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March 23, 2007

In the Lands of the Prophet: Lincoln Allison explains how he can love Islamic countries, but detest the Islamic religion

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Lincoln Allison is a keen visitor to Islamic countries - yet would describe himself as in some senses Islamophobic. Here he explains the paradox.

The music you are listening to, Timothy, is German music. We are fighting the Germans. That's something you are going to have to work out for yourself.

(Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore, "Aftermyth of War" from Beyond the Fringe, 1961.)

In a bored moment while standing in an immigration queue the other day I read my passport. There were twenty six stamps from Islamic countries in the de facto sense - that is, where most of the population are Muslim. Twenty six! The passport isn't very old and it isn't my only one. Hell of a traveller, eh? Admittedly, I had until recently relatives in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi and admittedly, too, most of the countries in question have the habit of stamping when they issue a visa and then for entrance and then for exit, so the stamps soon mount up. But the facts seem to demand both explanation and reportage, especially as I would cheerfully admit to Islamophobia in some senses.

It can't be called intellectual: I don't go to Muslim countries for "research" purposes and only occasionally for work of any kind. I'm slightly ashamed of my level of knowledge of the Muslim religion and the Arabic language. Though, lest I sound untypically modest, sheer curiosity has taken me to levels of knowledge a good deal above most tourists and even ex-pats.

It is primarily aesthetic: it is about seeing a shaft of sunlight angling into one of the alleys of the souk and catching a woman robed in black. Umm Khultum's resonant, throaty voice, backed by violins playing quartertones, heard in the streets of a dusty village. Or - shortly after I arrived on the Palermo-Tunis boat forty years ago - the desert when the friendly lorry driver switched his engine off: objectively, silence; in my head, still a roaring from the engine and the heat; on the horizon, six black tents. And would he ever know what satisfaction he had given me with that single word, "Bedou!"?

I like the food, too: a mint and onion salad scooped up with unleavened bread, a tajine of mountain lamb with figs and almonds, the taste of clean water in real heat. Of course, it is about coming from Burnley and searching out the supreme "other" to our damp hills and dark terraces. And it is about life imitating art: my beautifully illustrated child's bible and David Lean's film of Lawrence of Arabia have to be numbered among the influences.

Forty years ago the contrasts were stark, but the dissonance seemed slight. I sat in cafes in Tunis with young men of my own age and even the occasional girl. When a djellaba and scarf combination went by it was known as "la vie traditionelle en Tunisie" whereas a miniskirt got the equally approving, "la vie moderne . . ". I distinctly remember hoping that tradition would survive, being deeply conservative, even then.

Whereas last year, watching a wedding party form below my balcony in Antalya, Turkey I found myself counting heads, scarves against faux-blondes, willing the blondes on to win. There was a late run on scarves, leaving it roughly equal. "Traditional . . . endangered . . " had become "Islamic . . threatening . . ". In Turkey educated young women speak of their faith in the army and its determination to uphold the secular constitution against the ruling "Welfare" party. In no other context that I know of do progressive young ladies speak so highly of soldiers. Or feel so frustrated about not being members of the European Union. The main effect on tourists of current government policy is the high tax on wine.

Yet the main report of the 26 stamp man has to be of the sheer absence of hostility that you encounter. On my first trip to North Africa I encountered almost no hostility at all. On my second, shortly afterwards, there was plenty. That was simply because I had changed my companion from a large Canadian male to a shapely blonde female, arousing a whole nexus of lust and cultural conflict. But now, despite 9/11 and Iraq and some hideous acts of terrorism meant to put off westerners and hit governments in the pocket (actually, perhaps, because of these) there is enormous good humour in the souks and bazaars. The only place I have felt threatened in recent years was in the market in Aswan at night and that was just teenage criminals, boys and girls, poor resenting rich. I escaped a mugging only by showing the kind of determination which might have got me killed in London. Nobody shouts at you about Iraq or Al Qaeda though it is amusing to report that from my brother-in-law's house in Dubai you can read the name BIN LADEN CONSTRUCTION on one of the numerous building sites which are visible. They are said to have disowned their black sheep.

