Article d’A. El-Noor paru dans Solidarity. A Journal of Libertarian Socialism, 21, Autumn 1989, p. 3–8
By setting off a chain reaction of cultural criticism of religion in
Islamic countries, writes A EL-NOOR, Salman Rushdie has rendered Islamic civilisation a great historical service
MANY OF THOSE struggling to overcome the abject conditions of people in the Third World have come to realise that their efforts are often frustrated by the belief systems of those they are trying to help. Birth control is a good example. Certain systems of belief hinder its use even when individuals and governments agree that it could greatly improve living standards. In a country like Egypt, where the population increases by a million every ten months, the development of housing, health and education facilities is unable to keep pace. As the belief system hinders the effective implementation of birth control the deterioration of these facilities becomes inevitable.
Individuals and governments alike find themselves shackled by beliefs and traditions shaped centuries ago and totally out of touch with the modern world. This applies to Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism, Islam, and many other beliefs held by various tribes and religious sects. People who have been brought up in the West tend to underestimate the strong involvement of some religions with politics.
In the West the battle for separation of religion from politics and from the State has been won. Nearly all religious believers accept that religious beliefs are a personal affair and must not be imposed by law upon others. By contrast, Islam is a religion concerned with establishing a social community. It is a political religion, concerned with society as much as with the individual. It opposes the principle of separation of religion from politics. It has strong views on global politics. It struggles to ensure that religious law becomes and remains state law and aspires to conduct domestic and foreign policy according to religious principles. Most Westerners are unaware of the fact that the difficult struggle to separate religion from politics has yet to be won in many Islamic societies.
Even before the Satanic Verses affair many Muslims felt under attack by Western cultural values. This may come as a surprise to most Westerners. They fail to appreciate that the spread of Western culture and values (by means of Western technology) constitutes a threat to other cultures. Islam is not just a religious belief. It is the cultural core of many societies. It provides group identity and moral guidance. People in the Third World fear that the impact of the West will cause them to lose their group identity. Some worry about the erosion of their code of morality. Many Muslims consider Western attitudes towards women and sex as particularly offensive. Islam upholds a view of society – and Paradise – where the male is dominant. This applies to sex, law, economics, and family life. Sexual contact between people who are not married is considered a sin, and punished as such. It is a serious offence for a man (and even more so for a woman), sometimes punished by death. Women’s sexual pleasure is a taboo subject. Women’s liberation may well be the most explosive social issue in Islamic countries.
Family honour is a dominant value in Islamic societies. Its burden is carried mainly by the woman. A philandering man could be forgiven, because his act is not considered a serious stain on the honourable reputation of his family, but a woman’s extramarital sex is considered intolerable, shaming of her entire family, and is unforgiveable. As Islam upholds these notions anything which challenges them constitutes a threat to the faith. Any view which tolerates extramarital sex (and fails to see it as a moral or legal offence) is considered ‘corrupt’, ‘immoral’, and an attack on the one and only ‘righteous’ attitude. Hence the feeling of many Muslims that ‘the Crusades are not over’.
The Third World is keen to acquire Western technology. But it has been totally unaware of the fact that in doing so it imports a cultural Trojan Horse. Governments and individuals want the inventions of the West. These inventions are the products of science. But science itself is a product of a particular philosophy which leaves to God, at best, the role of the starting kicker-off. An individual can buy the products of science and ignore the philosophy. A society cannot. The maintenance of modern technology on a social scale requires widespread technological and scientific education which is inextricably linked to implicit philosophical principles. These principles are incompatible with religious dogmas. For example, the principle of testing a theory (or a belief) by means of repeatable experiments is bound to downgrade beliefs which can never be tested by experiment.
Islamic civilization is defending itself against the impact of Western civilisation. It feels attacked and is indeed under attack, even though the West is not mounting any conscious attack on its beliefs and has no intention of doing so. It is the inventions of the West (which the Islamic world so desires) that constitute the cultural threat. A society which desires the fruits of Western civilisation cannot ignore its philosophical seeds. These seeds are ‘culturo-active’. They radiate a different set of principles, values and beliefs. The Amish sect in the USA knew this and decided to isolate itself completely from all modern technology. A sect can do so, but a state cannot, particularly when it faces the possibility of armed conflict with another state. It is not merely TV, radio, aeroplanes and rockets which undermine traditional theistic beliefs; every product of science used on a social scale is a cultural agent contributing to the breakdown of traditional beliefs. All traditional cultures, beliefs, and morals – including those of the West itself – are undermined by modern technology.
