THE FIRST WORD OF THE QUR’AN WAS ‘READ,’ AND I ALWAYS GO TO THE LIBRARY
We had a project due on the history of the great and glorious Revolution our country experienced a few generations back. I was sick of this obsession with the past, and the leader’s father’s father, who apparently, other than walking around in a military uniform, actually accomplished things (One amazing accomplishment: Because of him, his son and grandson were also able to walk around in military uniforms, though our track record in warfare clearly does not justify the appearance of our leaders in military uniforms).
I sucked it up, and made it sound as if I loved the leader’s father’s father. I wrote my report on his commitment to the ideals of the people. It was vaguely Marxist, perhaps because we were not too long ago a conquered region of the evil Communist empire.
Nevertheless, part of me sympathized with Marxism (just not our government, nor its history since the Revolution). Outside of the Greco-Roman, Western, imperialistic Christian-secular tradition (how’s that for a more specific way of referring to the Western European world?), Marxism represented a breath of fresh air. Plus Marxists were the few people left in the world, outside of committed Muslims, who protested injustices on a global scale or any sort of alternatives for the world.
Khattab was writing in a notebook. I looked over and he hesitated. Immediately my mind thought it was something Islamist he was writing; Khattab just about gave it off in bundles of energy (Could I refer to quanta while talking about a Salafi?). First, I wondered if there was a camera gazing at us, in which case I’d be screwed again. But then I caught myself: No looking for cameras. There was no need to do that. It’d just make me look guilty.
"As-salamu ‘alaykum," Khattab said, breaking the awkward silence.
So far, harmless. Lots of people still used the greeting. Thank Allah he didn’t ask Allah for Allah’s blessings and Love on me, or I would have been seriously worried.
"Salam," I replied, getting up to go sit down next to him. "What’re you writing?"
I was taken aback. I loved poetry. It was still popular in our culture, held in high esteem with other art -- it was up there with qirat of the Qur’an and good music. Khattab ripped the page out of his notebook and handed it to me (Without folding it, I realized, because folding would be suspicious). He mumbled: "Read it later."
"I’m shocked," I said, laughing, "You of all people writing poetry!"
"Hey, there’s nothing wrong with art. You know we have a proud history of poetry and literature. We’re a civilization of the pen."
I wanted to ask what he meant by we. Did he mean his ethnic group? Our country in general? Or, did he mean, as I suspected, the Islamic world? I admired his careful wording. If he was an Islamist, I thought, he must be one of the very dangerous ones. Any minute now, a grenade would be lobbed, and destroy me the bystander, Khattab the target and said target’s poetry. I shouldn’t associate with an Islamist, especially one that sits around writing poetry and attends an academy as good as the Academy. What was wrong with me? But something attracted me to him.
He was pretty good-looking, but damn I didn’t mean like that. Plus, my mind was on the verge of exploding, just with the thought of that girl wearing the Calvin Klein jacket.
"You know what’s ridiculous is that the Islamists would censor all this kind of stuff, you know? That’s what I’m so afraid of. I mean, I can understand an attachment to religion. I guess I can even justify to myself why some people have to wear a turban. But damn, giving them political power? Art, poetry, literature... those things which make us, you know, thrive -- that make life worth living -- where would we be without them?"
"Not here," Khattab answered, in a very matter-of-fact way. He stood and walked out of the library. Did he mean not in the library, or was he being political?
I saw him exit to the gardens, and I decided to run after him. I figured I’d rather be blown up in the garden than blown up the next time I’d see him, which knowing my luck would be in the bathroom or some other embarrassing location.
It was windy, and Khattab knew it. His words wouldn’t be heard from far.
"So," I wondered, "Do you agree?"
All he did was look at me as if nothing mattered in the world. "What do you want Hayy?"
"Well, she’s sitting over there."
"Yeah, she’s not bad."
"Khattab," I remarked, raising a mischievous eyebrow, "A comment like that wasn’t expected."
Well good job, Hayy. I’d just revealed to him my suspicions.
"A man is a man," Khattab laughed. "And she’s definitely a woman. You should go for her."
Had he shrugged it off?
Even if he were an Islamist, it wouldn’t make a difference to me. I sincerely believed that, despite all my ideas and dreams, I was some blend leader and some blend desperate and pathetic follower. He was one who didn’t follow. Some people have that. My Calvin Klein potential-girl got up and walked in the other direction. I caught her beautiful eye and followed her out.
