The New York Times
November 2, 2001

               Yes, This Is About Islam
                    by Salman Rushdie


LONDON -- "This isn't about Islam." The world's leaders
have been repeating this mantra for weeks, partly in the
virtuous hope of deterring reprisal attacks on innocent
Muslims living in the West, partly because if the United
States is to maintain its coalition against terror it can't
afford to suggest that Islam and terrorism are in any way
related.

The trouble with this necessary disclaimer is that it isn't
true. If this isn't about Islam, why the worldwide Muslim
demonstrations in support of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda?
Why did those 10,000 men armed with swords and axes mass on
the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier, answering some mullah's
call to jihad? Why are the war's first British casualties
three Muslim men who died fighting on the Taliban side?

Why the routine anti-Semitism of the much-repeated Islamic
slander that "the Jews" arranged the hits on the World
Trade Center and the Pentagon, with the oddly
self-deprecating explanation offered by the Taliban
leadership, among others, that Muslims could not have the
technological know-how or organizational sophistication to
pull off such a feat? Why does Imran Khan, the Pakistani
ex-sports star turned politician, demand to be shown the
evidence of Al Qaeda's guilt while apparently turning a
deaf ear to the self-incriminating statements of Al Qaeda's
own spokesmen (there will be a rain of aircraft from the
skies, Muslims in the West are warned not to live or work
in tall buildings)? Why all the talk about American
military infidels desecrating the sacred soil of Saudi
Arabia if some sort of definition of what is sacred is not
at the heart of the present discontents?

Of course this is "about Islam." The question is, what
exactly does that mean? After all, most religious belief
isn't very theological. Most Muslims are not profound
Koranic analysts. For a vast number of "believing" Muslim
men, "Islam" stands, in a jumbled, half-examined way, not
only for the fear of God - the fear more than the love, one
suspects - but also for a cluster of customs, opinions and
prejudices that include their dietary practices; the
sequestration or near-sequestration of "their" women; the
sermons delivered by their mullahs of choice; a loathing of
modern society in general, riddled as it is with music,
godlessness and sex; and a more particularized loathing
(and fear) of the prospect that their own immediate
surroundings could be taken over - "Westoxicated" - by the
liberal Western-style way of life.

Highly motivated organizations of Muslim men (oh, for the
voices of Muslim women to be heard!) have been engaged over
the last 30 years or so in growing radical political
movements out of this mulch of "belief." These Islamists -
we must get used to this word, "Islamists," meaning those
who are engaged upon such political projects, and learn to
distinguish it from the more general and politically
neutral "Muslim" - include the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt,
the blood-soaked combatants of the Islamic Salvation Front
and Armed Islamic Group in Algeria, the Shiite
revolutionaries of Iran, and the Taliban. Poverty is their
great helper, and the fruit of their efforts is paranoia.
This paranoid Islam, which blames outsiders, "infidels,"
for all the ills of Muslim societies, and whose proposed
remedy is the closing of those societies to the rival
project of modernity, is presently the fastest growing
version of Islam in the world.

This is not wholly to go along with Samuel Huntington's
thesis about the clash of civilizations, for the simple
reason that the Islamists' project is turned not only
against the West and "the Jews," but also against their
fellow Islamists. Whatever the public rhetoric, there's
little love lost between the Taliban and Iranian regimes.
Dissensions between Muslim nations run at least as deep, if
not deeper, than those nations' resentment of the West.
Nevertheless, it would be absurd to deny that this
self-exculpatory, paranoiac Islam is an ideology with
widespread appeal.

Twenty years ago, when I was writing a novel about power
struggles in a fictionalized Pakistan, it was already de
rigueur in the Muslim world to blame all its troubles on
the West and, in particular, the United States. Then as
now, some of these criticisms were well-founded; no room
here to rehearse the geopolitics of the cold war and
America's frequently damaging foreign policy "tilts," to
use the Kissinger term, toward (or away from) this or that
temporarily useful (or disapproved-of) nation-state, or
America's role in the installation and deposition of sundry
unsavory leaders and regimes. But I wanted then to ask a
question that is no less important now: Suppose we say that
the ills of our societies are not primarily America's
fault, that we are to blame for our own failings? How would
we understand them then? Might we not, by accepting our own
responsibility for our problems, begin to learn to solve
them for ourselves?

Many Muslims, as well as secularist analysts with roots in
the Muslim world, are beginning to ask such questions now.
In recent weeks Muslim voices have everywhere been raised
against the obscurantist hijacking of their religion.
Yesterday's hotheads (among them Yusuf Islam, a k a Cat
Stevens) are improbably repackaging themselves as today's
pussycats.

An Iraqi writer quotes an earlier Iraqi satirist: "The
disease that is in us, is from us." A British Muslim
writes, "Islam has become its own enemy." A Lebanese
friend, returning from Beirut, tells me that in the
aftermath of the attacks on Sept. 11, public criticism of
Islamism has become much more outspoken. Many commentators
have spoken of the need for a Reformation in the Muslim
world.

I'm reminded of the way noncommunist socialists used to
distance themselves from the tyrannical socialism of the
Soviets; nevertheless, the first stirrings of this
counterproject are of great significance. If Islam is to be
reconciled with modernity, these voices must be encouraged
until they swell into a roar. Many of them speak of another
Islam, their personal, private faith.

The restoration of religion to the sphere of the personal,
its depoliticization, is the nettle that all Muslim
societies must grasp in order to become modern. The only
aspect of modernity interesting to the terrorists is
technology, which they see as a weapon that can be turned
on its makers. If terrorism is to be defeated, the world of
Islam must take on board the secularist-humanist principles
on which the modern is based, and without which Muslim
countries' freedom will remain a distant dream.


Salman Rushdie is the author, most recently, of "Fury: A
Novel."

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