Sunday, December 09, 2007

Book Review: Notable Muslims: Muslim Builders of World Civilisation and Culture

Book review: The achievement of Ahmed Rashid by Khaled Ahmed
Daily Times, December 9, 2007

Notable Muslims: Muslim Builders of World Civilisation and Culture
by Natana Delong-Bas Oneworld Oxford 2006

The book, conceived in 2001, looks at what it thinks are ‘notable Muslims’ at the national and international levels, domestically and as expatriates, contributing to a better understanding of Islam in the West and to the integration of the Muslims living in the Western world. It has 15 percent people drawn from history and 85 percent drawn from today’s world. There are royals, commoners, civilians, government functionaries and dissidents, athletes, businessmen, economists, entertainers, human rights activists, journalists, politicians, theologians, etc, a bunch of one hundred personalities, most of whom will not find approval in the Islamic world of today because of their heretical beliefs.

More about the selection criterion before we discuss the book. Of the contemporary entries, 25 percent are educated in Europe and 54 percent in America. If you put America and Europe together as West then you have 78 percent of the 85 entries educated in the West, including Benazir Bhutto who was educated in Europe and in America. (Ms Bhutto is together with Tancu Ciller of Turkey and Hasina Wajed of Bangladesh.) This said, let’s look at the entries. Both Imran Khan and Jemima Khan are included as Muslims in the book.

There are interesting people like Shazia Mirza the stand-up British comedienne and Kareem Abdul Jabbar the basketball genius from Harlem born to parents from the Caribbean. There is of course the great Muslim Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam who is not recognised as a Muslim in Pakistan — the police rubbed off ‘Muslim’ from his grave in Pakistan — but the world thinks him one. Neguib Mahfouz is the second Muslim Nobel Laureate (1988) in the book, but he too was stabbed by an Islamist in Cairo for not being Islamic enough. Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh is the third Muslim Nobel Laureate in the book.

From the ancient world you have Ibn Battuta, the great traveller, Al Beruni the first encyclopaedist, Ibn al Haytham (d.1040), father of modern optics, Salahuddin Ayyubi, Suleiman the Magnificent, Nasir Al Tusi, Al Khwarizmi and Jalaluddin Rumi. The people not too liked are there too. Farooq Kathwari with his new ideas on Kashmir has been allowed to fall through the cracks in India and Pakistan. Fatima Mernissi and Nawal Al Saadhawi are included to embarrass a Muslim world suddenly gone over to a strict brand of Islam no longer willing to accept scholarly challenges. Notable Muslims are all there, but does the Muslim world accept them? The men the Muslim world likes today, and retrospectively in the past, are the sort that the world is not willing to accept.

Pakistani journalist and author Ahmed Rashid has been listed in the book as a notable Muslim. The reviewer of this book has to report a personal experience. Ahmed Rashid in his book on the Taliban disclosed that, in 1998, Pakistan spent 30 million dollars on ‘micro-managing’ the Taliban, which contained a secret budget of 6 million dollars as salaries to the Taliban administration. When I approached a friend in the Foreign Office in Islamabad on the subject there was an immediate denial followed by an objection to Rashid’s ‘careless and irresponsible’ bandying of accusations when it came to Afghanistan. I must confess I was convinced. But in 2007 when the US State Department declassified some of its Islamabad embassy despatches, I found the money clearly mentioned there!

Ahmed Rashid (born 1948) began his career as a journalist in 1978, writing for the Far Eastern Economic Review, The Telegraph in London and The Nation in Lahore. Rashid reported the Afghan war and bravely stepped into Central Asia as it detached itself from the Soviet state and began to be viewed as an attraction by the jihadi ISI chiefs in Islamabad. He saw Islam as the rising force in the region, his reporting giving him the accumulated wisdom that produced the first post-Soviet glimpse into Central Asia in his book Resurgence of Central Asia: Islam or Nationalism (1995). Anyone who denies that there are Central Asians in Waziristan today should read his book. He talked about Tahir Yuldashev and his movement when not even the experts knew his name.

He followed it with another book Taliban: Militant Islam Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (2000) gleaned from his reporting that clearly warned of the coming danger to world peace from the region. This is the book that became the bestseller after 9/11 when the world wanted to know about the medieval-looking Islamic warriors who had gestated the ambition to attack the United States. Translated into 22 languages, the book sold 1.5 million copies and is being used as a course book in more than 220 American schools and universities. It was on the bestseller lists for a long time and won the British-Kuwait Middle East Studies Book Prize in 2001.

Other books have followed. Islam and Central Asia: An Enduring Legacy or an Evolving Threat (2000), Jihad: the Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia (2002) have made him an international expert on the region, invited to the Soros Foundation, to the Davos World Economic Forum and International Committee of the Red Cross. He is not the most favoured journalist in Pakistan because he formally asked Pakistan to apologise for the excesses its intervention in Afghanistan committed against the Afghan nation, but he received the Nisar Omani Award for Courage in Journalism from the Human rights Commission of Pakistan in 2001. There are not many great journalists in the history of Pakistan, but one can start with him as an example.

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