In This Review

God Has 99 Names: Reporting from a Militant Middle East

God Has 99 Names: Reporting from a Militant Middle East
By Judith Miller
512 pp, Simon & Schuster, 1996
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Judith Miller masterfully deploys her insider’s knowledge of the events and personalities behind the Islamization of politics in the Middle East. Former Cairo bureau chief of The New York Times, Miller has spent 25 years reporting from the region. Hers is an extensively documented yet personal narrative with dozens of characters both ordinary and extraordinary, animated by the author’s compassion for the peoples of the Middle East. In ten chapters, each devoted to a different country, Miller combines sweeping historical surveys and a journalist’s reminiscences with examinations of militant Islamic groups from Hamas to the challengers of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi to the leaders behind the Islamic governments of Iran and Sudan. The book traces the militants’ intellectual and ideological roots back to the early years of this century and uncovers current political and financial connections within the region and beyond.

But how many names of God has Miller truly perceived and understood? Could she have missed what she was not looking for, and found only what she was seeking?

POINT OF VIEW

Miller says her reasons for choosing the countries she writes about are ‘obvious’ and does not attempt to justify her focus on Islamic militancy. Yet she claims to ‘convey . . . the mood of the countries within the region, the tone of their debates, and the forms taken by the struggle for dominance.’ Her selectivity, however, not only anticipates negative conclusions about Islam but may contribute to their validation.

The militancy Miller critiques so effectively is indeed bound up with the region’s persistent political problems and economic weakness. But that does not mean Islam is the problem (as against the Islamists’ chant, ‘Islam is the solution’). Writing on Islamism in the West has been unrelentingly negative. Certainly the militants’ violent and oppressive behavior must be shown to have no basis in Islam. But the international media should also report on the more rational and humane Islamic perspectives.

Miller states: ‘While I have tried to keep an open mind about traditions and cultures that differ from my own, I make no apology for the fact that as a Western woman and an American, I believe firmly in the inherent dignity of the individual and the value of human rights and legal equality for all. In this commitment, I, too, am unapologetically militant.’ One has confidence in Miller’s professional ability to minimize her perspective’s influence on her reporting, but who one is and what one believes in necessarily affect how one perceives the other, even in the most successful efforts at cross-cultural understanding.

While Miller exposes the profound human rights problems in the theory and practice of militant Islamists, she is ambivalent about violations of human rights by ‘moderate’ regimes. She ‘can hardly endorse the [Algerian] government’s refusal to abide by the [1991] election results, [but] was relieved that it had done so.’ What does that tell both sides in Algeria? She supports ‘Egypt’s suppression of violent militant Islamists’ but does not condone ‘torture, emergency military trials, and other illegal means that have become routine features of the government’s anti-Islamist campaign.’ How else does she think the policy she backs will be achieved, if not through means she abhors?

The book vividly depicts the suffering of Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel, delivers the occasional reproach for Israeli ‘excesses’ such as the torture of prisoners, and discusses Israel’s misguided promotion of Hamas in the 1980s as a counterweight to the Palestine Liberation Organization. But Miller’s tone makes all this sound like regrettable but understandable political reality. I looked in vain for scrutiny, from the standpoint of human rights, of the inherently discriminatory nature of an officially Jewish state and the consequences for the region. Considering how the Israeli dimension of their predicament obsesses Muslims of all stripes, Miller could have helped frustrate manipulation of the issue by governments as well as Islamist groups by engaging the implications of her analysis.

Each of the three examples above points up the difficulty of reconciling competing claims to self-determination, whether by the proponents and opponents of sharia (Islamic law) in countries like Egypt and Algeria or by Jews and Palestinians in Israel and the (formerly?) occupied territories. Each set of ‘internal’ difficulties, moreover, tends to be viewed in light of other factors, such as real or perceived bias for or against Islam or Israel. An appreciation of the other side’s fears can contribute to the reconciliation of competing claims.

ISLAM RUNS DEEP

Miller is right to call on Muslim intellectuals to ask, ‘What did we do wrong?’ rather than ‘Who did this to us?’ and to encourage them to seek solutions for tyranny and economic failure in their countries. But I sense in her analysis a negative view of Islam, even apart from her focus on Islamic militancy. Miller’s accounts of individual Muslims’ lives, while sympathetic, paint them as trapped in a difficult and painful situation rather than as being there by choice or drawing strength from their faith. In the only part of the book to present a clear view of Islam’s founder, the Prophet Muhammad -- six pages in the chapter on Saudi Arabia -- Miller serves up a cruel, opportunistic figure, shorn of context, that, ironically, Islamic militants past and present have evoked to legitimate the use of violence and the worst kind of intolerance.

If the constraints of daily reporting on what is considered newsworthy require a focus on Islamic militants and their suicide bombs, a 500-page book should provide an opportunity to present a broader picture of Islam as a world religion and civilization. If one refuses to see Islam’s very real spiritual value, liberating force, and moderating influence on individuals and the community, one might reasonably conclude that for Muslim countries to catch up with the rest of the world, the faith must be marginalized.

If the history Miller recounts here demonstrates anything, it is that Islam remains central to identity, political mobilization and organization, ethics, and legal systems throughout the region -- to Muslims’ very worldview. Each of the book’s chapters brings that home anew. In Sudan Islam runs so deep that ‘even the Communists were Islamists.’ Born and raised under the strongly secular regime in Syria, the daughter of a thoroughly Westernized businesswoman seeks an ‘Islamic life.’ Beginning with Egypt in the 1970s, governments in the region have adopted Islamic symbols. While Islamic authenticity by itself is a dubious and oft-manipulated goal, the religion has intense spiritual and political appeal among Muslims who look to it for the organizing principles of their lives. It is difficult to imagine predominantly Muslim societies abandoning their belief in an Islamic order as an ideal to be pursued, regardless of how elusive and problematic such an order may prove in real life.

