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Book Review

Using September 11 as a pretext for yet another, more subtle attack on Islam and Muslims

Iqbal Siddiqui

Two Hours that Shook the World — September 11, 2001: Causes and Consequences by Fred Halliday. Pub: Saqi Books, London, UK, 2002. Pp: 256. £12.95.

Fred Halliday, professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics, University of London, is an established western expert on the Middle East, and is regarded by many — Muslims and non-Muslim alike — as a critic of the West and a commentator who is sympathetic to Muslims. Other, more perceptive Muslims, however, regard him as a hostile commentator whose apparent sympathy with Muslims disguises a deep contempt and poisonous hatred for much of Islam and most Muslims. His latest book has been greeted by many western liberals as a rare voice of sanity in the midst of the blind, unthinking madness that has engulfed much of the West since September 11. Many Muslims have also welcomed it. That is perhaps understandable, as it does indeed say some of the things that Muslims have long been trying to get through to Westerners, with precious little success. It is, however, a sad misreading of the book, which in fact provides ample evidence for the less charitable view of Halliday’s position.

One of the many ironies of September 11 is that the events of that day focused the West’s attention on Islam and Muslims, yet closed most minds to what we have to say. Under the circumstances it is understandable that Muslims should be glad to find senior, respected Westerners saying similar things, and otherwise providing balanced, judicious commentaries on current affairs rather than the hysterical and uninformed blabber that has characterised most comment. (There are also less charitable explanations for the importance some Muslims place on the opinions of well-known non-Muslims.) It is at precisely such times, however, that the dangers of accepting friendship from the wrong sources are greatest. This book illustrates some of these dangers.

The first point to make about it is that it is not directly about the events of September 11; rather it is yet another book that has been hurriedly put together in response to the sudden demand for books on contemporary history in the aftermath of September 11. Whether Halliday was already planning a book of this type, which was then hurriedly adapted to take advantage of September 11, or whether the whole project was begun after September 11, is unclear; what is clear is that most of the book consists of a collection of essays written before September 11, strung together somewhat haphazardly and sandwiched between an introduction and conclusion written post-September 11. The result is that, although the subject matter of these essays provides contextual material of varying degrees of relevance, discussions on the "causes and consequences" of September 11 the essays are not.

The positions that persuade some Muslims to view Halliday favourably are not difficult to identify. About September 11, at a time when many Westerners are keen to tar Islam as a whole, and all Mus-lims, as terrorist, Halliday promotes a broader, more differentiated view of Islam and the Muslim community, pointing out that Usama bin Ladin, al-Qa’ida, the Taliban and Wahhabiyyah generally are all — to greater or lesser extents — marginal and extreme positions within Islam that are not typical of the Ummah as a whole. He also addresses one of the most difficult issues for Muslims dealing with westerners: the reasons that the US in particular, and the West generally, are mistrusted and hated by many in the world, and he raises many of the questions about the tone and morality of the US’s response to September 11, and its blatant and unrestrained projection of its military power around the world.

More broadly, in the essays that make up most of the book, he also raises and discusses issues that Muslims are concerned about and on which they seldom find understanding or sympathy — or even just balanced discussion — from most westerners. A major and relevant example of this is the chapter on "Violence and Communal Conflict: Terrorism ‘from above’ and ‘from below’", which provides (among other things) a comparison between the uses of political violence by popular movements and established powers, highlighting that marginal groups such as al-Qa’ida are not the main purveyors of terror in the world. This is followed by chapters on — among others — fundamentalism and political power (pointing out that Muslims are not the only ‘fundamentalists’); anti-Muslimism and Islamophobia in the West; Kuwait since its liberation by the US (highlighting the fact that it is less than a perfect democratic state); the nature of Saudi rule and the hypocrisy of the West’s steadfast support for the Saudis; and the effects of globalization and the causes of global inequality. Regardless of his own positions on these issues, the fact that he acknowledges them and addresses them is enough for some Muslims.