In short, I hypothesise that most people want to rub along as they are. They already live in high degrees of pluralism and they want to keep it that way. An Islamic home and family is fine, but the Islamic society of the agitators is not. Marrakech may be thoroughly Muslim in style, but it remains a gay and ganja centre. Most people in Dubai are from fairly fundamentalist Islamic countries, but a dozen cultures tolerate each other completely and the place is a bit of a brothel. (Cue to the bar at the top of the Burj Al Arab, possibly the tackiest place on the planet, where a fat Yorkshireman in an expensive suit is asking his exotic Slavic companion, "Do you want another drink, Tamara, before . . . ?" And you want him to actually complete the question, though there is some historical-ideological satisfaction in reflecting that it is Lenin's legacy that the generic name for a prostitute in the richer parts of the Middle East is a "Natasha".)

Is the future of East-West relations to be understood from Iraq or Iran or Algeria? Or is the real clue to be found in Dubai, a place that writers of fiction would not dare make up and academics have great difficulty in theorising. It is the non-society society where religion, ethnicity, culture, nationality are private matters, where more than 90% of the population come from somewhere else. It has the world's fanciest mosques, but also the headquarters of the International Cricket Council and the venues for global events in motor racing, horse racing, golf and rugby. It is the afterthought to empire, duplicating British Indian and Ottoman pluralisms and ethnic divisions of functioning: the Pakistanis do the work, the Brits do the organising and the Arabs collect the rent.

Ex-pats compare it to Hong Kong under the Cultural Revolution and Portugal during the war, a neutral territory where people find that pressing their normal ideological positions does not serve their interests. Rumours talk of protection money going to Al Qaeda, of Osama Bin Laden being treated in the American Hospital and of the property boom collapsing like a burst balloon if there is a single terrorist bomb.

It is a place that everybody ought to see to understand their own era - like Manchester in the 1840s or New York in the 1890s. Where will it all be in 50 years time? Globalisation will stand or fall with Dubai? I would want it to stand because I like the idea of a society where commerce is a higher reality than religion. Most people want it to stand and believe it is going to, judging from the numbers of Westerners who are buying property there, as in other Arab countries. East-West pluralism certainly works better there than it does in Burnley. But there can be no pretence that commerce and religion can be kept entirely apart: witness the recent legal nightmares which occur when the owners of real estate (fully allowed to foreigners only this century) die and their wives cannot inherit under Muslim law!

But if I had to live anywhere it would certainly not be in Dubai, but in another version of pluralism: Marrakech, where desert, mountain and olive grove meet, but also Europe, Africa and Arabia seem to wash up into the same pool. And, for that matter, French bourgeois and English gentry, for both of whom this is a traditional watering hole.

And I have a slightly special relationship with the Kingdom of Morocco: in 1973 I was hanging about outside the royal palace in Rabat with my girlfriend when a small boy engaged us in conversation; there was no one else around. He spoke good English and told us he was ten years old. Perhaps even at ten he was slightly taken with my voluptuous companion, then in her late teens. He asked me how many cars I had and what were they? (I had three, but only two of them worked.) He said he had a Cadillac. Oh, yes? But the Cadillac appeared complete with a po-faced driver and we went up and back in it for a while. You have every right not to believe this story, but the voluptuous one is still my room mate and (unusually for her) is actually prepared to confirm it. The boy is now, of course, His Majesty King Mohammed VI and though he has many enemies, particularly among fundamentalists, he presides over the highest rate of economic growth in Africa.

My problem, like Timothy's in the quotation at the beginning, is that I have to work out how you can love Islamic countries, but detest the Islamic religion, particularly as almost everything, from food and clothing to architecture and even academic life is determined by that religion. One must accept that, to some degree cultural practice is tainted by religious fanaticism. I used to enjoy the call to prayer, but it's normal opening, usually printed Allah Akhbar, but sounding more like Allah'w Ak'hbar, has been shouted during massacres and beheadings and it is impossible to forget that, just as, when considering the Gaelic Athletic Association it is impossible to forget that hurly sticks have often been used in punishment beatings. But causation is not identity and association is not identity. I've loved a catholic most of my life, but it's not because she's a catholic. And I consider myself a sort of Anglican, but culturally, not doctrinally.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton.

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