"Yeah," Khattab interrupted, now smiling broadly, "You need a woman."
"Not that badly," I defended myself. "I have other concerns."
"Yeah and your eyes just followed them into the building. Chill man, I understand."
I was developing an odd fascination with Khattab. Who the hell was he? What the hell was he? Apparently, my confusion was apparent.
"You’re perplexed, Hayy. It shows on your face. Five minutes ago you rambled on and on about how we need to preserve art, promote literature and all that crap. But honest to God, do you believe that? If you believed it, I wouldn’t see what I see on your face right now. All you want is for me to make sense. You have no idea what your life’s for... maybe, you think, if you knew what mine was for, you’d have a model to compare yourself against."
That was coming on a bit strong considering I barely knew the kid. I wasn’t able to mumble a response fast enough, so he kept at it: "So, now, who’s Khattab? That’s Hayy’s big question. That’s the reason he’s around me, trying to figure me out. Do you even know what you want?"
I smiled, trying to lighten the mood: "You mean other than a girl?"
Inside me, there was anger -- but only at myself. Anger at being too weak to stand up to him and bite back as he’d just bit before.
Khattab must have noticed the contradiction. "I know what you want, and it’s not the girl. That might be part of it, but hey, I want a girl too... what you want is to be noticed. You want us to be noticed."
He hit on something profound, and that pissed me off even more. Despite all these things that pissed me off, it’s important for you to know that I’m generally a happy go-lucky kinda guy.
I asked him to clarify: "You mean I want us to be noticed? Like me and you?"
He looked the other way and waved to a friend. I decided I better not get blown up before he finished psychoanalyzing me.
"You just..." he began, and then he stopped himself, picking his words carefully. His slow pace was bothering me. Answers, answers I wanted... I was low on patience. Mercifully, Khattab continued quickly: "The problem, as I see it, is that we all need to be noticed. You partake in the same tragedy. But it has hit you harder than most. That’s what you want. You want so badly that a girl will notice you. Part of it is immature, without a doubt. But not all of it. I’m trying to say, Hayy, [he became quiet, as if he was clearing his throat] that you’re a rebel without a cause."
By now it was obvious he was definitely some sort of Islamist. But a smart one, which bothered me. If there were smart ones, all hope was lost. Then again, with leaders as great as ours, hope was stillborn.
"You’re like the majority of us. Don’t think it’s foreign or alien, ideologically, but rather, it’s inherent in all of us (1). It’s part of being a human being. We’re egos, just little beings with big impressions of ourselves. That girl you pointed out is very pretty. I would say so myself. I argued with her in class but I have nothing against her. What I’m trying to say is this: you don’t want her... you want her to notice you. You don’t care who she is. The fact that she’s attractive and that she’s got a body only adds to your excitement, because now a pretty, well-endowed girl will pay attention to you, and heaven help us if Hayy isn’t noticed. People like you make me sick, you know that?"
Whoa, someone had some issues.
(Well I did too, but I didn’t take them out on Khattab).
"Chill, man. Is she like your sister or something?"
He burst out laughing. "I realize you think I’m coming off harsh, but this is something you need to hear, because people in our society are starting to do this all the time. We’ve caught this disease that’s already decimating the rest of the world... this plague, this insatiable desire: to be noticed, to be seen, to be heard. But dammit, don’t go after her like you’re going after an ego-massage. Relationships don’t work like that."
He made it sound, as best as he could, as if he were giving me advice on a girl.
"Everywhere, everything, it’s just one thing: Attention. You’re like that guy, and you know who I’m talking about, and he didn’t do what he was asked to because he thought he was better than that. He thought he didn’t have to lower himself. You run after me because you want to be like me and, more importantly, you want to be liked by me. You can’t for the life of you figure out who I am or what I represent. But I get noticed by you, so you want to be like me, so weak people like you will notice the new and improved you. Then you’ll be noticed. Go write a book or something."
Ouch. I bit back -- but by the time I did, I had waited too long. Only bitter anger erupted from my mouth.
"What, so some jerk can censor it?"
Khattab stopped. He realized I was angry, but he realized that I was not trying to gain anything from him. "You’re a smart guy, Hayy. Don’t make me angry."
"Well I think you brought that one on yourself. I don’t appreciate this crap."
