The Future Of Secularism: Chapter 31

HOW THE EAST STOLE ISLAM

Khattab said little about what happened between us in the days that followed. He snuck me books, in a powerful effort to wean me from the vision of Turan. It worked because he started to appeal to my idea of pan-Islamism. Plus he showed me pictures of hot Arab girls and that helped, too. What kind of state wouldn’t have them as potential spouses? Not a very Islamic one, I decided. 

I have to admit; the more I thought about it, the less nationalism appealed to me. How could we, in this age, draw boundaries based on ethnicity or culture? Countries that succeeded were based on universal ideologies that accepted others and did not draw rigid boundaries. Each great civilization had an overriding ethic. Whether Islamic or Western or Roman — there haven’t been many truly dominant civilizations.

I wished to think of a moderate Islam, which celebrated our culture, but not a culture that celebrated Islam within its own boundaries. I imagined instead a great Islamic state, with a moderate government and de-centralized form, each region celebrating its culture while taking part in the universal Islamic civilization.

Maybe we’d all learn Arabic, and each region could promote its healthy characteristics, and such diversity would make us strong. From one, many (I liked the fact that it flipped the American motto around). To help me along in these thoughts, Khattab dropped off books in my car as I occasionally gave him rides to school. I swallowed everything from Foucault to Edward Said to Izetbegovic. I drowned in the Qur’an. I meditated over Maududi. I cried with Qutb. Iqbal inspired me.  

On an evening soon after, Khattab and I met in a downtown park, the kind that is intensely green and full of businessmen and workers. I had no idea why we met there, but perhaps because it was crowded and we wouldn’t look so suspicious.

It was close to Maghrib time. I looked at Khattab closely. He had shaved his beard off, and there was a cigarette in his hand. Khattab smoked? That didn’t seem very Islamic. He offered me one, but I couldn’t do it. I knew why he did… I knew it would be smarter if I did, but still, something held me back. 

Khattab introduced me to a man named Serhat. His voice, it seemed to me, held something altogether more than his sound. Just when he spoke, passers-by would stop to listen, if only to wonder: "Why is this man’s voice so fascinating?"

We went for a walk by the lake, trying to escape the bigger crowds without finding ourselves too alone. Serhat, Khattab and I discussed many things. We crossed from topic to topic, from Orientalism to despotism, and finally settling on the situation in Iran, the first truly Islamic Republic (Pakistan was an attempt, but it hadn’t gotten off the ground till well after Iran’s Islamic revolution).

Khomeini’s system was modified, and in the name of preserving the Islamic Republic, a shari’a democracy emerged in its place. The absolute authority of the Ayatollahs was crushed from within. They supervised government and some held offices of power, but not without criticism. Not with the safety provided by terror and secret police, assassinations and the like.

"It was a corrupt country," Serhat remarked, "Though ideologically, it was on the right track. Islam, yes. But velayat-e faqih as Khomeini wished it? (1) Never. The Ayatollahs horded the power and became corrupt..."

"What is it with us?" Khattab asked. "Oriental despotism always seems to take over, even in the name of populism."

"I suppose," I said, thinking I could add to the debate -- and damn was I wrong -- "that the Ayatollahs initially feared that the reform was really a movement for secularization. We know now that it wasn’t. It sought to preserve religion by opening up politics. But they didn’t know if it was really a movement to just Westernize."

"Khomeini fought hard against secularism, that is true," Serhat interrupted, "But he was the greatest Westerner of them all."

Silence.

Serhat had been noticed. 

"Excuse me?"

I looked at Khattab, who looked as if he’d been burnt by this fire before.

Serhat held the cigarette close to his mouth. He was going to take a puff, but then stopped himself.

"That’s why they were so afraid of him. Islamic Revolution? Turbans? The fiery Ayatollah? Not any of that. They feared him because he was them."

