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Published in the 16-30 Nov 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Book Review

West and the "Islamic problem"

By Yoginder Sikand

Book: Is There an Islamic Problem?: Essays on Islamicate Societies, the US and Israel
Author: M. Shahid Alam
Publisher: The Other Press, Kuala Lumpur (
Year: 2004
Pp: 223
Price: $15
ISBN: 983-9541-43-9

The events of 11th September, 2001 have occasioned a veritable flood of writings on Islam and relations between Muslims and the ‘West’. For the most part, writings on the subject by American and other Western scholars tend to depict Islamic radicalism or even Islam itself as a major threat to Western civilization, while at the same time ignoring the reality of Western imperialism and White racism. On the other hand, several Muslim scholars writing on the subject tend to see the ‘West’ as the cause of almost all the problems facing Muslims, turning a blind eye to the many internal causes for Muslim decline and for the strained relations between Muslims and others in many parts of the world. This brilliantly written book provides an incisive critique of Western imperialism at the same time as it points to the collusion of Muslim ruling elites in oppressing their own people. Alam has a wonderful knack of choosing just the appropriate phrase to get his point across, it makes this book not just a well researched document but also a fine literary production as well.

The central theme that weaves the essays in this book is the phenomenon of Western imperialism, which, Alam reminds us, must be seen in the wider context of global capitalism and White racism. The events of September 2001 form the starting point for a discussion of various forms of contemporary Western imperialism. Alam tells us that while for Western imperialist countries the attacks were the first ever such event to occur within their borders, the peoples of the rest of the world — the non-White ‘Third World’ — have been subjected to much worse forms of terror by Western armies for centuries, a fact that is often hurriedly forgotten when discussing the issue of Islamist militancy. 

Alam does not condone the gory events of September 2001 but urges that in order to understand what drove the perpetrators of the attacks, they must be seen not in isolation but, rather, in a broad historical context. Alam sees Islamic radicalism as, in large measure, a reaction to Western imperialism, capitalist exploitation, Western complicity with existing regimes in Muslim countries (particularly oil-rich states) to clamp down on democratic dissent and opposition, and last, but not the least, the establishment of the colonial state of Israel with Western support and its continued oppression of the Palestinian people. Alam thus dismisses the frivolous argument that an irrepressible hatred of democratic freedoms drove the perpetrators of the events of September 2001 to their deaths, taking along with them the lives of several thousand other people. 

Alam does not appear optimistic about the future of relations between Muslim societies and the West, although he repeatedly pleads for understanding and dialogue. He seems to believe that the advocates of the ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis are now firmly in positions of power in the United States, dictating both foreign and domestic policy, as a result of which one can only expect further imperialist wars against Muslim countries on the lines of the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Alam points out that a whole range of groups in the West, from weapons manufacturers and multinational corporations to the Christian evangelical right-wing and Zionist hate-mongers, have such a massive presence and influence in US policy-making bodies that the bogus theory of a ‘clash of civilizations’ now threatens to turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, with Islam being deliberately framed as the gravest threat to Western civilization.

Several chapters of the book are devoted to critiquing Samuel Huntington’s theory of a ‘clash of civilizations’ and the views of another unabashedly pro-Zionist scholar, Bernard Lewis, on Muslim ‘backwardness’. Echoing other critics of Huntington, Alam points out that it is misleading to speak, as Huntington does, of civilizations as neatly separated, homogenous entities, with no internal contradictions or differences and as lacking significant overlaps or aspects of commonality with other civilizations. Alam bitterly critiques Huntington’s patently prejudicial understanding of Islam as inherently violent, and Lewis’ claim that the decline of Muslim civilization owed, in some sense, to Islam itself. Alam argues that far from being hostile to scientific development, the rise of Islam actually led to a great flourishing of science and culture. The point is, of course, well taken, but, curiously enough, here Alam uses the same notion of a singular Islam as his critics do in order to defend it. He appears not recognizing the existence of multiple interpretations, or even versions, of Islam, and the fact that some of these were indeed hostile to the use of reason and to scientific progress. The same somewhat apologetic and defensive approach characterizes Alam’s response to the charge that the ‘democratic deficit’ in many Muslim countries owes principally to Islam itself. Rather than recognizing the existence of powerful anti-democratic versions of Islam (Saudi-style Wahhabism being the most notorious of these) alongside with democratic understandings of the faith, Alam responds by invoking the clichéd argument of Islam (which here, too, he describes in singular terms) being compatible with democracy. Yet, his claim that the decline of Muslim civilization has little to do with religion as such is, overall, true, and so is his assertion that the decline owed principally to Western imperialism (which is still alive and flourishing, albeit in somewhat different forms), a fact that the likes of Lewis and Huntington would rather hurriedly forget. 

Alam insists that the ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis that both Huntington and Lewis put forward in their own ways is a cover-up for Western imperialism and White racism, for it deliberately ignores the reality of Western oppression and exploitation in fuelling conflicts between Muslim societies and the ‘West’. He rightly sees the hand of ultra-right wing Christian fundamentalists and Zionists in deliberately peddling the thesis of Islam as the gravest threat to Western civilization in order to promote their own political agendas. However, critics would note that while justifiably critiquing Islamophobes for painting Islam in lurid colours, Alam says nothing about the ways in which radical Islamists, for many of whom all non-Muslims are, by definition, ‘enemies of God’, see the world and relations between Muslims and others. Surely, building bridges between people of different faiths and cultures demand critique at both levels, of the self as well as of the other. Alam does not appear to go far enough in appealing for Muslims to engage in a process of introspection and self-critique, which must indeed go along with a continued critique of and opposition to Western imperialism if the ‘clash of civilizations’ is at all to be thwarted.

This book is a timely contribution to a heated debate and is a must for anyone interested in understanding contemporary global politics, in which relations between the ‘West’ and what, borrowing a term from Marshal Hodgson, Alam calls ‘Islamicate’ societies, have come to occupy a seminal importance.  «

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