The Misunderstood Muslims
A review of No God But God
by Reza Aslan and Foucault and the Iranian Revolution by Janet Afary
and Kevin B. Anderson
In the fall of 1978, Michel Foucault traveled
to Iran for Corriere della Sera to write about growing mass protests
against Reza Shah Pahlavi's regime. Famous for his theoretical analyses
of European attitudes toward madness, hospitals, and prisons, Foucault
knew little, by his own admission, about Persian or Islamic history; and
he hadn't previously been a journalist or reporter. Nevertheless, as he
put it, "we have to be there at the birth of ideas."
In Iran, where millions of demonstrators and
strikers appeared united by their hatred for the American-backed Shah and
admiration for Ayatollah Khomeini, Foucault claimed to see a new form of
"political spirituality." He wrote admiringly of how the "Grand Ayatollahs"
had "caused an entire people to come out into the streets," expressing
"a perfectly unified collective will." He claimed to be witnessing the
"first great insurrection against global systems, the form of revolt that
is the most modern and the most insane."
It is clear now that Foucault's view of events
in Iran were shaped by his own distaste for the political and economic
systems—industrial capitalism, the bureaucratic nation-state— created by
the revolutions of the West and spread by Western imperialists around the
world in the previous two centuries. Earlier that same year he had told
a Zen Buddhist priest that Western thought was in crisis. Contemptuous
of the capitalist West, "the harshest, most savage, most selfish, most
dishonest, oppressive society one could possibly imagine," Foucault was
no more enamored of communism, which had attracted many intellectuals of
his generation in France.
As Foucault saw it, to live in a world shaped
by these two modern ideologies was to be trapped in a vast and elaborate
system of control and supervision; it was to subject one's existential
and spiritual life to an impersonal and all-powerful state. With its brutal
secret police and army, Iran under the Shah was an extreme version of the
modern state that Foucault saw as a prison. Indeed, it was not much of
a leap to think of Iran as the victim of the new forms of greed and violence
underpinning the modern world.
Although never a European colony, the oil-rich
country had been dominated by British and Russian imperialists since the
nineteenth century. In 1953, the CIA, working alongside British intelligence
officers, toppled its nationalist government and installed the Shah in
power. The Shah imposed grandiose schemes of industrialization and urbanization
on his largely peasant population. Although the Shah's attempt to Westernize
Iran created a middle class, it also uprooted millions of people from their
traditional homes and forced them to live in urban slums.
Most Iranians, who saw the corrupt and repressive
Shah as a tool of American interests, sought political redemption through
their faith. Foucault was deeply impressed by this mingling of religion
and politics: how, as Iranian-born Reza Aslan writes in his stimulating
survey of Islamic history and thought, No God but God, although "nearly
every sociopolitical organization in Iran" came together in an "anti-imperialist,
nationalist revolt against a corrupt monarchy," it was an exiled cleric,
Khomeini, who emerged as the most visible face of protest.
Foucault was undeterred by Khomeini's deeply
reactionary views. As Islamic fervor increased in Iran and the Shah's departure
seemed imminent, Foucault exulted over what he saw as "the last moments"
of "the attempt to modernize the Islamic countries in a European fashion."
An entire century in Iran—one of
economic development, foreign domination, modernization, and the dynasty,
as well as its daily life and its moral system—is being... totally rejected.
Foucault wasn't sure of what might take its place
in Iran—or what form of government Khomeini, returning from exile in Paris,
would prefer. But he admired the Shiite Islam that "transforms thousands
of forms of discontent, hatred, misery, and despairs into a force."
As it turned out, Khomeini kept Iran's authoritarian
state more or less intact. Far from expressing a political spirituality,
he installed clerics in powerful positions, and began to use the Shah's
methods—secret police, torture, execution—against his real and perceived
opponents, and on a larger scale than the Shah's. Writing after Khomeini
imposed severe restrictions on women's dress and movement, Foucault appeared
less keen on the political potential of Shiism. He acknowledged that "the
power that a man exerts over another is always dangerous," and he referred
briefly to the "bloody government of a fundamentalist clergy" and to "the
subjugation of women."
