Debating Islam

The thorny issue of the West's relationship with Islamic countries and people provided lively debate at the New Yorker Festival.

Alan Miller

Topics Politics

‘Islam and The West’: the New Yorker Festival at the Town Hall, NYC, Friday 6 October 2006

The New Yorker magazine is a legend. For over eighty years it has championed writers, poets, cartoonists and a vast array of notables from the world of entertainment. With a paid circulation that well exceeds the mammoth one million mark, it strives to explore various areas of our lives, both large and small. It does it often with wit and style and in an age where some have argued for the end of the printed press, with enormous popular appeal.

To launch the seventh annual festival, which boasts over fifty events in various venues across Manhattan, The New Yorker decided to explore a subject that has dominated so much of international debate in the last few years. Amidst the bright lights and chaotic effervescence of Times Square, the Town Hall played host to a panel of well-known commentators who were asked to talk about Islam and the West.

George Packer, staff writer at the magazine and author of a number of books including Blood of the Liberals and The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq kicked off the proceedings by describing a number of examples that have played out everywhere in the media in recent months. The Danish cartoon images which led to rioting in Muslim countries, the Pope’s recent statements with regard to Mohammed which resulted in churches being burned, Jack Straw’s comments that the request to wear veils in the UK was ‘troubling’ with 96 per cent of the population agreeing and President Bush’s recent appropriation of the term ‘Islamo-Fascism’. So, he asked the panel, what’s the problem here?

Lawrence Wright, also a staff writer at the New Yorker, as well as writing the critically acclaimed The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the road to 9/11 was the first to respond. He argued that it was all to do with identity. He pointed out that in Belgium, more children were being born with the name Mohammed than traditionally European names, which leads to a questioning of what constitutes European identity. In southern Europe, he noted, Muslims outnumber Protestants and in northern Europe they outnumber Catholics. In France, while seven per cent of the population are Muslims, 50 per cent of the prison population is Muslim. He contrasted this to the United States, where generally Muslims are very law abiding. The key issue, he concluded, was one of ‘hypersensitivity’.

Azar Nafisi, professor for advanced international studies at Johns Hopkins School and author of the best selling novel Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books was furious with the careless use of words being used. She argued that to use terms like ‘the Muslim world’ was reductionist and made it impossible to delineate the geographical, cultural and political differences between Iran, Indonesia, Morocco, Bosnia and Saudi Arabia. She advocated a strategy of ‘retrieving and reclaiming our identities.’

At this point I was getting concerned that we were going to have a postmodern debate about multiple identities and a repeat of tired old arguments. However, the panellists were generally far more sophisticated than this and subtle in their discourse. Omar Ahmad, the founder of the Council on American-Islamic Relations wanted to clarify the distinction between Islam as a religion – which brought civilisation 1,500 years ago to Saudi Arabia – and Muslims who practice the religion and may or may not exercise it from the correct perspective. While he ventured that 80 per cent of the problems in the Muslim world are internally generated and violence was a key part of that, ‘we have to be careful and sensitive to Muslims…if the Pope denied the Holocaust he would probably split the church…’

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, political exile from Mogadishu, Dutch politician, writer and film maker (Infidel, Submission) was extremely critical of Islamic philosophy which she argued was thoroughly incompatible with Western society which is democratic and open. The exodus of peoples from these Islamic countries was evident she continued and ultimately ‘the submission of the will to Allah’, with a list of prohibitions on behaviour, was the antithesis of the freedom of the individual that is held paramount in the West. Although the state has powers of limited force in the West, she argued, this is within the context of laws and democracy and not arbitrary. With gasps and laughs and (a few) claps from the transfixed audience, she added that the most salient difference between the West and Islam is that to be free in Islam one has to die first.

When ideas clash, the best ideas win, she ventured. The further the West relativises thought, the more problematic consequences we would all experience she contended. Concluding with a natural cadenza, she described herself as a non-believer, an infidel and agreed – among boos and further gasps – that she agreed with the Pope that Mohammed had brought nothing new but the sword.

With the murder of Theo Van Gogh in 2004 for directing the ten-minute film she wrote and her unequivocal outspoken position, I was impressed by her steadfast approach. I was concerned however that the terms of the debate were somewhat limited and ended up getting oriented towards what Islam really means today. While Packer retorted to the identity issue that the speakers were selected because of their ideas and not their identities, there was a clear sense in the entire proceedings that what was lacking was a depth of appreciation for Islam and Muslims.

Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, professor of law at Emory Law School, joked that Omar had obviously spoken too soon when he suggested this would not be a controversial debate. Pointing out that Islam is what humans (Muslims) make it, he argued that human agency was the defining factor of Islam. He went on to criticise the notion that Islam was responsible for the situation of many of these nation states and argued that it was far more related to colonialism and post-colonial departure. Islam becomes a medium of the crisis of post-colonialism.

Further, the title of the discussion represented incoherence as there is no such thing as a coherent West, or Islam for that matter, but rather a number of abstractions, economic, social, political and cultural. He, like all of us, had ‘multiple identities’ as a father, lawyer, humanist and Muslim. It seemed to me that the professor made some insightful remarks about the legacy of Islam’s ascendancy from the post-colonial moment (although we could have had far more exploration as to why at a certain juncture Communism seemed to be overtaken by Islam) the idea that we have ‘multiple identities’ seemed to conflate some of the everyday, banal aspects of who we are with the very important and defining ones.

