Faith, Fanaticism and Food in Islam

By Kershaw, Roger | Contemporary Review, January 2002 | Go to article overview

Faith, Fanaticism and Food in Islam


Kershaw, Roger, Contemporary Review


IN the present world crisis, which even some moderates on either side see as a 'clash of civilizations', we are often called upon to 'understand Islam'. Usually these calls, from Christian as well as Muslim sources, aim to have us realize that 'not all Muslims are fundamentalists', let alone 'terrorists'. 'Amen to that', say I. Down with cross-cultural misunderstanding! But will there be reciprocation? If non-Muslims must brush up on their 'understanding', and with all the heavy loading of 'tolerance' carried by that word, it behoves the Islamic world to return the compliment. This essay will suggests in roundabout ways, that this could be as difficult for 'them' as for 'us'.

My other niggling reservation is distinctly off-beat, but starts off from the cultural situation that makes understanding and tolerance potentially difficult for Muslims. In the course of an academic career in Southeast Asian Studies, I spent an aggregate of fifteen years in two Muslim countries of Southeast Asia: Malaysia and Brunei. I became well acquainted with Muslim practice and belief, even if, as a historian-cum-sociologist, I probably picked up more of 'people's Islam' than the doctrines of the best theologians of Al-Azhar University in Cairo. But the odd thing was: the more I learned, the more 'exotic 'it all seemed. It was as if growing familiarity unearthed ever deeper layers of unfamiliarity. Like numerous Western observers of Islam since the Middle Ages, I became increasingly aware of cultural difference. In the course of time I felt more, not less, alien vis-a-vis the Malays. This is not a feeling that I have ever had with the Buddhist Thais, or the non-Muslim descendants of head-hunters in Born eo -- even in non-convivial contexts! Conceivably, Malay society was changing year by year, as Islamic revival became institutionalised. Whatever the reason, it was salutary and saddening.

At any rate, my anxiety in the present climate is whether a serious attempt to understand 'Islam today' may have untoward results. In face of deeper incompatibilities, some natives of these islands may find themselves thinking that harmonious multi-culturalism is an impossible dream: at best, useless to strive for; at worst, a con or dangerous conspiracy. Might it not be better to stick with the reassurance from church pulpits, the Prime Minister, and Prince Charles about 'shared basic values', ignore the recruitment among the so-called 'young Muslim men' of Britain for war service with the Taleban, and generally avoid probing too deeply?

Then I hear another voice of conscience, insinuating that to steer clear of the subject might play into the hands of those who condemn any analysis of Islam as a form of 'religious incitement'. I felt intensely nervous about the British law-to-be on this subject, knowing how vigorously newly empowered Muslim interests are likely to invoke it, while Christians maintain an 'asymmetrical' silence over the other side's arguably blasphemous denials of the divinity of Christ. Is our civilization about to surrender its post-Renaissance and post-Reformation intellectual birthright? I feel bound to write, if only in symbolic support of the freedom of expression now under challenge. (Last month the Government removed the clause about 'religious hatred' after it was rejected by the House of Lords.) On a pessimistic view (not unjustified in the light of the pressure on political and religious leaders to sign a pledge in early November 'to avoid using inflammatory language'), even security-conscious wake-up calls from the liberal establishment may not be immune from attempts to prosecute critics of Islam (e.g. Hugo Young, 'A Corrosive Danger in Our Multicultural Model', The Guardian 6 Nov, 2001).

This article is just diagnostic and, I hope, a small contribution to the comprehension of difference. At least for readers already inclined towards tolerance, a basis of solid fact should be more helpful than self-delusion. …

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