Foucault did not write about Iran or Islam
again. He now appears to have been one of those intellectuals who, without
knowing much about local conditions, support revolutions or regime changes
in the hope of vindicating their cherished ideas of how human societies
ought to be. Nevertheless, his insights into the role of Islam in modernizing
societies remain relevant today.
Foucault could see how the experience of
deprivation, loneliness, and anomie made many Muslims in urban centers
turn to rather than away from Islam; how there was little "protection"
for the millions of uprooted Muslims except in "Islam, which for centuries
has regulated everyday life, family ties, and social relations with such
care." Foucault could also see how, in the absence of any democratic politics,
Muslims used Islamic themes of sacrifice and martyrdom to challenge despotic
and corrupt rulers who claimed legitimacy in the West as modernizers and
Foucault also managed to see that this Muslim
revolt was unlikely to be confined to Iran. The West had deemed modernization
and secularization as the highest aim for Muslim societies ever since it
began to dominate them in the nineteenth century. But the process, now
advanced by Westernized postcolonial elites, of uprooting people from their
traditional cultures and forcing them into Western-style cities and occupations
was only likely to produce more converts to political Islam. It was why
Foucault believed that "Islam—which is not simply a religion, but an entire
way of life, an adherence to a history and a civilization —has a good chance
to become a gigantic powder keg, at the level of hundreds of millions of
Unknown to Foucault, the powder keg was about
to be set alight, even as he traveled across Iran, in neighboring Afghanistan.
Here, a Communist regime propped up by the Soviet Union tried to modernize
hastily what it saw as a feudal and backward society. The subsequent backlash
from radical Islamists was supported by the United States, and turned,
with the help of Pakistan's Islamist dictator General Zia-ul-Haq and Saudi
Arabia, into the first global jihad in Islam's long history.
Islamic Fundamentalists or radical Islamists
had long existed in such countries as Pakistan, Egypt, and Algeria; they
often articulated popular opposition to Western imperialists in the Middle
East and South Asia, and then acquired greater support as postcolonial
elites claiming to be nationalist and socialist proved to be corrupt and
But it was the experience of training and
fighting together during the decade-long anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan
that bound the Islamists together into an international community. It defined
their enemy more clearly than before —the materialist and imperialist civilization
of the West in which both Communists and capitalists were complicit—and
stoked their fantasy of a global Muslim ummah (community).
Over the last two decades, Islamists returning
from Afghanistan have declared jihad against Westernized and Westernizing
elites in their respective countries. More recently, they have successfully
attacked what many of them see as the main patron of their corrupt ruling
classes: the West, most particularly the United States and its close allies.
Their ideology, disseminated through videos, Web sites, and audio recordings,
seems to have as many takers among Muslim immigrants in Europe as among
their home populations. Indeed, as the recent bombings in London suggest,
millenarian Islam may have a special appeal among uprooted Muslims struggling
to invent new sources of moral and religious authority in their secular
The eruption of jihadi rage and hatred in
New York and London—in what appeared to be serenely self-absorbed worlds
until September 11, 2001—seems to bewilder many people in the West, especially
those unaware of the roots of present-day jihadis in the cold war. Many
journalists and political commentators trying to find out "why they hate
us" conclude that Islam itself is, as Boris Johnson, editor of The Spectator,
wrote after the recent bombings in London, "the problem"—the ultimate source
of the nihilistic violence unleashed on the West. These critics of Islam
often risk appearing as literal-minded as the jihadis while scouring the
Koran for arguments in favor of violence, misogyny, and despotism.
Defenders of Islam in turn describe it as
a religion of peace and compassion, pointing to the Ottoman Empire, which
was hospitable to Jewish minorities expelled from Catholic Europe. Politicians
mindful of Muslim sensitivities take a slightly diplomatic variation on
the belief that Islam is the main issue. President Bush speaks often of
"good" and "bad" Muslims. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has apparently
read the Koran three times, blamed the recent bombings in London on a "perverted
interpretation" of Islam. Thus bad theology rather than bad politics appears
responsible for terrorist attacks that were widely anticipated after Britain
joined the American invasion of Iraq.
