Chasing a Mirage – Political Islam Versus Secularism – A new book sparks a heated debate between Muslims of different schools
Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State
Wiley and Sons
410 pages, hardcover
“Those who thought that religion could be separate from politics understand neither religion nor politics. ”
Two Muslim-majority countries that have registered significant gains for liberal democracy in recent years are Turkey and Indonesia. This is reflected in the rankings of Freedom House, which publishes an annual survey measuring civil liberties and political rights worldwide. While their democracies are nascent and fragile, both countries have consistently obtained some of the highest scores for liberal-democratic development that clearly set them apart from other countries in the Muslim world. What is intriguing about these gains for democracy is the seminal role played by religious-based parties and Muslim intellectuals — many of them with roots in political Islam. Left-wing parties and secularist intellectuals cannot claim credit here.
These new developments from the Muslim world suggest several things. First, they require us to rethink long-standing assumptions about democratization, particularly the role that religion can play in this process. A concomitant that flows from this is that the “Islamists-equals-bad guys versus secularists-equals-good guys” approach to Muslim politics is simplistic and distorting. Second, democratic gains in Indonesia and Turkey confirm the observations of political scientist Vali Nasr, in a famous essay on “The Rise of ‘Muslim Democracy’,” that conservative-based Muslim parties and politicians will likely lead the way toward a democratic transition in the Muslim world. Third, recent trends in Turkey and Indonesia suggest why Tarek Fatah’s new book, Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State, is a fundamentally flawed study of the Muslim world.
Tarek Fatah is a Toronto-based broadcaster, polemicist and self-described secular Muslim activist. He has been a prominent and controversial voice in debates that pertain to Canadian Muslims and Islam. Recently, he has devoted himself to exposing an alleged Islamist agenda in Canada that he claims has infected not only the Muslim community but also the CBC, the Canadian banking system and the Ontario Human Rights Commission.2 “There are within the staff [of the … commission], and among the commissioners, hardline Islamic supporters of Islamic extremism,” he was recently quoted as saying.3
“Fatah’s book seeks to demonstrate “that throughout Islamic history, all attempts to use Islam to justify or validate political power … have invariably ended in bloodshed and war.”
His argument in Chasing a Mirage revolves around the tension between what he calls the “state of Islam” versus “an Islamic State.” He praises the former and excoriates the latter. The “state of Islam” is the privatized form of faith that is spiritual, ethical, apolitical and based on the individual. Past contributions by Muslims to human civilization can be credited to this form of Islam. In contrast, an “Islamic State” refers to all politicized forms of Islam that have emerged throughout human history, from the 7th century to the 21st. This variant of Islam, Fatah asserts, is uniformly puritanical and supremacist and seeks political power and mastery over not only the Muslim world, but over Europe and North America as well. His book seeks to demonstrate “that throughout Islamic history, all attempts to use Islam to justify or validate political power … have invariably ended in bloodshed and war” and that “the cause of violence that has engulfed the Muslim world is centred on the premise of an Islamic state or caliphate.” In short, there is a Manichean struggle taking place within the Muslim world between these two forms of Islam. The problem is politicized Islam in all its manifestations; the solution is a rigid form of Turkish secularism. Liberals and leftists in Canada are also criticized for not taking the threat of Islamic fascism seriously, which, we are told, threatens Muslim societies, as well as the West itself, if left unchecked.
“There is much to criticize here: from the alarmist rhetoric that echoes the writings of Daniel Pipes, Bernard Lewis and Mark Steyn to Fatah’s monolithic and monochromatic portrayal of all forms of political Islam throughout history.”
There is much to criticize here: from the alarmist rhetoric that echoes the writings of Daniel Pipes, Bernard Lewis and Mark Steyn to Fatah’s monolithic and monochromatic portrayal of all forms of political Islam throughout history, without any nuance, context, qualification or variation, to the polemical ferocity of his writing style that scars this book and detracts from the important topic he is attempting to explicate. As the focus of Fatah’s inquiry is fundamentally about religion-state relations in the Islamic world, I want to focus my remarks on this aspect of his narrative.
Nader Hashemi is a professor of Middle East and Islamic politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He is the author of Islam, Secularism and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).
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