Scholl Guest Editorial Response To

Scholl Guest Editorial: Response to Amis

Response to Amis

Steven Scholl

‘In his Sept 10 op-ed piece for The Observer, Martin Amis provides what is becoming the stump speech for secularists who are sick of religion and the suffering it generates and who find Islam especially dangerous to civilization. I share some of Amis’s concerns but find his analysis of Islam and Islamism rather mixed up. Like so many other pundits Amis shifts from Islamist extremists to all Muslims without blinking an eye, sliding without hesitation or clarification from some undefined “okay Islam” to jihadist “Islamism.”

This slight of hand leaves the reader with the impression that some great titanic struggle has been taking place within the Muslim world between moderates and radicals, that recently the radical jihadists won a decisive victory, and now all Islam is under their sway. Here is a typical Amis slide:

“Until recently it was being said that what we are confronted with, here, is ‘a civil war’ within Islam. That’s what all this was supposed to be: not a clash of civilisations or anything like that, but a civil war within Islam. Well, the civil war appears to be over. And Islamism won it. The loser, moderate Islam, is always deceptively well-represented on the level of the op-ed page and the public debate; elsewhere, it is supine and inaudible. We are not hearing from moderate Islam. Whereas Islamism, as a mover and shaper of world events, is pretty well all there is.”

This is stunning. I am sure the 1.2 billion Muslims of the world will be startled to find out that they have all converted to Wahhabism or are committed members of al-Qaeda. Amis is uttering pure nonsense. Islam remains a big tent with many competing worldviews and the internal debate for the soul of Islam will no doubt continue well into the future. This debate is reflected in a robust fashion within the Arab world, which Amis and most other secularist pundits remains deaf to for some reason.

This past summer I led a group of Americans to Morocco to learn more about Islam and to meet with Muslims. While there I watched the Arab and international media available in nearly every Morooccan home (satellite dishes appear on even the most humble shanty town homes). I watched a debate held in Doha, Qatar between Muslim liberals and fundamentalists on the role of women in society. In these debates, which are beamed throughout the Arab and Muslim world, the fundamentalists always appear as backward looking and inarticulate, and the Muslim liberals passionately advocate for serious reforms based on a more enlightened and liberal interpretation of the Koran and Islamic traditions. Liberal Muslim reformers have not won the day but neither have the fundamentalists. Fundamentalist Islam is not all that is going on in the Muslim world, and a strong case can be made that it is the radical fundamentalists who are in the minority position among Muslims.

What Amis and his mentors on Islam (Sam Harris especially) seem, astonishingly enough, to miss, is that Osama bin Laden and Sayyid Qutb, the founder of the Muslim brotherhood, are just not representative of the 1.2 billion Muslims on the planet. Ahmadinajad in Iran along with his mulla backers is not representative of Iranian Shi’a en masse. My experiences in the Middle East are limited (living in Egypt 1983-84 and travels in Morocco in 2005 and 2006), but I can tell you that after living and traveling among Arabs my view of the Arab world is different from the picture painted by armchair analysts like Amis. The picture that Amis and others paint of Muslim culture (wife beating, anti-intellectual, not curious about the world beyond their borders, militant and religious authoritarian in style) just doesn’t jive with what I have experienced. What Amis does is not very subtle but no doubt effective for many of his readers. After asserting without any proof that radical Islamism has won the day, Amis informs us what this actually means when he provides a lengthy and often perceptive description of Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual force behind radical Islam:

“. . . [Sayyid] Qutb is the father of Islamism. Here are the chief tenets he inspired: that America, and its clients, are jahiliyya (the word classically applied to pre-Muhammadan Arabia – barbarous and benighted); that America is controlled by Jews; that Americans are infidels, that they are animals, and, worse, arrogant animals, and are unworthy of life; that America promotes pride and promiscuity in the service of human degradation; that America seeks to ‘exterminate’ Islam – and that it will accomplish this not by conquest, not by colonial annexation, but by example.”

