Tarek Fatah and his case against 'radical' Islam

Tarek Fatah is a fierce critic of "radical" Islam, often called Islamism, and is the author of Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State.

When he came into the Ideas studio, his eyes were twinkling. When Paul Kennedy, our host, asked him a question, a great swell of talk ushered forth.

Tarek Fatah, the man in our studio, is a person full of stories and strong, political views. Both eager and polite, he can seem almost boyish. As the tone of his voice moved quickly from debate to delight, he was downright irrepressible.

Fatah is a fierce critic of "radical" Islam, often called Islamism, and is the author of Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State. He's been a broadcaster, a writer and an activist. After the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S., he helped found the Canadian Muslim Congress.

The National Press Club of Canada awarded him the 2007 Press Freedom Award. In 2002, he was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal for his work in the community. 

He has been involved in numerous ideological battles with other Canadian Muslim leaders. Unfortunately, he also has received death threats (which in our conversation, he now shrugs off).

A more brooding Islam

It should be said that Fatah is not a critic of the religion of Islam. He grew up in Pakistan. His father, whom he speaks of reverently, was an orthodox Muslim but one open to the modern world. Conversations about politics and culture filled their family home, along with laughter.

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Fatah used to go to the mosque every Friday with his family.  He hardly had to be dragged there. The elders let him and his friends scamper about outside. They climbed trees and horsed around. Going to mosque was "fun," says Fatah.

In a world of religious strife (especially in reports from the Muslim world), fun is not a word you ever hear. But Fatah's encounter with Islam began to change at the tail end of his childhood, when a more brooding brand of Islam began to assert itself. It was more authoritarian. The new clerics were a dour lot.

As a university student in Pakistan in the 1960s, Fatah became a left-wing student leader. Pakistan was under another of its military dictatorships. Fatah was imprisoned.

But Fatah says prison became his real university. Some of the people he met had been in jail so long, they hadn't even heard a radio.

Eventually, after a stint in Saudi Arabia, he emigrated to Canada in 1987.

It should also be said that Fatah still considers himself a believing Muslim. He wants to live in a state of Islam, not in an Islamic state, as he puts it. 

Islamists get easy pass, Fatah says

Fatah's hope is for a modern, progressive form of Islam to take hold. He believes in the equality of men and women. He is in favour of gay rights. And he does not believe that Muslims should live under Sharia law, or bring it into Canada.

Underpinning Fatah's progressive creed is his belief in the separation of church (mosque) and state. This is one of the Western Enlightenment's gifts to the world. Rather than reject this separation of religion and politics, Muslims should embrace it, says Fatah. 

The Islam that has turned into Islamism is a political creed that is dangerous, he warns. Islamism wants to curb freedoms in the name of some divine sanctions dictated by clerics.

And, Fatah contends, mainstream Canadians, especially on the left, are reluctant to criticize because they are guilt-ridden. They know the West's (and Canada's) history is rife with colonial misdeeds.

So, argues Fatah, Islamists are allowed an easy pass. 

Now, it should be said that Fatah is not a Western apologist. Fatah understands that the West (especially the U.S.) has much to account for.

In his interview on Ideas, he tells us that the Americans often supported dictators and radical Islamic forces as allies in their ongoing Cold War battles (think Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan).

In fact, Muslim leftist secular radicals were viewed suspiciously, says Fatah. In those days, The U.S. was more frightened by communism than Muslim fundamentalism.  And it’s come back to haunt the Americans (with many Muslims caught in the crossfire).

But Fatah understands this "blowback," as it's now called, isn't the end of the story. No matter the origin, Islamists shouldn't be endlessly excused because of the sins of colonialism.

Lessons of the past

Fatah has another strong agenda that he addresses in his book, Chasing a Mirage (and in his Ideas interview): Muslims must learn their history.

They have been kept in the dark by their own orthodox gatekeepers, he argues — even though Muslim history is as varied, as blood-soaked, as full of great achievement and treacherous incident as any other. It's full of high intellectual achievement and low, violent conspiracy.

Muslims are not taught about the incessant infighting in their ranks (a conflict that goes well beyond the Sunni/Shia split), the murderous fights between rulers and the widespread oppression and inequality. Nobody is taught that black Muslim slaves once rebelled against their Arab Muslim oppressors. Without such an understanding, Fatah asks, how can his fellow Muslims understand the racism and genocide in Darfur?

Now, it could be argued that Fatah has his own soft spots.  He speaks reverently, even romantically, of Muhammad as "his" Prophet.

He compares Muhammad to Gandhi, though the Prophet was a military leader and Gandhi was not. But for Fatah, Muhammad died poor, like Gandhi, with only the clothes on his back.

A universal faith

Fatah, as a Pakistani Canadian, is rankled by the racism among Muslims, even though the religion is a great proponent of universalism (the idea that every person on earth can be a Muslim).

But Arabs, he claims, see themselves the guardians of Islam and relegate non-Arab Muslims to a second-class status. This is one of the reasons why Indo-Pakistan Muslims, says Fatah, live in a state of permanent identity crisis. Over the centuries they even have taken on Arab names. Many terrorists are born amid such confused identity traps.

But Fatah believes you can be as good a Muslim if you lived on Baffin Island instead of   Saudi Arabia. You don't need a Muslim state to certify your beliefs. If people of other faiths can be held up to account by their ideals, so should Muslims. 

Finally, he asks Muslims to shed their thin skin and join in the rigours of debate, only fitfully allowed throughout Muslim history.

Tarek Fatah may anger many. He may confound the guilty. He is certainly a partisan scrapper, like he was when he was a young student. But he must be listened to, for sure.