What these views of good, bad, and moderate
Muslims assume is that Islam possesses some core, unchanging values which
can explain sufficiently the culture, politics, and even the specific intentions
and motivations of its followers in any historical situation: the status
of minorities in the Ottoman Empire as well as the status of women in Taliban-ruled
Afghanistan and the inner life of a present-day suicide bomber.
An Islam unchanged across several continents
and centuries also underpins Samuel Huntington's influential vision of
"Islamic civilization"—an autonomous and self-contained world that knew
wealth and power long before the West did but has been locked since the
eighteenth century in what Bernard Lewis calls "a downward spiral of hate
and spite, rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression."
Both Lewis and Huntington speak primarily
of Arab Muslims, although three fourths of the world's Muslim population
lives outside the Middle East, in countries such as Bangladesh, Turkey,
and Indonesia, that are arguably more democratic than some of their non-Muslim
neighbors. More than a hundred million Muslims live in India, the world's
biggest democracy, and vote strategically in every election. Broad generalizations
about Islam and Muslims may not help clarify why Muslim Malaysia does better
economically than Buddhist Thailand; why literacy rates for women in cleric-ruled
Iran rose from 28 percent to 80 percent between 1976 and 1996; or why many
Muslim women in officially secular Turkey demand the right to wear head
Nevertheless, many books, magazine articles,
and Op-Ed pieces in the West continue to try to define who Muslims are
and what ails them and to prescribe what they ought to be or do in order
to live within or with Western civilization. Writing in The New York Times
soon after September 11, Salman Rushdie asked Muslims to depoliticize their
religion and confine it to "the sphere of the personal." "The world of
Islam," he wrote, "must take on board the secular-humanist principles on
which the modern is based." "It is essential," Thomas Friedman asserted
after the recent bombings in London, "that the Muslim world wake up to
the fact that it has a jihadist death cult in its midst."
The Bush administration's foreign policy also
seems based on the conviction that the Muslim world can be either persuaded
or forced to embrace Western-style freedom and democracy. "Moderate Muslims,"
or Westernized Muslims in exile, seem a key catalyst in this ambitious
experiment. As Daniel Pipes wrote in his recent book Militant Islam
A battle is now taking place for
the soul of Islam. On one side stand the moderates, those Muslims eager
to accept Western ways.... On the other stand the Islamists—fearful, seeking
strong rule, hoping to push the outside world away.
In this vision of Muslims bitterly divided
between pro-Western "moderation" and jihad, America often appears uniformly
secular-humanist, oddly free of the fundamentalist Christians who shape
its politics and seek to change its culture. One of the achievements of
Reza Aslan's book No God but God is that it gives Islam as much
internal complexity and diversity as the concepts "the West" and "America"
possess in our eyes. If Aslan, who was born in Iran and teaches at the
University of Califor-nia at Santa Barbara, occasionally appears defensive,
it is primarily because Muslim writers in the West such as himself are
so often called upon to explain to a largely unsympathetic audience why
their coreligionists support jihad and the veiling of women. Writing about
Islam, he contends not only with assumptions of Western superiority and
Muslim backwardness, but also, occasionally, with views of Islam first
formed during the Crusades, in which Muslims appear as blood-thirsty warriors,
inspired by a false prophet.
Not surprisingly, Aslan pauses often in his
narrative of the Prophet's life and successors to explain controversial
Islamic concepts. He disputes the popular notion that jihad means "holy
war." "War, according to the Quran," he writes, "is either just or unjust;
it is never 'holy.'" He explains that the verses ("slay the polytheists
wherever you confront them"; "fight those who do not believe in God and
the Last Day") that are used to suggest that "Islam advocates fighting
unbelievers until they convert" were "directed specifically" at the clan
with whom the Prophet and the new-born Muslim ummah were "locked in a terrible
Aslan skillfully places the Prophet's life
and the revelations contained in the Koran against the backdrop of the
clan and tribal rivalries and the social and cultural mores of seventh-century
Arabia. According to Aslan, Muhammad saw Jews and Christians as "spiritual
cousins" and borrowed from Jewish dietary laws and purity requirements.
