**By Dan Margolis**
Most comments on the rise of radical Islam tend to fall into either a left or right wing version of political scientist Samuel P. Huntington’s argument, first developed in 1992, that we are in the midst of a clash of civilizations. With the collapse of the Communist bloc, he argued, the world would become increasingly dominated by contradictions between rival civilizations, groups so distinct that they were bound to clash. Of these there were many, but the biggest conflicts were likely to arise between the “civilizations” Huntington dubbed the “Western” and the “Islamic.”
The extreme right wing shows its acceptance of this theory through crude attacks on anything Muslim, whether by protesting an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan or burning copies of the Koran. But, author and journalist Kenan Malik argues in his superbly written history/polemic From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Aftermath, that the multicultural left has done the same thing in a warmer and fuzzier sort of way, often by claiming that the worst aspects of Islam, even the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, themselves, were an unjustified but understandable reaction to Western intervention in “the Islamic world.”
In a strange twist, much of the liberal left has embraced this concept of extreme irreconcilable difference.
The havoc wrought by so-called radical Islam—from the World Trade Center to Mumbai to Bali—seems to provide a worthy basis for believing Huntington correct.
If one were to place the civilization clash theory into a political category, it would most certainly be considered to the “right,” for obvious reasons. The idea that certain countries, even whole blocs of countries, are so alien that they can only be dealt with through antagonism and war would certainly appeal to the likes of Norman Podhoretz or Karl Rove. But, in a strange twist, much of the liberal left has embraced this concept of extreme irreconcilable difference.
Aside from the prediction of constant instability and war, the most highly unpleasant facet of this theory is the implication that traditional liberal aspirations for progress and equality were wrong. Further, according to this school of thought, the great ideals of the Enlightenment, the principled stand that freedom of speech, assembly, the press and religion were all universal, are grand illusions at best.
These rights were to extend to everyone no matter their background, and the cause of a true progressive was to fight to ensure that these liberties were enjoyed by all. When one accepts that there are different, non-overlapping civilizations, one must also accept that certain peoples and nations are, because of their culture, simply not destined for “Western” democracy and liberties.
As illiberal as this notion seems to be, a large, perhaps majority, section of Western liberals, argues Malik, have embraced it even in their own nations, under the guise of “multiculturalism.” Instead of seeing human rights as applying to all individuals, there has been a trend towards identifying all cultures as equal—no matter what that culture’s own attitudes towards the rights of its members. Even worse, many western societies, by separating groups of people off from the mainstream of society through policies of cultural “respect,” have actually given fuel to or even created the Islamic extremist elements we see emerging in many liberal democracies, particularly Britain.
Malik, in From Fatwa, points to the so-called “Rushdie affair,” the period of controversy and death threats surrounding Salman Rushdie’s alternately condemned and celebrated novel, The Satanic Verses. At about that time, says Malik, people from various communities that happened to be Muslim started to act as “the Muslim community.” Riots and book burnings became well known, both in certain Islamic countries and, even more so, in Britain and the west.
On the surface, it looked as if, at that point, an extremist Islamic movement came to birth, a movement that grew to a worldwide scale, eventually achieving such “triumphs” as the destruction of the Twin Towers and other travesties. But, according to Malik, reality is much different.
Instead of a battle of civilizations, we have a simple, old-style battle for political supremacy going on.
Radical Islam, says the author, failed pathetically in the Muslim world. In 1979, it was a movement riding high, having just established the first Islamic state following the Iranian Revolution. The spirits of political Islamists were up and it seemed a wave of Islamic revolutions would sweep the world, the way, they thought, Communist revolutions swept Europe and elsewhere following Russia’s 1917 lead. Ten years later, political Islam was in tatters, and different countries were fighting to control what was left. Thus, the controversy surrounding The Satanic Verses was more to do with a power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran—who would lead the Islamic world? —than about any rise in fanaticism.
Instead of a battle of civilizations, we have a simple, old-style battle for political supremacy going on. Without detracting from the terrors perpetuated by the Taliban (or Hamid Karzai’s Northern Alliance, now running Afghanistan), we can see the same dynamic in South Asia, where, as elsewhere, secular governments have funded religious extremists to undermine democratic movements.
But what about western jihadists?
The answer, says Malik, once again does not lie in a group of people somehow becoming more pious; in fact, many of these western-based terrorists are not very pious at all. They are also not part of any real network that links them to al-Qaeda or anywhere else. Instead, Malik, using the example of Britain, traces the problem to the failure of the battle against racism, coupled with the “official” answer to that social scourge—multiculturalism.
Up through the nineteen eighties, there had been a united fight against racist violence from neo-Nazis by Britain’s “Black” community (South Asians, Afro-Caribbeans, and others). The official response wasn’t to help equalize society, but to establish outreach programs to different, relatively arbitrarily grouped, communities. Thus, Pakistanis, some Indians and others were lumped into “the Muslim community,” and the government’s primary way of interacting with them was through “community leaders.“ These so-called leaders were simply those who spoke a lot, or who decided they wanted to be community leaders.
Eventually, these policies pushed people so far apart that Britain came to be seen as a “community of communities,” and no longer a cohesive whole. Muslims generally stopped associating with Afro-Caribbeans, and so on.
Of course, most Muslims are not terrorists, so the question arises: Who becomes a terrorist and why? We know that most of these people have been well off, at least middle class, and well educated. According to Malik, the separation foisted by multiculturalism provided fertile ground for identity politics, mixed with a culture of grievance, to grow into jihadist terror. Young people in the “Muslim community,” instead of fighting racism—how could one fight against inequality when the whole idea of a cohesive society was out the window?—found themselves fighting against their parents’ version of Islam; in short, the rebelled by becoming more pious, more “Islamic” than anyone else.
Malik’s arguments against multiculturalism may not be politically correct and may even offend some—much of the book is devoted to the problematic fact that society now goes out of its way to avoid causing anyone offense, thus never challenging many real problems. Nonetheless, From Fatwa does provide an understanding of how and why Islamic extremism has come about. Further, the book offers something that most modern liberals, having become cynical, do not: a hope that there can be real equality, diversity and tolerance, and an end to the “clash of civilizations.”
Some have even gone to the length of calling Malik’s conclusions “racist”—an astounding claim, given that Malik, who now works as a BBC Radio 4 announcer, is a British Marxist of Indian descent who spent much of the nineteen eighties fighting against racists in words, but also in action; he helped to organize street patrols to defend Asian families from neo-Nazi attacks. Further, Malik played a leading role in numerous campaigns against deportations and police brutality. Making the claims of Malik’s detractors even more absurd, it is precisely this kind of fight for equality—at the expense of multi-cultural apartheid—that the author advocates.
Any solution is based in the basic principle that all people have certain rights and are fundamentally equal—even if, as Malik argued in a 2002 essay on multiculturalism, all cultures and ideologies are not.
Copyright 2010 Dan Margolis
Dan Margolis is a journalist based in New York City. He frequently covers Asian affairs as a UN correspondent.