Volume 9 Number 4
Looking Beyond the Stereotypes
01 August 1996
'Islam and the Myth of Confrontation - religion and politics in the Middle East' by Fred Halliday, IB Tauris £12.95
The next 'clash of civilizations', it is often claimed, will come between Islam and the West. In this refreshing book, Halliday challenges the social scientists who have tended to strengthen the myths of confrontation. They have regarded the Middle East as a region defying all universal concepts and values because of the overwhelming influence of Islam on political and social life. In this, they are fortified by the rhetoric of Muslim militants. Halliday refuses to embrace the type of relativism that regards Muslims as a law unto themselves. He tries to explain such crucial events as the Iranian revolut ion and the Gulf War with the help of universal concepts.
The stirring of the Iranian masses in the late 1970s takes on a flavour not unlike those in East Germany a decade later. And Khomeini's fanatical, ruthless image is supplemented by the image many Ir anians saw of incorruptibility and austere integrity. At the same time, Halliday lashes out against those who claim that human rights abuses in Iran cannot be condemned because of the cultural differences.
One of his most fascinating chapters is on human rights and the Islamic Middle East. Islamic states criticize the West for employing double standards and using human rights selectively as a political tool. So, partly in reaction to this and partly because of their contempt for the permissive society they perceive in the West, Islamic states have proposed their own set of human rights in accordance with their interpretation of the Qur'an and the Shari'ah.
Halliday confronts both sides. The West must earn its moral authority by living out its highest beliefs and being sensitive to Islamic beliefs. But the Islamic states must be ready to acknowledge the possibility that their interpretation of the Qur' an may not be the divine one, and accept the validity of non-Qur'anic wisdom.
Yet Halliday fails to draw out the deeper controversies surrounding human rights. While they have been a vital tool in protecting people, they have also cultivated a culture of demand, blame and victimhood. We in the West are so imbued with our sense of rights, that we often fail to re cognize the responsibilities that go with them. One's behaviour, after all, may have triggered the infringement of one's rights. Isn' t this negative culture a result of the very secularism that Halliday glorifies and that clashes profoundly with the God-centredness of true Muslims? Would not the Islamic notions of submission to God, while at the same time being God' s vice-regent on earth, balance out the humanist emphasis on rights?
A theme that underlies much of the book is the need not to confuse the origin of ideas with their validity. For all the West' s vices, Halliday points out, one cannot claim democracy, science or human rights to be invalid ideas because they were developed here. Equally, just because Khomeini's followers had been denied their authe ntic voice by the Shah and the West, their views of the West are not necessarily valid.
At a time when it is fashionable to deny that objective truth exists, it is refreshing to read Halliday' s defence of its validity. Social science, he argues, has a mission to further our understanding of truth. It is vital not to give up our belief in it simply because we have not yet wholly found it. This is especially important if we are to cooperate more closely with our Islamic brethren.