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People Like Us: How Arrogance is Dividing Islam and the West (Waleed Aly)

A review of Waleed Aly’s People Like Us: How arrogance is dividing Islam and the West (Sydney: Picador, 2007) 277pp RRP $32.95

Reviewed by Barry Peters.

Wesley College has done its job well. This exclusive Melbourne private school has produced another star graduate in the Muslim lawyer Waleed Aly. Accused by an internet blogger of implementing ‘slow-motion Shariah’, Aly has become an articulate spokesman for Islam in Australia. His People Like Us has a commendable goal – to help bridge the gap of understanding between Islam and the West. The even-handed approach on some controversial issues is a delight. He is not afraid to take the knife to a few sacred cows, both Western and Islamic. (He questions the usefulness of both categories). At other times this young man’s lack of insight is remarkable. It is hard to blame him.

Like all of us, his understanding has been shaped by his own experience (p.261). A privileged upbringing in genteel and tolerant Melbourne has sheltered him from the over-crowded, poverty-ridden and corrupt cities of Asia, Africa and the Middle East where most Muslims live – places where this reviewer has spent the last 20+ years. Many of Aly’s propositions would be deemed un-Islamic and publicly untenable in those places. Referring to holocaust denial as ‘uncivlised nonsense’ (p.6) making positive statements about some Jews (p.238) and defending the West against Muslim ‘saints’ such as Sayyid Qutb (p.258) would have him branded a Muslim ‘Uncle Tom’ in many Islamic countries. His personal views may be appealing, yet he can hardly claim to speak for a majority within the umma (world-wide Islam). Even in Melbourne, he often appears out-of-step with the mainstream. Generally, local imams accept the anti-semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion as genuine – Aly rightly exposes it as a forgery. Although he decried the violence of 9/11 as contrary to his preferred version of Islam, Muslim students in Melbourne schools openly celebrated the attacks. It is important to recognise the ideas in his book as minority opinions from a Western-educated dissenter, rather than revealing a widely-held outlook within the Muslim world.

There are some problems with his methodology. While criticizing Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntingdon for using Western categories for assessing Islam, he falls into the same trap. Al-Qaida, he states, is Islam’s ‘Reformation’ (p.xv). Dismissing the ‘clash of civilizations’ as a ‘snappy catchphrase’ (xiii), he is not averse to concocting slick sound-bites of his own. His legal background is obvious. Other terms are too easily and inappropriately applied. Aly bemoans the approach of the ‘colonialist’  collection of essays, edited by Ibn Warraq (p.29). No matter that Ibn Warraq is an Iranian ex-Muslim (hardly a colonialist!). The sin of Ibn Warraq’s book The Quest for the Historical Muhammad is to suggest that ‘Muslim accounts of their own history are fabrications made to create a myth for their own salvation’. Yet at the same time Aly apparently accepts the Qur’an’s historical revisionism which ‘specifically denies core elements of the Christian narrative such as the crucifixion’. (p.31). That the writer of the Qur’an could reject the occurrence of an historically-attested and publicly-celebrated event such as the crucifixion of Christ over six centuries after it occurred suggests that it is the Muslims who ‘are quite prepared to fabricate entire histories for their self-validation.’ (p.29)
Occasionally unpalatable Islamic history is dressed-up positively. Muhammad’s marriage to Khadija is presented as the noble, self-sacrificing act of ‘a young man in his sexual prime’ to a woman fifteen years his senior(p.20). He conveniently ignores that it was the wealthy and twice-married business-woman who proposed marriage to her impoverished worker. She employed him, an orphaned camel-boy, some years earlier, and decided to wed him. Did he remain monogamous for 25 years because she held the purse-strings? Whatever the reason, after her death, he married ten other women, although the six-year old Aisha could hardly be called a woman. He waited until she was nine before consummating the marriage, according to the tradition-collecter Al-Bukhari, who records this fact five times. Two of Muhammad’s wives had become widows after their husbands were killed by his troops during raids. These women were taken captive and married to him. History does not state whether they agreed to the union, but when asked once how a woman indicated consent, Muhammad famously replied: “Her silence.” (al Bukhari 7:67). Although Muhammad is said to have married widows who had no support and he died poor (p.20), his nine widows (presumably also poor and needing support) were forbidden remarriage (Q. 33:53). All but one were under forty – Khadija’s age when she married him. Several were in their early 20’s, and Aisha, his favourite wife, only eighteen, was condemned to fifty years of widowhood. Muhammad’s marriage to other men’s widows is presented as a virtue, but his own widows are prevented from remarrying. There appear to be double standards here. In actual fact, Muhammad did not die poor. The Qur’an records that Allah had made Muhammad (Q.93:8) and his followers (Q.9:74) rich. Years of raiding caravans and wealthy towns, and Muhammad’s dictum that one-fifth of all booty be given to him, meant that the Muslim coffers were overflowing. The Traditions state that ‘Allah made the Prophet wealthy through conquests.’ (al-Bukhari 3:495). His widows were well provided-for. Perhaps his fear that they might marry eligible young men, as the wealthy Khadija had done, prompted his ban on their remarriage. Aly cites the ‘ethics of classical Islamic warfare [which] prohibited the killing of innocent women and children’ (p.200). However he neglects to mention the ruling of Muhammad when asked whether it was permissible to attack a pagan village at night with the probability of exposing their children and women to danger. The Prophet’s reply was: ‘The women and children are from them (i.e. pagans)’ (al-Bukhari 4:256). It was only later when a woman was found killed by his troops that Muhammad forbade the killing of women and children (al-Bukhari 4:257, 258).

