Disneyland Islam

Omar al-Qattan
17 October 2001

Since 11 September 2001, there has been much talk of a gulf of misunderstanding between the “west” and the “Islamic” or “Arab” world. Coming from an Arab-Muslim family myself, but living in Britain for the past twenty-six years, these are very puzzling notions.

If there is indeed a gulf, where do I, and the millions who share my cross-cultural experience, fit into this so-called “clash of civilisations”? Do we need to take sides, as in some sort of police identification parade, where we are required to point out the suspect culture to which we belong? Or is this ‘gulf’ a dangerous simplification of a complex reality?

A strange (and modern) concoction

I am convinced that it is the latter. The concepts of the “west”, “Islam” and the “Arab world” are very vague and all-encompassing, so much so in fact as to be almost meaningless. The contemporary world is a complex and profoundly intertwined one where such clear-cut notions just do not stand up to scrutiny. And to line up these notions as in an imaginary battle is even more ludicrous. Wars and conflicts take place between states or political groups with competing strategies and priorities, but are these cultural wars? Are they wars between civilisations, or even conflicts between religions? Most modern examples teach us the contrary: the war in the middle east is surely not about Islam and Judaism, but about an illegal military occupation of another people; Kosovo the case of a central government that refused to recognise the rights of some of its citizens to self-determination, and not a Christian-Muslim conflict.

Nonetheless, cultures, including their religious expressions, are marshalled in all conflicts - to justify violence, inveigh against the enemy, rouse a populace. Contemporary “fundamentalist” Islam - particularly the Wahhabi variety embraced by Osama bin Laden, his Taliban patrons, and his ex-patrons, the Saudi regime - is an interesting case in point. I would go as far as to say that this strange concoction, as manifested today, is almost entirely a modern invention; and that its development has specific roots in the cold war and the strategic decision the US and its European allies took to fight the spread of communism and other nationalist political movements which threatened their interests, particularly their control of the oil market.

Paradoxically, this has resulted in the crushing of many local cultural identities, including the secular Arab one. As a result, the Arab countries today are dominated by a profoundly contradictory culture - one that I would call Disneyland Islam.

The longing for purity

The most salient characteristics of this “culture” are on the one hand its love-hate relationship with America and western Europe, and on the other, its profound fragility and insecurity. With regard to the latter problem, people in all cultures need a sense of authenticity, of genuinely belonging to the cultures where they feel most confident and live with some certainties about their identity; but in the modern world (and probably at all other times) cultures just don’t work in this insular way.

The various Islamic “fundamentalist” movements that have emerged in the past century in the middle east have all, to some degree, sought a cultural paradigm modelled on the past or their understanding of it. In this process, they follow a way of life, including social and religious laws, that resembles in some form or the other the ideal(ised) state of affairs of the first years of Islam (sadrul islam, the heart of Islam, is the term used to describe this period). There is constantly a search for purity - the “real” Islam - and whenever an aberration is committed in the name of this search, people decry it as un-Islamic, as being not the real thing.

Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaida network, as much as the Taliban regime, reproduce this process to an extreme. Hence the term “Disneyland Islam”, where kitsch is the predominant mode. Thus Mohammed’s Cave at Hira, where he received the first revelations, is echoed by the image of bin Laden emerging from another cave; the dress-code, the archaic language, the strange sexual politics where bin Laden marries his son to his companion’s teenage daughter - all these vulgarities are supposed to evoke a primordial state of “true”, “real” Islam.

But to many Muslims, I am certain, these are but theatrical postures reminiscent one of a visit to a historical exhibition in Disneyland (take a trip back in time through real Islam-land). A living culture just doesn’t need to assert that it is real all the time. The problem is that bin Laden, like many of his followers, simply doesn’t like his living culture, the mixed, chaotic one that characterises most people’s lives in the 21st century.

