HoustonChronicle.com -- http://www.HoustonChronicle.com | Section: Book reviews

Sept. 19, 2003, 10:48AM

Bridge of empathy can prevent apocalypse


By Akbar S. Ahmed.
Cambridge University Press,
$19 paperback; 213 pp.

Islam Under Siege opens with an intriguing prophecy:

"There will be a time when your religion will be like a hot piece of coal in the palm of your hand; you will not be able to hold it." The Prophet of Islam was gazing into the future while he talked to his followers early in the 7th century in Arabia. "Would this mean there would be very few Muslims?" someone asked later. "No," replied the Prophet, "They will be large in numbers, more than ever before, but powerless like the foam on the ocean waves."

book cover

After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the Prophet's prediction seems eerily accurate. Islam has well over a billion followers, yet Muslim societies all over the world appear to be threatened and destabilized. Muslims find themselves accused of belonging to a "terrorist" and "extremist" religion. The "war on terrorism" that President George Bush declared after Sept. 11 threatens to stretch into the century; to many Muslims it has the look of a fresh Crusade against Islam.

The tragedy and the aftermath of Sept. 11 have caused many in the Muslim world to rethink their attitudes. People in the West are also examining these issues, and many are convinced that the mindless cycle of anger and violence can be checked only through discussion and dialogue.

Akbar S. Ahmed, who held the Iqbal Chair at Cambridge University, has written and lectured extensively on Islam. His popular six-part BBC television series, Living Islam, was widely viewed in England. This new book is written in language that is understood in the West and is readily accessible even to a non-Muslim like me.

Perhaps most important, Ahmed, who currently holds the Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University in Washington, D.C., writes from within the Islamic tradition. He is frequently invited by American television networks to discuss Islam (Oprah's had him three times), and his is a voice of moderation and scholarship.

As Ahmed has learned to his cost, it is a voice that's not only neglected but often vilified and silenced in Islamic societies. He shares in the book his difficult personal experiences when he initiated a controversial film study of Pakistan founder M.A. Jinnah, and concludes: "Looking at the breakdown of society for a Muslim scholar is like staring into the face of despair."

Ahmed's chapter titles delineate the scope of his analysis: For example, "What is Going Wrong? Is It About Islam or Is It About Globalization?" Globalization, he argues, has forced sudden changes on traditional and tribal societies that have confused and threatened people and made them vulnerable to simplistic religious dogma. Ahmed explains convincingly the moral collapse of societies in what he calls our "Post-Honor World" in which the Muslims feel that the West has humiliated them and stripped them of dignity and honor. The equation of honor with violence is one consequence of this confusion.

Ahmed has some suggestions for the West as well. The West needs to discourage the knee-jerk "nuke 'em" response to Muslims and stop labeling all Muslims "fundamentalist." It needs to recognize its Islamophobic attitudes and try to understand Islam. The Western media's contempt for their religion provokes many Muslims into an anti-Western stance. It also makes more vulnerable the position of those, like Ahmed, who talk of dialogue and moderation.

Too many people of all faiths in our world believe that while they are a people of honor, others are not -- and there is enough blame sloshing around on all sides to bring about the predicted clash of civilizations. Unless we realize how necessary it is to establish a dialogue and to create a bridge -- no matter how tenuous -- of empathy, Nostrodamus' predicted apocalyptic war -- followed by a thousand years of an ashen, post-nuclear peace -- appears inevitable.

Ahmed addresses key issues surrounding Western perceptions of Islam as well as Islamic attitudes toward Christianity and the West, Islam and democracy, the Koran's stance on violence, and Islam's attitudes toward women (which, though respectful of women, is also mired in cultural traditions that oppress them).

These issues are of significance to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. As the number of Muslims continues to grow and the world political spotlight remains focused on the Middle East, Islam will have an increasingly forceful presence in the 21st century.

Bapsi Sidhwa's novels include An American Brat and Cracking India. She lives in Houston.

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