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Explaining Islam to the West

From: Gloria Davies, J V D’Cruz & Nathan Hollier, editors, Profiles in Courage: Political Actors and Ideas in Contemporary Asia, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2008

When the celebrity Australian crocodile hunter, Steve Irwin, was killed by a stingray on the Great Barrier Reef in 2006, home-grown feminist, Germaine Greer aimed her own barb straight at the dead hero. She said the animal world had finally taken its revenge on Irwin, but probably not before a whole generation of kids had learned to shout into the much more sensitive ears of animals, as Irwin did on television. These kids were determined to become millionaire animal-loving zoo-owners like him. Not long afterwards, Irwin’s portrait, arm around an elephant, replaced that of Greer, in Canberra’s National Portrait Gallery. Any irony was denied by the gallery, saying the temporary swap had happened by coincidence in a regular rotation. Irwin’s national mourning was profound. Public figures, from the prime minister down, gushed their testimonials for a media-marketed megastar. Tributes flowed free and wide in federal parliament which has all but ignored the demise of achievers in other callings, from priest to poet. A list of notables flew to the funeral. And Irwin’s untimely death earned prominence in the United States where he had become a popular figure, thanks to television. Greer used this hagiography to bemoan the Californianisation of Australia. 

    For an earlier, parallel analysis of a fictional predecessor to Irwin, look into the prolific writings of Ziauddin Sardar for his critique for the movie, Crocodile Dundee. Paul Hogan’s eponymous crocodile poacher comes from a remote Australian community. The movie, ‘...with the help of the American media, is brilliantly marketed in New York, by collapsing three different worlds and ontologies on to its narratives: the innocent and apolitical world of Dundee, the world of Australian Aborigines and the world of hype and hysteria of the American media. But the Aborigines appear only as an appendix and their voice is filtered through the character of Dundee [who] becomes the archetype of all those white children raised by the natives who are the prime device of Western appropriation.’ The ultimate appropriation, says the commentator, is ‘the psychic/spiritual world of the Aborigines, which, once possessed, makes the Aboriginal people an unnecessary piece of exotica, whose inability to come to terms with modernity is parodied and misrepresented on a massive scale by the film. The inner and outer reality of the film come together in a truly postmodern style: the American success of Dundee in the film is reflected in the American success of Hogan.’ (152-53) In its expropriation of Aboriginal land as the basis of British possession, Australia became the clearest case of the framework of colonialism (118-119).

     This postcolonial critique of cultural myopia is typical of the intellectual analysis from Sardar’s well-worked keyboard. Who, then, is this person? And what can he offer contemporary Australia?

Cultural Critique 

A British citizen who left his native Pakistan as a child, Zia Sardar embeds his culturalist perspectives in an œuvre of 50 books, many translated, which he has authored alone or with colleagues. Additionally, there are countless writings that range from regular columns to reviews in titles that include the Independent, The Guardian and New Statesman. He also co-edits and contributes to Third Text, a critique of contemporary art and culture, assisted financially by the Arts Council of England. And he can further indulge his passion for ideas as editor of Futures, the international journal of policy, planning and futures studies. In 2006, he was appointed Commissioner on the UK Commission for Equality and Human Rights

    Initial impressions can suggest a sharp irony, if not cynicism. But this quickly dissolves into an abiding curiosity. An apparent intellectual aggression can briefly mask his sincerity and deep humanity. While his cultural analysis is surgically incisive, it is largely free of the theoretical correctness of academic criticism. He draws on a depth of academic thought, including that of the late Edward Said, but Sardar remains accessible, showing the communicative capacities of his early, serious journalism and his reluctance to take a full-time academic position. He has had to live off his not inconsiderable wits as a cultural commentator, writer broadcaster. That is not to discount his contribution to academic thought; he is well cited by scholars and researchers in the fields of multicultural relations, interpreting Islam, cultural theory and future studies. 

