The ignorance of the Islamophobes

Muslim Turkey has the highest proportion of tenured women professors in the world. You didn't know?

Even in the nicest circles, I have encountered a hardening of prejudices against things Islamic in recent months. The worst offenders are often people who would never dream of uttering an anti-Islamic word in public. The new orientalism is a private luxury that comes out with the brandy and cigars.

It begins with a languid question about "these people" and "who they think they are". Is it possible, it is sometimes asked, to see Islamic fundamentalism as a sort of mental illness? If so, what causes it? Is the key to the pathology to be found in early childhood? Or is it to be found in Islam, a religion they know to be inimical to critical thought? It's such a shame, it is remarked. It got off to such a promising start, but what has the Arab world achieved since discovering zero and building the Alhambra?

Postprandial orientalisms are rhetorical devices, on a par with "Wasn't the pudding delicious?" or "Isn't the weather just too dreadful?". When I ruin the fun by taking them seriously, the first response is always a widening of the eyes, and then a search of my features for some hint of an Arab grandmother. But I have no biological excuse.

My anger stems from childhood, which I spent in Istanbul, Beirut and many other parts of the eastern Mediterranean. It also owes something to my western education, in which the golden rule, or so I thought, was to study your subject before drawing any conclusions.

So that's where I begin with my closet Islamophobes. How much do they know? If they say it is a shame that the Islamic world never managed to separate religion from politics, can they name the countries for which this blanket statement is a nonsense?

If they say Islam is a religion that offers nothing to women, is this a conclusion they reached after a thorough reading of the Koran, or did they decide that it was enough to conduct in-depth interviews with women in Turkey, Bosnia, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Indonesia and Pakistan? If Islamic culture oppresses all women, how to explain Benazir Bhutto? What if I told them that Turkey has the highest proportion of tenured women professors in the world? No matter what I ask, I always get the same response. How can I, a feminist, have a kind word to say about people who drape their women in acres of blue cloth and subject them to public beatings?

If I point out that they are talking about Islam as practised by the Taliban, not Islam as it is practised in different ways in other countries, they are soon waving their hands to let me know they've heard enough. They make no distinction between Islamist states and secular states with Islamic populations, between political Islam and Islam the faith. If you so much as suggest that "Muslim lands" have a rich cultural heritage, the stock response is: "Then why don't I know about it?"

There's no winning these arguments, not even with the ones who admit at the very end of the evening that they do know a thing or two about Persian art or Ottoman architecture. They still insist that, on the whole, "their" culture doesn't match up. It's like arguing with a mortar and pestle. It doesn't matter what you say. Their overriding urge is still to throw all of Islamic history and culture into a bowl and pound it into a paste.

The desire to look east and sigh has a long history. It needs no introduction, thanks to Edward Said, whose famous polemic, Orientalism, may have made little impression on your common or garden Islamophobe, but was a book that the intelligentsia took to heart. Orientalism became a thing to monitor and avoid as assiduously as all other forms of racism.

But in my view, this has largely been an editing exercise. The prejudices stay on the cutting-room floor. No one wants to remember the bloopers that might have identified you as a western supremacist. There is no incentive to take a renewed interest in the people you've misread.

And that's the problem. The only time the western media notice "these people" is when they are angry. The only time the media are genuinely concerned is when this anger might damage western interests, when there are oilfields or airfields or pipelines that are in danger of falling into the "wrong hands". Since 11 September, there have been any number of erudite essays and worthy documentaries explaining where this anger comes from. There are, after all, quite a few people who have lived in Asia, Northern Africa and the Middle East who feel the same way I do about the new Islamophobia, and who have jumped at any chance to set people straight. But you can't get very far if the only thing your readers want to know is why "these people" are angry. The only feasible starting point is to go back to the beginning, and ask who "these people" think they are.

Who they think they are, I mean. This is a question I could ask a thousand times a day for the rest of my life and still never know the full answer. Any generalisation I make here is at best an approximation of some people in some countries and a misrepresentation of millions of others. So I'll limit myself to three.

First, it is dangerous to generalise about Islamic doctrine, as there is no agreed body of doctrine in Islam. There is, however, a huge body of interpretation. This leads in turn to a great deal of variation in religious practice. Take, for example, the Alevis, who form a large minority in Turkey. They believe in equality of the sexes and education for all. They do not pray to Mecca and their women do not cover their heads. To make sense of their theology, you have to know their history. The same holds true for the fundamentalist sects we've been hearing so much about - and all the groups between the two extremes. Over the past century, the degree of religious observance has also varied widely. Secularisation and westernisation have led to a weakening of Islamic influence in some places and classes, just as it has led to a religious revival in others. In Turkey, which became a secular republic three-quarters of a century ago, the urbanised westernised middle classes observe religion in much the same way many Britons do - going to church at Christmas and Easter.

Second, the attitude to the west throughout the Islamic world is complex. It tends to be most negative in the countries where westernisation has been imposed by US-supported despots or a corrupt business class, where it is clear that these agents of change are lining their pockets with western money and letting little trickle down to the rest of the population. When there is concern about the erosion of traditional culture, it is, again, very much along the same lines that people here talk about the erosion of our culture by Hollywood, corporate culture or globalisation. Except that in the "east", the erosion is happening faster and the contradictions between tradition and modernity are starker.

In spite of all this, there is a widespread respect for western education, science and technology - not just among moderates, but in some radical Islamic circles, too. Even the twin towers suicide hijackers were not closed to all western ideas. Like so many fundamentalists, they were recruited to the cause while studying in western or westernised universities. They were, in effect, half westernised. It is possible to understand their conversion as a response to the problem that all rapidly westernising Muslims experience: the difficulty of knowing who you are and what you believe in when you are travelling between two cultures and serving two gods.

The third and most important point I'd like to make to Islamophobes everywhere is that fundamentalism is only one response to this moral dilemma. Even among groups promoting political Islam, there are fierce disagreements about education, the law, commerce, technology and the place of women.

This clash of viewpoints, in addition to causing all the political and human tragedies you already know about, has opened up a new era of innovation. Throughout the Islamic world, there are men and women who draw upon both eastern and western thought and tradition, who live and work in both worlds and travel easily between them, and who are quietly transforming the fields in which they work. Why don't we hear more about them? Why do we put Bin Laden in the middle, and push this remarkable generation of writers, thinkers, musicians, artists, architects, educators, environmentalists, feminists, historians, human rights activists and entrepreneurs to the margins? We have so much to learn from them, not just as ignorant observers of the so-called east, but as so-called westerners. It's time we started listening to what they say.

This article appears in the 17 December 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The ignorance of the Islamophobes