Unfortunately, it is his positions that are the problem, and carry the book across the fine line from possibly useful to deeply damaging. A detailed exposition is not possible here, but in brief the problem is that, having acknowledged that there are a variety of understandings among Muslims of what Islam represents in the modern world, and that the ‘fundamentalism’ of bin Ladin, the Taliban et al., are far from typical or representative of contemporary Islam, Halliday is not satisfied to provide his readers with an explanation of these various positions.

Instead, like many Western experts on Islam, he considers himself qualified to judge which is the true Islam, the good, acceptable Islam, and which understandings can be disparaged and dismissed as blindly and contemptuously as many Westerners regard all Muslims. At the same time, while being deeply critical of many aspects of the West’s role in the world, Halliday also continues to regard it as ultimately a power for good in the world, and to make excuses for the US to its critics. Despite all the evidence before us, he continues to talk of the UN, international law and other international institutions as representing some sort of impartial international community, rather than instruments of the West’s power and agenda. It is these realities that many Muslims ignore in their excitement at finding a non-Muslim who seems to share some of their concerns.

To be fair, unlike many non-Muslims who claim to be sympathetic to Muslims, Halliday does not maintain a diplomatic silence on these issues. Instead he is often blunt in his opinions, merely wrapping his iron fist in a velvet glove that is enough to fool some Muslims. But the reality of his positions and attitudes is clear enough for those willing to see it. An example is his discussion of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’. Yes, it is nice to have a non-Muslim say that not all Muslims are fundamentalists, and that Muslims are not the only people to have fundamentalists.

But this understanding is coupled with a total dismissal for ‘political Islam’ and the Islamic movement, based on a gross misrepresentation of them as a potentially authoritarian, repressive religious dictatorship, reflecting the ingrained and instinctive anti-religiousness of both Halliday’s Marxist past and his liberal present. Someone as knowledgeable as Halliday undoubtedly is should understand the Islamic movement better. Muslims need to beware: knowledge and understanding are very different things.

Halliday’s views on Islamic Iran are another example: yes, he condemns the Shah and the West’s role in pre-Revolutionary Iran, and yes, he pays lip-service to the qualities and integrity of Imam Khomeini instead of demonizing him, as most Westerners do; and yes, he has considerable knowledge of Iran’s Islamic history, culture and movement; but all that is coupled with gross misrepresentations of the nature, objectives and policies of the Islamic state and government. His position — in discussing Iran and others issues — is that religion is backward, and that liberalism represents "universal values" that are now embodied by the modern West.

Of course, differences of opinion are inevitable. We cannot expect a non-Muslim academic to agree with us on everything. If that were the only issue with Halliday’s work, it would not be a problem. What we are entitled to expect, however, is that someone knowledgeable on Islam and Muslim history and society should not deliberately misrepresent them to non-Muslim readers, to create or reinforce anti-Islamic prejudices, even as the apparent tenor of his writing is the opposite. But that is the only possible explanation for many of the snide comments and points that Halliday slips into his exposition.

For example, does Halliday really think it appropriate to list clitoridectomy (so-called ‘female circumcision’) as an Islamic practice? Or to describe hijab as a "medieval" form of dress? Or that Pakistan was created in 1947 "to free South Asian Muslims from what they termed Arab imperialism" (p. 18)? Dr Kalim Siddiqui’s surname is misspelt "Saddiqi", which can only be a deliberate snub (p. 90). And the suggestion that the slogan "marg bar liberalizm" (death to liberalism) chanted by crowds during the Islamic Revolution represented a personal threat to him (p. 62) would be laughable if it were not for the false impression it conveys to Western readers about Iranian Muslims and the Revolution.

Many Muslims in Britain who have had the misfortune to deal with Halliday over the years, for example during the Rushdie episode, have learnt to regard him as a dangerous, poisonous, Janus-faced enemy of Islam. It is a pity that many others have yet to recognise that reality. Some traditional wisdom is worth remembering: someone who wants to stab you in the back first has to get behind you. That is probably the best way to view the apparent sympathy and understanding of Islam, Muslims and the contemporary historical situation displayed by Halliday in this book. That is the reality that no amount of balanced, judicious opinion and analysis on the events of September 11 and on other issues can outweigh.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 9

Rabi' al-Thani 20, 14232002-07-01

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