It is not that prejudice has vanished in the glow of the “Arab spring.” But the liberal discourse on Islam which too hardened, especially after the London bombings, has become less blinkered.
The “Arab spring” might have started losing its lustre but it has created a legacy that is changing the tone of the depressing post-9/11 debate on Islam in Britain. Images of western friendly, articulate, English-speaking, Twittering Muslim youth leading pro-democracy campaigns have exposed the old notions about Islam (a religion inherently incompatible with democracy) and its followers to fresh scrutiny.
Britons are emerging blinking into daylight, acknowledging that women can wear the ‘hijab' and still be progressive; that all men in beards are not necessarily terrorists; and that mosques, once perceived only as hotbeds of extremism and sources of alarmist stories, can also serve as revolutionary command centres. Muslim voices, featured in the media these days, are now more likely to be liberal than before, a refreshing break with the tendency, until very recently, to wheel out the most rabid extremists to represent the “Muslim viewpoint.”
Not that prejudice has magically vanished in the glow of the “Arab spring.” There is still talk of “Islamification” of Britain and Muslim “hordes” knocking at the door, but the mood is less confrontational. And, at least the liberal discourse which too had hardened, especially after the 2005 London bombings, has become less blinkered. “At least it is now possible to have a rational discussion about Islam without being seen as an apologist for Muslim extremists,” a Muslim academic points out.
The debate has moved on from whether Islam and democracy can coexist. Prior to the Arab uprising, the only answer you ever got to the question whether democracy was possible under an Islamic dispensation was a resounding “no.” And the only definition of democracy was the western, Westminster model; or what The Economist described as “full-blown liberal democracy — in the sense of a political system where all citizens have an equal right to vote, and are equal in other basic ways.”
According to this “purist” and one-size-fits-all notion, even those — admittedly few — Muslim-majority countries that have a democracy are not regarded as “fully” democratic. They are defined as “flawed democracies.” But at last, there is a grudging acknowledgement that like “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” there can be democracy with “Islamic characteristics” as Turkey has shown.
Although assumptions about the superiority of British/western “values” over Islamic/Third World practices remain too deeply ingrained, the acknowledgement of the “Turkish moment” is a significant advance on what had until now been the default British/western perception of Muslims: a people completely devoid of any democratic impulses and incapable of standing up for free speech and individual rights. That, to some degree, Muslims have fuelled this perception by often over-reacting to any perceived provocation is another debate and has been done to death to bear repetition here.
Returning to the Arab “awakening” and its effect on British attitudes, it has created a new interest in Islam. This is reflected in a spurt in cultural and academic activities around it. Nowhere is it more evident than in publishing where there has been a mini explosion of Islamic literature. One leading multinational British publisher alone has released nearly a dozen titles in recent months on issues like political Islam, Islam and human rights, Islam and women, Islamic radicalism and multicultural politics — a much more eclectic fare compared to the crop of “Islamist” terror literature that, after 9/11, became the staple diet for anyone wanting to “know” about Islam. Old titles are being re-issued with books like Karen Armstrong's Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time in great demand. Last month, the BBC scored a broadcasting hit with The Life Of Muhammad, a ground-breaking three-part series, claimed to be the first full account of the Prophet's life ever shown on western television.
While telling the extraordinary story of the Prophet's life, it also raised some difficult questions about Islam's role in the world today in terms of its attitude towards women, social equality, money, democracy and freedom of speech.
The first episode alone was watched by nearly two million viewers. Even those not normally enamoured of anything to do with Islam were impressed with its candid warts-and-all approach. The Telegraph described it as an “excellent primer” which did not shy away from discussing “disputed areas.”
“We felt we had to look at all the big issues, all the controversies with Muhammad's life, of which there are many, and deal with them like we would any others,” said executive producer David Batty.
Aaqil Ahmed, Commissioning Editor, Religion and Head of Religion & Ethics at the BBC, said the aim was to introduce Islam and its founder to people for whom “Muhammad is just a name” and admitted that it was not easy dealing with some of the difficult issues. “You put yourself on the line when you do something like this,” he said, “I hope this series will go some way to explaining who he was, how he lived, what his prophetic message was, and how all of this compares to his legacy today.”
The series coincided with the publication of a new interpretation of the Qur'an, Reading the Qur'an: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam, by Ziauddin Sardar, one of Europe's foremost Muslim intellectuals and an outspoken critic of regressive Muslim tendencies and the “ghetto mentality” that, he believes, many of his co-religionists suffer from. The book, which started life as a blog on The Guardian newspaper's website, has generated a huge buzz with its argumentative and lively approach to how the Qur'an should be read and interpreted.
“Even though it is one of the most read books of all time, what the Qur'an really says is shrouded in veils of assumptions and received opinions,” he says pointing out the importance of reading the Qur'anic verses in the context in which they were revealed.
For the first time, London recently hosted a three-week long festival looking at Arabic art and culture not through Orientalist perspective but through the eyes of Arabs. “Shubbak: A Window on Contemporary Arab Culture,” hailed by Mayor Boris Johnson as London's first ever celebration of contemporary Arab culture, brought together more than 100 Arab artists, authors, journalists and academics to share their visions of what it meant to be an Arab. Predictably, one of the most popular events proved to be “A Night in Tahrir Square” featuring many of the artists who performed for protesters in Cairo's famous square.
“At a time of remarkable political and social change, Shubbak marks an exciting moment between artists in the capital and across the Arab world. I have no doubt that it will stimulate, delight and surprise audiences,” Mr. Johnson said.
An Arab commentator said that in the past, western curators “tended to put forth a well-intended, yet somewhat paternalistic image of the Arab art world,” but Shubbak “tried to change all that.”
The fact that projects such as these are happening and being debated in a rational manner is a sign of improved climate. Arab writers, academics and commentators are the flavour of the season. The same “Middle Eastern” sounding names that once aroused suspicion and had their owners often off-loaded from planes as potential security risks open doors for them these days. This is not without risk, though. Remember the case of the fake Syrian blogger who ran rings round the western media for weeks masquerading as a gay Syrian-American woman documenting the “state repression” in Damascus with a daily blow-by-blow account of life in the Syrian capital as young “revolutionaries” fought to change the system? British newspapers devoted acres of space to “Amina Araf,” the supposedly “outspoken lesbian blogger.”
One newspaper even carried a telephone interview with “her.” There was much all-round embarrassment when it turned out that “Amina Araf” was actually a failed American novelist (neither gay, nor woman; nor even living in Syria) having some fun at the cost of western media's infatuation with Arab dissidents.
But, then, as one humorist, recycling former U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's famous observation after the post-war chaos in Iraq, put it: “Stuff happens.”
The big question, meanwhile, is: does the new mood really reflect a better understanding of Muslim societies? Or is just a passing political fashion? What if the Arab revolution peters out or is hijacked by radical groups like the Muslim Brotherhood? Will the British perception of Muslims, then, revert to pre-“spring” type — namely that they are inherently incapable of democratic reforms?
Many suspect it will, arguing that between them Islam and the West simply carry too much baggage to understand each other. So, savour the moment while it lasts.