Most helpful positive review
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Excellent Read - With Reservations
on March 17, 2008
On the whole, I found Reconciliation a worthwhile and informative read. Bhutto is correct in her overall thesis that dictatorships (of whatever stripe) and Western interference in Muslim countries have retarded the development of Muslim democratic potential, and that this has helped spawn the Islamic extremist threat to Islam itself and the West.
Given her assassination, one gets the impression there might have been a rush to get this work to press. The book should have been better edited so the chapters did not seem overly dense, and the numerous quotations were footnoted properly.
Bhutto's analysis of stunted democratic growth across the Muslim world and the history of Western interference in Muslim affairs (colonialism and Cold War) is very good. She provides an in depth and firsthand account of Pakistan's domestic political development (and lack thereof), and the forces that have worked for and against democracy there. She is also clear about the goals and modus operandi of the Islamic extremists, militants and fanatics and their supporters within the Pakistani military and intelligence services.
Her treatment of the conflict within Islam between modernists and traditionalists is excellent. In essence, Bhutto advocates that Muslims reclaim their individual right to (re-)interpret their religious scriptures from the tradition-bound ulema (religious scholars) so that they can be aligned more with the realities of the present world and not the (largely mythical) past.
I do take issue with a number of Bhutto's observations and comments, and these are listed below:
(1) Bhutto gives a good overview of the "Clash of Civilizations" thesis. She criticizes Huntington's view that globalization will intensify civilization consciousness and the awareness of differences between civilizations, which will lead to cultural contempt and xenophobia. Her position is that it will instead lead to tolerance and pluralism.
In this, I disagree, as both outcomes are possible. Sayyid Qutb, for example, the ideologue of modern Islamism, studied in the U.S. Muhammad Atta and several of his 9/11 co-conspirators lived in Germany. They all suffered from culture shock and isolation, and their reaction to being in the West did not foster tolerance and pluralism on their part. Other people would have reacted differently or had different experiences, so, both Huntington and Bhutto's outcomes are possible. Just because one is exposed to something and understands it, doesn't mean one is going to like, tolerate or accept it.
(2) In the first chapter, Bhutto claims that while northern Europe was in the Dark Ages, "the great universities, scientists, doctors and artists were all Muslim." It seems to me that the Muslim proclivity to focus on the "West" (and Christians and Jews) too often ignores the "Rest" of the world (including other largely non-monotheistic religions), and she seems to suffer from this syndrome.
No doubt, there were also great Hindu and Chinese, let alone Byzantine, intellectuals, during this period, too. The Islamic "Golden Age" was to a large extent founded on borrowed learning (Greek, Persian, etc.) that Muslims added to (and later transmitted back to Western Europe). Not all of Europe was in the Dark Ages at that time, and the Byzantine civilization hadn't yet been completely destroyed by Muslim conquest.
In the last chapter, Bhutto gives brief acknowledgment to the contribution of the Greek intellectual tradition to Islam, yet she then states that "Islam's first generations produced knowledge and wealth that empowered Muslim empires to rule much of the world." Some of this knowledge was borrowed, as the Arabs found that the Persian and Christian civilizations they conquered (Syria, Egypt) were in fact much superior to their own, and some of the wealth was generated not through production or trade but rather through the booty and plunder of conquest and the poll-tax (jizya) levied on the subjugated Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians. The prideful tone of her statement also conflicts with her interpretation of Islam as tolerant and peaceful.
(3) In Chapter 2, Bhutto states that, "Throughout history, the greatest crimes against humanity have been carried out in the name of God." Yes, and no. The fascists and communists may have created their own quasi-religions, but "god" wasn't part of their value system, and they slaughtered tens of millions.
(4) Although Bhutto does a good job explaining the different Muslims sects (though she chose to leave the Ahmadis out for some reason), and the currents in Islamic extremist thought and its modern reformist counterarguments, her portrayal of Islam is overly rosy and comes across as idealistic and a whitewash of both history and Islamic doctrine, something one might expect in Islamo-Disneyland.
Everyone seems to have an idea of what constitutes "true Islam," and she suffers from this complex. Specifically,
a. Democracy - she goes to great lengths to suggest that Islam's doctrines of consultation (shura) and consensus (ijma) and independent reasoning (ijtihad) make Islam and democracy compatible. Yet, from the earliest days, the caliphs were dictators.
b. Ijtihad seems to be the panacea for a modern Muslim reformist revival. The Shiites, unlike the Sunnis, never abandoned "independent reasoning," and yet they are stuck in the same ideological morass between tradition and modernity.
c. "Tolerance" and "Equality" - she claims these are inherent to Islam. From the earliest days into the mid-20th century, the Muslim treatment of the dhimmi Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians (let alone the Arab polytheists and non-monotheists subjugated or slaughtered during the Arab conquests) suggests otherwise. They may have more or less lived "peacefully together under Muslim rule," but maybe that was because the non-Muslim monotheists were forced to live in a ghetto, wear clothes that made them immediately distinguishable from Muslims, and be servile, while suffering for more than a millennium from fear, vulnerability and the constant threat of inhumane humiliations, tortures, persecutions, oppressions and massacres in the name of Allah. Nowhere in the book does she mention Pakistan's "blasphemy laws," which can get a Christian imprisoned or killed through no fault of their own.
