The woman didn’t attack Islam, Alain Greish didn’t defend it

14 November 2016

It was an unlikely scene for some: speaking heavily accented Egyptian Arabic, the European author avidly attacked and dismantled Islamophobic discourse in Europe, while most comments from his Egyptian audience stressed the danger posed by the “Islamic ascendancy,” in its manifold meanings, for the future of Europe and the world, even “Islamic” countries themselves.

“Islam and its haters in Europe” was the title of a talk with Alain Greish, a French writer and journalist who specializes in Middle East issues, that I was honored to moderate last week as part of the Religion and Freedoms Forum. The discussion between Greish and some attendees became so heated that at one point an audience member told him, “You’re siding with Islam against European culture!”

Born in Cairo as the son of Henri Curiel, an Egyptian Jew and leading member of the Egyptian communist movement, Greish forced a smile and reaffirmed what should be self-evident: that his involvement in Western debates about Muslims and the Palestinian cause is motivated by the injustice they face and his rejection of the narrative spun by some Western politicians and media that the conflict is between Islam and the West and that Europe’s major political problem is Muslims.

Greish made it clear that his position was not a defense of Islam. “Islam is not a religion of violence,” he said. But he didn’t stop there, unlike advocates of Islam. “Nor is it a religion of peace,” he added, explaining that one could cite the Quran and Islamic tradition to justify either view. He does not see Islam as one uniform entity, but the voices around the world promoting hatred of Muslims do see Islam as one thing, and they put all people of Muslim origin, or those with Islamic-sounding names, or people coming from the Middle East in general in one big basket labeled “Muslim,” which they then describe and judge as one. Greish told the story of an atheist friend of his: because of his origins, many people are determined to treat him as a Muslim and so he’s begun describing himself as an “atheist Muslim.”

Some people who admire Greish’s responses to right-wing rhetoric in Europe are less keen on seeing the other side of the same problem here in “Islamic countries.” Here, too, we have “atheist Muslims” who are compelled by force of law to remain in the Muslim basket because the governments, communities, and religious institutions that have a monopoly on “true Islam” believe that maintaining a Sunni Muslim majority is foundational to the public order and the stability of state and society. They warn against the danger that minority or unorthodox religious trends—atheism, agnosticism, Shiism, Bahaism, etc.—pose to the social fabric and identity. These are exactly the same warnings issued by Islamophobes in the West: Muslims’ ideas are alien and threaten our national fabric and identity.

In March 2015, four young people occupied the same place where Alain Greish sat. The Forum had invited the four youths, all prominent moderators of social media pages for groups of atheists and agnostics in Egypt, to give a talk titled “Who stands against our freedom to be non-believing citizens?” All four speakers have now left their homes following threats or direct harm from state agencies or the local community. One of them left Egypt altogether, while the other three moved to different cities.

Is what happened to them, and is still happening, what is prescribed by true Islam or false Islam?

It ultimately doesn’t matter. But what happened to them suggests that the primary currents that shape the thought and practices of large swathes of contemporary Muslims tend to such terms, and they have the biggest impact on the general image of what so-called Islamic countries are like today. I think this is a good angle from which to approach Greish’s central point at the Forum: there is not one Islam that is the necessary, true reflection of Islamic texts and history—there is no such entity we can point to and say, That’s the real Islam, and then take sides for and against in a debate.

It seems to me that instead of talking about Islam as an abstract concept, we should talk about Muslims as they actually are, about the predominant currents that most influence broad sectors of Muslims, while keeping in mind that many, many other Muslims think and act in the public sphere based on premises that have little to do with their being Muslim or the prevalent currents and their ideas.

We can clearly identify prevalent currents in both Sunni and Shia Islam, represented by venerable institutional authorities, especially in Egypt, Saudi Arabic, and Iran. The reference points for these authorities are the quest for religious knowledge and the preservation of a particular aspect of Islamic tradition. There are also widespread Islamist movements with supporters around the world. These institutions and movements agree that, in different ways, Islam should be a basis for the exercise of political authority. In some cases, they already ensure that it is, either by supporting existing authoritarian governments in “Islamic” countries and impeding projects for emancipation and equality at home in order to preserve “Islamic identity,” or as an opposition that attacks the existing autocracy but seeks to establish an alternative Islamic authoritarianism.

The political, academic, and advocacy efforts of these institutions and movements do, in fact, make the loudest and leading voices of “contemporary Islam” a threat and counterweight to the efforts of many people—including other segments of Muslims themselves—who wish to practice politics and administer society on foundations other than autocracy or religious authority. Moreover, their efforts help to turn the world into a giant sporting arena that pits team Islam against team West (a match Greish suggests we should neither join nor cheer).

The Western right sees the spread of Islam as an invasion that must be resisted, just as the major Sunni and Shia religious institutions, and with them “Islamic governments,” see the spread of atheism as a Western intellectual invasion that must be resisted. And this resistance takes the form not only of intellectual debate, but as force of law and the restriction of freedom of belief and personal freedom in order to protect identity.

For many of the supporters of the dominant Islamic currents, whether official institutions or opposition movements, people like Greish in this match are “fair” infidel Westerners who cheer for Islam though some of their own people attack it.

An apt example of this is the coverage of Greish’s talk by the al-Jazeera Mubasher website, in a story titled “French journalist responds to woman who attacks Islam.”

The woman did not attack Islam. She attacked the tendency of many Muslims, including the Muslim Brotherhood, to refuse to accept religious difference. And in his response, Greish defended neither the Brotherhood nor Islam. He criticized tyranny and authoritarianism and pointed to the problem of religious dominance in Islamic countries, in response to the woman’s claim that the Brotherhood had ejected themselves from the national fabric. This is similar to claims of the European right made to justify infringements of the rights of people who don’t fit into “the European national fabric.”

The brief news story, which is indicative of the way many authoritarian Islamists and their sympathizers think, honed in on a right-wing argument and covered it to depict what is happening in Egypt, too, as an attack on Islam. By this logic, Greish and his response are necessarily a defense of Islam. This is the favored way of viewing things by both the European right and the Islamic right.

In contrast, Greish in his talk was most interested in making people see that what is happening in the political sphere is not a conflict between Islam and its enemies or a between European identity and its enemies, but a conflict between the forces of democracy and equality and the forces of tyranny, authoritarianism, and resistance to difference, both here and in Europe.

This article has been piblished via AMAY in 8th Oct, 2016

Transalted by EIPR