    It is not surprising that Sardar has chosen to bring his forensic dissection to a movie about Australia, such as Crocodile Dundee, in order to disclose the civilisational dominance of modernity which has distorted cultural relations, and thus human interconnections. He prefers to use cultural artefacts, since he thinks they embody the collective sensibility. For example, when visiting the Philippines for a conference of futurists, he stayed on in Manila to immerse himself in Filipino movies to get to understand the local culture. Take, as another example, the portrayal of the baptism of Pocahontas, on prominent display in the Capitol rotunda in Washington. In this he sees the self-justification of European conquest of newfound lands. Disney’s movie of the Amerindian convert tells us that the dominant order, in its incarnation as postmodern relativism, still dictates the terms, content and meaning of description. (95-98) 

    He also enlists the futures of humanity – among other things, he calls himself a futurist -- and of science, to illustrate his commentary. Science-fiction cinema has felt the scalpel of a former writer for the journal, Nature; he thinks the genre is no more than a populist biopsy of the psyche of Western civilisation, its history, preoccupations and project of future domination. It is the time machine going nowhere, being mired in the scientistic, industrial, technological, cultural-socio-psycho babble of a single civilisational paradigm (1).

Why hate America?

When fiction became reality on 11 September 2001, New York provided another opportunity for his analysis of ‘Orientalism’ in the form of the Manhattan tragedy. Within a few short months, Sardar and pen partner, Merryl Wyn Davies, a Welsh convert to Islam, had produced an international bestseller, Why do people hate America? This was a highly visible conjunction of Islam and the West -- perhaps the biggest media event thus far. The pair examined how the American export of its value systems defines what it means to be civilised. Impervious to the rest of the world, Americans see others only through deeply ingrained stereotypes. Sardar and Davies argue for a transcendence of hatred, recalling the French movie, La Haine, which begins and ends with the story of a man who falls from a skyscraper. For them, the film seems to say that it matters not how people fall, or come to hate; it is how you land that matters. A gang in the film -- a Jew, an Arab and an African -- hangs out aimlessly in the streets. When tortured by police as suspected criminals, the young men direct their hatred towards the immediate cause of their suffering, the representatives of authority. The gang’s social marginalisation is seen as a form of violence that feeds back on itself and leads to other forms of violence which eventually spiral out of control. Sardar and Davies ask that America, as the object and the source of global hatred, unwrap itself from the flag and replace it with the prayer of St Francis of Assisi: ‘…To be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love, with all my soul.’ (193-211)

    Their advice can be equally challenging for Australia’s leadership, staunchly allied to the United States, the world’s single superpower and arbiter of other peoples’ value systems. Sardar, particularly, speaks from a cultural mobility as a Pakistani and a Muslim desperately roaming the Middle East, as a young adult, in a vain search for an Islamic Paradise. Born in the Punjab, his rural village had a Muslim identity in what became a contested area following the lengthy partition of India. No sooner had the new frontier been settled, and new identities asserted themselves, than his family relocated to Britain. He was instantly an unknown quantity in metropolitan London in another contested cultural arena. Independence was thrust on him -- the newest kind of explorer who ‘existed across so many worlds of belonging’.

Travels beyond modernity 

His desperate search for Paradise in the 1970s showed him to be sceptical of both modernity and Islam. As a young student he set out from London hoping to understand the contemporary relevance of his religion, travelling the Middle East, North Africa, Pakistan and China. He found sustenance from like-minded thinkers, humane, and committed to a middle way between Western secularism and Islamic certainty. He proved to be far from a cultural chauvinist and this was tested for the umpteenth time when, in 2005, he bumped into Pakistan’s President, Pervez Musharraf, third of that nation’s ‘great military dictators’. Musharraf had gone to Sardar’s table in a restaurant in Islamabad, patted him on the back and claimed he was interested in the opinions of learned Pakistanis like him. ‘I am British’, Sardar shot back. ‘And I think Pakistan is a failed state’. This Pakistani-born Britain seems ideally situated to show how we need to stand outside our own circle in order to understand the vantage points of others. This, at a time when the cultural divide is too often seen simplistically, for political purposes, as a clash of religions.

    It can be too easy to use his polyocular vision to justify those of his critics who accuse him of being an ‘ambiguous intellectual’. Their complaint is that Sardar deliberately cultivates a carefully calculated ambiguity projecting several things at once, yet none of them on their own (2). That overlooks his passionate insistence that Islam is just as deserving of self-reappraisal as the West. 

