Anguish Amid Racism and the Drumbeats of War

M. Shahid Alam. Is There an Islamic Problem? Essays on Islamicate Societies, the US and Israel
(Kuala Lumpur: The Other Press, 2004) pp. 223 pbk.

Dr. M. Shahid Alam has already distinguished himself as an economist of some accomplishment and standing. He has published many articles in scholarly journals employing the specialized vocabulary and techniques of analysis appropriate to his discipline. He has also written books that illustrate his concern with the larger issues of poverty and inequality in the world. In the process of developing his professional credentials, he has simultaneously nurtured a secondary calling as a poet, translator, commentator and essayist on themes that have relatively little to do with economics, but everything to do with his own identity, background, commitments and faith. This book collects some of his more recent essays on Islam and the “West.” The common theme that holds the book together is his argument that some essentialist constructions of the people and religion of Islam popular in the “West” are not only grossly distorted, but also politically tendentious.

Alam is not the only Muslim intellectual who has bristled at the unfair treatment of Muslims in the mainstream American media. But he is certainly one of very few who has challenged the dominant academic orthodoxy in terms of its frameworks, analyses and judgments regarding issues relating to the Islamic world. He has tried, as it were, to problematize the master narrative and has struggled gamely against the “received” wisdom peddled by a few academics that is embraced, indeed trumpeted, in a most uncritical and egregious fashion by the popular press. His deconstruction of the ideas of Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis is a case in point, and provides two of the most substantive and insightful essays in his book.

Huntington (Political Science, Harvard) and Lewis (History, Princeton) have an almost iconic presence in the American intellectual establishment. Their books are taught widely in universities, their counsel sought eagerly by the rich and powerful. However, as Alam points out, their current fame rests on scholarship that is of rather dubious merit. Huntington employs sloppy semantics (leaving crucial terms such as “civilization” in convenient ambiguity, which allows him to use it in arbitrary ways); faulty logic (how can civilizational conflict be at the root of hate and violence in the modern world if, in the last century, the vast majority of casualties of war were Europeans killed by other Europeans?); suspect evidence (providing anecdotal and casual proof, rather than statistical and specific data, to contend that Islam’s “bloody borders” indicate its propensity for violence); and overly simplistic categories (claiming that the horrific tragedy of 9/11 was an assault on the “West” rather than an attack on American power, policies and prejudices, or indicating that “Otherness,” historically determined and unchanging, is sufficient explanation for fear, bigotry and war).

While Huntington is trying to present a meta-theory about the “clash of civilizations” and hence may have been vulnerable to the excesses of grand and sweeping generalizations, Lewis cannot claim any such excuses. After all, he is an “expert” writing on a subject to which he has been a prolific contributor. Alam is particularly harsh with his book “What Went Wrong”, and rightly so. He exposes Lewis’ a-historical and non-comparative approach. Thus, when Lewis seeks to blame the “cultural values” of Islam as expressed by the Muslims (their singular lack of curiosity, their treatment of women, their conflation of church and state, their intolerance of others, their undemocratic instincts, etc.) to explain their relative decline during the dawn of the industrial/capitalist world, he completely overlooks the matrix of economic, political, social, military and strategic forces which propelled one set of countries to prevail over others. Moreover, if such indeed were the characteristics that defined Islamic societies, how would he explain the artistic achievements, the economic progress, the inclusive, efficient and humane structures and policies demonstrated at various times by the Ottomans, the Mughals, the Safavids, and other Islamic Empires? Did their “cultural values” suddenly change between the 17th and 19th centuries, which facilitated the rise of the “West”? Finally, there are innumerable inconsistencies of fact and analyses that Alam skewers with wit and wisdom. Lewis emerges from Alam’s withering examination as a rather lazy historian – limited, condescending and mischievous.

