Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State

People often talk about the Islamic contribution to science, culture and art yet the name of Abu Nawas is more or less forgotten now. Canadian author Tarek Fatah, founder of the secular Muslim Canadian Congress (he has reported the obligatory death threats) paints a vivid picture of this remarkable Muslim artist:

He was a poet to reckon with and not to be antagonised, for fear of a satirical reprisal that would become the source of amusement and mockery in the marketplace and wherever the nobility sipped fine wine or paid to watch damsels dance to the voices of minstrels.

The immediate impulse is to compare this long-haired hedonist to a Middle Eastern Oscar Wilde. Although a devout Muslim, Nawas had little time for organised religion. Attending prayers one day, he interrupted the imam’s recital of ‘O ye unbelievers’ with ‘Here I am!’ He was once found in an embrace with a beautiful woman against the holy stone of the Ka’aba. He later walked out of the relationship after the woman ordered him to renounce his homosexuality.

My comparison with Wilde falls because, while the Irish dramatist was broken on the wheel of Victorian puritanism, Abu Nawas was accepted and respected in his own time. He received mild censure for his irreverence but no real harm: ‘the Basra and Iran of Abu Nawas’ days was a city of tolerance and pluralism.’

It’s fair to say that if Nawas travelled through time from the Basra of 780 to that of 2009 then his subsequent life expectancy would be measured in days, if not hours.

The theme Tarek Fatah rages against in his excellent study of an impossible dream is that of the Golden Past contrasted with a Fallen Present. To my knowledge, the earliest recorded instance of this fable appears in the Book of Genesis, with humankind exiled forever from the garden of purity into a decadent and declining present day. The myth runs through most major religions, extremist political philosophies and also, more and more frequently, reactionary mainstream political comment in Western societies. You know the drill. Humanity has lost its spirituality, become seduced by materialism, consumerism, and meaningless sex, with the result that we’re all wandering around dull-eyed and repeating sitcom catchphrases like characters in a Douglas Coupland novel.

At present the myth of the Great Decline is most dominant in the Muslim world (although we’re catching up). Fatah shows that the Arab world went into technological and cultural deterioration almost at the same moment that the West stormed ahead, as if on a global seesaw. He quotes a UN report confirming that the Islamic world had failed on ‘virtually every measurable human index from education to economy, development and democracy.’ The cause of this decline has been pinned on Jews/Zionists, neocons, secularists, Freemasons and all kinds of sinister conspirators rather than the corrupt Middle Eastern ruling class. How to arrest this decline? Return to the days of the glorious Caliphs!

Only as so often with the narrative of the Great Decline, the garden never existed in the first place. The middle part of Tarek Fatah’s book is devoted to a fascinating history of Islamic civilisation with specific reference to the caliphs. His conclusion:

I have sincerely attempted to find the so-called Golden Age of Islam that was free of bloodshed, civil strife, palace intrigues, outright racism, slavery, and pillage. I have failed. From the Ridda (Apostasy) Wars of Caliph Abu-Bakr to the humiliating defeat of Caliph Mustasim, I have not found a single period that I could in all honesty say that I would trade for my twenty-first century existence as a Muslim living in a secular democratic society.

Which, Fatah stresses, is not to say that the history of Islam is entirely a history of failure and servitude. There were massive contributions to the Enlightenment, to science, philosophy, technology and culture, and productive and cosmopolitan societies that allowed the genius of Abu Nawas and people like him to flourish without fear. But Fatah stresses that these happened despite attempts to establish the caliphate, not because of them.

Having demolished the past, Fatah goes on to demolish the present. He examines the three nations most seen as having created an Islamic state – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran – and his findings are damning. Despite great oil wealth, quality of life in these states is extremely poor. The truth is that when it comes to murder, torture, repression, racism, inequality and discrimination, no one oppresses Muslims like Islamists.

Fatah gives us the interesting case study of the Prophet’s home in Mecca. The Saudi government plans to bulldoze it to erect ‘a parking lot, two fifth-storey hotel towers and seven thirty-five storey apartment blocks’. It’s hard to imagine a worse act of desecration towards the Islamic faith. Yet this blasphemous plan (and there is no other word) has received little condemnation, while the publication of some silly, borderline racist cartoons resulted in international protest and hundreds of deaths.

Chasing a Mirage exposes the Saudi Islamists’ desire to have it both ways, standing with George Bush at Washington Cathedral after 9/11 while flooding the Western hemisphere with far-right clerics, Islamist propaganda and front organisations. (And people say the Israelis are running the world!) Fatah is also good on sharia banking, which sees a marriage of Islamism and Mammon. The illusion that there is ‘a distinctly Islamic way to build a ship, or defend a territory, or cure an epidemic, or forecast the weather’ gives fundamentalists yet another direct route into Muslim hearts and minds. Fatah comments:

Dozens of Islamic scholars and imams now serve on sharia boards of the banking industry. If Canada’s TD Bank, BMO and RBC join the league, it will be interesting to see how the ultra-left Trotskyist allies of the Islamists view their partners hobnobbing with the bankers atop Toronto’s TBC tower.

Fatah emphasises that the Quranic authority for such evils as the death penalty for apostasy, the global jihad and the forced veiling of women is dubious as best. Yet unlike apologists such as Tariq Ramadan, Fatah does not simply leave it at that: he is aware of and challenges how scripture does, in fact, affect the real world. There’s been plenty of verbiage on the possibility of an Islamic reformation but through his courage and his honesty Tarek Fatah gives you the hope that it may actually happen.

Another Muslim poet quoted in his book is Mirza Ghalib, who in the nineteenth century wrote the following verse:

Hum ko maaloom hai janat ki haqeeqat lekin,
Dil ke behelane ko Ghalib ye khayaal accha hai

[Of course I know there is no such thing as Paradise, but
To fool oneself, one needs such pleasant thoughts Ghalib]

It will be a great day when in the Islamic world a Muslim poet can speak such lines, and live.

Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State, Tarek Fatah, John Wiley and Sons 2008

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