    It is not surprising, with his background, that he now considers interconnections are needed among and between cultures. It was for this reason that he sent his youngest son, Zain, to a Roman Catholic school. Sardar’s latest passion is to see a shift to transmodernism, something that goes beyond modernity and postmodernism, transcending both in order to take us into another state of being. This means two major shifts. The first is to see tradition as dynamic, amenable, capable and eager to change, while thinking of traditional communities not as premodern but as having the potential to transcend the dominant model of modernity. Secondly, transmodernism shifts the notions of modernity from being a priori, the given and exclusive preserve of the West, to a participatory negotiation of a plethora of (trans) modernities each answering to different histories. Just as there are different ways to be human, there are different ways to be modern. (296-297)

    At the same time, there must be another transition: from multiculturalism to mutually assured diversity. While multiculturalism acknowledges that we all have histories, mutually assured diversity is based in the proposition that all identities have futures, where identity is the cultural aptitude to seek a better future fashioned from all the possibilities and predicaments offered by contemporary times and circumstances, and in light of the history that shapes those circumstances. Identities are constantly in flux because they are systems of interpretation. Mutually assured diversity is not about being politely tolerant of multiculturalism but accepting the necessity to share power. The emphasis shifts from tolerance to polylogue, multiple dialogues, and the need for understanding to reveal what has previously been shrouded in obscurity: the meaning of their particular culture to the bearers of that culture. (289-290) 

    His mutually assured diversity would give new hope to Indigenous Australians who wish to have their diverse national identities coexist with the wider identity of the Australian nation-state. Further, it would most likely lead to a very different Australian policy which now treats asylum seekers with suspicion.

Not afraid to question 

Sardar’s views are offered in willing and fearless advocacy, undaunted by the staunch barricades of social status, as we see with Musharraf. I saw him personally challenge American mathematician, Benoit Mandlebrot, at a conference in Turku, Finland: had he overlooked the earlier ‘discovery’ of fractals in the traditional mosaic adornment found in many a mosque? More recently, he launched into three contemporary giants of British literature, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie. As literary conservatives, he argues, they have realised that their own fiction has political clout and this celebrity status has been enlisted to advance a clear, political agenda. The deceit he sees in their writing is that Islam has become the greatest threat to their own idea of civilisation, having shifted their emphasis from the supremacy of the West to the supremacy of American ideas of freedom. 

    Rushdie had already felt the stab of the Sardar pen. As with the New York tragedy, Sardar collaborated with Davies to write their ‘lessons’ of the ‘Rushdie affair’, an unleashing of age-old prejudices that began with Rushdie’s publication of The Satanic Verses in September 1988. By March, 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini had issued a fatwah and within a year their own assessment, Distorted Imagination, was in the bookstores. The real issues were neither freedom of expression, nor blasphemy, but the reclaiming of an appropriated history and the survival of cultural identity. In offering lessons in mutual understanding, they explained how the affair had been born of the distorted imagination of Orientalism, invented by the West to explain other peoples. At the time, they foresaw the unfortunate likelihood of a devastatingly long future for such misunderstanding of Islam. And they advocated that an understanding of Orientalism was not only necessary for understanding the Rushdie affair, but also a natural step for Western people in understanding themselves.

    Sardar did not condone the death sentence against Rushdie. He and Davies felt it was imposed without due process, something indefensible under Islamic law. He is just as fearless advocating the need for change within Islam as he is in challenging Orientalism. By applying his cultural critique to the West and non-West alike, he resembles his friend, Ashis Nandy, profiled elsewhere in this volume. He regards Nandy highly as a ‘true intellectual’. When they meet, they vigorously explore each other’s minds, often late into the night. Sardar says that Nandy, who has remained in India, is not interested in romanticising Indian tradition; he sees India as a whole, warts and all. Consistency makes Nandy ‘truer to his own Self’ (262-3).  

    While Nandy explores cultural difference largely from the subcontinent, Sardar, has wandered widely and restlessly beyond it. It was during his forays into Asia as a young British Muslim that he hit the wall of Islamic authoritarianism. He went to Iran to see for himself the revolutionary transformation of Iran under the ayatollahs, in 1978-79. On his second visit there, he went without a visa and was deported to Pakistan after a grilling. His visions of a transferable revolutionary model now failed to match those of colleagues who thought they held the Muslim blueprint of the future: a single all-embracing utopian vision everyone was obliged to follow. And, just before Iran, he had lived and worked in Saudi Arabia. On his fifth Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, he was sickened by police brutality trying to control the crowd. In the Sacred Mosque, he witnessed ‘a physical assault on cultural tradition and an ideological onslaught on the spiritual and philosophical richness of Islam’. He fled back to London with his manuscript of The Future of Muslim Civilisation in a Saudi Airlines shoulder bag. He had begun developing his own vision for numerous possible Muslim futures, questioning the practice of Islam where it threatens diversity.

