ENOUGH Islamophobia! It’s exactly what the extremist jihadis of Daesh want to generate in us. They want to destroy what they call the “grey zone” between Islam and “the West” – that pluralist space in which the faithful and the secular can accept their differences, and find their commonalities, as a working society.
It should be enough just to think for a moment of those professing Muslims among our own friends and networks to quell any fear or worry. But reflecting on the aftermath of the Paris attacks, I realised that I’ve been trying to engage with Islam for many years.
Intellectually, ever since the Rushdie affair (I interviewed Rushdie twice for BBC Radio Scotland, at the peak of the fatwa against him). This brought me into the orbit of major Muslim intellectuals (and now friends) like Ziauddin Sardar.
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Zia, the editor of Critical Muslim, is a proponent of ijtihad – by which he means “reasoned and sustained struggle for innovation, positive change and uplifting progress”.
Romantically, in a certain way, as my life-partner Indra Adnan is 50 per cent from Indonesia, the largest Muslim county in the world. She herself was born Catholic, then turned Buddhist. Well, that’s another story.
But also, in recent years, geographically. The best way to unravel the scary “other” of “Muslim societies” is to go and visit some that seem to function well. What is “Islamic”, and what is a “state”, can conjoin together in ways that invoke the opposite of horror and revulsion – or intelligent curiosity, at least.
Firstly, in 2010, I was brought to Istanbul as the Scottish representative for the European Writers’ Parliament. The entrance to the city is startling – box-houses encrusting the hills like coral, with a huge floodlit mosque at the top of each one.
The street life in the city centre felt European. Women moved around in styles of dress you’d see on the streets of Glasgow or London. Hipsters and business people and traders whizzed around on public transport systems, with a familiar big-city stress on their faces.
The event itself, being a convocation of writers, was aiming to cause trouble. The UK novelist Hari Kunzru made an opening speech condemning the Turkish Penal Code 301, which says that whoever “publicly denigrates the Turkish Nation” can be imprisoned for up to two years.
The most high-profile offender is the Nobel-Prize winning Orhan Pamuk, who dared to mention the Ottoman Empire’s historical role in genocide in the First World War. But Turkish leftists like Murat Belge spoke volubly against it at my 2010 event. And in the conversations around the tables, the space between the secular-nationalist foundations of Turkey, and the Islamic daily culture of its people, felt tense but healthy.
Since then, the government led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan (whose party, the AKP, combines conservative elements both from Islamic groups and the business community) has become more authoritarian on a number of fronts. They violently suppressed civic protests in Gezi Park in 2013, and this year have banned access to Twitter and YouTube, as well as deported foreign journalists.
I can’t imagine the fiercely intelligent and committed Turkish writers I met taking this lying down. Yet I also want to hold onto the memory of entering the calm beauty of the 17th century Sultan Ahmet Mosque, or “Blue Mosque” – easily invited to move through the building, as other Muslims made their observances, exulting in its geometric splendour. As the dark tides of Islamophobia start to pull, you want a place like Istanbul to maintain its poise between Islam and the secular world.
Secondly, we did a family tour of Morocco in 2013 – taking us from Marrakech, through the Atlas Mountains, out to the beach town of Essaouira, and back again. We went at the peak of Ramadan, so until around the early evening all our hosts were evidently struggling with their hunger and thirst. But their evident care and grace towards us was striking and moving.
To travel through Morocco is to occupy deserts as blasted as any you could imagine – which are then brutally interspersed with vast melon farms, or new towns at various stages of construction.
Yet it’s the city and town life which is most startling. Trying to find your residence as you wend your way through the dark, overhanging alleyways of Marrakech is like a living experience of medieval city life. Yet when you enter into your riad, the space is surpassingly elegant – light streaming down into the central courtyard, fountains in water pools sprinkling, and the endless geometrics of Islamic design.
Of course, we had a tourists’ take on a complex society. But like Istanbul, the experience put the country on my mental map. I had read the works of Tahir Shah, the son of the Sufi sage Idries Shah, all the way through the trip – they’re highly recommended.
But the relaxed, super-sociable scenarios of Tahir’s books – where friends and favours are showered on bemused Westerners coming to stay in Morocco, because it is unnatural to imagine that they would have none – chimed very much with my experience in the country. Finally, this March, I was invited to attend a conference in Dubai by a American friend Noah Raford, who works for the United Arab Emirates’ Prime Minister’s Office as an adviser and futurologist.
Dubai, the Emirates and the Gulf states in general are a small part of my family history. Some of my uncles and their wives went over to various locations as foremen and civil engineers, in the construction booms of the and 80s and 90s.
They came back with their loot, but were otherwise tight-lipped about their lives there. I wanted to see what they’d helped to build, and to get another experience of a mainstream Islamic society.
The buildings of Dubai exhaust the superlatives. The drive-in from the airport is a like a slow-pan across a science fiction landscape, with the Burj Khalifa – the world’s tallest skyscraper – a neck-stretching impossibility made real.
I had read enough human rights reports on the near-enslaved labour conditions of the emigrant workers who had built Dubai’s megalopolis to have the futurist shimmer taken off. As for the experience of the event itself, it was an odd mixture of the far-seeing and the tradition-drenched.
White-robed male and black-robed female “Emiratis” – meaning native-born, but only 15 per cent of the total population of the country – moved confidently (and equally) around the sessions. They included the UN President Ban Ki-Moon, the Scottish Government’s economic advisor Mariana Mazzucato, and the founder of Wired magazine, Kevin Kelly, among others.
Noah had set up a stylish exhibition titled The Future of Government Services. It showed a projected UAE using every possible technological means of consulting the opinions of citizens – short of actual plebiscitary democracy. That’s the standard Western critique - and it would be easy to brush off the event as one monarchical elite happily entertaining other secular elites.
However, I was affected by Queen Rania of Jordan’s impassioned speech against jihadi extremism. The Emiratis constantly express a desire to align the “tradition and values” of Islam with the language of responsive government, and with the progress of science and knowledge, In their precarious regional context, that vision seems at least worth pursuing.
I asked my friend Zia what were the two things people should remember about Islam?
Zia replied: “We must not forget that Muslims are a human community. Like all human communities, it has people of all shades and opinions – ranging from liberal and moderate, left and right, to conservative, ultra-conservative to extremists and violent extremists.
“We must not allow the antics of a death cult to paint the entire Muslim community with the same brush. To do this would be to dehumanise them.”
He continued: “The most important thing about Islam is very simple and frequently repeated: In the name of God, the beneficial, the merciful. Every Muslim utters this formula countless times a day.
“Beneficence and mercy are two of the most important attributes of God. And these are the very attributes that Muslims are asked to imbibe and reflect in their daily lives. This of-repeated verse of the Qur’an also tells us just how far the Jihadis are from the true path of Islam.”
So keep calm and carry on, as the T-shirts have it. Or maybe let’s try a new slogan: Embrace the grey zone.
Pat Kane is a musician and writer (www.patkane.today)