"I don’t either," Khattab said. "I’ll be your friend. I won’t be your experiment. Don’t try to figure me out with your little I’m modern and good and better, and he’s different, and why is poor 7th-century him so different and why is he so proud of it?"
He basically spelled Islamist in the oil-rich sand of our backwards country. I was quiet because he was right. Sensing the change in my demeanor, his tone softened. "I’m not trying to bash you into the ground. You’re bright and energetic, and you could do a lot with your life. You don’t go for everything people say."
By ‘people,’ I knew he meant the Great Leader, TM, and his Great Policies, TM, with their forever unrealizable goals (is copying America a goal or a cop-out?). So Khattab was one of them. I knew, in that instant, that he was a Party member. He was no fool. He had found a way to get me to listen to him, so he was sociable. And he wrote poetry. He thought girls were attractive. If I were a little more open-minded, I would have ventured the guess that not only was he a committed Muslim, he was also a human being.
Khattab sat down.
He stared ahead.
I was still confused.
He looked at the parking lot and I realized what he wanted. He wanted to be somewhere more private. His car? Well I suppose it was probably wired to blow up when a good, faithful secularist like me stepped inside, so that I would unwittingly become a martyr for a cause I didn’t believe in. I could just imagine the imams giving their Friday khutbahs, extolling me as one who was sacrificed by the godless government and its barbaric security apparatus.
We drove to an ice cream store.
He smiled and with his eyes, motioned towards the counter. There, at this restaurant in the heavily policed Western quarter of our capital city, was my Calvin Klein girl.
"Go ahead, brother," he urged. "Get noticed."
I put my foot down. Since I was sitting, my foot was already down, making my action go unnoticed. This also made me feel worthless, because I had gone unnoticed with my action. Hmm. I am not separable from my actions, I thought.
"I don’t want to man. Forget her."
"Wow," Khattab exclaimed, genuinely surprised. "Either you’re gay, you don’t believe in yourself or you have potential."
He started the car up again and we went for a pointless drive. Khattab turned on the stereo. It was pseudo-traditional bubblegum pop charged to the speed of Khattab’s car. I didn’t say anything; he had to start this conversation.
"You think this is all about censorship? Like we just sit down and scheme about how to control the world and bring our armies to crush our enemies and have Arabic flags flying in the air?(2) How brainwashed can you be?"
"Actually," I said, "If it didn’t mean being religious, that sounds cool."
Khattab tilted his head towards me and laughed, "Actually, yeah it does. Kind of like some weird Ottoman-Roman Islamic empire with turbans and swords. Sounds exciting."
"Yeah, but that’s not what the future is all about," I said, "If it goes the way it has in other countries [notice how beautiful my allusions were], then we have a fate to revolt ourselves back into the failures of the past."
"Who wants the past?" Khattab asked, suddenly very loud. "Don’t spew this secularist propaganda. You’re smarter than that."
There goes that wall again, falling on me again, and right when I was closer to knowing what he was really like. His last comment hurt and the sting didn’t fade away quickly like it did the other times. He was accusing me of something I was not guilty of. I wasn’t an Islamist, but that didn’t mean I was brainwashed. Many secularists accepted secularism because they had inferiority complexes, but not me. I thought on my own, and I wanted so desperately that my country would think for itself. Khattab too was an independent type, but sadly he used his potential to serve the religion of those Arab conquerors that brought our nation into their religion’s fold.
He commented: "You want us to be noticed, too."
It was almost a question. Did he know what I was thinking?
I answered: "Yeah, I guess so. Our country has potential."
"But," Khattab said, and he had no reason to add more. He changed his tone and moved on. "It’s not censorship we’re after. Remember all the riots in Iran after the Revolution? About twenty years after, I believe... The uprisings nearly destroyed the Revolution, but the Islamic Republic there emerged stronger, more flexible, and more tolerant. The problem was that the ‘ulama didn’t allow criticism of their government. They had a monopoly on interpretation of the faith. So they turned on each other. When they didn’t have a monopoly, but rather others were allowed to criticize them, the Iranians were able to have different factions competing to make society more Islamic."
"But," I interrupted to counter his argument, "Maybe they only changed because they were afraid of the student groups. Iran is much more open, but they still censor things. Like the movies are so clean, you know? They don’t allow anything. The government gets blasted regularly, but in terms of social and cultural issues, there remain a lot of restrictions."