Some of the responses of Iran’s clergy to the legalistic attitude of Western governments in the Satanic Verses affair display symptoms of paranoia. Those in authority in Iran cannot grasp that no Western government can remain indifferent to a public incitement by the leading figure in a foreign country to assassinate one of their citizens or to burn bookshops selling a particular book. These people genuinely believe that there is a planned, coordinated, and well organised conspiracy by Western powers against Islam, and that Salman Rushdie’s book is part of it.
Western analysts, on the other hand, are blinkered by their belief that religious and cultural anxieties are a mere pretext whereas ‘power politics’ are the ‘real’ issue. They interpret the Islamic response exclusively as manipulative moves in the political power game in the Islamic world. This too is a ‘plot theory’. Both sides interpret the other’s motives according to their own. The possibility that the other side could have a genuinely different notion of existence threatens them with the relativisation of their own notion.
There is an undeniable spiritual crisis in most societies today. The efforts to cling to traditional beliefs is one of its manifestations. The aggressive response of some beliefs is, in historical terms, a defensive move. An attempt to hang on to certainties which have served for many years is only to be expected. Though understandable, it is a useless effort. The inventions of modern science create actual social conditions (and confront humanity with problems) which have never existed before. Any belief systems (including secular ones) which fail to adapt to new conditions become irrelevant to people who live under totally new conditions. Adaption means change, and change generates an on-going crisis of belief. Failure to adapt means isolation, stagnation and irrelevance. Groups who can’t, or won’t, change end as sects.
The examples of the North and South American Indians, the Japanese, the Jews, the African tribal cultures and the Eskimos all indicate that there are only two alternatives for traditional cultures in the modern world: isolation or assimilation. Any other way is a palliative, postponing the inevitable choice. All attempts to establish states based on traditional laws in the contemporary world are doomed. They are defensive attempts to preserve identities which are losing their validity, and merely prolong the process of assimilation by a few decades. They often force the traditional cultures to adopt measures which discredit them in the eyes of their own adherents. Moreover, internal schisms within regimes based on traditional cultures are inevitable, adding confusion to loss of credibility. These difficulties are compounded by the fact that unlike a century ago, the West today cannot offer any meaningful substitute for beliefs which have become untenable. There is a spiritual void at the centre of Western civilisation. Moreover, Western philosophy, too, and even the philosophical foundations of theoretical science are themselves in a crisis. It is not an attractive situation for many Westerners either. But adherence to unconvincing beliefs is an act of self-deception which is even less attractive.
Islam was, originally, progressive in comparison with other creeds prevailing in Arabia at the time of its foundation. It is still concerned, more than other creeds, with the life of the community rather than the individual. It aspires to create a community based on social justice. One of the religious duties of the believer is the relief of the poor. However, it has never undergone a reformation, nor was there an ideological movement with a critique of Islam. Little has changed in Islam since the days of Muhammed. Given the current crisis of Western culture (which has ceased to inspire, spiritually, many of its own members) one can sympathise with the plight of Muslims who see their own culture undermined without any positive alternative to replace it.
Ayatollah Khomeini’s victory in Iran and the declaration of an Islamic republic came as a total surprise to most westerners, including academic specialists in the USA, USSR and Europe. A few have become wise after the event. Most have not. Marxists in particular (including Iranian marxists) grossly underestimated Islam’s political significance. They forgot Marx’s observation that the critique of religion is the starting point of all social critique. They avoided a confrontation in the cultural domain, and devoted themselves to economic and political issues, refraining from making a critique of Islam for fear of antagonising the mass of the population.
Their thinking was – and still is – dominated by economic and political categories. They considered the cultural and. spiritual issues as marginal elements of ‘the superstructure’. But the Islamic leadership addressed itself to the cultural anxieties of the population, to its fear of losing its identity, to its rejection of Western culture and morality. The cultural campaign of Islam for preservation of traditional identity and morality was not challenged by the left. It was challenged by the Shah. When the Shah was defeated it was also the defeat of the Western values he had tried to impose. The victory of Khomeini meant that all atheist ideologies like socialism or marxism became targets for destruction. The subsequent massacre of the left in Iran was a foregone conclusion.
It is of the utmost urgency for the left in Islamic societies to provide a historical interpretation of Islam. This task is forced upon them by the ideological resurgence of Islam. In the absence of a historical interpretation of religion people will accept a religious interpretation of history. There can be no vacuum in this area, even when people are unaware of the fact that they accept – implicitly – one interpretation or another. When matters come to a head this metaphysical controversy is settled by the sword (as some Muslims openly declare). Many Iranian marxists discovered this truth too late in front of the religious firing squads.