To his credit, Aly criticises Muslims who speak out of turn. Melbourne’s Sheikh Omran, Sydney’s Taj ud-din al Hilali and others come into his sights. Yet he pulls a punch by not naming the ‘prominent Melbourne imam’  (Was it Sheikh Fahmi Naji al-Imam, the new Grand Mufti?) who said that ‘a fundamentalist was simply some-one who followed their religion properly.’ (p.60)

His starry-eyed view of the Islamic past (see p.102) ‘Islam is usually deemed ‘classical’ – is as unreal as his jaundiced view of the world’s largest religion. Christianity and the Church are invariably preceded by the pejorative qualifiers ‘medieval’ or ‘right-wing’. He conveniently ignores the fact that Christianity is no longer a ‘Western’ religion, but now has its majority support in populous Africa, South America and Asia (where it is growing very nicely, thank you). Everything wrong with Islam seems to be the fault of some-one else – usually the Christians. Muslims did not invent ‘holy war’ – it is a Christian concept (p.150). So is fundamentalism (p.57). One began to wonder how suicide bombing would be blamed on the Christians. Eventually the answer came – it was actually invented by the Tamil tigers, but ‘Palestinian Christian priests have also praised it’ (!) (p.247) It is, of course, disingenuous to compare the Islamic killing of infidels in obedience to the teaching of the Qur’an (see, for example, Q.9:5, 27) with the Crusaders killing of Muslims and Jews in clear disobedience to the teaching of Christ (e.g. Luke 6:27 – ‘Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you’). However, to Aly’s credit, he exposes the much-quoted ‘greater/lesser jihad’ saying as a fraud (p.153). Muhammad never said it – it was concocted in the Middle Ages, emerging posthumously from the Prophet’s mouth.

