Tarek Fatah’s Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State is in many respects a courageous and edifying book whose bracing opposition to Left-liberal woolly-mindedness and the totalitarian mindset of political Islam is to be applauded. A member of the intellectual vanguard known as “progressive Muslims,” Fatah's vigorous objection to the nuptials which a blinkered and opportunistic Left has celebrated with a sly “Islamist” aggressor whose purposes it has failed to understand is apt. He is perfectly correct when he warns that we must be wary of “segments of the non-Muslim community in the West, especially the guilt-ridden Left that comes out in support of sharia…under the garb of diversity.” Fatah wants us to realize before it is too late that the “liberal-left custodians of fair play and equity are being taken to the cleaners” by the mosque establishment and the soi-disant Islamic civil rights organizations.
But the real strength of the book resides in its stout opposition to the wholesale takeover of Islam by feuding warlords, the devastation it has wreaked among its own peoples, the intrinsic conviction of the supremacy of Arab over non-Arab Muslims, and the duplicity of current Muslim leaders consolingly affirming that jihad is only a peaceful, interior struggle of the soul when it is, in effect, a many-pronged war against liberal democracy.
Fatah takes the measure of the Muslim Brotherhood and its covert operation to infiltrate the Western public space – how it has become impressively adroit at gaming the system and camouflaging its real purposes beneath pluralistic rhetoric and the cultural shibboleths du jour. All this, Fatah regards as a clear and present danger to the way of life we lazily take for granted. It is also, in his estimation, a betrayal of the true spirit of Islam—as is the “Islamist dream” that repudiates “this world for either a fictitious past or the promissory notes of paradise in the hereafter.”
Yet the book is not without its flaws, and there are many. As much as Fatah is to be admired for the principled stand he has taken against the so-called Islamist project and his laudable attempt to prick the bubble of Western naivety, his defense of an “authentic” Islam and his attempt to launder the Koran is part of a growing movement of rehabilitation founded more in desire than in fact. In the current ideological climate, those who adopt a jaundiced or skeptical view of Islam are often castigated as unfair, biased or even “Islamophobic.” This is especially the case when it involves criticism of the Koran or many of its decrees, which is really the heart of the issue. One possible response from the Muslim community or its ostensible defenders is naked violence. Another is the recourse to what has been called “legal jihad” or “lawfare,” the attempt to muzzle adverse commentary through the medium of the courts. And a third reaction—perhaps the most effective in the long term—is a presumably reasonable and balanced approach to sort out the intricacies of the Faith with the intent of demonstrating its inherently peaceful and beneficent nature, as based upon the Koran. This third option is Fatah’s strategy.
For example, when Fatah writes that “Muhammad would have wept to see how his message was misused to consolidate power and subjugate the people,” he prettifies the image of the historical Mohammed, transforming him into a kind of benign movie hero, as in Moustapha Akkad’s The Message or Richard Rich’s animated Muhammed: The Last Prophet. At the same time, he blurs the dynamic thrust of an unabrogated Holy Book and an armigerous scriptural tradition. He produces the same effect in discussing the celebrated Treaty of Hudabiyya of 628 C.E., which stipulated a truce period of ten years but was broken by Mohammed in 630; this resonant episode, which forms the basis of much Islamic jurisprudence regarding the supposed sanctity of treaties, is subtly desubjectivized as “the Treaty…held only for two years.” Apart from acquitting the Prophet, Fatah does not tell us that the Mohammedan precedent gave rise to the doctrine of Mukawama, or perpetual war, which permits Muslims to sign ceasefires with their enemies in order to attack when they determine the time is ripe.
And Fatah goes on by writing of “the women newly empowered by the message of Islam.” Koran 4:34 asserts the superiority of men over women and the right to administer punishment to fractious wives—the Arabic word used in this passage, idribuhunna, derived from daraba, is variously translated as “beat,” “hit,” “strike,” “flog.” (Abdullah Yusuf Ali tries to soften the blow in his recent Amana translation of the Koran, opting for “spank (lightly),” and Laleh Bakhtiar in her The Sublime Quran, mentioned favorably by Fatah, decides for “to go away from,” substitutions that have been dismissed by many respectable scholars.) The many verses specifying the inferiority of non-Islamic peoples and licensing their suppression or extirpation are similarly disregarded or mitigated. In this regard, Fatah’s apodictic statement that “Islam’s essence is its quest for equality and social justice” is at the very least debatable.
A parallel tendency is to deflect the more disturbing portions of the Koran, such as its countenancing of slavery, by resorting to the strategy of temporal contextualizing. “Perhaps Allah in his wisdom knows that socio-cultural progress is better achieved by evolution than by revolution…Perhaps we have to keep in mind the psyche of a desert society of the distant past.” But the Koran is accepted by all true believers as an uncreated text, its physical embodiment only a reflection of the eternal original. It cannot be located along the timeline of a gradual progressivism. “Today I have perfected your religion for you,” reads Koran 5:3, an ayaa repeated several times in Fatah’s book.