Her arguments with respect to women probably carry more water, but she ignores the Koranic verses devaluing a woman's testimony and inheritance relative to that of a man.
d. Jihad ("struggle" to follow the right and just path) - this she addresses the way one would expect: "greater Jihad" being self-development in a spiritual sense, and "lesser Jihad" being "self-defense" or "just" war.
"Holy war" is a Western translation of Jihad. Although improper, that interpretation is not without merit. Islamic "holy war" was the Christian experience from the Arab conquests of Syria, Egypt, North Africa, Sicily, and Spain to central France (even Rome was sacked), and the Turkish conquests of Byzantium and the Balkans up to the gates of Vienna (1683). Had Islam been the "peaceful" religion its adherents make it out to be, then why the Arab conquest? Is aggression "self-defense" or "just" war? Why did Muhammad instruct his followers to conquer Egypt? Why didn't he send out missionaries, as the Buddhists and early Christians had done? Surely, that's "peaceful." Furthermore, the Hadith (traditions) define Jihad in terms of aggression with the aim of imposing Islam on the world. Arabo-Islamic imperialism easily ranks with British imperialism as the most successful in history. And it's still potent.
Bhutto acknowledges the "Sword Verses" (9:5) and states that slaying the
idolaters wherever you find them pertained to idol worshippers ("only those who reject God and his teachings outright") and not People of the Book (Christians, Jews). If Islam was "tolerant," then it should have tolerated Arab idol worshippers, too! There would be millions more Buddhists and Hindus alive today if it had.
Jihad, she claims, forbids the killing of innocents. Yet, the Koran also instructed Muslims to engage in "widespread slaughter," a policy of terror and intimidation carried out during the initial phases of conquest in each new land.
e. "Context" - throughout the book, Bhutto emphasizes the importance of historical context in interpreting the Koran. She criticizes the Islam critic Robert Spencer for taking verses out of context. Yet, throughout the book, she cites as an example of Islam's ostensibly inherent tolerance Sura 109:6: "You have your religion, I have mine. You go your way, I go mine." Nice quote, as is "no compulsion in religion" (2:256). What she doesn't say is that these verses were abrogated by later intolerant verses. 190:6 was "revealed" during the Meccan period when Muhammad and his small group of followers were being persecuted. Once they relocated to Medina and obtained power, tolerance went out the window. (Something that Europeans should take note of, if they have illusions to the contrary, like the former Swedish minister who stated that Muslims will treat Swedes well should they become a majority.) Again, Arab polytheists were given a choice of conversion or death. That's compulsion, not tolerance, no matter how you slice it. And slice it, they did.
f. Forced conversions - Bhutto suggests that Christian forced conversions of Jews and Muslims (there were many instances of this but she cites two: Spanish Inquisition and American slaves, respectively) "would not have been permitted in Islam." "True Islam?" There are innumerable historical instances when Muslims, not just the "street" but also caliphs, including some of the early ones, forced Jews and Christians (and others) to convert to Islam.
A few years ago in Gaza, a kidnapped Western news crew was forced to convert to Islam before being released. In Indonesia, in the late 1990s, thousands of Christians were not only forced to convert to Islam or be murdered, but (men, women and children) were also forcibly circumcised (or murdered).
g. Right to Religious Freedom - Bhutto states in several places that Islam allows for the free will of individuals to change faiths. Yet, a Muslim who changes to another faith is considered an "apostate," a capital offense. Either there is religious freedom, or there isn't. It can't be a one way street (e.g., conversion to Islam and no possibility of leaving that faith).
(5) Lastly, one of Bhutto's recommendations is for the Gulf States to "jump-start" the economic and intellectual development in the rest of the Islamic world. Yet, it is these very states, as well as Saudi Arabia, that have contributed to the funding and spread of the very Islamic extremist ideologies that Bhutto sees as a threat to the future of Islam, democracy in the Islamic world, and relations between the Islamic world and the West. Will they ante up? They didn't in 2006-2007 in the aftermath of the Pakistani earthquake and the tsunami off Indonesia.