Aly’s analysis of ‘church-state’ within Islam is at best naive and at worst deceptive. Islam’s supposed lack of institutional form,  theologically ordained clergy  [and] official structured positions of theological gravity is not at all obvious to anyone who has lived in the Muslim world, or even observed the Australian Muslim scene. If the muftis, mullahs and maulvis who claim to speak for Islam here and overseas have all arisen by ‘natural selection’ (p.91), it must be time to try some ‘intelligent design’. His assertion that ‘debate within Islam is perpetually open’ (p.92) had to be strongly qualified with an ‘in theory’, because it has so rarely taken place. Muslim leaders have routinely used expulsion, public lashing and even beheading on those who did not toe the party line, doctrinally or otherwise. The free-thinking Al-Hallaj was crucified for his theological gaffe. Islam has had its own Inquisition running continuously for centuries. The Qur’an-sanctioned requirement that apostates be executed (Q.2:217; 4:89), backed up by the hadith (Al Bukhari 4:26: “the Prophet said, ‘If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him.’ “) has been a useful tool. So too have the fatwas from (apparently non-existent!) religious leaders. Significantly most independent thinking by Muslim commentators, including Aly, is occurring in the West where freedom of speech is allowed. When al-Ghazzali (d.1111) declared the gate to ijtihad (independent reasoning) closed, Islam fell into serious intellectual decline, even though Aly mistakenly calls it a ‘recent malaise’ (p.228). A few pages later he corrects himself, admitting that Islamic scholarship has been stagnant for a long time (p.235). It is small wonder that a Muslim such as Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf could make a statement about the umma like: ‘Today we are the poorest, the most illiterate, the most backward, the most unhealthy, the most un-enlightened, the most deprived, and the weakest of all the human race’ (BBC Feb. 2002) and be certain that no-one could contradict him. Aly’s tendency to make a statement and then contradict it a few pages later is a recurring one. Although the Ottomans could ‘swiftly and mercilessly’ crush communities with separatist intentions (p.192), the concept of war as ‘a subjugation of the enemy’s will ‘ [with an] attack on centres of government and population’ is presented as a ‘modern’ idea, seemingly invented by Winston Churchill during World War II (pp.201,202). In fact the book reveals several attempts to dodge responsibility for Islam’s failures, with the blame shifted onto others. One is reminded of Muslim spokesman Qaysar Trad and his statements about Sheikh Al-Hilaly constantly being quoted ‘out of context.’

Aly is rightly critical of many countries in the Muslim world for their lack of human rights (p.69). The incident involving Australian lawyer Yasmine Ahmed and the Saudi police (pp.238-241) comes as no surprise to those of us who have lived in Islamic countries. Yasmine, it seems, was in pilgrimage in Mecca when the police asked her to move to a female-only area, so she would not be standing in front of male pilgrims. It would be easy to judge the police as totalitarian or misogynist (or both). In fact they were simply acting on a reported maxim of Muhammad: “Prayer is annulled by a dog, a donkey and a woman (if they pass in front of the praying people).” (alBukhari 1:490).

Although Muhammad’s favourite wife Aisha railed against this saying, it is still widely believed in the Muslim world. To have their once-in-a-lifetime prayers at Mecca invalidated by the presence of an outspoken Australian lawyer who refused to move would no doubt have angered poor Bangladeshi or Indonesian pilgrims. Many have spent their family’s savings or gone into debt to perform Hajj. The wealthy woman was only interested in her personal spiritual experience – they had much more at stake. More surprising was the blithe admission that this pilgrimage was Yasmine’s fourth. She should have known that only two million of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims can undertake Hajj each year due to space limitations. If all Muslims alive today were allowed to take their turn, the waiting list would be 650 years long. Poor Muslim countries are subject to strict quotas and ballots. How can one rich person justify four visits, and prevent three others from fulfilling their religious obligation even once? There appears to be an issue of fairness and justice that is totally overlooked in this account. Despite some of the glaring inconsistencies mentioned above, People Like Us adds an important part to the Muslim-West debate. Reminiscent of the non-conformist John Wesley in a sea of Anglicanism, Aly has been able to persuasively argue a minority viewpoint. It is a presentation of Islam that appears much more amenable to modern thinking, open to change, and ready for discussion. One can only hope that, like Wesley in England, Aly’s more enlightened views will become widely accepted within the household of Islam.

Barry Peters

November 2007


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