Lessons from “the Islam group”

Cover of Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary

Getting this book for Christmas is really what prompted the formation of the “World Religions – Islam” study group in town in the first place. Loved it; then wanted to read it again with other people.

Our community study group on Islam wound up its reading and discussion of Tamim Ansary, Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, last night. We started with around 50 people (that’s a long story – maybe another time), and have ended up with about 10 or 15 stalwarts, what with jobs and travel and summer vacations and houseguests and yardwork and all the kinds of things grown-up people with real lives have to do in their spare time that get in the way of doing other things in their spare time.

I guess we have all learned something, including a few things about Islam. I had planned to be pretty happy if people came away from this project knowing something about the 5 pillars, the origins of the split between the Sunni and Shi’a, enough not to say “shariah law,” and that the organization of Islam is really different from the organization of Christianity, and if I got to read the Ansary book and talk about it with some other people. We did all that. Plus, we got some people together who might not otherwise get together – yes, a bunch of members of the Presbyterian Church (reading books and talking about them being the kind of thing we like to do for fun, evidently), but also some other people from Corydon, not all of whom we all already knew, and even from Floyd County, so that was nice. So I suppose I need to get on with being pretty happy now.

Maybe I have those end of the class blues. I think after the August break, if the group persists – which some people seem to desire – it will also be a rather different group, probably with a different purpose. There has been a suggestion to look at the history of Christianity or Judaism next, for instance. So, from my perspective, “the Islam group” is over.

Or maybe it’s the enormity of the world situation. That was part of what prompted “the Islam group” – “this is in the news every day, and I don’t know anything at all about Islam, really” is a common experience. The folks who hung in with the study group know more than nothing at all about Islam now. But then, the more you know, the more you know.

Our discussion last night covered the last chapters in Ansary, from roughly the last part of the 19th century and that kind of imperialism through the decline of the Ottoman Empire, the two World Wars, and post-war developments in what Ansary calls the “Middle World,” in particular Egypt, Iran, and the Middle East. It’s a study in unintended or unforeseen consequences, plus a lot of what my mom used to call “out of the frying pan into the fire.” We were all struck by the devastating processes of colonialism – trade-induced destruction of local industries, erosion of local control in every area. We saw the irony in the history of capitalist industrial development, that takes off fastest and hardest in societies with the fewest restrictions on a few people’s imposition of externalities on others (at least, as I see it, that’s how Ansary tells the story, and I wouldn’t disagree with him too strongly; I read Primitive Accumulation in college). I think we all felt the weight of all the various points along the historical way in which things might have gone a little or a lot differently, but didn’t, because policy-makers thought they were making things more safe and secure, at least for their own interests or constituencies or their corner of the world.

And now here we are. Most of the members of this group – not all – are old enough to have lived through the news coverage and grown-up conversations around the Six Day War in 1967. One woman recalled how “the foreign students” at her college were glued to the tv’s in the student union waiting for news. I remember my grandmother being sure Jesus’ second coming was just around the corner now. Ansary sees it as, ironically again, if anything too decisive, with far-reaching, unintended, unforeseen, almost counter-intuitive consequences:

The third consequence was the most ominous. The Six Day War marked a turning point in the general struggle between the secular modernists of the Islamic World and adherents of those other currents of Islamic thought and action coming out of the nineteenth century: Wahhabism and the various strains of political Islamism. (331)

… the war radicalized and “Palestinianized” the PLO, empowered the Ba’ath party, and energized the Muslim Brotherhood, which spawned Jihadist splinters as the years went by, ever more extremist zealots who mounted increasingly horrific attacks not just at innocent bystanders who got in the way – a tragic byproduct of virtually all wars – but against anyone who could be gotten and the more innocent the better, the distinctive genre of violence known today as terrorism. (332)

My grandmother’s version was decidedly more optimistic.

It may be emotionally easier to have the vague general idea that “terrorism” just sort of comes out of “Islam” the way flowers come out of the soil, sort of naturally and organically. That’s wrong, of course, but it may be easier. Because then you could have the idea that “all we have to do” is “get rid of Islam.” And you could even think that makes any kind of sense. A scary lot of people would be willing to go along with you on that.

It is much more accurate, but also much more emotionally and cognitively challenging, to recognize that the ideology and the practice of Islamist jihadism grows out of centuries of cultivation by specific economic and socio-cultural forces, international policy-making and political practices emanating as much from “the West” as from “the Muslim world,” and certainly from the course the interactions of those two worlds took, including the ideological consequences of “anti-communism” and “development,” etc. etc. So it’s more like hybrid corn in a plowed field. Or maybe like the ox-eye daisies that grow between the rows. (Those are classified as a weed in Indiana, just btw.) The problem is that no one seems to have read the seed catalog before they started sowing this particular wind. I’m not even sure anyone knows whose field it is.

So we sat there last night, looking at each other, asking ourselves … so, what do we do to be part of the solution? We talked ourselves to a standstill recognizing that we do not have obviously good solutions, and that our own country is not in good shape to be offering solutions anyway. Every way we turn looks like an unpromising dead end. One of my good friends there says, almost to herself, “we can pray …” Not that I dismiss that. If only it didn’t feel to me as much like doing nothing as it does.


Ansary, Tamim. 2009. Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes. New York: Public Affairs.

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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