I imagined I was about to hear some sort of ridiculous conspiracy theory, the type only a Muslim could think up of. Serhat continued without giving time to my imagination.

"The fact of the matter is this: over a long period of time, our cultures died. Our ways and manners died. Our very ways of thinking and dreaming -- these have all perished in the light of the West."

We thought differently? Then I thought of Sophia and I missed her. Her and her beautiful (censor here) looked just fine in Western clothes. But I quickly shook the thought from my head and returned to the less important matter of saving the world.

"What of Iran’s vast movement to inspire pride in Persian and Islamic culture? The government... they wear turbans and robes there... the flag, the language, the new movies and the revitalization of the culture. It’s all under an Islamic consciousness, an Islamic spirit. And it’s Persian."

"Oh," Serhat said, "I do not doubt it’s Islamic, or even Persian. But the Persia that was is not the Persia that is. Today, Hayy, the West has won. We are all Westerners, whether we are Christian, Jew, secular or Muslim. You think clothes make you an Easterner, or the script you write in? Those are stupid ideas that only small men, like Ataturk, or some fundamentalists stuck in the 14th century, would accept."

Serhat paused, "Islam is a perspective, a moral and ethical worldview. The Qur’an and our Prophet, peace be upon him, are guideposts along the way. To be emulated — but not blindly. Wearing a turban does not necessarily make one Islamic. What does is acting within and according to a certain framework. In many ways, the West is the same. The West is not a language, or even a culture. It is universal, like Islam. It went from Europe to America and then to Japan. All are Western. Not all are European. Do you see what I’m saying?"

Wow, I thought: every major Islamic and Muslim political movement had been insulted before me. Were I to write this down, it would probably only be published in a country like America.  

"What of the Muslims who claim to be Islamic but kill Muslims and non-Muslims with no legitimate defense? Surely they are not Westerners."

Serhat laughed. "Sheikh so-and-so calls for a jihad on a microphone. Which is Western. He derides the West for stealing the Middle East from the Muslims. Middle East? East of what? Free Palestine they cry, as if Muslims drew the boundaries of Mandatory Palestine. We know ourselves only in relation to the West. And now that we know ourselves, we seek to define ourselves. But in those centuries between becoming aware of ourselves vis-a-vis the West, and then seeking to define ourselves independently of it, we became bastard children of the West. Political Islam? Islamic government? I have not seen such since the days of the True Khulafat... and then, after ‘Ali died, the Easterners stole Islam from the Muslim and installed despotism and ignorance. The east stole Islam, Hayy, just as the West nearly destroyed it."

"We had great periods of creativity and learning."

"But the West," Serhat chided me, "Found us in darkness. We saw everything in the light provided by them. We called them the darkness, the Great Satan, when indeed they are our saviors. Islamist? The word itself. Listen to it. Was Ibn Taimiyya an Islamist?"

Khattab and I were silent. I was profoundly disturbed. "So you are saying that Islamization is Westernization?"

"I am saying that nationalism is an illusion, a crime, a lie, against us. We have died and perished, and come back to life in Western bodies."

"We’re not them, dammit!" I said, loudly.

Serhat didn’t flinch, "Oh but we are, and we have been for quite some time. Just as the French and the Americans are Westerners, so are the Pakistanis and the Turks."

"Islam is a way of life."

"Islam did not invent life, did it?" Serhat asked. I did not follow so he laughed, "Islam is and was but clarification. What was Christianity? Islam ruined. And why did the Christians fear us so much?"

"They still fear us!"

"And I will tell you why."

He was silent, as if waiting for me to ask. Impatient, I demanded: "Well?"

"The Christians ruined what they were given, and they were given Islam. That’s why the Christians so fear us. Because they knew we were not really different from them. We were only them as they should have been. Islam has never been original. The pagan Arabs... they became Muslim and retained Arabic culture. Then Islam took Persian culture, Indian culture, and Turkish culture. We were given two things. The Qur’an and the Sunnat. Both of these either directly from God, or inspired by God. We imposed these two on the East. Now, the time has come for them to be imposed on the West."

