The world in 2003 was a very different place. Bush was in the White House, Osama bin Laden was alive, the Iraq War had only just begun, the Arab Spring, or Jasmine Revolution, was still in the realm of fantasy, and the West’s Islamophobia was perhaps more fevered, if less entrenched. It was this last point that inspired George Negus, one of Australia’s most respected and recognisable journalists, to write The World From Islam, aiming to fill the void of balanced, informed depictions of Islam.
As Negus concedes in the foreword, The World From Islam is not an exhaustive, authoritative guide to the religion. Instead, it is a journal of anecdotes, interviews and reflections from the veteran foreign correspondent’s experiences in the Middle-East, focusing on contentious topics or misconceptions that came about as a result of 9/11.
It’s all written in a conversational style that is recognisably Australia, with lots of “mates” and colloquialisms thrown in, using accessible language that will hopefully help the book reach a wider audience than a more academic tome. I could have done without all the exclamation points, though, which I think make writers sound hysterical, or like they’re trying too hard for a joke. A fatwa against exclamation points! Maybe that’s just one of my bugbears.
The journal finds a vague structure by allocating a section to each country that Negus travels through: Jordan, Israel, Dubai and Oman, all relatively progressive Islamic states. While this means that he’s a bit all over the place thematically, each country does provide a contradiction that Negus focuses on to to break negative stereotypes. To disperse any images the reader may have of ranting terrorists, Jordan is presented as “the land of the friendly Arabs”. It’s also a great launching point because it draws the reader in with it’s exotic locales. The journey to Israel allows for explanation of the central conflict of the region and the cause for much of the Muslim world’s resentment towards the United States: the Israel-Palestine conflict. Dubai contrasts the austerity of Islam with the modernity and materialism of the richest Gulf state. And Oman, at the time, was piloting an Islamic form of democracy.
Negus is accompanied by his partner, Kristy Cockburn, and their son Serge, whose tireless curiosity and sense of wonder serves as a subtle rebuke to closed minds. The Jordan section especially is full of adventures and anecdotes, and I was all set to book my tickets to go and see Wadi Rum, stay in a Bedouin tent and ride through Petra, “the rose red city half as old as time”, until I checked the travel advice. Goddamn popular democratic uprisings throwing off the yoke of oppressive regimes, interfering with middle-class Australians’ holiday plans.
There are various interviews scattered throughout the book in which Negus asks usually educated, moderate Muslims their views on contentious issues. The treatment of women gets a look in, with segregation explained as a practicality and veiling a choice. Female circumcision and honour killings are said to be cultural practices, relics from pre-Islamic days. And many of the interviewees dismiss Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein as acting contrary to the teachings of Islam, which expressly forbids killing non-combatants in war.
Some of these answers don’t satisfy Negus, and wouldn’t satisfy the most virulent critics of Islam, but at least it allows these issues to be explored and placed in some context.
The overall image that emerges of Islam is of a religion that is, unlike some would have us believe, inherently peaceful; a religion that requires a great deal of devotion, if only for having to pray five times a day, making it more of a lifestyle than some other faiths. It undoubtedly brings a great deal to the lives of its followers, but, as with any ideology, it has its limitations, and it may be distorted to justify different causes.
“Religion… has a lot to answer for!” writes Negus, and it is clear throughout the book that he is an atheist. No doubt some of his comments would offend religious people, however, to his credit, he is always open-minded and genuinely attempts to be respectful.
Some of the more challenging interviews are with people who are politically informed and critical of the West. The recurring sources of resentment towards the United States are their support of Israel, cultural arrogance, and propping up of oppressive dictatorships, such as the Saudis and Gaddafi.
Negus obviously finds many of theses grievances justified, and comes down hard on Israel in his “Final Reflections”, citing various atrocities they have committed in the last thirty years, including the bombing of Palestinian refugee camps at Sabra and Shatilla in Lebanon which, he reports, resulted in deaths of “3500 men, women and children”, an incident I was unaware of, and was be shocked by. However, as no doubt Negus would recommend, I should probably read up more on the subject rather than draw judgement from one source.
Whether you agree with Negus’s views or not, there is no doubting that he is an intelligent and informed voice on the subject, and he is to be commended for attempting to further understanding and engagement between the West and the Muslim world. While The World From Islam is dated, it is interesting to see how differently things were viewed only ten years ago, and it has made me hungry to learn more about this fascinating religion and region.