Future of Muslim Civilisation 

The Future of Muslim Civilization was his first volume on Islamic futures. It charted the possible development of a ‘dynamic and thriving future civilization of Islam’ and introduced a theme he has since developed further, that ordinary Muslims around the world who have concerns, questions and considerable moral dilemmas about the current state of affairs of Islam, must reclaim its basic concepts and reframe them in a broader context. He sees the cardinal framework of Islam as eternal. Truth remains unchanged, unlike the human condition. While Islamic principles are eternal, their application in space-time is not. For example, technological progress changes the material involvement of human life. In a person’s progress, attention is drawn to new planes for understanding the nature of the cosmos. And new questions are posed.  An individual’s personality is subjected to new tensions that call for renewed adjustments as a result of increased material involvement, heightened social intercourse, the accelerated pace of living and the new development of thought. Such changes call for readjustment in organisation and in administrative, social and economic, national and international patterns of human activity, nationally and internationally.  The underlying dynamics of Islam must be reunderstood with life’s changed physical conditions. For instance, he does not believe that women should be made to wear the veil.

     Sardar’s interest in the future does not support prediction; it is not possible, longer term. While he had long anticipated continued misunderstanding inside and outside Islam, he could not foresee the specific events of September 2001 and beyond. And since the first edition of his book on Islamic futures, other events have shaken the Muslim World, including the revolution in Iran and the demand for Islamization in a number of Muslim countries. These events have only strengthened his thesis. While the Islamic revolution in Iran represented a major upturn in contemporary Muslim history, events that followed it have been far from satisfactory. The construction of an Islamic state on essential notions of the Islamic world-view show the inadequacy of the conventional approach -- both traditionalist and modernist -- to understanding and implementing the dictates and principles of Islam in contemporary society.

      His contributions to foresight have not been confined to Islam. As editor of Futures, he supports anticipatory thinking in a wide context. And, he has contributed to the scholarly literature on the study of the future, futures studies. His edited volume, Rescuing all our futures, examines the futures of futures studies from a standpoint at the end of the last century. The blurb on the front cover clearly reveals his concern for cultural diversity: ‘The future is the last frontier where non-western societies are still free – free to imagine and envision desirable futures based on their own worldviews, cultures and traditions’.

The challenge 

Sardar’s appeal for allowing other cultures freedom to imagine for themselves, challenges thoughtful Australians to imagine not just their own futures, but how these futures could impact on their neighbours, as they sit in isolation way down in the south-west Pacific, assuming their privileged place in the sun that ranges from balmy to tropical. It can seem that the Aussie battlers, the newly entrepreneurial, aspirational voters, are dozing in the apathy of their relative privilege, free from the troubled world. Are they partying aboard playwright David Williamson’s cruise-ship Australia, heading for the rocks, oblivious to the play of geo-politics and the climate change that may reinvent their futures? Since Williamson’s jibe, which caused a stir in the press, there has been tentative recognition of the looming threat from climate change, through the murky haze of mainstream politics. But futurist colleagues of Sardar had seen it coming for at least three decades.

        Zia Sardar has spent far less time in Australia than he has in Malaysia and Indonesia, neighbouring Islamic cultures where he has published school textbooks and knows many people, including long-time friend, the former deputy prime minister of Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim. He maintained a home in Kuala Lumpur at the time Mahathir Mohamad was accusing Paul Keating of recalcitrance. From this stance, and as a member of the global futurist community, he can see problems for Australia in edging away from its official policy of multiculturalism, a slide that began with Canberra’s hard line against asylum seekers, particularly from the Middle East, during a successful re-election campaign a few weeks after New Yorks’ twin-towers tragedy in 2001. He thinks Australia should move the other way, even beyond multiculturalism towards mutually assured diversity. Despite problems and setbacks for multiculturalism, cultural pluralism is the only game in town. Without it, he thinks Oz could become a monolithic state, and the signs are already showing. 

        In a globalised world, the idea that anyone holds to, or possibly could belong to, a single, unchanging culture is untenable to Sardar. All cultures change, and multiculturalism itself has changed, and is changing. Multiculturalism has become the driving force of cities, the engine of economic growth, the motive power of cultural products. What happens on the streets of Karachi and Bombay often has a direct bearing on the roads of Birmingham and Bradford – and Sydney. We cannot understand the emerging forms of multiculturalism through old categories and vocabulary. The complex realities of tomorrow and the new form of multiculturalism require that Australia ditch numerous antiquated notions, taken for granted: categories such as ‘black and white’, ‘Asian and Muslim’, ‘ethnicity’ and ‘difference’. It makes no sense to ascribe ethnicity to a group when traditional similarities and differences are dissolving. The language of belonging, exile and diaspora becomes irrelevant in the face of a new pluralism, where ‘home’ is both here and there. Even the term ‘immigrant’, when equated with ‘blacks’, ‘Asians’ and ‘refugees’, has become meaningless.