He informs us that "throughout the first two centuries of Islam, Muslims
regularly read the Torah alongside the Quran." He describes how Muhammad
gave unprecedented rights of property to women in the ummah he founded;
and how these rights form the basis of contemporary women's movements in
Iran and Turkey, which are "predicated on the idea that Muslim men, not
Islam, have been responsible for the suppression of women's rights."
He quotes the Iranian Nobel laureate Shirin
Ebadi: "God created us all as equals.... By fighting for equal status,
we are doing what God wants us to do." As Aslan sees it, Muhammad
preached a "radical message" of "sweeping social reform" in Mecca, upholding
"the rights of the underprivileged and the oppressed." But over the centuries
this crucial message of Islam was distorted by political and religious
elites fearful of losing their power, especially the clergy or the Ulama,
an "extremely small, rigid, and often profoundly traditionalist group of
men," who institutionalized Islam by devising the Shariah as a comprehensive
code of conduct for Muslims.
Aslan describes the complex phenomenon of
the Sufis, who, he claims, became prominent in Islam in the eleventh century
as mystics opposed to "the Imperial Islam of the Muslim Dynasties" and
the "arid formalism" of the clergy. Contrary to their popular image as
otherworldly dervishes, many of the Sufi masters (sheikhs) enjoyed political
power as Islam spread across the Indian subcontinent in the first half
of the second millennium. Aslan describes the rise of Shiism as the official
religion in Iran during the sixteenth century, and its political use by
Khomeini. According to him, Khomeini recognized that "in a country steeped
in the faith and culture of Shiism, only the symbols and metaphors of Shiite
Islam could provide a common language with which to mobilize the masses."
He also traces the centuries-long debate between the rationalist and the
traditionalist philosophers over the meaning of the Koran and the Hadith,
the collection of unverified stories about what Muhammad said and did—a
debate that ended in victory for the traditionalists and the "closing of
the gates" of ijtihad (interpretation).
Aslan is at his best in tracing the origins
of political Islam, which, he makes clear, lie in the fear, shared by many
educated Muslims in the nineteenth century, that their coreligionists were
helpless before European imperialists. He begins with the British suppression
of the Muslim-led Indian Mutiny of 1857, when "Europe's civilizing mission
in the Middle East was revealed for what it truly was: an ideology of political
and economic dominance achieved through brutal military might."
He relates admirably and briskly how Indian
Muslims responded to the fact of unassailable British superiority with
an attempt at adopting what they saw as European virtues. He goes on to
describe the Muslim thinkers in Iran and Egypt who tried to bring such
traditional Islamic concepts as shura (rulers' consultation with
the ruled), ijma (consensus), and ijtihad in line with Western
innovations of parliamentary governance and elections.
These early advocates of political Islam were
often educated in the West, and were far from fundamentalists: the poet-activist
Muhammad Iqbal (1877– 1938), who had much influence in India, wished to
throw open the gates of ijtihad; Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Anglicized
founder of Pakistan, had a particular distaste for religious zealots. But
their admiration for the achievements of Europe was always checked by their
experience of a brutally exploitative imperialism in their respective countries.
As the Grand Mufti of Egypt Muhammad Abdu (1845–1905) wrote,
We Egyptians believed once in English
liberalism and English sympathy; but we believe no longer, for facts are
stronger than words. Your liberalness we see plainly is only for yourselves,
and your sympathy with us is that of the wolf for the lamb which he designs
For Muslims in oil-rich countries, formal
decolonization of the Middle East after World War II brought no respite
from foreign domination. With its growing energy needs, the United States
soon replaced France and Britain as the paramount power in the Middle East,
committed to propping up the fundamentalist Wahaabi Saudi regime in Saudi
Arabia, the secular Shah of Iran, and the Jewish state of Israel. But by
the Eighties, a better-educated and more politicized generation of Muslims
had emerged in the Middle East—one that was more aware than its ancestors
of aggressive foreign meddling in the region, and more inclined to channel
its anger and frustration over corruption and unemployment in their countries
Aslan shows clearly why Muslims espousing
ideals of the European Enlightenment in lands occupied by Europe failed
to gain popular support:
Throughout the colonized lands of
the Middle East and North Africa, the voice of modernism and integration
with the Enlightenment ideals of the European colonialists was drowned
out by the far louder and more aggressive voice of traditionalism and resistance
to the insufferable yoke of imperialism.