"I know that," Khattab said, "But let’s think about it from an Islamic perspective instead of a secular one. Islam is an orthopractic religion. Islamic law doesn’t care, on the political level, whether you pray. You have to create an environment that is economically equitable, and conducive to spiritual improvement. On the inside, the law deals with personal piety, but that’s not the government’s business. This is why we believe in de-centralization and ask that the government be open to criticism, while ruling only by God’s Law."
"How does that prevent the monopoly?" I asked.
"Simple," Khattab said, sounding dangerously like a Hizb al-Tahrir3 pamphlet. "The government rules by Islamic law. An Islamic court must monitor the Parliament and the government’s laws to make sure they conform to Islam. But the government can be criticized. If they think that others can’t question their actions just because they know more, then they’re being haughty. And scholars don’t have to be in government. They can be writers, architects... anything. We can have scholars outside government, making sure that the government keeps within the boundaries of law. It can’t be arbitrary, ideally, in this way. But the law is, above that, about creating a moral environment to encourage worship of God. It’s not forcing morality. That is personal and individual and another level of the Law."
"You kinda sound like you’re talking about secularism," I suggested.
He shook his head in agreement. "In a way. Except both spheres are equally Islamic. In the Law, there’s a distinction between the spiritual and the regular, day-to-day... So this distinction means there is an Islamic legal code that deals properly with the worldly sphere; we just have to re-apply it in a way that’s appropriate for today. Piety is internal, the law will encourage the Islamic existential ethic... not force it down people’s throats. That’s not the point."
"So what is? Censoring things? Following people around?"
"Look," Khattab muttered, a little bit annoyed by my questions -- I’m sure he had heard them many times before -- "Stop taking things none of us support and pretending like we support them. I don’t want people to follow me around. Why would I want someone else to be followed around? You have to look at this from an Islamic point of view. The religion is obsessed with orthopraxy. When the Revolution occurred in Iran, there was just the first phase, before Khatami and the Muslim populists tried to change things. At first, the ayatollahs began to loosen social restrictions. That would be some freedom, but that would deflect attention away from their monopolization of power."
"And," I added, concluding his train of thought: "You mean then that those ayatollahs were being un-Islamic?"
Khattab smiled. His student had learned something!
"Exactly. Khatami pointed this out. An Islamic government can’t allow all that Westoxicating garbage, nor permit immoral behavior. To allow it in order to make people focus on something else, and thereby pass over their hoarding of power, is un-Islamic. You don’t create a more sinful atmosphere to keep yourself in power."
"Westoxicating?" I asked, still stuck at the beginning of his comments.
"There was an author named Jalal Al-e Ahmed from Iran, in the last century. He wrote about a disease our cultures suffer from... gharbzadagi. Westoxication. Westruckness. Occidentosis. He believed it was part of the failure of our societies."
I nodded, making a mental note to find out more about this guy, who didn’t sound as much religious as he did sociological. He intrigued me. But I wanted Khattab to continue with his analysis.
"Okay, so I was saying... Islamic law has to concern itself with behavior and morality, but there are limits. An Islamic government cannot step on people, dismiss other scholars or prevent criticism. The government had, honest to God, become corrupt. Because it was all about holding to power. An Islamic government has to be pluralistic, within Muslim boundaries. Social concerns aside, because that’s the domain of orthopraxy... but orthodoxy? That’s a theocratic concept, and theocracy is a Western invention. We are going to tell people to obey a social code, yes, and encourage the study of Islam, and..."
He stopped himself, a bit hesitant at where he was going with this. I was fascinated by the discussion. Seeing as our civilization was on the verge of a tectonic shift, I wished we discussed these things more. There was so much, I realized, that I didn’t know. And Khattab was refreshingly reasonable. If he could appeal to someone as picky as me, I was in awe at the true capacity of the Movement.
In the 1990s, in Iran, the government was killing reformists. Many were religious, a few were secular, but at the worst, they were just sinning Muslims. Could they be killed? Even if they were that dangerous to society, they couldn’t be randomly killed, or put on trial without guarantee of a fair trial.
We talked about Khomeini, and I brought up the infamous fatwa against Rushdie.
"Khomeini," I said, "Couldn’t just demand the death of an author just because he dismissed our religion. I mean, okay, treat everyone with respect. I know the West blew it out of bounds with this whole freedom of speech thing because Rushdie was being offensive and I know also the West has a bad image of our Prophet."
