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Book Review
Jihad and peace in Islam
By Yoginder Sikand

Name of the Book: Between Jihad and Salaam-Profiles in Islam
Author: Joyce M. Davis
Publisher: Macmillan, London
Year: 1999
Pages: 339
ISBN: 0-333-77230

The global media is today awash with stories about Islam and Muslims, negative for the most part, following the recent events in New York and Washington, and the mounting fears of war between the West and large parts of the Muslim world. Of particular concern seems to be the question of how Islam looks at issues of democracy, peace and pluralism. This book is a refreshing contrast to much western writing on the subject, in that it allows participants in Muslim movements to speak for themselves, instead of being viewed simply as objects for western critics. Consisting of a series of interviews with seventeen Islamic activists and leaders, this book offers interesting insights into what is undoubtedly a complex and little-understood phenomenon.

Davis’ first point of departure is her assertion that Muslims, like all other religious communities, are not a monolithic whole. They are characterised by sharp, often violent, divisions. Islam, she argues, like any other ideology, can be interpreted in remarkably different ways. Thus, for instance, while some Muslims of the likes of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban see all non-Muslims as irredeemable enemies of God who are to be fought to the finish, others, such as many Sufis, see them as fellow creatures of God deserving their love and compassion. The implications of these divergent views for peace and harmonious relations between people of different faiths is obvious. Davis seems to suggest that rather than tar all Muslims with the same brush, alliances need to be made with those Muslims who see their religion as positively enjoining inter-faith dialogue and harmony, in a joint struggle for democracy, peace and social justice. Contrary to common belief, Davis shows that Islamist movements are not necessarily opposed to democracy. Indeed, as her interviews with the Sudanese Hasan al-Turabi, the Qatari Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Khurshid Ahmad, senior leader of the Jama’at-i-Islami of Pakistan show, Islamist movements in many countries are, in fact, today key players in the struggle against autocracies, military juntas, medieval-style monarchies and dictatorships that are strongly backed by the United States and other western powers who, ironically enough, see themselves as torch-bearers of freedom and democracy. Most of Davis’ interviewees are bitterly critical, and rightly so, of Western double-standards that insist on human rights protection and democracy only when it suits Western interests, while remaining conveniently silent on the suppression of all forms of democratic dissent and opposition in Muslim countries with client regimes in power. This is most glaring examples are to be found in the case of oil-rich states in West Asia and North Africa, where Western backing for repressive regimes is most readily apparent. As Islamist leaders from this part of the world whose voices appear in this volume, including such figures as Mahfouz Nahnah of the Islamic Society Movement, Algeria, Rashid al-Ghannoushi of the Tunisian Rennaisance Party and Shaikh Kamel al-Sharif of the International Council for Da’wa and Relief, Jordan, make clear, Islamist opposition movements actually represent a large constituency that sees itself as victims of decades of secularist and monarchical or dictatatorial politics that have brought little or no relief to those outside the charmed circle of a narrowly defined elite class.The perceived antipathy noticed in several contemporary Islamist movements towards the West is one of Davis’ major concerns. As Abida Hussain, former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, Anwar Ibrahim, former deputy prime minister of Malaysia and Ibrahim Ghosheh of the Gaza-based HAMAS movement argue in their interviews, Islamic political activism is not inherently anti-Western or necessarily opposed to people of other faiths. Indeed some Islamists insist on the need for inter-religious dialogue and understanding. However, they argue, the West’s role in backing repressive secularist regimes in much of the Muslim world and suppressing genuine democracy therein and its solid support for Israel are major factors that have led some Islamist movements to see the West in adversarial terms. The West, they argue, must shed its colonial baggage and be willing to dialogue with Muslims on equal terms. This would mean accepting that like all other peoples, Muslims, too, have a right to lead their lives in accordance with their own traditions and cherished beliefs. The presumed universality of Western culture is thus shown as yet another form of imperialism, one which, because it is so subtle and alluring, is in many respects even more threatening than direct colonial control.

The question of women’s status and roles in Muslim society and in Islam is also one that Davis occupies herself with. Her interviews with the Egyptian Muslim women’s activist, Bint al-Shati, the Sudanese Wisal Abdel Rahman al-Mahdi and the Pakistani Abida Hussain reveal a world of confident women, rooted in a strong faith in Islam and at the same time playing active public roles, as women and as Muslims. The Islamic perspectives that these women offer, Davis shows, allow for considerable space for women. While they admit the existence of patriarchal interpretations of Islam, they insist on a reading of the tradition based on its original sources, the Qur’an and the Hadith, by-passing centuries of interpretation and commentary.As an archive of voices of leading contemporary Muslim activists, this book is useful and insightful. Yet, one gets the feeling that despite Davis’ attempts at allowing her interviewees to speak for themselves, in the questions she asks and in her commentaries on each respondent she betrays her Western biases, and her own assumptions of western superiority often seem glaring. That, and the absence of any voices from the world of Muslim minorities, Shi’as as well as ordinary Muslims who are not associated with Islamist movements make the book less promising than what its title suggests. This, however, should not detract from the merits of the book, which make it essential reading for anyone concerned with the question of Islam in the contemporary world
. q

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