BOOK REVIEW: “The Long Shadow of Allah” (Michael Lüders)

“Allah’s Long Shadow”

By Kathrin Erdmann

German Islam scholar Michael Lüders has written a new book to counter the skewed perception the West has of Islam. It is an attempt to dispel prejudices and point toward a path of dialogue. Kathrin Erdmann has reviewed the book

A veiled woman stares up at the reader with big eyes. The first impression of Michael Lüders’ new book seems no different from the many others on the market that address the world of Islam, whether fiction or non-fiction. The table of contents boasting chapter titles such as “Mohammad and the Koran” or “Enemies and Brothers: Sunnis and Shiites” also seems to promise few new insights and even appears somewhat haphazard.

But the 220 pages of the book are not haphazardly written. Lüders delivers some harsh critique, and he clearly aims to provoke.

Already in the first chapter he draws a parallel between Islamophobia and anti-Semitism: “To a certain extent I see Islamophobia as a new form of anti-Semitism under different auspices. In both cases a group is collectively under accusation and a majority declares a minority to be a threat. Qualitatively, the statement “The Jews are our misfortune” is no different from saying “Islam is a fanatic religion.”

Lüders says he by no means intends to relativize the Holocaust, but he finds a certain “parallel in the demonization” of both minorities.

Straightforward information plus analysis

This is a cumbersome comparison that does more harm to his arguments than help them along, given that the explanations on the development of Islam that follow come across to the average layperson as a didactic lecture. Lüders offers insights to Islam as a religion that are formulated with clarity and sensitivity, and he elucidates many key terms. He mingles straightforward information with analysis, for example in addressing the subject of sharia.

The Islamic legal code is applied in full only in Saudi Arabia today, yet Turkey is the only Islamic country to have completely abolished it. For Lüders, fully abolishing sharia is important in order to protect the individual in relation to society and the state.

What he finds problematic are the various interpretations of the Koran and its prescriptions, which do not lead the way toward modernity.

This becomes particularly apparent in regard to the contentious issue of headscarves. Lüders points to two passages in the Koran to show that the holy Islamic text does not necessarily prescribe a partial or full veiling of women’s bodies, but he also shows that there are grey areas open to interpretation. Women who decide to wear the veil should not be dismissed as subjugated.

Lüders suggests that the decision to wear the veil may be a sign of Arabic women’s self-assertion in the struggle against Westernization.

Islam as a kind of “American way of life”

But the issue of why many Muslims react to Western culture with skepticism or outright rejection is more fully addressed at a later point in the text. He first reminds us of famous scientists such as the Persian physician Avicenna, whose work in the medical field was influential from the twelfth through the seventeenth century. Islam was once a cult in the same way that the “American way of life” is today, Lüders tells us. It is thus inaccurate to characterize it as medieval.

In the third part of his book Lüders points first and foremost to colonization to explain the downfall of Islam. Borders were drawn in straight lines, without consideration of the various clans and their respective cultures. A civilization that could have continued to thrive was brutally wiped out.

What these countries are missing, says Lüders, is a solid middle class. But only democracy would be able to conjure one and thereby lead the Arabic nations and Iran into modernity.

The Islamic people are suffering today, and their frustration has led them to turn to the ruling elite in the mosques because that is where they find aid in daily life, from social services to food and clothing. Lüders offers a sobering series of examples of how this elite is becoming stronger and hindering progress.

The Western nations’ greed

But this is not the only reason the people are turning to fundamentalism, he says. The Western nations are also responsible for the current trend because they continue to support the fundamentalist elite out of pure greed, for example in Libya. French Premiere Nicolas Sarkozy has further set the tone by recently entering into nuclear negotiations with the Libyan head of state.

Whether in Libya, Iraq or Afghanistan, Lüders systematically lists the failures and mistakes of Western nations in the past and present. His main criticism is the lack of inclusion of the various ethnic groups as well as neighboring states in approaching these issues. Only common dialogue can promise an eventual solution to the various crises.

Germany in particular, he notes, should participate in this dialogue, given its many Muslim citizens. Distrust and ignorance characterize current interactions. This leads to frustrations and only plays into the hands of fundamentalist forces.

“The Long Shadow of Allah” is well structured and addresses the many different crises in the Arabic world in a concise manner, going far to explain the key terms in Islam today. Anyone who has little previous knowledge of these issues will find a good overview and many insights.

Lüders shows that he has a solid grasp of the various developments and a differentiated take on politics in the region and the terms such as fundamentalism and Islamism commonly used to describe them. And given the current climate, this alone is worth a lot.

Kathrin Erdmann

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Christina M. White

Allahs langer Schatten (“The Long Shadow of Allah”) by Michael Lüders has been published by Herder and is available for 19.90 euros.

Translated from the German by Christina M. White


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