Review of Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State by Tarek Fatah
Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State
by Tarek Fatah
Fundamentalism scares me. Like, causes me to despair and lament the future of human civilization scares me. Fundamentalists seem so diametrically opposed to progress, freedom, and education that I fear what will happen if ever they attain a critical mass of power. Fundamentalism is universal in its appeal to the irrationality of our species: it is not just limited to any one religion. We cannot fight it by identifying a religion with its fundamentalist base and rejecting it; we cannot say, "Terrorists who were Muslim destroyed the Twin Towers, therefore Islam is bad." We're more mature and nuanced than that, right?
I sure hope so. And so does Tarek Fatah, because his book, Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State, is an appeal to logic and rationality. "Islam is in danger" extremists chant, and yes, it is—in danger from them.
Chasing a Mirage is divided into three parts. Fatah first uses present claimants to the title "Islamic state" to investigate what this term means. Then he delves into the history of Islam and examines past countries that Islamists want to use a templates for a the Islamic state. Finally, he singles out some particular examples of how the Islamist agenda is furthered in Western countries. Each of these sections alone would be worth reading. Together, they form a compelling argument both fascinating and bleak.
In "Part One: The Illusion" Fatah elaborates on what he means by the term Islamic state. He uses three contemporary countries—Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran—as case studies. These countries both claim to be "Islamic states" in one form or another, and many readers (including myself) associate these countries with Islam. Fatah also looks at Palestine, which he feels is in danger of being hijacked by extremists in an ill-advised attempt to turn it into an Islamic state. In all of these cases, Fatah highlights how attempts to transform Islam into a political system in addition to a religious one have become mired in corruption and human rights abuses. His argument is simple: if these are examples of Islamic states, then he does not want one.
Central to the concept of Islamic state is the supremacy of Islam. Simple enough: there is no god but God (or Allah, if you prefer), and we worship him based on the revelations in the Quran given to us by the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. In an Islamic state, Islam is more than just a state religion. Rather, the entire political and judicial systems are codified according to Islamic practices and principles. Or at least, that is the theory. As Fatah demonstrates in Part 2, there aren't really Islamic principles for politics. However, I am getting ahead of myself.
In their zeal to spread Islam, proponents of the Islamic state lose sight of the little things in life, like, say, human rights. Societies like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have institutionalized a form of hierarchical racism in which Arab Muslims are at the top and non-Arab Muslims are treated like second-class citizens, often as poorly as non-Muslims. At times, this has resulted in genocidal or near-genocidal atrocities, both against non-Muslims and even other Muslims. Fatah spares us no detail as he recounts Pakistan's bloody history. That such actions are committed in the name of Islam is a travesty, for what does it say of one's religion if it condones such violence and abuses? Where in the Quran does it say, "Arabs number 1! Arabs number 1!"?
The fact of the matter, as Fatah explains it, is that the Quran contains no outline for the "Islamic state" that Islamists want. Indeed, apparently even the Islamists don't have a consistent idea of what "Islamic state" means across the board: "Among Pakistan's imams and Islamic scholars, no two agreed on the fundamental definition of either an 'Islamic State' or a 'Muslim.'" This last tactic is all too common:
… the only beneficiaries of the Islamic State were the tyrants who ruled Muslim populations and who were able to silence opposition by getting the Ulema [religious scholars:] to declare that opposition to their government was opposition to Islam.
If someone opposes you, obviously he or she is an apostate. Conveniently, Islamists believe the punishment for apostasy is death. As a result of such an extremist view, Islam has been hijacked.
As horrible as the human rights abuses perpetrated in the name of Islam are, I am even more troubled by this subversion and rejection of democracy. Democracy is a delicate flower that is beautiful when it flourishes but wilts all too easily. Once in decline, it is very difficult to restore. Islamists have often come to power through democratic means, but once in power they turn democracy into a sham, if they bother keeping it around at all. Iran is an example of this subversion of democracy: although their president is nominally elected by the people, elections in Iran are anything but free of intimidation. Worse, the policy implemented by the ayatollahs of Iran "virtually guarantees that no matter what the people of Iran want, they will not be able to dislodge the Islamic theocracy by democratic means." Instead, Fatah notes, "Not all ayatollahs in Iran agree with the current leadership.… It is quite likely that the changes the Iranian people desire in their country may come from within the religious establishment." Despite having just spent an entire chapter discussing the problems with Iran, Fatah remains optimistic about its potential for recovery:
… as long as even a handful of such Iranian clerics speak their mind, and as long as Iranian women rebel against the oppressive misogyny of the mullahs, there is hope for the Iranian revolution to reach its intended potential, a secular democracy where Iran can again play the historic role it once did. A free and democratic Iran where ayatollahs become the people's moral compass, not their executioners, would trigger a renaissance in the rest of the Muslim world.