The implications of Amis’s deceptive rhetoric is that since Islamism won the Muslim civil war and is now the guiding force behind what we now know as Islam, which means that the majority of Muslims believe that Americans are “infidels” and therefore “unworthy of life.” This is pure racial and religious prejudice of the extreme kind.

I have spent endless hours talking with Muslims on the streets of Arab towns and never felt threatened or in harms way as an American visiting a Arab country; I have never spoken with Sunnis or Shi’is who feel that it is their religious duty to kill me or all non-Muslims because we are worse than animals. Muslims, from mosque preachers to garbage collectors, have never shown me the kinds of fanaticism that Amis leads us to believe are now pandemic in the Arab Muslim world. In my visits to the Arab world I have always been showered with kindness, hospitality, and enjoyed vigorous debates on religion.

Amis runs out a true but deceptive fact to try and make a supporting point that Muslims are divorced from the modern world Muslims today due to a lack of curiosity of all things non-Islamic. Amis observes that, “Present-day Spain translates as many books into Spanish, annually, as the Arab world has translated into Arabic in the past 1,100 years.”

I agree with Amis that the Arab world needs to open up to the West in many ways. However, my observation is that Americans seem much more insular and lacking in curiosity than Middle Eastern Muslims. In Morocco, everyone I spoke with was more informed about world affairs than most college grads here in the US. This whole issue about lack of translations into Arabic is just one part of the story. While in Fes, Morocco this past June attending the celebration of the World Sacred Music Festival put on by Muslims to celebrate the beauty and diversity of spiritual tradtions, I told my 15-year-old son that I wanted him to watch the news. We flipped through the channels and were able to view news from French, German, BBC, Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, and Moroccan services. In Morocco I saw more news and information about Sri Lanka and Thailand in 7 days than I have seen in 40 years on American television. My teenager son was blown away not only by the breadth of information that was available on the Moroccan news but by the warmth and joie de vivre of the Moroccans. He plans to return to Morocco to study French and Arabic and to learn more about the world beyond the monolingual perspective of insular America. Typical were my conversations with Abdu’llah, who helped guide me through the maze of old Fes. Although he is dirt poor and has only a fifth grade education, Abdu’llah speaks 5 languages and could no doubt hold his own in political dialogue with Mr. Amis.

What I do agree with Amis and others is that the Islamic fundamentalists need to be addressed constantly, that their views must be confronted and shown to be harmful to all. Islam stands in need of constant reform, as do all religious traditions. This is happening and what writers like Amis and Harris always ignore is the moderate and liberal mainstream of Islam.

I agree with Amis that Islam is too often presented as a totalalizing and authoritarian system beyond reason. But, again, this is not universally so or even the predominate view. Furthermore, how different is that from Catholicism? Just as I don’t see Pope Benedict as the true voice of Catholicism vs. Hans Kung or Sister Joan Chittister, I don’t see Osama or the fundamentalist preachers as the true voice of Islam vs. people like Queen Noor, Hamza Yusuf, Omid Safi, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, Sheikh Ahmed Abaadi, and all the other moderate and liberal Muslim voices that can be heard around the world.

What Amis in London and most Americans need to begin to understand is that battle for the soul of Islam is not over but just beginning. Moderate and liberal Muslims are engaged in creating an alternative to fundamentalist visions of Islam. It is happening in groups like Progressive Muslim Union, at the historic meetings of World Congress of Imams and Rabbis for Peace, and at countless events and in books and web sites where Muslims seek to bring about an Islamic renewal movement that sees no contradiction between belief in the Koran while opposing theocracy, supporting democracy, defense of the rights of women and non-Muslims in Islamic societies, defense of freedom of thought, and belief in the potential for human progress. These Muslims need the support of non-Muslims rather than the kind of distortions about what Islam is that Amis has offered. ‘


Steven Scholl is a writer and film maker living in Ashland, Oregon. He also leads tours to the Middle East with his company Imagine Adventures.

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