Miller notes, as have many secular Muslims, that corrupt and discredited regimes have at times sought to prop themselves up with claims of Islamic legitimacy. Such cynical maneuvers have usually ended up strengthening militants and encouraging them to demand more power, as in Egypt and Algeria; Sudan’s Islamic militants finally took over the state. But surely this does not mean that Islamic legitimacy is inherently bad.

For believers, however, challenging objectionable formulations of Islam should be a matter of principle. Islamic militants stand for the view that Islam is synonymous with discrimination against women and non-Muslims, that random violence aimed at political change is a legitimate form of jihad, that the death penalty is appropriate for apostasy, and other aspects of traditional conceptions of sharia. All Muslims opposed to this view must challenge it, regardless of the political success or failure of the proponents of sharia.

Miller dismisses attempts to marry a commitment to human rights with Islam. She observes that in Islamist movements, as in ideological movements in general, ‘the more ruthless tend to prevail.’ But Islamic militants are able to define the parameters of Islamic politics because of the abdication of Muslim intellectuals. When Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, the Sudanese Muslim reformer whose execution Miller describes in the opening pages of her book, was told by Sudanese intellectuals, ‘Your ideas are enlightened and positive, but when will people accept them?’ he would respond, ‘You are the people. When will you accept these ideas and behave accordingly?’

THE MIRAGE OF SECULARISM

Many of those who concede to the Islamists the right to define the Islamic agenda for their countries and the Middle East as a whole do so in the expectation of someday substituting a secular discourse in which Islamists could not effectively compete for power. But a secular politics is unlikely to prevail in predominantly Muslim societies. By continuing to pursue the mirage of secularism, Muslim liberals and leftists alike may lose the possibility of a humane Islamic alternative, which is being defeated more by the indifference of its natural constituencies than by its opponents’ ability to criticize it in Islamic terms.

In the Middle East today, the ‘Islamic left’ of Tariq al-Bishri and Hassan Hanafi of Egypt, Muhammad Abid al-Jabri of Morocco, Abdalla al-Nafisi of Kuwait, Muhammad al-Talbi and Abdel Majid al-Sharfi of Tunisia, and many others is widely known and appreciated, if not yet a focus of mass movements. Working from an explicitly Islamic perspective in their respective fields of law, philosophy, history, politics, and sociology, these intellectuals are attempting to modernize interpretations of Islam both in the academy and in areas of practical concern like development, constitutionalism, and the protection of human rights. Scholar-activists like

al-Nafisi, a founding member of the Arab Human Rights Organization, are engaged in political struggles for democratization in their countries as well as contributing to regionwide initiatives. More broadly, beyond the traditional practices of Sufi orders and popular Islam in the societies of the region is an ethos of tolerance and peaceful coexistence that millions of Muslims share.

Islamists and Muslim human rights advocates doubt the relevance to their project of each other’s guiding concern. While Islamists who believe in the unity of religion and state tend to reject international human rights standards as a tool of Western cultural imperialism, rights advocates see any link between religion and the state as a threat. By refusing to seriously consider the other side’s perspective, each camp helps widen this divide.

That is not to say their fears are groundless. History records drastic losses of personal liberty under religious regimes as well as high social and moral costs under secularism. In Nasser’s Egypt, Algeria under the National Liberation Front, and Baathist Iraq and Syria, secular ideology has proved as oppressive as doctrinaire religion. Iran and Sudan today demonstrate that religious doctrine can have serious social and moral costs aside from the loss of personal freedom.

The dichotomy between the Islamic and the secular is artificial; believers do not think and behave in such a compartmentalized fashion.

Although Islam should play a central part in the formulation of policy and the shaping of official and private behavior in Muslim societies, a static, deterministic view of its role is misguided. Muslim perceptions of Islam are constantly evolving in response to internal and external developments. To the extent that the worldview, moral orientation, and day-to-day behavior of Muslims are conditioned by their religious beliefs, the precise meaning and content of an Islamic normative system is also the product of human reason and choice. God’s guidance was revealed to a man living in a specific society at a specific time in history, was conveyed in a human language, and was understood and practiced by the man and his contemporaries and dozens of subsequent generations of Muslims. It may sound heretical, but this being so, how can Islam and its precepts be other than partly divine and partly human?

Muslims will always possess a wonderful variety of understandings of Islam and its role in their lives -- the 99 names of God. Although difficult to translate, some of the names convey a God who is compassionate and peaceful, while others paint an unforgiving, belligerent deity. The essence of God is beyond comprehension, but He has elected to describe Himself in human terms so that human beings can come closer to knowing and emulating Him. Muslims face a moral choice: which of the 99 names of God will they follow, both individually and collectively?

The humane majority may be the norm rather than the exception in the Muslim countries of the Middle East. The challenge for tolerant Muslim intellectuals and activists is to capture the imagination of the same constituencies the militants target and to encourage political organization and action from an alternative Islamic perspective.

For their part, concerned observers like Miller, and the policymakers and international audience she and her colleagues inform, should keep their eyes and minds open to all the choices Muslims are making -- the humane and enlightened as well as the fanatical and regressive. If she believes in the dignity of the individual, human rights, and equality for all, Miller should seek out and actively support Middle Eastern women and men who are striving as Muslims to uphold those same values.

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  • Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im is Professor of Law at the Emory University School of Law and former Associate Professor of Law at the University of Khartoum. He is the author of Toward an Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights, and International Law.
  • More By Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im