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Waleed Aly and the offering of nothing but guff

By John Perkins - posted Friday, 18 December 2015


There was a quite extraordinary article by Waleed Aly in Fairfax on Friday (11 December), attacking recent comments by Donald Trump and Tony Abbott as nothing but right-wing arch-conservative guff. Lacking his usual coherence, he argued that the comments on Islam by Abbott and Trump demonstrate that this brand of right-wing politics is "fast collapsing". Little hope of that, I'm afraid.

More extraordinary to most people, I think, was his claim that Islam does not need a reformation because it has already had it. This was apparently in the 18th century. And far from being a solution, this is actually the cause of the global turmoil and mayhem that is apparent in Islam today, he said. Wahhabism is all due to colonialism, according to Waleed. This "austere scripturalism" destroyed the idyllic "classical era" of Islam, he said.

All this is hopelessly deluded and not historic, but it is not surprising that he should finally come out with this in the press, because it is all in his 2007 book, People Like Us. My own book, published in 2012, was a reply to it. I wrote it because it is apparent from the book, that despite Waleed's media-savvy personality, he is a rather dedicated Islamist.

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It is not surprising that he should attack Donald Trump; no disagreement there. But why Tony Abbott, in this case? Although widely condemned as "bigoted", "inflammatory" etc, there was not much wrong with what Abbott said in this instance. Many Muslims have called for a reform of Islam, including Maajid Nawaz, and the Egyptian President el-Sisi, who said it needs a "revolution". All Abbott did was quote them and echo their calls. To Waleed, however, this is all ignorance and "theological illiteracy".

Following that article in The Age (15 December), there was a reply to Waleed Aly by Paul Monk. This is quite ground-breaking, as it is the first time that Waleed has ever been challenged and held to account in this way in The Age. Monk calls him out on his romantic ideal of a mythical "classical" Islam. He also mentions the fact that in the early days, Islam was "spread by the sword". It is good that he said that, because it has seemingly been a taboo thing to say in mainstream media.

Monk concludes by saying that if "Aly and his co-religionists" believe in certain aspects of Islam, then "we all have a serious problem". One of these aspects is the belief that "sharia law is ascendant over secular civil law". Many Muslims do believe that, including, I would say from his book, Waleed Ali. Hence yes, we do have a problem. Not only that, but the problem has a huge human cost.

There is an under lying issue to this, which many, including Monk, do not wish to tackle. This is the extent to which violent Islamic extremism is rooted in Islamic doctrine, both in the Koran and in the example of the Prophet Muhammad. Of course most Muslims are not inclined towards violence. We have to accept, however, that motivation to violence exists in Islamic doctrine, and to a greater extent than in other religions. We can't just pretend otherwise. What we observe in Islam today is not caused by past Western colonialism.

This is an essential issue that those wishing to reform Islam must address. Another is the "austere scripturalism", as Waleed terms it. It is not sufficient just to come up with nice-sounding, carefully selected, peaceful Koranic quotations. The undesirable ones need to be identified and rejected.

In Melbourne every Saturday there is a group of Islamist pamphleteers in Swanston St, just across the tram tracks from the Christian pamphleteers. Recently I was passing by, and I asked the Islamic group what they thought about Islamic terrorism. They had a pamphlet on that, which they readily gave to me. It contains some of the usual nice-sounding peace and tolerance quotations, and says that, of course, Muslims have the right to defend themselves if attacked.

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The pamphlet had one quote which says "kill them (disbelievers) wherever you find them" (2:191), but it says you have to take that in context. It explains that this was from a time when Muhammad was fighting back against the pagan Meccans who had unjustly expelled him. It says the verse "can only be applied in such circumstances".

However for centuries, Islamic laws have been developed based on the Koran and the words and deeds of the Prophet, and these apply as sharia law. Hence what we see implemented today in the Islamic State and elsewhere. It does not apply only in those ancient circumstances, in that "context". It applies today, according to Islamic State.

I asked my Muslim interlocutor on Saturday about verse (8:12) which says "cast terror in their hearts" and "strike their necks". I asked him whether he thought that that meant he should chop my head off. He said no, it all depends on context. I asked, does that mean he rejects that verse in a current day context? He said no, he does not reject any part and would obey every word of the Koran. "So you would chop my head off?" He did not answer but said I should look at other parts of the Koran.

I wanted to use that opportunity to see what they would say, because it illustrates what a difficult position the would-be reformers of Islam are in. They need to be able to reject parts of the doctrine as ancient and not applicable. But as soon as they say what they reject, they are labelled as traitors and infidels.

However this is what they must do. They need to specify that verses like (8:12) are "contextual" and don't apply today; otherwise there will never be any "reform" of Islam. The next step, of course, is to realise that the whole concept of divine revelation is flawed, and abandon it altogether.

What has given rise to the great global upsurge in Islamism is a much greater awareness, due to increased literacy, education and technology, of what the doctrines of Islam actually say. So they can't be ignored. We can't just pretend that the war verses don't exist, and engage in an endless game of selective quotation.

To find a solution, the issue of truth claims of Islam (and all religions) needs to be addressed at some stage. We cannot just continually cherry-pick inoffensive quotations, when most of these were later "abrogated" (superseded) in favour of more aggressive and violent ones. As Peter Boghossian said, the more doubt about their beliefs that people have, the less likely they are to act on them. Unless and until a literalist interpretation of Islamic scripture is abandoned, these problems will never be overcome.

As long as Waleed Aly continues to present his false dichotomy between "traditional religion" and "austere scripturalism", he will actually be "stoking the fires of historical confusion and sectarian animosity that he professes to want to put out", as Paul Monk says. What we all should do is assert the ascendancy of secular civil law over any religious law.

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About the Author

Dr John L Perkins is an economist at the National Institute of Economic and Industry Research and a founding member of the Secular Party of Australia.

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