Can there be a discussion on Islam thats not STUPID???

Farish A Noor

Posted Sep 24, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Can there be a discussion on Islam thats not STUPID???

By Farish A Noor

It is interesting to reflect on the asinine times we live in, particularly
if like me, you are involved in that nebulous thing called ‘Inter-cultural
dialogue’. Over the past four weeks I have been engaged in numerous rounds
of dialogues between Western Europeans and Muslim migrant communities in
Amsterdam, Paris and Berlin, and in every single one of these encounters I
came across stereotypes of Muslims and Islam that were so shallow and
puerile that I am almost embarrassed to recount them here. Worst still these
pedestrian musings on Islam and Muslims were not the offerings of everyday
punters, but those who claimed to be well-known and admired scholars and

In one of these exchanges I was told the following: that ‘Islam is a
fascist, woman-hating, Christian-killing, gay-bashing macho male ideology of
hatred that was built on fourteen centuries of conquest and bloodshed,
murder and rape. That is why there cannot be integration of Muslims into
Europe, because the Muslims that we have here are the savages of the Arab
world who are barbaric, violent and brutal. They do not believe in reason
and the Enlightenment and Islamic civilisation has not produced anything
scientific, rational or humane.’ Try substituting the word ‘Muslim’ for
‘blacks’ and one would see how far-fetched and racist such claims really

Now why is it that whenever we speak of Islam and Muslims today some of us
think they have the licence to drop their IQ level by a hundred points or
so? Is talk on Islam a licence to say anything dumb, offensive, provocative,
just for the sake of riling up the masses and grabbing a few headlines? A
politician in Holland has even stated that there should be a ban on any
reading of the Qur’an, on the grounds that it can be compared to Hitler’s
Mein Kampf. Others claim that all Muslims are determined primarily by their
religion which happens to be irrational, unscientific and

I was struck by the wilful blindness of these so-called ‘liberal’ and
‘rational’ Europeans themselves, and their inability to put things in
relative perspective and to interrogate their own presuppositions about
themselves. In my own work as an academic-activist I have tried to
deconstruct the grand narratives of official history, be it on the level of
the state or religion. I am also aware of the fact that the writing of
history is a contested process and that more often than not the writing of
history is done by the victors and not the defeated marginalised voices of
any community. Is it a surprise then that the history of the West has been
only a history of white, male, middle-classed voices? Where is the history
of women and women’s participation in politics, economics and
nation-building? Only recently with the advances made by Feminist
historiography and deconstructive history by the likes of Simon Schama have
we seen the writing of history that is inclusive, plural and popular.

Now the conscious historian will inform you that there were (and remain)
counter-currents to such dominant grand narratives all along, both in the
West and in the Muslim world. (As there are liberal progressive
counter-currents against orthodox conservative Hinduism, Buddhism,
Christianity and Judaism.) Furthermore, all civilisations and cultures exist
in relational terms and develop in relation with and to others: It would be
farcical to claim that the European Enlightenment was merely an
auto-generated case of isolated genius, for we all know that European
civilisation developed by interaction with Muslim civilisation; as did
Muslim civilisation develop in relation with and to Chinese, Indian and
Persian civilisation.

Of course today Muslims the world over are hostage to a history that is
determined either by ruling elites or their conservative lackeys such as the
Wahabbis of Saudi Arabia. From the pens of these conservative sectarians, we
get only a static account of Muslim history that is told from the point of
view of Kings, Sultans and dictators- such as the history of Iraq that was
written during the time of Saddam Hussein, or the skewered history of Arabia
written by the pro-establishment Wahabbis. But here again the question needs
to be raised: How was this historical erasure made possible, and who were
the agents behind such erasure? Well, unfortunately the finger of blame also
points to the ‘enlightened’ West, who regarded dictators like Saddam Hussein
and the Saudi royal family as their strategic allies.

The rise of conservative, fundamentalist, sectarian and violent Islam was
aided and abetted by Western states during the Cold War, leading to the rise
of men like Saddam Hussein, the anti-Soviet Mujahideen and later the Taliban
who have done so much to destroy the plural legacy of the Muslim world. Yet
today Western liberals accuse Muslims of having no history and that their
own history is one of violence. Where is the enlightened spirit of
auto-critique and self-awareness here? Surely liberals in the West should
not be surprised to see the rise of fundamentalist Muslim regimes the world
over when it has been their own Western governments that have supported
those very same anti-Christian, anti-women, anti-gay regimes in the first
place, ostensibly for the sake of strategic alliances but fundamentally to
safeguard the West’s much-needed supply of oil?

I am by no means excusing fundamentalist conservative Muslims here, for
there are indeed right-wing Muslims who can only be described as fascist in
the real sense of the word. But in the same way that Muslims today need to
get out of their shell and stare reality in the face, so do Europeans who
claim to be ever-so enlightened and liberal. Europe’s Enlightenment project
created not only its own discontents but also anomalies.

To suggest that every single European today is the product of this
historical process would be so simplistic as to beggar belief, and borders
on the ridiculous. For should that be the case, then perhaps we can ask how
enlightened the Europeans were when they colonised Asia and Africa. Look at
the world map and see how so many patches of the earth today – ranging from
North America to Australia – are reminders of a colonial expansion that was
motivated by irrational greed, irrational racism, irrational hatred for the
Other, and not the values of reason or universal humanism. Tell me, was it
Kant or Descartes who told the colonisers to invade and occupy Australia,
and exterminate the aborigines of Tasmania and then hang their heads as
trophies? Or skin the bodies of North American Indians to make boots and
tobacco pouches? Where was the European Enlightenment then? Asleep?


Dr. Farish A Noor is a political scientist and historian at the Zentrum
Moderner Orient and guest Professor at Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University,
Jogjakarta. He is also one of the founders of the research site