This new book-length quarterly magazine and website, with its ambition to present Muslim perspectives on major contemporary issues and ideas and ready to challenge ‘traditionalist, modernist, fundamentalist and apologetic versions of Islam’ is altogether welcome.
In format it clearly has Granta in its sights. It includes some excellent contemporary reportage/blogs, short stories and poetry, scholarly contributions, as well as satire. Women are prominent. The Deputy Editor is journalist Samia Rahman. Writers include a Communist, a Pakistani Christian MP, as well as artists, poets and bloggers.
The focus for its first edition is developments in the Arab world. If good reportage is considered the first transcript of history we must now add good blogs. Among the contributors is a Syrian blogger who provides a chilling insight into developments in that country. Another contributor is a young female poet whose provenance is defined as a ‘Bahraini prison cell’. She is in prison for a stirring poem reproduced here which dared to criticize the king through an imagined dialogue with Satan…read before crowds in Tahrir Square.
The contributors are drawn from across the world. An eloquent speech by a Christian MP delivered in the national assembly of Pakistan after the brutal assassination of the only Christian cabinet minister in March 2011 is translated. This documents the growing insecurities of minorities betrayed by a pusillanimous government. The work of a Russian artist from Dagestan who has also studied in London is profiled, illustrating the difficulties of overcoming cultural differences. A British writer reflects on the first eighteen-month ‘Palestine Writing Workshop’ in Ramallah, which made space for creativity and imagination in an educational system characterised by deadening ‘didactic rote-learning’ – true of too much of the Muslim world.
More than a third of the contributors are women. They do not pull any punches. After commending the courage of the young Bahraini female poet, the novelist Fadi Faqir remarks on the continuing pull of ‘establishment Islam’, described as being at once ‘technical and legalistic’, that bypasses ‘the ethical thrust of early Islam’. She observes that during the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings ‘most women were merely figureheads and some were used as mascots to mobilise men, but when the dust settled they were asked to go back to the kitchen.’ In a hilarious article on Muslim women in Saudi Arabia, the writer Merryl Wyn Davies finds educated women there complicit with the ‘comforts of the system’ and reluctant to challenge a pervasive, religious patriarchy.
However, this volume will be judged by the extent that it offers critical Muslim commentary on the Arab spring, to which well over half the volume is devoted. Here the volume clearly delivers. Robin Yassin-Kassab provides a compelling narrative and explanation of the seminal events around Tahrir Square which saw Mubarak’s defeat. He worries about the post-Mubarak dispensation and the increased salience of Salafi Islam which exacerbates intra-Muslim, sectarianism and hatred of Sufi Muslims and Copts alike: the malign influence of Saudi Arabia is almost a leitmotif of this volume.
Anne Alexander’s article – ‘Digital Generation’ – complements that of Yassin-Kassab: she too was in Cairo during the stirring events. As an academic at Cambridge studying the new social media and political change in the Middle East her analysis moves beyond the ‘unproductive binary divide … between utopian and dystopian perspectives on the potential of the internet and social media’. Finally, Abdel Wahab El-Affendi, a political scientist, provides a fascinating tour d’horizon of the entire Arab spring, entitled ‘A Trans-Islamic Revolution’.
El-Affendi maps the diversity within the ‘Islamist tradition’ across the Arab world and notices that while not a major player in either Tunisian or Egyptian revolution, Islamist parties are the best organised and will, inevitably, have a major role in unfolding events. He is clear the major challenge remains for people ‘to perfect the art of living together, of accommodating difference, of ensuring a place in the Square for all’. All three make clear that there is no guaranteed future, rival and competing narratives continue to compete with each other.
Editor Ziauddin Sardar and the Muslim Institute are to be congratulated on putting together such a stimulating volume. Most of the contributions would not be out of place in the Guardian.
However, one challenge remains for the Critical Muslim: can it provide a real forum for the full spectrum of Islams, or will this, unwittingly, simply deepen the chasm which already exists between them? Can the intellectual worlds of traditionalist, trained Muslims be engaged (including for example Nigeria’s Boko Haram whose very name opposes Western education – Boko in Hausa), and those like many of the writers here, who are Western-educated?