Islam / Minority Report

Tarek Fatah, a Pakistan-born Muslim, asks some tough questions - about the dominance of the Arabs among the believers, about the attempts to create Islamic states, about the role of women in Muslim society. His critical approach is a breath of fresh air.

Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State, by Tarek FatahJohn Wiley & Sons, 410 pages, $29.90

The unusual dedication immediately captures the eye: "For Benazir Bhutto and Daniel Pearl, a Muslim and a Jew, both victims of terrorism." If you add to this the fact that the author, Tarek Fatah, is a leader of the Muslim Canadian Congress, "Chasing the Mirage" would appear to be a book worthy of attention.

And indeed it is, both for its contents and for the courage of its author. Perhaps the place to begin is the way in which Fatah introduces himself: "I am an Indian born in Pakistan; a Punjabi born in Islam; an immigrant in Canada with a Muslim consciousness, grounded in a Marxist youth." Clearly, this is a complex personality, and the many dimensions of his identity allow for an unconventional perspective on the Muslim world.

The author's background as an activist in the Marxist student movement in Pakistan must have shaped his world, even if he did eventually abandon its dogmatism. He describes how, as a young man, he idolized plane hijacker Leila Khaled, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine: To him, she was not only a freedom fighter, but a symbol of women's status within the revolutionary movement. It was Marxism, however, that led him to oppose the oppressive Islamic regime of the military junta that took over Pakistan and to question the very need for a state based exclusively on religious identity.

This Marxist critique also led the author to other questions. If the Marxist Palestinian factions are indeed the manifestations of a liberation movement, how can it be that their allies in the struggle against Israel and the West are oppressive regimes like the military dictatorships in Syria and Iraq or the Saudi fundamentalist theocracyFatah asks unconventional questions, which caused him (after he was arrested by the tyrannical Islamic-military regime in Pakistan, and found his way to the West) to doubt certain truths embraced by Arab radicalism. These doubts are the basis for his book, which is at times long-winded, but whose critical approach is a breath of fresh air.

The point of departure for the author, who has twice fulfilled the Muslim duty of the hajj [pilgrimage], is that Islam is a way of life that holds its believers to certain duties, which can help them live honestly with both God and their fellow man while in a state of inner balance and wholeness. He stresses over and over that the Koran contains not a single statement requiring the establishment of an Islamic state. To him, such a belief is incompatible with everything that the Prophet passed on to his followers, and any attempt to tie Muslim faith to political control is the result of historical processes, themselves caused by the use to which Mohammed?s heirs put Islam in their efforts to solidify their regime through conquest and domination.

A radical critique

It does not matter whether this is a correct interpretation of Islam, since any religion is clearly open to different, often contradictory, interpretations (even Jesus, after all, said that "My kingdom is not of this world"). What does matter is that Fatah's claim is made not from an anti-Muslim stance but rather out of an interpretation of Islam. One of its consequences is therefore a radical critique not only of the form that Arab-Muslim regimes have historically taken (the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates), but also of contemporary Muslim regimes, from Saudi Arabia to Iran. The sharp-eyed observer will detect another tone here, a Muslim criticism of the Arab hegemonism within Islam - a subject that non-Arab Muslim speakers are usually reluctant to take on, for fear of being denounced as "anti-Muslim" and heretical.

Fatah claims that Islam has gone awry because its expansion was intertwined with the Arab takeover of the Middle East: Did the conquests of the first caliphs bring about Islamization or Arabization? Since they caused both at once, the historical synonymity of Islam and Arabism was created, and even if this identification is considered wrong in theological terms, it became the de facto reality. As a Muslim of Indian-Pakistani origins, Fatah sees the blending of Islam and Arabism as the distortion of the former, and his words echo the sense of many non-Arab Muslims that Arabs consider them to be "second-rate" Muslims.

Moreover, the fact that the modern Arab national movement actively identifies Arabism with the Islamic heritage (despite the fact that many of the movement's creators were Christian Arabs) is, according to the author, problematic, as suggested by the claim of Michel Aflaq, the Christian founder of the Ba'ath party, that Mohammed is not only a Muslim personage but primarily an Arab hero. According to Fatah, this distortion causes left-wing Arab figures to see Muslim fundamentalists as their allies in the war against capitalism and the West (and, of course, Israel), and this unholy alliance renders the Arab and Muslim left hollow and helpless, a pawn in the hands of the most reactionary of forces. As long as the kinship between the radical left and Muslim fundamentalism persists, there is no hope of real emancipation in the Arab world - the most extreme example of this being Arab radicals' willingness to submit to the views of the religious zealots when it comes to the status of women.

In the book, Fatah disproves quite a few well-known truths about the Muslim caliphates: It turns out, for example, that the Mongol capture of Baghdad in 1258, led by Hulagu Khan (an event seen in Arab historiography as the foremost of all historical catastrophes), became possible because some of the Shi'ite elite joined forces with the conqueror against the Sunni caliphate. In return the Mongols, who destroyed hundreds of mosques in the areas they conquered, allowed the Shi'ites to keep their holy places in Najaf and Karbala. This aspect is mentioned neither in Arab history books nor in the work of Western scholars, who do not dare to challenge the Arab meta-narrative.

Moreover, Fatah considers the Saudi and Wahhabi conquest of Hejaz and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina to be an illegitimate form of aggression, not unlike the American invasion of Iraq. Even if the analogy can be challenged, once again the author is raising an issue that is taboo in Arab discourse.

On the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Fatah combines fidelity to his beliefs from his youth (the Palestinians' right to a state) with a willingness to accept Israel's right to exist. He considers the Oslo process a significant breakthrough, suggests that the Palestinians should accept the "two states for two peoples" principle and - while sharply criticizing the Israeli occupation of the territories - expresses horror at the link between Palestinian nationalism and Muslim fundamentalism. He believes that the establishment of a Palestinian state according to the Hamas model would be a tragedy for the Palestinian people, which would thus replace Israeli occupation with religious-fundamentalist oppression. He rejects any form of terrorism directed at civilians and hopes that when an independent Palestine is established through a peace accord with Israel, it will not deteriorate into religious-military tyranny, as his native Pakistan did. Powerful words indeed.

This is, without a doubt, a minority opinion - but it is important to listen to these words and hope that the voice heard in the book will someday become the dominant one, bringing peace not only between the Muslim world and the West, but also within the Muslim world itself.

Professor Shlomo Avineri's latest book, "Herzl," was published by the Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History (Hebrew).