Modern science undermines all traditional religions. No wonder that many believers feel fragile and defensive. However, some beliefs are more fragile than others. The fragility of Islam is demonstrated by the response to Rushdie’s book. The vehement public outrage of many believers, especially the threats of physical violence, requires some analysis. A belief which needs laws, threats or violence to protect it from criticism, doubt or ridicule, is insecure and weak. Resorting to authority, loyalty, coercion, or punishment (in defence of any belief) reveals weakness, not strength. This supplies to any creed, philosophy or dogma, including secular ones. Stalin’s decision to kill Trotsky revealed his inability to produce ideas to counter Trotsky’s. If you feel threatened by an idea and cannot defend yourself by a counter idea you may try to eliminate the author or the book, but it never works. An idea can only be defeated by another idea. Killing an author or banning books amounts in the long run to self-defamation. Book-burning has been practised by many religions and regimes; it never did away with an idea and degraded its perpetrators. When Trotsky was finally assassinated on Stalin’s orders, it seemed – to short-sighted observers – as if Stalin had won. One need not be a prophet (or a trotskyist) to know that when the facts in the Stalin/Trotsky controversy are fully revealed Stalin will turn out to be the villain and Trotsky the martyr.
The spiritual strength of a belief depends on the motivation of the believers. If this motivation is based on fear or anxiety, on conditioning, loyalty of any kind, submission to any authority, or on suspension of one’s own criticisms, then the believer will be very vulnerable to criticism or ridicule. There is an inherent weakness in any belief based on such considerations, and no threats against blasphemers can strengthen it. God is not upset by blasphemy – believers are. Believers who are outraged by blasphemy are defending themselves, not their God.
Conversely, if the belief is the result not of conditioning, fear or loyalty, but of inner, positive conviction, it will not feel itself threatened by ridicule or blasphemy. It will not need laws, punishment or violence against blasphemers, critics or reformers. The ancient Greeks and Romans already knew that an outraged response only revealed one’s own weakness: « You are angry, Jupiter, hence you must be wrong ».
The Islamic responses to Rushdie’s book have created a new situation. It is no longer possible to keep silent about Islam. Socialists and atheist nationalists in Islamic societies have mostly held back from a cultural critique of religion. The Satanic Verses affair makes a continuation of this stance untenable. Islam has declared a cultural war on atheism. Atheist silence on Islam implies surrender and a step down the road to religious executions. It is now imperative to start a campaign of cultural critique of religion within Islamic societies.
A cultural critique of religion does not imply distortion, ridicule or abuse. What is required is a historical interpretation of the belief and of its origins, an accurate account of its main features and of its crises within its historical context, an analysis of its dogma, texts and internal contradictions. It requires factual information about its founders, based on archaeological and textual research. It requires a social and psychological analysis of its moral code, sexual attitudes, phantasies of paradise, taboos and notions of sin and of evil. Finally, it requires studies of similarities with and differences from other faiths. Factualisation must replace deification and demonisation.
A cultural critique never produces immediate results. It takes a generation or two before its effects are felt. But if one fails to make a start one cannot expect any results. Since Islam is not particularly tolerant towards its critics (especially those from within its own ranks) it takes a lot of courage to produce a critique. No wonder critics are so few. But what alternative is there?
Salman Rushdie rendered Islamic civilisation a historical service. Whether he intended it or not, he has started a process, a cultural controversy which – like a nuclear chain-reaction – cannot be stopped. This process, long overdue, required a suitable historical situation and a sensitive, knowledgeable, courageous insider to start it going. It cannot be stopped now. Rushdie’s assassination would only make things worse for Islam. Islam is stained by the threat alone; if the threat is carried out Islam will be stained in the eyes of most people on this planet, including many Muslims. The internal conflicts within Islam will reach an unprecedented pitch. Needless to say, all future Islamic incantations about the compassion and mercifulness of Allah will sound like one of Satan’s jokes. If Islam needs to defend itself let it do so positively, by attracting people to its advantages, not by scaring them, by winning over the minds of its critics, not by assassinating them.
The left in Islamic societies is, unfortunately, wary of starting a cultural confrontation with Islam. Initiating such a critique (in addition to the political struggles against reactionary rulers) is extremely difficult. The trouble is that the left has also considered such a task irrelevant. The Iranian left has paid with its life for its silence on the religious issue during the Shah’s time. Many argued that religion was a marginal issue, others that it was tactically wrong to start a cultural struggle against enemies of the Shah. Tactically this may have made sense at the time; but can now ignore the full consequences demonstrated by the Iranian experience?
Those who believe in the existence of Allah must also believe in the existence of Satan. Who is afraid of Satan? Only those who believe in him. If – according to their belief – Satan exists and is so powerful, how can they be sure that the voice which tells them to fight him is not his own? Those who do not share this belief ought to follow Rushdie. They should publicise their own view about Satan, about those who believe in his existence, and about the origins and consequences of the belief itself. They may not avoid the fire beyond death, but they may, perhaps, avoid the fire this side of it.