This history explains why many Muslims
today are likely to be suspicious of and resistant to democratization and
secularization under Western auspices—a form of modernization that may
appear to them designed for the West rather more than for its presumed
beneficiaries. They are hardly likely to be persuaded otherwise by the
American invasion and occupation of Iraq in the name of democracy.
Nevertheless, Aslan argues that a reformation
is "already under way in most of the Muslim world." He sees the attacks
on New York and Washington as "part of an ongoing clash between those Muslims
who strive to reconcile their religious values with the realities of the
modern world, and those who react to modernism and reform by reverting—sometimes
fanatically—to the 'fundamentals' of their faith."
Aslan may appear to describe the same internal
clash within Islam that Daniel Pipes and others hope to intensify, especially
when he declares himself to be on the side of reform, warning that it may
be as bloody as the one Christianity experienced. But unlike many Western
commentators on Islam, he does not believe that Muslims have to depoliticize
their religion or even confine it to the so-called personal sphere in order
to be modern. He is convinced that the process of building democracy in
Muslim states "can be based only on Islamic traditions and values."
He points to the Prophet Muhammad's respect
for Christian and Jewish traditions, and his social and egalitarian ideals.
He asserts that "a democratic state can be established upon any normative
moral framework as long as pluralism remains the source of its legitimacy."
He claims that a large number of modern democracies are built upon "inherently
moral" foundations, and invokes Tocqueville on America to support his claim
that religion can be the basis of a modern country's constitution, laws,
and customs, even as church and state are kept apart. According to Aslan,
an "Islamic democracy" does not have to be a "theo-democracy," ruled by
clerics, but "a democratic system founded upon an Islamic moral framework,
devoted to preserving Islamic ideals of pluralism and human rights."
Born in Iran, Aslan moved, while still a child,
to the United States soon after the fall of the Shah's regime. He is among
a growing number of Muslim writers and intellectuals born or educated in
the West who bring a rare intimacy, born of experience, to their analysis
of Islam in the world, and can also translate it into terms comprehensible
to their Western readers. These thinkers are products of Muslim
societies' ongoing, multifaceted encounter with the West from which have
emerged such modernists as Muhammad Iqbal and Muhammad Abdu as well as
the jihadis of today.
They appear to share Foucault's conviction
that Western secular ideologies are in crisis, increasingly unable to solve
the problems of both the West and the non-West, even though they do not
go as far, in their invocation of religious tradition, as Gandhi, who advocated
a comprehensive rejection of modern industrial civilization. Rather, they
engage with Islamic traditions in order to find common ground with the
liberal traditions of the West, believing that, as the Egyptian-British
novelist Ahdaf Soueif wrote recently, "ideals of social justice, public
service and equality, identified in modern times as Western, are to be
found in the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet."
The Prophet named no successors, and the Koran
says nothing very specific about the nature of government best suited for
Muslims. But the fundamentals of Islam, as defined by Aslan, do seem compatible
with democracy. Certainly, he appears no more fundamentalist than those
who trace the roots of modern Western democracy to classical Athens when
he invokes the egalitarian community built by the Prophet as an inspiration
for Islamic democracy.
Aslan may appear to ignore the liberal principle
of individual rights when he asserts that "Islam's quintessentially communal
character necessitates that any human rights policy take into consideration
the protection of the community over the autonomy of the individual." Yet
even the most advanced liberal democracies often curtail individual liberties
for the sake of national security. Moreover, Aslan has a contemporary example
of a country trying to build an Islamic democracy: Iran, which, he writes,
"has been struggling to reconcile popular and divine sovereignty."
