Reflections on Islam: Ideas, Opinions, Arguments (Review)

August 14, 2010

Book cover for "Reflections on Islam" by George Jonas.Title: Reflections on Islam: Ideas, Opinions, Arguments

Author: George Jonas

Publication Year: 2007

Pages: 251

Genre: Non-Fiction

Source: Purchased from Chapters

From the cover:

On September 11, 2001, four hijacked airplanes changed the world. Or did they?

The 9/11 attacks shattered the modern illusion about Islam as a wholly peaceful faith. They raised the possibility that this seemingly new struggle between East and West — between secular democracy and Islamist theocracy — is just the latest variant of a much older contest between Islam and the non-Islamic world that has been now simmering, now flaring up, for the last 1,400 years. If we have failed to see the skirmishes along Islam’s perimeters — in Kashmir and Kosovo, in India and Pakistan, in Chechnya and Xinjiang — it is simply because we have refused to look.

In Reflections on Islam, award-winning author and columnist George Jonas explores a range of issues that have come to occupy our daily attention. Is there a difference between Islam and Islamism (and does it matter if there is)? Are we in the midst of a clash of civilizations? How is the confrontation between theocracy and democracy manifesting itself outside of the Middle East? Was it a mistake to invade Iraq, or simply a mistake to stay? At what point do liberal impulses on matters such as multiculturalism and immigration becomes short-sighted and dangerous?

Witty, provocative, and eloquent, this collection of essays — written between early 2001 and late 2006  —showcases Jonas at his best. Reflections on Islam should be required reading for anyone grappling with the defining issues of our age.

This book … it does not live up to the expectations that the backflap creates.

I’ve been struggling with deciding what to say about this book, because I want to be constructive, but simply feel like throwing it against a wall. If I were into censorship – which I’m not – I might want to censor it, and Jonas’ newspaper column – because he still writes one! – for all of eternity. It’s just that bad.

And by bad, I don’t mean that his writing is back. His writing style is actually quite good. The problem is that he doesn’t seem to have any inkling of what he’s actually talking about, either because of obtuseness, misunderstanding, or just plain prejudice.

Let me show you an example:

Such a civilization may discern any manifestation of modernity an assault on its beliefs. If some secular values – say, equality for women – contradict some tenets of the faith, not being able to separate the things that are Caesar’s (or civil society’s) from the things that are God’s, is more likely to invite a radical response.

All religions have, or have had, radical phases. All religions contain passages of darkness and light in their holy books. However, while militant fundamentalism is dormant in all religions, in our day it appears to be awake in one.

Uhm, am I the only one who sees that there are other religions with militant fundamentalism alive and well in the world? Like, I dunno, Bible Belt Christianity, of the specific sort that spawns those horrid people who trick vulnerable women in “Pregnancy Care Centers” and blow up abortion clinics?

That’s not the least of my problems with Jonas’ arguments. Here’s another one of his ever-so-fantastic moments, talking about the aftermath of the Danish cartoon scandal, and the Catholic priest who was stabbed with a note about the cartoonists:

It’s a safe bet that Father Andrea Santoro had nothing to do with the cartoons in the Jyllands-Posten. On the contrary, chances are he’d have disapproved of them. Offending people in their faith for a lark, as the Danish newspaper may have done, is adolescent and uncouth.

But there are worse things than being childish and ill-bred – shooting people, for one. Murder is against the teachings of most religions – including, presumably, Islam’s, although from the behaviour of some Muslims these days it’s difficult to tell what is or isn’t against the teaching of Islam.

“Presumably” including Islam’s? By the time that Jonas wrote this article, he had been writing articles about Islam and Muslims for a number of years. You’d think that by now he’d have known that for sure! In fact, I rather think that he does, and has used this word choice as a “funny” way to say that he thinks maybe it isn’t really a tenet of Islam. In the world at large, I would hazard a guess that many domestic disputes that end in injury or death, for example, are perpetrated by Christians or the non-religious. Does that mean that I should imply that Christian teachings are not against violence, sexual aggression, and murder? No! That’s simply ridiculous, as is Jonas’ assertion in this section. He’s basically just implying that terrorists really do represent Islam, which simply aggravates a stereotype, unfortunately abusing the journalistic requirement of telling the truth.

