Thursday, January 17, 2008

People Like Us: How arrogance is dividing Islam and West, by Waleed Aly

Let me say from the outset that I thought this an absolutely terrific book and I’d urge anyone who comes across this review (or rave, rather) to give this book a whirl. Unbelieveably, the book wasn’t even Waleed Aly’s idea. Author Martin Flanagan talked Aly into writing it. What’s even more amazing about this book is Aly’s age: he’s only 29! (I know that’s probably a superficial point, but for a book that shows such depth, erudition and maturity, I’m frankly in shock.)

The most basic premise of this book is how poorly the West and Islam misunderstand each other. Aly sees himself as especially well positioned to discuss this issue as a Muslim who was raised in Australia. He has feet firmly placed in both cultures, and sees the argument that is played out before him frequently as some terrible farce.

What’s helping to compound this problem is the language we use. Aly quotes George Orwell to show that the language we now use in regards to this issue specifically limits the discussion. I couldn’t agree more with this sentiment.

Aly goes into a few key words and expressions to show how important the subtleties of language are. Arabic language and Islam are constantly translated into meaningless sound bites. (Aly also criticises the ‘Muslim world’ for the same thing.)

For example, the word jihad is frequently misunderstood. The word means ‘struggle’, and has a personal/spiritual dimension as well as a more military version. The former we are told is thought to be the more important in Islam. Of course all the subtleties of this word, its nuanced religious meanings, are flung out the window once it’s used by news broadcasters for shocking 6 o’clock news programs. I recall even Canberra press journalist Michelle Grattan using it to refer to inter party fighting amongst the Liberals. The word is thoroughly corrupted.

Aly also discusses the controversy over the wearing of the hijab, and the proposed banning of it. The author goes warily goes into the varying reasons that women like to cover their heads. I say warily because Aly notes that barely any hijab wearing women are ever asked why they wear it in the first place.

Even if you consider yourself a liberal minded Westerner on the issue of Islam, there is much in this book that may surprise you, as Aly breaks down the over simplified language we use in the West to describe Islam.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book describe Islam’s history and cultural contributions. When this is contrasted again Christianity’s history, Islam comes across as a modern, anti-hierarchical religion. As Aly notes, Islam simply doesn’t have an established church like Christianity does in the West. For example, there is no religious authority like the pope. Interpretation of the Koran is not so dogmatic as Christianity’s interpretation of the Bible. (Recall so-called fundamentalism, a modern phenomenon, began with Christian word-for-word readings of the Bible, what’s known as the inerrancy of the Biblical texts.)

As I mentioned earlier, there are many subtle and nuanced arguments in this absorbing book. When a young Western newsreader parrots the word jihad, mindlessly reading their teleprompter, what they are saying is virtually meaningless, meaningless to Islam anyway. What do they know of Islam’s 1400 year history, it’s culture, history, philosophy, beliefs etc? You know the answer.

Again, I urge anyone reading this blurb that they check out their library and give Waleed Aly’s book a go. He shows in equal measure the prejudices and delusions of the Islamic world, and the arrogance and ignorance of the Western world. His book is an admirable attempt to breach this huge gulf of understanding.

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