Alam is quick, and correct, to point out that these, and some other, scholars become complicit in the “orientalist project,” and help buttress the framework of attitudes and policies pursued by American administrations. Therefore, the gradual de-valuation of Muslims becomes, to him, a necessary pre-condition to the formulation of aggressive policies against parts of the Islamic world, and to protect the sacrosanct status of Israel. All scholarship is probably “political,” and obviously Alam’s writings are no exception. But at least he is more honest.

Alam is angriest at the seeming indifference in the “West” to the plight of the Palestinians, their dispossession, demonization and daily humiliation. He is passionate about exposing the injustices imposed on them by the Israelis, and American support for such policies. This does not mean that he is unaware of, or unsympathetic to, the suffering of the Jewish people, nor does he endorse the bigotry and violence directed against them. It only means that he looks at the disproportionate sacrifices that the Palestinians have to make, and the unrealistic demands made on them (e.g., they must stop all violence before any peace talks can take place, without addressing the conditions that generate violence in the first place), while the Israelis can engage in acts of cruelty without being condemned for it, and create new “facts on the ground” that rearrange the negotiating parameters on a routine basis. He argues that the exclusive appropriation of “victimhood” on the part of the Israelis has, almost automatically, served to de-legitimize the status of the Palestinians, and deprives the latter of any moral claims and authority.

But he is saddest at the vilification of the Muslims after 9/11. There is no doubt that 9/11 was an act of wanton brutality, unprecedented and barbaric, and it was entirely expected that it that would generate enormous shock, grief and anger in the American public. Part of that complex mix of emotions was directed, unfortunately, against many innocent Muslims. He recounts his own experiences, and of many Muslims, following that tragedy and gives vent to his frustrations at constantly having to explain himself, prove his belongingness, and defend his faith often against crude charges rudely expressed. The drumbeat toward war based on, what he considered to be, rather flimsy and deceptive excuses, compounded his anguish. Alam writes hauntingly about his loneliness, alienation, and the intimidation he faced from his critics, and laments the fact that even in “the land of the free,” taking unpopular positions has costs.

As is true for almost any collection of essays, this too has its flaws. There is a tendency to be repetitive, the essays are of uneven quality (reflecting perhaps the different audiences and contexts that inspired them), and some rhetorical flourishes can be uncomfortable. One may be led to assume that because he is emotionally invested in his subjects, and because we live in a Manichean world, his passionate defense of one side in a conflict necessarily means his total denigration of the other. I am convinced, indeed I know, that it is not true. (At this point, in the interest of full disclosure I must confess that I have known Alam for a long time, and I have also been cited in his book). But, my humble suggestion would be for him to make the effort to articulate his moral imperatives with more sensitivity, and demonstrate his humanistic compulsions with greater clarity. Admittedly, this is usually not a courtesy extended by the other side, but it will, nonetheless, help his cause. Incidentally, I am not sure why he would resurrect Hodgson’s terminology on Islamicate societies, or why the cover of the book could not be less jarring.

Alam is an engaged academic, a public intellectual commenting on contemporary issues. Whether he focuses on US foreign policy, global capitalism, conflicts in the Middle East, the plight of the diasporic Muslims, or the partisanship of the American media, he presents his perspective with the zest of a feisty polemicist ­ intense, direct, and defiant. One need not necessarily agree with everything he says, and it is easy to see that some will not. But one cannot fail to be impressed by his candor and courage, his fierce moral indignation, his provocative style, and his intimate familiarity with the traditions and scholarship both of Islam and the “West.” In spite of its controversial positions, and perhaps because of them, this book should be read by thoughtful people who care about some balance in the current discourse about the Islamic world, and by those who are concerned about the turmoil and confusions of this age.

AHRAR AHMAD is Professor of Political Science at Black Hills State University, Spearfish, South Dakota.

Ahrar Ahmad is Professor Emeritus, Black Hills State University, USA, and Director-General at Gyantapas Abdur Razzaq Foundation, Dhaka. Email: