from the dark dungeons of our secret history, a digitized, televised image from the lost and forgotten Abu Ghraibs of decades past.” Alam is blunt: “The symbolic power of 9-11 had to be suppressed. Instantly, the President [Bush], followed by the brothels of corporate media and the ideologies who pimp for authority, was spinning a thick web of lies and obfuscations around 9-11.” Alam is also bold and daring when he gives the ultimate punch: “The Israelization of the United States is complete.”
Noam Chomsky compliments Shahid Alam’s vision of forcing “the legacies of history” into “the daylight of consciousness” in the West, and his deep understanding of the cultural and economic history of Islamic and European societies. September 11, according to Alam, exposes the “legacies of history”: of tribalism sanctified by religion, of social science in the service of power, of naked greed disguised by the rhetoric of the civilizing mission, and of citizens fed on lies and sedated with amusements. This book attempts to “map out the connections” between the US and the “Islamicate world”, and emerges with a phenomenal realization: “the Israelization of the United States.”
The author attacks pseudo-intellectuals such as Bernard Lewis (a “Zionist Orientalist”) and Pervez Hoodboy (“raised on a pure diet of Orientalism and its falsification of Islamicate history”) for their distorted view of the decline of the Islamic world in the 12th century. Alam describes how, despite reversals in Spain, “Islamicate power” continued to expand for several more centuries. The crusaders were expelled in 1291, and the Ottomans moved into the Balkans, taking Constantinople in 1453, and twice laying siege to Vienna, the second time in 1683. Alam also points out that the Berbers extended “Islamicate power” into “Sub-Saharan Africa”; and “once the Turks and Mongols entered Islam, Islamicate power extended deep into Central Asia, up the Volga River, beyond the Tarim Basin, and past the Hindu Kush into the plains of North India... In addition, Arab and Persian traders were seeding Islamicate communities in East Africa, Southern India, and the Islands of the Indonesian archipelago.”
Alam praises Marshall Hodgson’s The Venture of Islam for having “challenged the orientalist canard about an early decline of Islamicate civilization.” The “overwhelming magnificence” of the Taj Mahal, built by Emperor Shah Jahan in 1648, symbolises an age of artistic, philosophic and social power; and the Isphahan School of Philosophy, founded by Mullah Sadra in 1640 and now recognized by western authorities as a major source of philosophical movement, are both heralded by Alam with immense authority and assurance. For Alam, the decline in the “scientific output of Islamicate societies” after the eleventh century does not indicate a decline of “Islamicate power”. He substantiates fully his argument that the apparent decline in “scientific output” was compensated by growing activity in other human endeavours, including historiography, poetry, architecture, painting and philosophy.
Shahid Alam sails smoothly over the pages of history. Two “critical areas” are given the credit for “western Europe’s ascendance” starting in the fifteenth century: gunnery and shipping. He pinpoints a “fateful” mistake in 1433, when the “Chinese not only withdrew their maritime presence in the Indian Ocean, but scrapped their fleet of superior ships.” Alam clearly thinks that China would have “discovered” Europe, instead of the other way round, had the Chinese continued their “maritime explorations.”
History moves on, European power expands, and the “Islamicate world” that emerged from the colonial era becomes weak and fragmented: “The colonial powers had splintered the Arabs into some thirty states, some of them little more than [a] collection of oil wells; Britain and the United States had placed the oil-rich states under despotic monarchies; and the Zionists had established a Jewish state in nearly all of Palestine.”
In the historical analysis of Japan’s “industrial drive”, Alam gives us valuable geographical and cultural insights. Alam condemns the way Europe “dismantled” Muhammad Ali Pasha’s industrial drives in Egypt, which would have “renewed the old threat of Islam to Europe”. However, he explains why Japan’s industrial drive, initiated 60 years later, was green-signalled: “because it was an archipelago tethered off the eastern edge of Asia, half a world away from Western Europe and separated from the United States by the vast Pacific Ocean.” Having made historical and geographical sense, Alam clarifies the significance of this issue by making it clear that “Japan’s mix of Shinto and Confucian culture did not set off alarms in the European psyche.”
Three “additional” factors in this book are at least partly caused or exacerbated by the “impotence of Arabs” in the post-colonial era: zionism, the old Christian vendetta against Islam, and oil. The “US-Israel siege of the Islamicate world”; the insertion of “an expansionist colonial-settler state [Israel] in the Middle East”; Israel’s “rout of Arab armies in 1967”; Egypt making peace with Israel and abandoning its leadership of the Arab world, and eventually “writing the obituary of Arab Nationalism”: all these events are interpreted by Alam: “Only the Islamists could now assume the historic task of liberating and uniting the Arab world.”
Shahid Alam echoes Frantz Fanon when he justifies the cause of the Palestinians: “Of necessity, colonial dispossession is implemented by force, by massive force; it follows that if the victim so chooses, resistance to dispossession can also employ violent means.” In a much more powerful tone Fanon inaugurated his classic, The Wretched of the Earth, in the 1970s: “National Liberation, national renaissance, restoration of nationhood to the people, commonwealth: whatever may be the headings used or the new formulas introduced, decolonization is always a violent phenomenon.”
Alam elaborates the history of the Zionist occupation of Palestine in the fifteenth chapter: “A Colonizing Project Built on Lies”. But in chapter 18, “Israelization of the United States”, the author floats an “inescapable comparison” between the American invasion of Iraq and the Zionist occupation of Palestine. “Is this [Iraq] America’s West Bank? Is this the Israelization of America?”
America’s annual financial aid to Israel has grown from less than $100 million in the 1960s to over $5 billion today. Apart from the role played by Britain, the US and the UN in consolidating Israel’s occupation of Palestine, the author also describes the role played by France in establishing a “fruitful relationship” with Israel: France has supplied not only heavy arms and combat aircraft but also collaborated with Israel in its nuclear weapons programme.
America’s interests in the Middle East region were all protected by building Israel up, militarily and economically. Alam, on the US-Israel “special relationship”, pinpoints one reason: “Iran’s Islamist Revolution”. History witnessed one of the US’s strongest puppet-regimes, equipped with unmatched economic and military might in the Middle East, being “spectacularly drowned in the blood of the shuhada” under the uncompromising leadership of Imam Khomeini. Alam says, “The overthrow of the Iranian monarchy, the second pillar of American hegemony in the Middle East, increased Israel’s leverage under US policies.”
America’s “war on terror” is being globalized across the world today like any other capitalist project. India, Pakistan, Russia, China, Indonesia have all entered into this product to suppress domestic dissent. Many armies have joined the American-led “coalition forces”. Shahid Alam is not surprised that Israel, “America’s strategic asset in the Middle East”, is conspicuously absent from the long list of coalition partners. “That is a trick no magician could replicate. The Israelization of the United States is complete.”
The last chapter pays tribute to Edward Said, a Palestinian intellectual who died exactly one year before this book was published. Edward Said’s voice on the Palestinian cause was heard with great clarity in the Western world, and his definition of an intellectual as “a disturber of the status quo” is legendary. Surely Shahid Alam’s writings have attempted to disturb the status quo. This landmark publication deserves attention in the Muslim world and the western world alike.