Just as disconcerting, Fatah passes far too lightly over the history of Islamic conquest across the centuries, the relentless warfare against the infidel, the massacres, the religious discrimination and persecution, the economic deprivation of its non-Muslim subject populations, the imposition of slavery and the eradication of entire peoples and cultures. Rather, he tends to focus on intra-Islamic strife, “tragedies where Muslims killed fellow Muslims”—a dangerous move within the Islamic framework but a safe one among the community of academics, intellectuals and readers who would prefer not to have to deal with the specter of Islamic imperialism.
Fatah’s well-intentioned but problematic distinction between Muslims and Islamists, between a “state of Islam” (good) and an “Islamic state” (bad) and his belief that “Islamists…have ridden roughshod over Quranic principles and the Prophet’s message of equality” are not persuasive. All one has to do is read the Koran to put paid to his claim. His notion that “Equity and social justice run through every fibre and gene of the Muslim psyche” is a piece of untenable hyperbole that is deflated by Fatah himself when he later writes that “So deeply ingrained is the idea of replicating the so-called Golden Age of the Rightly Guided Caliphs that few are willing to consider the implications of what they are asking for,” or when he bemoans “the permanent gash in the Muslim psyche, a festering wound” brought on by the struggle for power. Which is it, deeply ingrained error or enlightenment?
One is puzzled by the contradiction inherent in his admonition that Muslims “stop chasing an Islamic State” on the one hand and his evident approval of the “Palestinian struggle for an independent and sovereign state,” which would be nothing if not Islamic, on the other. Also troubling is his appreciative quotation from a Pakistani historian who speaks of “the solemn averment that Islam spread peacefully in India” when the carnage visited upon the subcontinent by the invading Islamic armies is an order of magnitude higher than the Holocaust itself.
Fatah’s animus against the United States also seems rather facile and not altogether thought through. When he writes that “The invasion of Iraq was manna from heaven for Al-Qaeda,” it is clear that he has not been following the course of events or the evening News—nothing has weakened al-Qaeda more than the Iraqi conflict and it is now, as the Press has it, “on the run.”
For Fatah, the US is no different from the Mongol hordes led by the savage Hulagu who in 1257 invaded Baghdad and “pitt[ed] the Shia population against the Sunni caliph.” The fact that the “Sunni caliph” of 2003 was Saddam Hussein, himself a contemporary Hulagu, is a matter of no consequence. Nor am I sure what he is getting at when he denounces American fundamentalism equally with bin Laden’s species of fundamentalism; I cannot see even the faintest semblance of an equivalence between the two nor can I understand how American fundamentalism, whatever that may be, “poses a threat to Western civilization.”
These various instances of parti pris are not mere surface blemishes; they detract seriously from an otherwise timely and important work. Notwithstanding, Fatah is undeniably one of the brighter lights among the crowd of today’s pro-Islamic intellectuals and polemicists, but the light is not sufficiently ambient to take in the geopolitical world outside of Islam proper. As a history of Islam, its origins, its sects and schisms, its self-slaughterings, its major personalities, its formative texts, its trajectory across the millennia, Chasing a Mirage is a masterful achievement, hewing closer to the actual events which most Muslim writers are content to evade or fearful to record. Its critique of the millennial “tendency to use [Islam] as an instrument of political power” is acute and unflinching, and for this reason alone it is worth its price and more.
As I have indicated, however, there are several debilitating problems with this fascinating book. First, it sanitizes the impact of the Koran by too selective and convenient a reading of its pages. Secondly, its analysis of the wider historical tableau is too often skewed and oversimplified, or simply deficient in range. And thirdly, its version of the putatively “real” Islam is a fairy tale that exists nowhere except in the casuistry of the apologist or the imagination of the true believer.
There is no doubt that Fatah has taken a great risk in writing this book, which will surely earn him the influential animosity of the mainstream Left whose ineptitude he holds up to contempt, not to mention a possible fatwa from the Islamic extremists he dissects. (A 2006 death threat prompted him to resign as communications director of the Muslim Canadian Congress.) At the same time, Fatah’s forensics are compromised by the soft hermeneutics of his underlying methods and assumptions, which could lead to a subliminal restoration of precisely that which we are striving to demilitarize.
Tarek Fatah rightly takes exception to the current excesses of what is called “Islamism,” but he is nonetheless an apologist: back to the Koran, or rather an expurgated and watered-down version of it. In reading such attempts at bleaching clearly hortatory texts, one might be permitted to wonder on what doctrinal grounds centuries of invasive warfare and the current worldwide jihad are based. Perhaps we are suffering from a collective delusion. Perhaps Islam really is a gentle, socially advanced and peace-loving faith that has been wrenched from the keeping of moderate Muslims by a small band of radical and bloodthirsty madmen. Perhaps the Koran really is the supernal book of sandaled amity and universal concord. Would that it were so.