Eloquently put, and right too. I am no fan of Iran. However, in opposing the ayatollahs it behoves one not to demonize them like they have done with the West. This only engenders more hatred and mistrust, and that is something we can ill afford.
Having looked at present-day Islamic states and found them wanting, Fatah decides to look to history for examples of an Islamic state worth emulating. He does this not on a whim but because Islamists often speak of a "golden age" of Islam. So Fatah looks at the period following the death of the Prophet, where Muslims were ruled by the four "Rightly Guided Caliphs." Then he looks at three other examples of empires nominally based on Islamic principles. The result is pretty much what one would expect, especially after reading Part 1. In all cases, these politicians use and abuse Islam to gain power and stay in power. Some of these empires achieved both zeniths and nadirs of civilization. There is no evidence, however, that any of these states witnessed a "golden age." And sometimes it seemed like living as a Muslim, especially a non-Arab Muslim, in an Islamic state sucks pretty bad. And if an Islamic state is a place where not even Muslims want to live … well, who exactly wants it?
"Part Two: The Genesis" is my least favourite section of Chasing a Mirage. It is long, almost too long, and at times it becomes mired in details as Fatah enthusiastically accounts for every name and place and factor involved in the current episode. That being said, there is nothing in this section that feels superfluous. I could not suggest removing anything just to make it shorter, and I cannot fault it for being comprehensive. All I can say is that you will probably want to take this section slowly. Read it a chapter at a time while relaxing with another book.
The final section of the book, "Part Three: The Consequences," is a nice little reward to those who persevered through Part 2. Fatah devotes a chapter each to sharia law, jihad, and the wearing of the hijab, ultimately concluding that each of these phenomena are part of the Islamist agenda in the West. This is where Fatah gets the most opinionated and the most personal, since as a founding member of the Muslim Canadian Congress he was often involved in these issues. On a somewhat nationalistic note, I also want to add that I appreciate how when Fatah says, "this country" he means Canada, not the United States. Obviously I need to read more books about Canadian politics.
Part 3 reminds me of Multiculturalism without Culture, by Anne Phillips. Like Philips, Fatah is concerned that simplistic ideas of unified cultures are being used against us: "In Ottawa, the lobbying by Islamist groups is relentless, putting politicians of all stripes on the defensive as they fear they might be labelled racist or Islamophobic if they criticize Islamists." Islam, like every other religion, is not monolithic. Muslim culture, like every other culture, is not monolithic. It behoves us to understand this and reject the attitudes of Islamists, who eagerly label as apostates any Muslim who disagrees with them.
I was pleased to see that, in addition to rejecting the Islamist requirement that women wear the hijab, Fatah supports a woman's right to wear the hijab if she chooses. From his vitriolic rejection of the former I feared a rejection of the latter as well. Fortunately, Fatah remains consistently pro-choice, which is how I see the matter: in both cases, the government removes freedom of choice. It is not enough to protest against bans of the hijab or the burka; one must also protest against the requirement to wear such coverings. It boggles my mind that some people would indoctrinate their daughters to believe that, if they don't cover their hair, some man will rape them and get them pregnant (for one thing, what does that say about men?!). It boggles my mind that otherwise progressive Muslims will, with a straight-face, parrot the hypocrisy of Islamists who denounce terrorism while calling for jihad. If Muslims and non-Muslims alike want to rehabilitate the image of Islam in the West, we must restore it to the tenets of gender equality preached in the Quran and ignore those voices who call for the submission of women and the demonization of the Other. We must strive to better educate ourselves about these issues, lest in our ignorance we fall prey fundamentalists and extremists, from whatever religion or creed they hail.
Multiculturalism does not mean "separate rules for separate cultures." It is am embrace of every culture, a commitment to preserve freedom of choice. I don't care if you worship Yaweh, Allah, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or even if you don't worship a god at all: treat me like a human being, and I will treat you like a human being. Because that's what matters. And as an added bonus, I promise that even if you don't wear a hijab, I will somehow manage to refrain from stoning you on suspicion of adultery.
Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State is an eye-opening look at the political history of Islam. Tarek Fatah reaffirms Islam as a peaceful, progressive religion and condemns those extremists who would reshape it into something otherwise. Fatah's rejection of the Islamic state is threefold: firstly, Islamists' claim that "Islam is in danger" without an Islamic state is false; secondly, the so-called Islamic states of the past to which Islamists point as "golden age" templates are anything but golden; finally, this struggle to achieve an Islamic state damages what Fatah labels the "state of Islam" that he believes is core to Muslim identity. Furthermore, Fatah does not do what frustrates me about so much of political non-fiction today; he does not say, "this book is merely an attempt to make you aware of the problems" in order to avoid proposing solutions. Chasing a Mirage is full of solutions, alternatives, and hope. This is without a doubt one of the best books I've read all year—and I've been having a pretty good year for reading, so I don't say this lightly. Oh, and the "manufacturer's warranty" included at the end is hilarious.