I was disturbed by how quickly I said ‘our Prophet’. It was ingrained in me, despite my urge to lessen the influences of the Arab conquest -- which had happened, after all, well over a millennium ago -- I was still calling Islam our religion.
Khattab turned onto a side road. By now it was late at night, and he was driving quickly. The road was shrouded by the night and the bubblegum pop was giving me a headache. Khattab shut it off, and mercifully, it was just me and him and our thoughts, floating through the darkness.
"When Khomeini made that fatwa," Khattab said, his voice suddenly fiery, "he made it to say ‘look, even if nobody loves Muhammad, peace be upon him, I do. I still love him. I will defend his character, no matter what the rest of the world says.’
"And you know," Khattab continued, by now having wrapped me into his words, "That Muhammad, peace be upon him, was a great man. He means a lot to all of us and he still shapes our culture, even though we’re not Arabs and we don’t have to be. Islam is inside us. It’s like a drug, and our ancestors tried it, and it can’t go away (4). Muhammad, God bless him, is the man who symbolizes our values, dreams and hopes, even if we don’t admit that. We are not nationalists. What’s Kuwait? What’s Jordan? Fake colonial creations."
I laughed. "Yeah, Jordan looks pretty stupid. I mean if you look at a map, it looks so out of place. It’s like a wack geometric shape."
Khattab laughed but didn’t allow the mood to lighten any: "We have, as a people, always identified with our faith. And when our faith is attacked, it is we who are being attacked. So when Khomeini said death be to Rushdie and the world’s opinion be damned, he was saying that he loved himself, his country, his faith and his Prophet."
"Yeah, well, he also asked for a person to be killed. That’s Islamic?"
Khattab slowed down a bit. "Forget the death sentence."
"How can I?"
Khattab sped up, and lowered the windows. It was balmy outside. The warm wind felt good. It added to the magic of the night as it howled into the backseats.
"Thousands of Muslims went mad with anger about that bastard’s book," Khattab remarked. "But you know, when they got angry, it was such a reassurance. We were still alive. Rushdie had to die to show we were still alive. And watch when your parents hear the name Khomeini. Like him or not, they respect him. Because all the world was afraid of him... him, a Muslim! How long has it been, that we’ve been kicked around, pushed around, and shot in the streets of Palestine like animals? We get massacred in the Balkans, and no one speaks. We get oppressed in China, and the only answer is silence. Except Khomeini. Khomeini never flinched and we were obsessed with him because he didn’t back down. He died with dignity — that dignity we had and wish we had again."
When Khattab stopped, the silence seemed as oppressive as our government. I demanded he go on: "So why did Khomeini have this dignity? Why wasn’t he afraid?"
He paused for a second. Then he looked directly at me, while driving.
"Nobody," Khattab answered, "ashamed of their past has a future. Khomeini stood up and saw the future connected to him. Not other people he wanted to be like. Just like you want so badly for us to think for ourselves, for our people to move on ahead, for us to be ourselves again -- whatever the hell that means I don’t know -- well, Khomeini stood on his own two feet, with his faith and Iran behind him. And you know what?"
"He was noticed."
Khattab dropped me home.
I didn’t sleep that night.
1. You're wondering... Do people actually talk like that? Well they do (and will) in this story.
2. Well actually, that's what it is half the time. So of course here's my chance to refute much of that -- the refutation being the message of the whole book. Though still, by the very end, despite the maturity, there's still the Arabic flags waving in the air. So perhaps we just read our immaturity in a new direction. Here on the frontier, childishness is part of the glory and beauty of life.
3. Hizb Al-Tahrir is the Party of Liberation, a militant Islamist movement which calls for the creation of a global Islamic Caliphate. The Party of Liberation, however, is guilty of completely un-balancing Islam. They have adopted, in some ways, a Hegelian view of history and a nationalized conception of Islam. They have made Islam into little more than a political vehicle for power, whereas Islam is ideally a spiritual and ethical system which urges its followers to create a just, moral and equitable society. However, keep in mind the purpose of humanity's existence is to worship God. This is, according to God Himself in the Qur'an, the reason why we were created. The goal is not political power, though Hizb al-Tahrir's publications often dangerously blur the line. It may be remarked that the greatest achievement of such militants is bothering other Muslims and over-emphasizing issues of conflict. However, such narrow-minded ideologies will perish of their own accord, and we can already see throughout the world the formation of a more intelligent Islamic discourse.
4. Well if that's not blasphemy, then I don't know what is.