Wednesday, January 16, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: Diversity the destination for journey into Islam

On The Road To Kandahar: Travels Through Conflict In The Islamic World
by Jason Burke


It is one thing to be a cultural warrior, to speak boldly about an allegedly monolithic enemy and to instil in readers fear of people they (and, indeed, the author) have never met.

It's another to actually visit this enemy on their home turf and discover that, deep down we all really share the same dreams and hopes and aspirations. And to discover that your enemy isn't a monolith after all but is really a reflection of the complexities of your own society.

In other words, to discover that we don't have to be enemies after all.

Jason Burke, chief reporter for the British newspaper The Observer, falls well into the latter category. His most recent book, On the Road to Kandahar: Travels through Conflict in the Islamic World, is one people of all faiths (including, or rather, especially Muslims) can learn much from.

This is Burke's second book on the politics of the nominally Muslim world. It follows on well from his first, which tells the story of radical Islam as being more than just a single group labelled by pundits and politicians as al-Qaeda.

What makes his second book so important is that his focus is not just on political and religious leaders in war zones. He isn't content to fly in for a day or two to Baghdad or Southern Thailand, arrange a few appointments, chase after stringers and repeat the usual analyses. He doesn't just want to tell us what we want to hear or our supposed enemies want us to hear.

Instead, Burke insists on spending (pardon the cliche) quality time with a broad range of people.

Classical Islamic scholars teach that Islam cannot be learned just from books. Rather, one needs to engage in sohbet, to spend time in the environment of those who know and practise Islam and to absorb Islam through a kind of spiritual osmosis.

Burke insists on learning about Muslims through a similar process. So, when visiting Iraq during the time of Saddam, Burke doesn't talk just to whomsoever Saddam's Information Ministry allows him to. He keenly observes and patiently absorbs the general environment, letting the words and behaviour of even the most ''menial'' people (including an 11-year-old-child named Bilawal at a primary school) give readers some idea of the broader environment in which he reports.

Notwithstanding the somewhat left-of-centre reputation of his newspaper, Burke is not stereotypically critical of the role of the United States in Muslim countries. He doesn't, for instance, buy the argument that the Americans were only in Iraq to protect their oil interests. He also recognises the enormous risks taken by well- meaning soldiers and civilians from coalition forces in Iraq, many of whom want to make a real difference to the lives of ordinary Iraqis.

Burke uses the Algerian experience to show why Islamists can gain support at a grassroots level when existing secular administrations are too short-sighted and corrupt. Here he discovers the importance of

... the middle ground, the mass of moderate opinion, the huge weight of the population who just wanted a decent life for themselves and their friends and family.

That middle ground can exist in any country, Muslim or otherwise.

After all his time in various zones of conflict in the nominally Islamic world, Burke realises the enormous variety of Islams (as opposed to a single Islam) that exists. This is a lesson anyone who has travelled and spent time in more than one Muslim-majority state will take for granted. It is also a lesson that self-serving Muslim spokespersons in Western countries should learn.

Surely the easiest way to demonise a group is to portray them in a monolithic fashion. Muslim leaders in Australia who pretend, in their own communal and political interests, that there is just one Muslim community (which they conveniently represent) are not only doing Muslims a disservice. Their claims reflect either complete ignorance or total dishonesty.

Burke concludes with some reflections on the London bombings, to whose victims he dedicates his book.

And if the London bombings had taught me anything it was that to gather people together, whether hundreds of millions of people across huge swathes of the planet or fifty people in a tube carriage, and demarcate and label them and designate them simply as one thing or another, as enemies or friends, as Westerner or Eastern, as Muslims or non-Muslims, as believers or non-believers, is something no one should ever do.

In short, the things that divide us within communities are, in truth, the things that truly unite us as human beings.

Irfan Yusuf is associate editor of and winner of the 2007 Allen & Unwin Iremonger award for writing on public issues. This review was first published in The Canberra Times on Saturday 12 January 2006

© Irfan Yusuf 2008

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