Tangled up in the red, white and blue

It tends to be forgotten that bin Laden had some sort of an American education, as did almost all of the suspects in the bombings of 11 September. Those who have lived in Arab countries will also know that the cultural identities of its elites - the educated middle and upper classes - are dominated by US culture, to such an extent that many young men and women can only fully express themselves in (an often ungrammatical) American English and have never received proper training in their own native Arabic. Yet they persist in calling themselves Arabs and Muslims.

Indeed, a quick semantic analysis of the horror of the World Trade Center also shows the extent to which the perpetrators’ “culture” is entangled with that of the United States: quite apart from the borrowed flying technologies, the person who conceived the plan had undoubtedly watched hours of Hollywood fare, where there are almost no limits to the violence of the imagination, and a boundless sense of physical possibility, as in the virtual world of video-games and films such as Independence Day. But these so-called American ideas were used in the name of so-called Islam. So was the bombing Islamic or western? The notion is of course ridiculous.

In the Arab world itself, it is common to hear many American-educated people rail at ‘western’ bias against ‘Islam’ (usually in English, with an American twang, even when the listener is an Arabic speaker) - but these same people will in all likelihood persist in watching and admiring CNN, travelling to America and enjoying its pleasures wishing, I am sure, to be American - without realising the contradiction.

My argument is that these contradictions are at the heart of modern Islamic and Arab culture, and that the best way of answering the perceived bias against Muslims or Arabs is not to blame CNN for misreading ‘real Islam’, but to fight for the right of Arabs, Muslims and other oppressed peoples to have their own independent networks, their own freedom of expression, their own democratically elected governments. By these means, they would be able to reproduce their culture - the modern, living one with all its rich contradictions, not the archaic, one-dimensional and ahistoric pseudo-culture of the Wahhabi school-books and fundamentalist political manuals.

A by-product of the modern migration of cultures is also the equally interesting phenomenon of the American Muslim. For the last year or so, I have been working on a two-hour documentary for PBS, the American public television network, on the life of the Prophet Mohammed, due to be shown in early 2002. I was at first amused by the anachronisms of the notion of an American Muslim culture, and found it difficult to accept. I cherish my own background as a secular, open and ancient one with a mixed and very rich - and not only Islamic - religious inheritance. After years suffering the horrors of obscurantism in the Arab world, the prospect of more of the same in America was worrying.

But I slowly realised that, just as I have always found the notion of the “real” Islam inadequate, so I must accept the inevitability of the appropriation, by my American colleagues, of the story of Muhammad, however strange the result, and to offer, along side it, other expressions of that same story.

A common ethical language

This is precisely what Wahhabi Islam and other retrograde ideologies, both religious and secular, refuse to do. They opt for entrenchment and war, yet their violence only hides their real failures: to accept their diverse, contradictory and porous identities and reinvent themselves, instead of drawing the battle lines against an imagined enemy with whom they have much more in common than they will admit.

Muslims today should remember the inclusive, tolerant and outward-looking nature of the Prophet’s message. One of Mohammed’s greatest insights was to recognise the need to open the Arabian Peninsula of the 7th century to the rest of the world and to encourage his fellow tribesmen to emigrate. These followers mingled with the Orthodox Christian culture of Byzantium and the Pagan, Jewish and Christian cultures of Persia and southern Arabia, but did not destroy them, even when the newcomers were met with resistance.

The Prophet’s insight should, I believe, lead to a recognition of two key elements which many, on both sides of the current military conflict, are forgetting. First, despite our (real or imagined) cultural differences, we must formulate a common ethical language to combat the dangers that threaten us all - economic inequality, imperial arrogance, the absence of freedom, the paucity of ideas, political and military oppression. To declare war on Islam, or “terrorism” or the west, as if these were constants that can easily be identified, is to obscure the real, concrete grievances in the world rather than try to resolve them.

Second, we must understand that cultures are never the source of military conflicts but are cynically exploited to justify them. In that sense, those who speak of a war between “Islam” and the “West” simply betray their intellectual bankruptcy. Unable, or unwilling, to address their real grievances, they declare war on ghosts and cease to recognise the humanity of their innocent victims. We do the same if we choose to think of the world in their Manichean way.

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