George Negus is a famous Australian journalist who wrote a book, The World From Islam, which was published by HarperCollins and panned by The Australia/Israel Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) as "a superficial piece of puffery that fluctuates in tone between the two poles of sanctimony and sycophancy." They are right in a way, but not because of any supposed 'anti-Semitic, T.E. Lawrence syndrome' the reviewer accuses him of. They are right because of this statement from Negus, found on the back cover: "Over the last twenty-five years, I've worked and travelled in more than a dozen Islamic countries. On the basis of this regular and varied contact, I would argue that more than 99.99 per cent of Muslims are not, repeat not, terrorists."
While the statement is, of course, true, it indicates how sickeningly flawed the general Western public discourse is on Islam. When an author feels it necessary to make such a statement, something is very very wrong with public perception. Despite Negus's good intentions, such a statement is presumptous and idiotic in the extreme. To demonstrate why, lets insert other stereotypes of social or religious groups into the equation. E.g.: "99.99% of Hindus don't practice 'sati'" or "99.99% of blacks aren't petty criminals and drug addicts." The very presumption in making such a statement demonstrates in and of itself (in spite of its possible good intentions) what a ridiculous starting point for true dialogue it is. What can those seeking a deeper view of Islam really get from such a facile starting point?
It turns out that Negus's book isn't all bad; there is an intriguing interview with Sheikh Khalfan al-Isry, a notable Omani sheikh who has his own radio program and gives regular programs (in English) about giving da'wah. I have reproduced portions of the interview below:
GN: Non-Muslims--not just in Australia where I come from but everywhere--are thirsty for first-hand knowledge of Muslims. That's why I want to talk to outspoken Muslims like your good self!
K: Yes, but I also think largely sentimental Muslims need to equip themselves with understanding of their own religion. Islam does not want you to follow it blindly. The first thing that is taught in Islam is knowledge. So you should go and open books, Islamic books, that try to teach Islam--how to pray and how to do things. The book of knowledge is the first book, the first chapter.
GN: Are you saying there are Muslims out there who don't really understand Islam themselves?
K: I know many Muslims who go and pray and I usually ask them: 'Why do you pray?' And they say, 'To worship God.' 'Do you know who is God, the one you're trying to worship?' I ask them. 'Yes I know him,' they say. 'He's the Creator. He's the one giver who gives us everything.'
GN: How do you reply?
K:I say 'no' to the slogans. That's what you've been taught, but it's what you know, what you believe that matters.
GN: The same could probably be said of many Christians or Jews.
K: Did you know that half of the Omani population is still at school? More than half, actually, are under the age of twenty. So I say that many Muslims have taken Islam by tradition, by inheritance--not by personal belief.
GN: Is Western materialism affecting Muslims?
K: We have been influenced by the glamour of Western civilization. Islam says that we have been made to be the agent of God on this Earth and that civilizations will be there for us if we have made a difference and co-exist with the differences. Its the differences that make us as we are. It's capitalising from each other, benefiting from each other. In the days of the Prophet himself, as he was advocating the message of the oneness of God, he co-existed with the Jews, the Christians, even with pagans. In the heart of Islam, he co-existed with them.
What we have seen though, is the glamorous picture of the West. Maybe that has influenced Muslims a lot. Maybe the crime of taking that glamour was moral disintegration. Not everything that's glamorous is good. The good thing is that these days the educated Islamic elite are the ones who are making the comparisons. Those advocating boycotting Western and US products are not religious, they are Islamic people who are perceived in the West to be 'civilized'.
An example! If you go to mosques today--not twenty years ago, but today, 2003--you see that mosques are filled, even for the early morning prayer, which is at 4:30, with not only the regulars; you see the working community--workers and professionals--and their kids. Twenty years ago, it was only the elders that went there for early prayers and they didn't have the persuasive skills to entic their kids to go to the mosque. The working community didn't care. They were raised that this was just basic tradition. But today they have gone beyond the obvious of why I have to pray, more to why I should pray, what do I get out of it? And seeing the benefit themselves, they say if this is the benefit I get, I'd better visit the mosque regularly.
More can be found in George Negus's book, The World From Islam.