The final speaker was Mahmood Mamdani, professor of government and anthropology at Columbia University and author of Good Muslim, Bad Muslim. He said that what was not the problem was hypersensitivity as Lawrence Wright suggested. He then went on to cite the example of the Watts Riots in 1965 where an apparently minor incident between a cop and a citizen over a driving issue escalated into extreme violence and civil disobedience. President Johnson’s commission argued that it was important to distinguish between the fuel and the act. Racism was the fuel for the act.

Similarly, he explained, Gunter Grass compared the Danish cartoons to pictures in Der Stermer during the Forties which resulted in the editor being executed for the perpetration of hate at Nuremberg. ‘A people are being set up by the War on Terror’ said Mamdani, and he then asked us all to reflect on what, exactly was ‘the West’ as others had done. He told an anecdote of travelling in Turkey and being informed that one of the houses was where Herodotus lived and another Homer’s abode. Was Turkey the centre of western civilisation then? ‘This is a political project…This is an imperialist project.’ At which point the audience erupted in cheers, whoops and applause all at the same time.

Packer came back and argued that what he believed represented the West was the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century and the subsequent separation of power between the church and state. While this has occurred in America and northern Europe, he had been told by many people while reporting from Islamic countries that there cannot be a separation of state and power.

Azar contended that imperialism and decadence also comes from the West, in addition to the Enlightenment. The key issue was not one of religion but of what states do and therefore was a political consideration. Ayaan said she was disappointed by all the cheering at the claim that the West was imperialist. ‘You have the courts…you have freedoms…I am not saying it is perfect…but you can make your destiny here, seek knowledge and add to progress. This is the most defining feature of the West.’

She pointed out that she believed that while the West had indeed been imperialist in the past, it no longer was and subjects were free to pursue their aims, to debate imperfections and demonstrate. In Islam, a verse suggests that infidels should be killed – at which point, Omar interjected that simply lifting uncontextualised quotes, which were difficult to translate from the Arabic meaning, meant that ignorant statements would ensue. If infidels were to be killed, why does it suggest Christians and Muslims can marry? Mahmood then jumped in to say that all the major religious texts had key contradictions within them.

The discussion meandered somewhat, covering surprising ground from Wright’s reflections on Mormon terror in 1857 to the need for a central authority in Islam, through to Mahmood’s pointing out that religions go through different stages, such as Catholicism and Protestantism. Ayaan was outraged that an analogy was being drawn between racism towards blacks in America, which was an ethnic issue in her opinion, to the argument of oppression of Muslims by the West, which she rejected.

She then got on to Darfur and all of a sudden the audience was hushed into silent support of her position. When asked why the ‘Muslim world’ (after all that had been said on such abstractions!) was silent on the issue, Mahmood compellingly argued that it was surprising that little had been publicised about the Congo, where four million people had been killed. It was because, he believed, Darfur could be put in to the discussion of the War on Terror, whereas Congo could not. Ironic, I thought, that the audience was so very hostile to the current establishment in Iraq, yet seemed to be chomping at the bit to intervene in Darfur.

I put it to the speakers that perhaps, if the title were to be changed, it would be to ‘What’s the matter with the West?’ Over the recent years, in our universities we tell the tale of Dead White Males raping and pillaging the world and contrary to Packer’s point, the Enlightenment is seen as particularly unenlightened and evil. Was it not the case that the West was suffering from a case of morbid self loathing – and then projecting its anxiety on to external issues, for which perhaps Islam then becomes the focus?

We were running out of time at this point, however Azar responded that she respects the West for the culture of self-criticising and that she is opposed to censorship of all kinds. Indeed, she went on, we should all be treated equally and therefore criticised equally regardless of religion or outlook. I agree with this wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, I think the debate suffered from the very problem that it was attempting to unpick – the current obsession with Islam and why it seems that so many Muslims have a problem with the West.

However, during the Cold War entire nations and regions formed anti-imperialist and anti-Western movements and coalitions, vehemently opposed to Western domination. Nowadays, despite George W’s silly question ‘why do they hate us?’, it is not so much that the masses of the Middle East, Africa and Asia are mobilising against the West. Rather, there is an implosion of belief about what the Western leaders represent and stand for. Their own crisis of conviction about who they are, what they stand for and how they can inspire anyone has led to the moral impasse that forces them to project all of their angst and woes on to an imaginary many-headed opponent. The continual talking up of this foe, whether it be Al-Qaeda or homegrown terrorists, has the disastrous effect of fuelling the very situation they say they do not want.

We would indeed be far better off attempting to get to the root of what values we hold fast to, which moral questions matter to us and how we can understand the particular juncture we find ourselves in today as a society, rather than having another debate about the fallout between Islam and the West. That said, this was an intelligent and stimulating panel and a lively start to the festival.

Alan Miller is director of the NY Salon ( The NY Salon is staging a series of public forums on risk with the Wolfson Center, the New School.

For further info and streamed footage of festival go to For photographs of the festival go to

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Topics Politics


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