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What Are THEY Thinking?

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Who Speaks for Islam: What A Billion Muslims Really Think
Gallup Press by John Espositio and Dalia Mogahed
The Crescent Moon: The Asian Face of Islam in New Zealand
Asia NZ Foundation Text: Adrienne Jansen Photos: Ans Westra

Reviewed By JEREMY ROSE

What do Christians really believe? I mean is it the inspiring brotherhood of man preached by the likes of Martin Luther King or the hate-filled, fire and brimstone of Dr Ian Paisley. What do Christians think of George Bush’s war on Iraq or the carpet bombing of Laos and Cambodia by previous self-professed Christian presidents of the United States of America? I know, I know they’re stupid questions, stupid almost to the point of meaningless idiocy. So why did I buy a book asking basically the very same questions about Islam?

Now that’s a question, I can attempt to answer: the endless talk of a war of civilisations, the use of the phrase Islamo-fascists by pompous pundits from Wellington to Washington all begins to leave you wondering whether there really is something about Islam that leads it to clash with modernity.

Even if it’s just for a split second, the seed is planted. And as an orthodox atheist – proudly third generation on my mum’s side – I’m susceptible to thinking of religions (Christianity in particular) as not just being irrational but potentially murderous, even genocidal.

That there are plenty of explanations other than George Bush’s “They hate us for our freedoms” for the anger emanating from the Arab and wider Islamic worlds towards the “West” goes without saying. That New Zealand has been an active participant in some of those – such as the sanctions that inflicted untold misery onto the people of Iraq while strengthening the hand of Saddam Hussein is a cause for shame.

As a journalist and later a campaigner on that issue, I was privileged to work with some truly brilliant Arabs – both Islamist and secular – in bringing people’s attention to the deadly nature of those sanctions.

But despite that I’m aware that I have virtually no intellectual engagement with the Arab and wider Islamic worlds. The few Arab writers I have read – such as Edward Said – are as often or not from Christian minorities, but more fundamentally adopt a secular – usually socialist – perspective on the world.

And just as I think a close reading of the New Testament will tell you little about why Christianity embarked on the murderous crusades, or why the Church was the driver of that great ethnic cleansing known as the Inquisition, or even why so many Christians could participate in the fascist brutality that swept Europe during the 1930s, I doubt a close reading of the Koran would inform my understanding of why an infinitesimal number of Muslims are determined to wreck death and destruction in the West.

What I am interested in knowing is whether something akin to the collective madness that saw millions of Germans not only come to believe that the genocide of the Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals was desirable but to actively participate in bringing it about is taking hold in parts of the Islamic world.

Well the good news is that according to what is surely the most comprehensive surveys of any religious group ever carried out there’s no indication of a collective madness taking hold: to the contrary, the picture that emerges from Who Speaks for Islam is of rational reasonableness.

The book is the result of tens of thousands of hour long, face to face interviews across the Muslim world. It begins with a brief introduction to the various Muslim sects and their histories.

The vast majority of the World’s 1.3 Billion Muslims support freedom of speech and say if they were drafting a constitution they would guarantee it. (95% in Bukina Faso, 94% in Egyp, 93% in Iran and 90% in Indonesia.)

More worryingly, for an atheist like me, is that majorities in most Muslim countries would like to see Sharia law incorporated into their constitutions.

But as the authors point out 46% of Americans say that the Bible should be “a” source, and 9% believe it should be the “only” source of legislation. (Can’t believe the figure would be nearly as high in New Zealand. Although I did once interview an extremely wealthy philanthropist in Hawke’s Bay who passionately believed in legislating the 10 commandments! He fell asleep mid-interview and his wife told me to ignore most of what he said, “he’s the type of man who’s so stingey he only buys enough asparagus for one.)

And it turns out 42% of Americans want religious leaders to have a direct role in writing a constitution, while 55% want them to play no role at all. Figures that are almost identical to those in Iran.

Large majorities across the Muslim world support equal rights for women.

Respondents were asked: “Suppose someone from the government of the United States were to ask you in private what was the most important thing the United States could do to improve the quality of life of people like you in this country. What would your recommendation be? The most common responses:

Reduce unemployment and improve the economic infrastructure
Stop interfering in the internal affairs of Arab/Islamic states
Stop imposing your beliefs and policies
Respect our political rights and strop controlling us
Give us our freedom

Only 16% of Turks (citizens of one of the few Islamic democracies) and 24% of Egyptians (the biggest beneficiaries of US aid in the Islamic world) believe the United States is serious about establishing democratic systems.

About 46% of Americans think that “bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians” are never justified, while 24% believe these attacks are “often or sometimes justified.”

By way of contrast, 74% of Indonesians, 86% of Pakistanis and 80% of Iranians believe terrorist attacks are never justified.

That said, seven percent of the respondents (and seven percent of 1.3 Billion is a lot) believed that the Twin Tower attacks could be justified. It’s a scary thought – but surely no more scary than the fact that more than half of the citizens of by far the most powerful military force on Earth believe attacks on civilians are sometimes justified.

And surprise, surprise it turns out that far from hating America’s freedom the vast majority of Islamic respondents say that country’s commitment to freedom within its own borders is what they most admire about the USA.

By way of contrast 32% of Americans say there is nothing about Muslims they admire.

And so it goes on. It’s a fascinating and massively detailed book that leaves me convinced that understanding the Arab and Islamic worlds is less a case of careful analysis of Islam than one of examining the reality of the daily lives of those in the Arab and Islamic worlds and the part that Western hegemony plays in that reality.

The Crescent Moon is an altogether more modest book in scope, if not in presentation.

A beautifully produced work with large format photos by the great Ans Westra of close to 50 Asian Muslims living in New Zealand, the book provides a snap-shot of Islamic life in New Zealand.

Published by the Asia NZ Foundation, as it is, this was never going to be a book that did anything other than celebrate the “Asian Face of Islam in New Zealand”.

But, I’ve got nothing against celebrations and the people in this book are worth celebrating.

That said, I think it would have been a stronger book if it had allowed itself to stray into less comfortable zones. It would have been interesting to hear more about the subjects’ encounters with anti-Muslim racism and ignorance.

And I would have been interested to hear whether any of the “seven percent” of Muslims who believe the Twin Tower terrorist attack can be justified are living in New Zealand and if so how they justify that particular act of mass murder.

Najib Lafraie – a former Afghan cabinet minister and now a lecturer of political science – does confront that issue head on but he’s firmly of the position it is unjustiable and points out that when pressed Osama Bin Laden cited America’s bombing of Ngasaki and Hiroshima rather than the Koran.

I was delighted to Yakub Khan of Newtown’s Halal butcher features in the book and interested to read something of his life. It’s nice to know something about the man who sells the best minced lamb in Wellington.

It’s a delightful book which is well worth taking the time to browse and read.