Another Journalist Does Islam
What is this religion called fundamentalist Islam? And how does one explain the political eruption called the Islamic revival?
In reply, one intrepid reporter after another—V. S. Naipaul, Judith Miller, Edward Mortimer, J.-P. Péronçel-Hugoz, Joyce M. Davis, Wilhelm Dietl, G. H. Jansen—packs his bags, throws in the laptop, and sets out to visit Muslim hot spots. Every itinerary seems to include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran; other common stops include Algeria, Turkey, Pakistan, and Indonesia.
As journalists, these writers almost invariably provide readable accounts packed with interesting observations and insightful interviews. But, not being scholars, the complexity of their subject matter means that only a very few of them succeed at writing an account that is satisfying, or even intellectually cohesive.
Milton Viorst, a staff writer for The New Yorker who traveled to seven countries, does not succeed. His attempt to make sense of Islam turns up pages of useful firsthand material mixed in with embarrassingly inaccurate popularizations of scholarship. Precisely because he proffers this mish-mash with panache, the reader must beware that the author's easy authoritative style not convince him.
On the plus side, Viorst 's gentle, almost guileless questioning prompts some of his interlocutors to make frank and important statements. One fundamentalist Iranian predicts that the Islamic state in his country will not survive another decade. Another is even more interesting in his expectation that the failures of the Islamic revolution in Iran "will give Islam a perpetual bad name." An Egyptian secularist convincingly sketches out the scenario by which fundamentalist Muslims seize power, moving from multi-party elections to tyranny and all the while professing their democratic intentions.
Unfortunately, such valuable information is surrounded by a steady barrage of mistakes. Factual howlers abound, with Arabic words mistranslated and dates mangled. My favorite anachronism: after putting the famous Caliph Harun ar-Rashid (786-809 c.e.) on the throne twenty-two years early, Viorst then attempts to convey the flavor of his time with a story that mentions the city of Cairo—a city not founded until the year 970.
Current events fare little better at Viorst's hands. He may emphatically assert that "not
a single Iraqi soldier had crossed into Saudi Arabia" during the Kuwait crisis in 1990-91, but he ignores the Iraqis' easy conquest of Khafji, a Saudi town, on January 30, 1991, as well as two other attacks on Saudi territory that same day. Egyptians have "never" made revolutions, he says. Well, someone better inform him about the revolution of 1919. "Filipinos are approaching Western levels of prosperity," Viorst writes—but the World Bank's World Development Report 1997 lists the Philippines' gross national product (GNP) per capita in 1995 as $1,050, whereas the poorest West European country, Greece, weighs in at $8,210.
Other errors are conceptual, giving readers wrong ideas. It is not true that Islam developed in a "hothouse environment . . . cut off from other cultures." The Prophet Muhammad lived in Mecca, a bustling city, and his outlook reflected its cosmopolitan mores; as Islam spread, Muslims quickly came under the impress of Indian, Persian, Jewish, Byzantine, Ethiopian, and other influences.
Turning again to the present, the statement that "the Arab world has made few compromises with non-Muslim civilizations, retaining its Islamic integrity intact" completely mischaracterizes the last two centuries. Arabic-speakers, in fact, have adapted in innumerable ways to Western practices, from using toothbrushes to abolishing slavery to adopting nationalism. The author's description of fundamentalist Islam as a movement that "exudes the familiarity of old mosques" gets things exactly wrong: fundamentalism exudes breaking with tradition in everything from its unalloyed fervency to its heavy reliance on television and computers.
More distressing yet, Viorst apologizes for much of what he encounters, finding liberalism where it is absent. He refers to the "liberal principles" of the Ba'th ideology (whose stalwarts include those famous humanitarians, Hafiz al-Asad and Saddam Husayn). The would-be fundamentalist dictator of Tunisia, Rashid al-Ghannushi, he introduces as a man dedicated to "promoting a modernist Islam." The actual dictator of Sudan he almost identically describes as an "open-minded and tolerant" person who "promotes a modern, liberal Islam," an Islam Viorst also calls "genial, nonrigorous, individualist." Tell that to the many thousands of its victims!
In one passage, even Ayatollah Khomeini is portrayed disdaining fundamentalist Islam. Who, then, fits the description of "fundamentalist"? In the end, Viorst excuses nearly everyone he meets, signaling his readers that fundamentalism is a phantom. You really need not worry about being shot at or getting blown up, he seems to imply.
In the Shadow of the Prophet reads well and deals with a very important subject; all the more's the pity that it cannot be recommended as a reliable guide.