Frederick Forsyth’s The Afghan

I just read this book, my first Forsyth ever. Very entertaining, plus it does a great job going over the recent history of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The book is about a retired British special forces soldier who goes undercover as an Afghan Taliban leader recently released from Guantanamo.

The author uses a term incorrectly, though. Technically, it’s introduced by one of his characters (the only female character of any note in the whole book), who is describing to the undercover agent the types of bad guys he’s going to encounter. First she describes the salafists, who want to restore the golden age of Islam. Then she describes the ultra extremists, and says:

“The ultras–the real ultras–I would designate with one word: takfir. Whatever it meant in Wahhab’s day, it has changed. The true salafi will not smoke, gamble, dance, accept music in his presence, drink alcohol or consort with Western women. With his dress, appearance and religious devotion, he is immediately identifiable for what he is. From an internal security point of view, identifiability is half the battle.
“But some will adopt every single custom of the West, however much they may loathe them, in order to pass as fully Westernized and therefore harmless. All nineteen of the 9/11 bombers slipped through because they looked and acted the part. The same with the four London bombers; apparently normal young men, going to the gym, playing cricket, polite, helpful, one of them a special needs teacher, smiling constantly and planning mass murder. These are the ones to watch.
“Many are clean-shaven, barbered, groomed, dressed in suits, educated, with a good degree. These are the ultimate; prepared to become chameleons against their faith to achieve mass murder for their faith. …”

This is not what takfir means, though. Takfir has three meanings: 1) atonement, 2) luring another Muslim to become an unbeliever and 3) accusing another Muslim of being an unbeliever. It is indeed extremist or “ultra” Muslims who engage in #3.

I think the term Mr Forsyth wanted was taqiya, which means dissimulation of one’s religion (under duress or in the face of threatening damage). Taqiya is historically the province of Shi’a, not Sunni Muslims. (The Taliban and al-Qaeda being Sunni Muslims).
Blurb from Wikipedia’s entry on taqiya:

According to many Shia, Taqiyyah can only be legally used by a Muslim verbally when he or she is being wrongly persecuted. The situation may be when revealing the truth is more important than saving one’s life. In such a case, one must not conceal the faith and must uphold the truth. When one is guilty and is trying to conceal his or her guilt he is not said to be using taqiyyah, he or she is considered a liar and Taqiyyah isn’t valid in this case. In effect, the practice of al-taqiyyah is a resolution to a given aporia or paradox. Namely, the devotee is forced to choose between on the one hand, the threat or harm of a sacred body (their own, or another’s); and on the other a temporary disavowal of faith, or the sacred word. In either case, a devotee is harmed. Therefore, it is thought that the lesser of two evils is to conceal, while not abandoning one’s faith (the word).[citation needed]

Some Sunnis assert that Taqiyya is an act of hypocrisy that serves to conceal the truth. According to them, Taqiyya constitutes a lack of faith and trust in God because the person who conceals his beliefs to spare himself from danger is fearful of humans, when he should be fearful of God only.[citation needed]

Wikpedia blurb about similar practices in other religions:

Jewish law allows violation of all laws under danger of life solely , save for idolatry, forbidden sexual intercourse, and murder. For the latter, one is expected to give his or her life. There is no actual prohibition against pretending to be an adherent of another religion, unless this would lead to a violation of the aforementioned laws, and Maimonides justified this behavior by the Jews of Yemen in his Iggereth Teiman (“Letter to Yemen”). Under the Spanish Inquistion and Portuguese Inquisition, following the Reconquista, some Jews in Spain and Portugal publicly professed Catholicism, but more or less remained true to the Jewish faith. They were called Marranos by the Christians.

Here’s a very recent, thoughtful essay about taqiya: http://www.theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/the_taqiyya_libel_against_muslims/0014285.
Blurb:

If a Catholic tells a lie, they can go to confession and the priest will assign a penance for the wrong they have done which does not mean that the Catholic Church is allowing Catholics to lie, or that Catholics cannot be trusted because they can atone for doing something wrong.

The Qur’an is realistic about human nature and the fact that we will stumble and fall, and provides opportunities for us to do penance for our mistakes.

I would point those who are determined to continually paint Islam as so wholly other as to be unintelligible to “civilized” people that discussions about whether or not it is ever permissable to lie, and the concept of the lesser of two evils have been discussed by Christian scholars over the centuries, and they too have come to varying opinions.

Maybe there is yet a third for specifically the situation Mr Forsyth’s character describes above, but I am not able to think of a term for it.

Oh yeah, and there were also a couple times when characters said inshallah (“God willing” or “hopefully”) when they should have said alhamdulillah (“Thank God”).

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1 Comment

Filed under arabic, arabist, books, pedantry

One response to “Frederick Forsyth’s The Afghan

  1. Pingback: Thanks, Other Bloggers « Anonymous Arabist وين الناس

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