Reassessing Islam

'I'm newly sympathetic to sane, smart, broad-minded Muslims who have lately been lumped in with the kooks getting all the press'

An experience on a week-long book tour of South Africa this autumn pulled me up short. Apparently, post-9/11, I had slid into a lazy, ignorant exasperation with the whole “Muslim world”, even if I was well aware academically that there is no such homogenous thing.

Simply, I had a Muslim publicist. The one truly invidious aspect of an otherwise cushy career, book tours can be gruelling. Spending day after day with a woman who ferries you to events, plies you with yet more coffee while you mouth off to interviewers, and keeps you company at dinner lest you huddle in restaurants self-consciously by yourself, you get to know her surprisingly well.

Genial, attractive, and crackerjack at her job, Anika is a Cape Town Malay — “coloured”, in the old parlance — and while a student she was one of the pioneers of racial integration at Stellenbosch University. On learning she was Muslim, I was at first apprehensive; after long days of repeating myself to the point of self-hatred, I prefer to debrief with refreshment more bracing than orange juice. But I’d nothing to fear. While Anika herself is teetotal, at our dinners she cheerfully ordered bottles of wine, about whose grapes and vintners she was remarkably knowledgeable. She often refilled my glass or urged me to indulge in a nightcap. Before seeing me off at the airport, she drove us over an hour out of Cape Town to the Klein Constantia estate, just so I could score some of South Africa’s most celebrated dessert wines. (I know — how we writers suffer for our art.) To my relief, she even nurses one vice herself: she smokes.

Yet my publicist wasn’t some backsliding Muslim in name only. Anika is devout. Single, she lives chastely with her parents. She’d never marry a non-Muslim, who wouldn’t share her core values. She’s already gone on the Umrah, the mini-hajj, and aims to undertake the hajj proper in future.

Because the novel I was promoting concerns terrorism, the topic of the ongoing ruckus over that goofball film The Innocence of Muslims arose often in the question-and-answer sessions at my events. I’m one of those Americans who believes neo-Nazis have the right to march down Main Street, and pulled no punches as to what I thought about murdering, marauding, and burning down embassies just because your feelings are hurt — just because you’re glorying in your hurt feelings.

One evening I asked Anika what she thought of the riots. She exploded. She was outraged that rabid, illiberal fanatics were giving 1.6 billion Muslims a bad name. Islam isn’t an evangelical religion, she said, and most of its adherents are live-and-let-live: peaceable, reasonable, and moderate. Riots over some silly video made people like me think they’re all hot-headed, brainwashed lunatics.

I wouldn’t claim naively, “Oh, I met this one really nice Muslim, so now I realise they’re all really nice.” Nevertheless, I’m personally relieved not to be accosted by UK feminists, indignant that I believe women in cases of “legitimate rape” can’t get pregnant — just because one headlining senatorial candidate who lacks a first-former’s command of biology is also American. So I’m newly sympathetic to sane, smart, broadminded Muslims like Anika who have lately been lumped in with the kooks getting all the press.

But why do we not hear from the Anikas more often? From sensible, articulate, intelligent Muslims who even — imagine — have a sense of humour? Assuming that tolerance and rationality really do prevail among the majority of Islamic peoples, why do their representatives not speak up more forcefully for free speech, even in the West? Why during this grotesque video nonsense did we instead hear the usual gormless bromide that “there’s no right to give offence” — when the right to give offence is the very cornerstone of free speech, and without it there is no free speech? I yearn for level-headed Muslims to commend to their fellows on the evening news: “Don’t fancy that video? Then don’t watch it.”

Now, I took exception to Obama’s public proclamation in September that Americans “respect all religions”. I don’t respect any religion, subjecting the lot to equal opportunity disgust, and my right to denigrate belief in fairytales is what I need my president to stick up for. Fundamentalism of any stripe intensifies my constitutionally protected aversion. So had Anika worn a hijab, we might not have got to know each other so well.

Still, if I’m honest, the “Muslim world” over the last decade has seemed especially annoying, and fortunately my lovely publicist reined in an unexamined bigotry. I may have little patience with Islam itself, but I did respect her. So it’s time that all those millions of Anikas out there made themselves heard. If my South African publicist was a revelation, she shouldn’t have been.     

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"