Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The myriad ways of Islam

I have lately been reading descriptions of modern Islam written from within the faith itself - admittedly from the more liberal end of the spectrum. The latest has been Ziauddin Sardar's most fascinating and enlightening Desperately Seeking Paradise. What strikes me most in these descriptions is the polyphonic multitude of different interpretations of Islam, a polyphony of individual voices.

When you then turn towards the Western, especially US media, what you get is an undifferentiated, ridiculously simplified monolith. Highly placed officials can't even tell the difference between Sunni and Shia, or place al-Qaida correctly within the Islamic tradition. Such criminal ignorance is guiding and leading this absurd "Global War on Terror" which in practice often translates as a somewhat random war against somewhat randomly chosen varieties of political Islam.

What the various elites offer to the electorate instead of any deep understanding are silly platitudes, slogans, whether politically correct or incorrect: "Islam is a religion of peace", "No, it's a religion of war!" etc. etc. ad infinitum et nauseam. Of course, any great religion is a huge spectrum of interpretations, from the most eloquently mystical, open and tolerant to the most pitifully literalist, primitive and aggressive. So with Islam.

This is not to say that some forms of these current fundamentalist interpretations (much in evidence for example in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan) wouldn't be a threat to Western enlightenment and liberal democracy (and the same can be said also of much of George W. Bush's fundamentalist Christian base), but that Islam in itself cannot be that threat: there is no one Islam. Perhaps one day the majestic potential for liberation and openness that is contained in those universal visions will be released.

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