Oh, just one more quote that I couldn’t leave out. This is yet another article in which Jonas is discussing the aftermath of the Danish cartoons. His friend in this passage has just seen people rioting on television, and asks Jonas if “they are mad” (as in, crazy). Here’s the exchange that ensues:

“No, they’re not mad,” I said. “They’re just differently sane. They’re sane in a manner suitable to their own times.”

“What do you mean, their own times? Muslims live in the twenty-first century, the same as you and I.”

My acquaintance was half-right, which can be worse than being entirely wrong. True, contemporary Muslims have an adress in the twenty-first century. Some use it most of the time; some commute between it and their other address in the twelfth century, while others live mainly in the twelfth century and maintain a twenty-first-century address for email.

I’m not even capable of dignifying that with a response. Hopefully I don’t need to explain to any of you why I find it so offensive.

Anyways, if you want to pick up this book, feel free – but I would suggest that you prepare yourself to be annoyed, irritated, and often to snort and read passages out loud to your roommate so that you can both laugh at the author’s incredible nuttiness (like I did). ‘Cuz it definitely isn’t a good introduction to Islam, nor even a remotely balanced one.

Rating:


This book is a part of the Ramadan Reading event happening here this month.

You can find other posts in the series by clicking on the image to the right, or by taking a look at the schedule of posts and reviews.

6 Comments

  • Carin B. August 14, 2010 at 11:58 am

    That’s really frustrating to read your review! I hate that there is so much misinformation in the world. At times I think our media is like a drug–we just consume it and beg for more because we’re addicted and can’t stop ourselves. What happened to responsible journalism? The back cover of the book sounds like it’s a journalistic investigation into why the divide exists, but it looks like all he did was make the divide wider. *sigh*

    I’m pretty tired of people acting like all Muslims are warmongers and terrorists. I live in the Bible Belt South (Texas) so I definitely understand your frustration. There are attitudes here that are quite antiquated themselves and are rooted in what people think is Christianity (I’m not even talking about clinics that perform abortions either). They are extremists and should be treated as such–not vilify an entire religion.

    Then there’s that whole debacle about the Muslim center that they want to build near the World Trade Center that people are all up in arms about here (although I haven’t actually talked to anyone that is–it is being reported on the “news”). Fareed Zakaria had a really good commentary about how my country should embrace peace-loving Muslims that want to build the center because in the big picture it would combat terrorism. Why fuel the fire for those that want to hate? Embrace those that want to practice their faith in a peaceful manner (like you said above about most religions just having small factions of crazy).

    I’m going to peruse all your posts for Ramadan because honestly, I don’t know a whole lot about Islam and I thought this review was really thoughtful.

    Hope I didn’t ramble on too much and I hope I got my point of view across clearly. Sometimes that doesn’t happen when I write! 🙂

    • Carina August 14, 2010 at 10:49 pm

      No, I definitely got your point – and thank you! It’s good to hear from other people, especially Americans, that I’m not alone in thinking that people who are so Islamophobic are not okay. As for the so-called “World Trade Center Mosque”, it’s funny – there is already a mosque on location there as it stands, all they want to do is turn it into a community centre instead of only a prayer space. The thing is, it’s not legally possible for them to be stopped from building the community centre, so the only real thing that those opposed can do is shame people into stopping the plan, and/or shame people into refusing funding for it. That’s where it will get even worse, because if everybody else is shamed out of funding it, guess who will be left and willing to give money? Saudi and the hardcore Wahhabis. The kind that these people really won’t want building a mosque in that area.

      And thanks, I’m happy you’re going to be sticking around! 🙂

  • Amy August 14, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    Heh, great review! I think you managed to clearly explain why you weren’t a fan 🙂 And I completely agree!

  • Stephanie August 14, 2010 at 7:40 pm

    There are so many misconceptions and prejudices about Islam — it saddens me that an articulate columnist and author like this is adding fuel to the fire. 🙁

  • Niranjana (Brown Paper) August 15, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    Have you read Amartya Sen’s Identity and Violence? Debunks this sort of reductive thinking on Islam very effectively. I think you’d find it interesting (if you haven’t read it already.)

    • Carina August 16, 2010 at 1:10 am

      I haven’t, but it sounds interesting! It’s going on my list.

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