Nevertheless, the recent attempts in both
Iran and Pakistan to build democratic states on Islamic values warn us
against underestimating the clergy, which wields the all-powerful weapon
of the Shariah. Aslan admits that it is "practically impossible to reconcile
the Traditionalist view of the Shariah with modern conceptions of democracy
and human rights." At the same time, he does not rule out a role for the
clergy in an Islamic democracy. "The function of the clergy in an Islamic
democracy," he writes, "is...to reflect the morality of the state" and
since it is "the interpretation of religion that arbitrates morality, such
interpretation must always be in accord with the consensus of the community."
This sounds too optimistic. Given Islam's
"quintessentially communal character," will not the clergy be well placed
to dictate the consensus of the community and stifle individual dissent?
Iran's oil revenues helped create a middle class that now demands more
democracy and freedom from the country's rulers. But can regular elections
and representative politics allay the rage and despair of people fighting
for mere survival in places such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh—countries
with no oil and a small, besieged middle class that is too busy protecting
its own interests to create an intellectual and cultural enlightenment?
In any case, these questions are unlikely
to be settled by writers and intellectuals in the West. Certainly, events
in the Muslim world continue to surprise—especially those who believe that
most Muslims, when given the choice, would opt for Western ways. Despite
its growing economy, Iran elected a known hard-liner as its president in
June. In Pakistan the same month, the democratically elected government
of North-West Frontier Province authorized clerics to prevent unrelated
men and women from appearing in public together and to discourage singing
and dancing. Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon have convincingly
won sizable votes this year. American efforts to promote democracy in Iraq
seem to have resulted in a Shiite-dominated Islamic Republic backed by
These events not only repeatedly confound
American expectations that regime change, elections, and the free market
will empower pro-American, "moderate" Muslims; they also tend to confirm
what Foucault felt after witnessing the "first great insurrection against
global systems": that Islam as a "political force" is an essential problem
for "our time and the coming years." Largely identified today with extremism
and violence, political forms of Islam may shape Muslim societies long
after the West has contained jihadi suicide bombers. In the meantime, few
writers are likely to outline its possibilities and hint at its dangers
as vividly as Reza Aslan does.
 "If philosophy of the future exists,"
Foucault said, "it must be born outside of Europe or equally born in consequence
of meetings and impacts between Europe and non-Europe." See Religion and
Culture, edited by Jeremy R. Carrette (Routledge, 1999), p. 113.
 What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle
Eastern Response (Oxford University Press, 2002) p. 159.
 Norton, 2002, p. 27. Former Assistant
Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz often stressed that the US should support
moderates in the internal clash of Islam. See his speech to the Brookings
Institute: "US Relations with the Muslim World after 9/11."
 According to Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson,
Muhammad was a "terrorist." For a historical account of Islam's image in
the West, see Richard Fletcher, The Cross and the Crescent: Christianity
and Islam from Muhammad to the Reformation (Viking, 2004).
 For an analysis of contemporary Western
myths about Islam and women see Shattering the Stereotypes: Muslim Women
Speak Out, edited by Fawzia Afzal-Khan (Olive Branch, 2005).
 In India, where American influence was
limited, anti-American sentiments among the more than hundred million Muslims
are still relatively rare. Kashmiri Muslim leaders periodically appeal
for American mediation in the dispute between India and Pakistan. For an
insightful overview of ideologies in the Islamic world since 1800 see Mansoor
Moaddel, Islamic Modernism, Nationalism, and Fundamentalism: Episode and
Discourse (University of Chicago Press, 2005).
 See Abdulaziz Sachedina, The Islamic Roots
of Democratic Pluralism (Oxford University Press, 2000); Reason, Freedom,
and Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of Abdolkarim Soroush (Oxford
University Press, 2000); Tariq Ramadan, Western Muslims and the Future
of Islam (Oxford University Press, 2004); Anouar Majid, Freedom and Orthodoxy:
Islam and Difference in the Post-Andalusian Age (Stanford University Press,
2004); Khaled Abou El Fadl, Islam and the Challenge of Democracy, edited
by Joshua Cohen and Deborah Chasman (Princeton University Press, 2004).
 Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common
Ground (London: Bloomsbury, 2004) p. 7.