"So what does this have to do with Khomeini?"

"Islam is a civilization, which fuses its strength with different cultures, till you cannot separate it from the culture. It is a parasite that feeds on society till it becomes one with society, and one has trouble imagining that the culture could change while the religion stays, for the most part, solidly in place. That is why Easterners believe their return to Islam is a return to their roots. But their roots have been dug up and burnt to ashes by the coming of the West. All that remains of the East is Islam -- Islam hid and ran for cover, and Islam reappeared after the ages of imperialism and colonization. Everything else we had was robbed from us. Even our underwear is theirs. Our candy-bars. Our snack foods. Our toothpaste. Look yourself at the Iran Khomeini created. The very concept of a nation-state, of a revolution, of politics as we know it -- these are all Western concepts."

"We are still not them. We have been Westernized to some degree -- but our cultures haven’t died."

"They haven’t?"

"We can revive our cultures!" I protested.

"Grow up, Hayy," Serhat lectured. "Revive your culture? What purpose would that serve? It’s over for our cultures, as we knew them. A new culture is being born. The East is gone. And Islam needs a new host. We are the West now... a new West… whether the old West wants us or not is another matter."

"So what do you think this means for us as Muslims?" I asked, very agitated.

He shrugged. His cigarette glowed red against the darkening sky. "Is the West a place?"

"Islam came from the East," I replied quickly. "We have always been from the East. Not a place, no... but a mentality."

"I don’t doubt it," Serhat told me, smiling a bit. "After all, Islam did come to a culture and shaped itself more for that culture than any other. Yet what is this culture? A warrior culture, a noble culture, a deep, spiritual, honorable culture! The Turks were the second great wave of Islam’s followers. They too were nomads. They were from the East. Now, we as Muslims return to Islam, and Islamize our Westernized identity. Ever wonder why Islam is so strong in the cities? Why it’s gaining among the educated? The modern Western city is closer to the nomad Arabs and Turks of the past. When we enter cities, we become Bedouins again."

"Islam is a religion of the East," I said, as if saying it again might change his mind... don’t laugh, because everyone (unnecessarily) repeats the same line during arguments. As if when our ears get tired, our minds would accept.

If I were secular, I’d have made an allusion to the adhan.

"Christianity also came from the East. From Jerusalem. It was the religion of the Byzantines also, and only after the 1300s and 1400s did it really become synonymous with the West -- as the idea of Europe emerged," Serhat told us.

"So, you’re saying we must become Western?" Khattab asked.

Serhat laughed, but without arrogance. "I am saying we are Western. We cannot return to the East because there is no East. Besides the ranting and raving of some idiots, the East is dead. Even those idiots are Westerners, they are just blind to mirrors. We must understand this, accept this and move from there, with nothing but a smile on our faces."

"The West," I said, suddenly inspired by a new line of argument, "Destroyed the faith it adopted. Christianity has faded from the Europe it once defined."

Serhat nodded, "That is true."

"So," I asked, wondering why Serhat had not picked up on my point, "Will the West also destroy Islam?"

"On the contrary," Serhat answered. "The West will save Islam. The conquered will conquer the conqueror. The West was never comfortable with Christianity. It was, after all, only during the darkest times of the West that the Christian religion was powerful. When West realized this, she decided to slay her mother. She hunted Christianity as if she were an angry child and Christianity a bad and abusive and neglectful mother. Almost nobody wept when those European bullets filled her body. The West fed off the remains of its former faith and became stronger through this cannibalism. Yet is the West strong enough to hunt Islam? They have tried and still they try. Yet they have not dealt us the mortal blow. That which does not kill us, Hayy, can only make us stronger."

Then Serhat laughed, after a pause: "You are, after all, what you eat."

I didn’t say anything in response. What could I say? 