     Perhaps bagging multiculturalism gives temporary political advantage in times when political leaders are eagerly whipping up fear to win votes with hard-line security policies that promise protection from ‘terrorism’. But is the dropping of multicultural terminology from immigration regulations, and the nation’s cosiness with US over the war in Iraq, more likely to lead others to suspect Australia’s white supremacy as racist? At a time when some fanatical commentators argue that Islam is in a holy war with the West, it becomes even more urgent for Australia to hear the views of thoughtful people from inside moderate Islam, such as Ziauddin Sardar.

      Sardar worries that the world as a whole is becoming less moderate. It is drowning in dogmatism -- fanaticism and fundamentalism of all shades, religious and secular, scientific and atheist – all saying the same: that they are absolutely right and that everyone else is totally wrong. As a believer, he cannot and is not against belief, per se, but is against beliefs that spare no room for doubt. Without an appreciation of one’s own follies, belief – which gives meaning and direction -- turns into an instrument of domination. He argues for a true scepticism – not one that sees no good in a system – but one that throws scorn on its unsavoury sides, where doubt is positive for enhancing everyday life.

     True scepticism may be growing with the military preoccupation in the far-away Middle East. It remains to be seen whether this leads to a sound rejection of jingoistic schisms threatening to divide civilisations founded in mono-theistic cultures. And will it help Australia learn to better understand its East Asian neighbours whose cultures are founded in theistic pluralism? Meanwhile, Australia could well ask: what has an Islamic commentator, such as Sardar, got to say about the ascendancy of civilisations grounded in Confucian culture? That could present a new challenge for this visionary transmodernist.



Masood, Ehsan, ed. 2006, How do you know? Reading Ziauddin Sardar on Islam, science and cultural relations (London: Pluto Press, London).

Sardar, Ziauddin and Merryl Wyn Davies. 1990, Distorted imagination: Lessons from the Rushdie affair (London: Grey Seal). 

Sardar, Ziauddin. 1999, Rescuing all our futures: the future of futures studies Twickenham: Adamantine Press).

Sardar, Ziauddin and Sean Cubitt, eds. 2002, Aliens R us: the other in science fiction cinema, (London: Pluto Press).

Sardar, Ziauddin. 2004, Desperately seeking Paradise: journeys of a sceptical Muslim, (London: Granta) pp. 21-23.

Chapters in Book

Masood, Ehsan. 2006, ‘Introduction: The ambiguous intellectual, in Eshan Masood, ed., How do you know? Reading Ziauddin Sardar on Islam, science and cultural relations (London: Pluto Press, London) 2006, pp.  1-11.

Sardar, Ziauddin. 1998, ‘A grand memory for forgetting’, in Ziauddin Sardar, Postmodernism and the other: The new imperialism of Western culture (London: Pluto Press) pp. 85-122

Sardar, Ziauddin. 1998, ‘Recycling shampoo’, in ibid, pp. 123-163.

Sardar, Ziauddin. 2006, ‘The A B C D (and E) of Ashis Nandy’ in Masood, 2006, op. cit. pp. 242-263. 

Sardar, Ziauddin. 2006, ‘Beyond difference: Cultural relations in the new century’, ibid, pp. 288-309


Sardar, Ziauddin. 2006, ‘Islam’s man of action’, New Statesman, 4 September: 28-30.

Sardar, Ziauddin. 2006, Welcome to Planet Blitcon, New Statesman, 11 December: 52-54.

Sardar, Ziauddin. 2007, ‘A believer’s guide to scepticism’, New Statesman, 19 March: 21.


Assisi, St Francis of, ‘Make me an instrument of your peace’, ( HYPERLINK "", accessed at 27 March 2007.

Biographical note: Tony Stevenson is futurist and social commentator who writes and speaks , a writer and speaker, and a contributor to the international journal, Futures, and a member of its Editorial Board. Formerly, he was: Director, The Communication Centre, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane (1985-1998); General Secretary (1993-1997) and President (1997-2001), World Futures Studies Federation; and a Member of UNESCO’s  Council on the Future (1998-2001).