UNDERSTANDING ISLAM

 

Sir, - Further to Niall Andrews's letter (February 15th), I would like to add to his comments on the relationship of this state, and the European Union more generally, with what he calls Islamic states". While I agree entirely with him that we must find ways to engage, critically if necessary, with these states, I feel that Mr Andrews's own letter betrays a degree of ignorance and deploys a generalising rhetoric that is itself unhelpful.

The only established state that he mentions is Iran. Are we therefore to presume that other states, such as Saudi Arabia, where a conservative interpretation of Islamic law is enshrined in state institutions, are to escape Mr Andrews's critique? What has he to say, for example, about the British Government's recent pirouettes about the deportation of a Saudi dissident in order to protect lucrative arms deals? What has Mr Andrews to say about the fact that the second Gulf War was fought to protect the repressive, feudal and undemocratic Saudi regime, and to reinstall the equally unpleasant Kuwaiti regime?

Does Mr Andrews's discourse of anti terrorism and human rights apply to these countries, or to Israel, which has practiced "terrorism" on a grand scale in Lebanon and the Occupied Territories? In his divagations about "fundamentalist Islam", does he pause to consider the dangers of fundamentalist Christianity, or fundamentalist Judaism, in the Middle East?

Surely the main problem with Mr Andrews's angle, which I would accept as honourable and well intentioned, is that he seems to see the unpleasantness that he ascribes to the Iranian Government, or to the Taleban in Afghanistan, as wholly reducible to their "Islamic" nature. As he rightly says, there are many degrees of toleration to be found within Islam.

There are, in fact, many different sects, languages, cultures, polities and economies to be found under this gigantic and alarming umbrella that he designates "Islam". Islam is 1,500 years old, and, like Christianity, has mutated and engaged with different social forms in different places at different times during that long and illustrious history.

It seems a pity - but entirely symptomatic of the limitations of his analysis - that the only positive example that Mr Andrews can offer is of the Egyptian professional classes and their putative "cafe society". Does it not occur to him that it is precisely because the vast majority of the Egyptian population can never hope to achieve such a lifestyle, in a state that only bears the most notional resemblance to a liberal democracy, that parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood can gain a political foothold? Would he recognise that Hizbollah, a group supported economically and ideologically by Iran, is not merely an Islamist organisation - of that there can be no doubt - but is also a Lebanese guerrilla army fighting to liberate its country from the Israelis, their "security zone" and their South Lebanese Army proxies?

The point, finally, is that "political Islam" is precisely that - political, Islam - unlike, say, Roman Catholicism - does not possess an internationally recognised central authority. It cannot be "dealt with" until it is understood in ways that recognise its particular manifestations in specific polities and societies, and thus do not essentialise it into some kind of a historical, over arching bogey. - Yours, etc.,

De Vesci Court,

Dun Laoghaire.