"One day," Serhat said, "Western cultures will be accepted by Islam till they have become like the now perished Eastern cultures. It will be a distinctive Islam, with a Western tinge -- but Islam nonetheless. A new way of believing the same truths. A new way of dreaming the same dreams."

Khattab looked at Serhat, "So we can’t save culture?"

"We can change culture to be more Islamic. But the whole idea of cultural revival -- that’s in light of Western hegemony. So accept it. It’s reality. Don’t waste your energy on things of no long-term consequence. Move beyond all this and keep what is important in mind."

Serhat stared at the few skyscrapers in the distance. He smiled. I looked at him, and he recognized me... without once even making the slightest move in my direction... "Be like your father, Hayy... and be awake. Look around you. Everything is the West. Say bismillah (2) and embrace it."

I figured I would’ve been happier had someone told me I could be Western -- a way of looking at things that I loved secretly -- and Islamic, something I knew I had to be. Still, something sat uneasy in me.  

Serhat pondered the stars that were making themselves obvious in the sky above. I could trace a pensive look on his face, in the artificial light emanating from the streetlights near us.

"Hayy, the sun does not rise anymore. Even she has abandoned the East. Every day the sun sets. And that is all."

"Then," realizing what he meant, I added, "There is no balance. The two paths have been crushed, and only one remains. Can anyone walk the middle road any longer?"

"This," Serhat said, frowning, "Is what God promised. Only one way is left in the world. And only one religion remains that could ever tackle this challenge. There is only the West, and then the West becomes Islamic."

Khattab, I think, did not understand. He looked at Serhat with questions in his eyes. The stars above seemed to be louder than him.

"There is very little time left. Think of it as a sunset. Think of yourselves as strangers. One final struggle, for the heart and soul of the world. You will win, because God has promised you this much. But then, after victory, what comes but decline? Once we reach the top, we have nowhere to go but down. The final rise will be beautiful, but the final fall will be the most tragic. For there will be no world left against which we might dare compare ourselves to. We will have no external enemy. We will becomes slaves to our desires, our dreams, our greed, and nothing will save us from our darkness."

"Because," I continued, "There will be no West which could come and conquer us again, and let us know we had failed in our task."

Serhat nodded.

"We are the West. There is no East. There is no god but Allah." 

Serhat dropped his cigarette and drove it into the grass with his foot. It hurt to watch its feeble light go out. I shuddered when I realized then that I hadn’t seen Serhat light his cigarette.

"The sun has set," Serhat said, "Look in the West and you will see. It is time to pray."

As Serhat walked away, my mind grasped for something to hold onto. I gazed at Khattab. The smoke that rose from his lips searched for something to say. We sat down, hoping that Serhat would return and pick up the pieces of ourselves.

I looked at Khattab. "So..."

He tried to smile, but his muscles refused his mind. The weak effort faded from his lips, and his eyelids descended like a setting sun, searching the ground for something greater than a burnt-out cigarette butt -- as if Serhat would leave footprints. Of those, there were none. He had walked through our minds and over-turned everything, closed the door and shut off the light.

_______

1. Khomeini believed the faqih, or jurist, must rule (have 'velayat'). This system has many benefits, and is a step forward in Islamic political thought (actually, a huge leap ahead, but whatever?) The problem is, however, that the ideology puts the faqih into a position of infallibility. It disturbs the Islamic structure of decentralization and concentrates far too much power in one man?s hands. Part of the modification must begin with creating more openness, accountability and decentralization. The solution is not at all a rejection of the premise behind Khomeini's system, nor the idea of an Islamic, populist and democratic state. Rather we must revise and reflect more greatly on how to improve this existing system.

2. Every chapter of the Qur'an, excepting one, begins with Bismillahi Al-Rahman Al-Rahim; in the name of God, most Gracious, most Merciful. Bismillah thus means 'in the name of God.' Many Muslims begin a variety of actions throughout this day with this statement.