The Alternative Voice is not a Hostile Voice
(On 9 September 2005 a select group of scholars and intellectuals gathered in Makkah al-Mukarrammah (the full name of the holy city of Mecca) at the invitation of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud. The objective of this “Preparatory Forum of Eminent Muslim Scholars” was clearly defined: to formulate, over three days of intense discussions in the shadow of the Kaabah Sharif, a new vision for the Organisation of Islamic Conference, the world body of the Islamic ummah. The key word of the new vision was also clearly defined: reform. M.J. Akbar was the only Indian invited to the forum. He presented these ideas, in which he outlined the response to the American neo-con onslaught against Islam and Muslims, as well as the real challenges facing the Muslim world in the 21st century: poverty, knowledge and equality.)
Islam and Muslim nations, particularly those with energy resources, are being subjected to an intellectual assault, based on a carefully constructed dialectic, disseminated through mass media, that must be challenged by facts and reason. We Muslims lose the argument when we become either submissive-defensive, or aggressive-hysterical. There is a lot of space in-between.
We need to establish that an alternative voice is not a hostile voice.
It is ironical that there should be so much misunderstanding between Americans and Muslims over faith, given that they may be the only true believers left. A Pew poll taken early this year indicated that 60% of Americans pray once a day, 70% say that the American President must have strong religious beliefs and 61% favour tighter restrictions on a moral issue like abortion. I do not have equivalent figures for Muslims, but in each category the number would probably be the same or higher. A Muslim President or Prime Minister makes it a point to be seen periodically at Friday prayers. Europe, in contrast, lost religion to rationalism or one of its by-products, communism. Two European atheists, Marx and Lenin, had such impact that they ravaged Tao, Confucius and Buddha in half of Asia and Christ in half of Europe.
Religion is not limited to human reason. Faith is ethical, aesthetic, doctrinaire and inspirational. Islam acknowledges the power and beauty of the one Creator, Allah and accepts that while we may know how we are born and die, we do not know why. Muslims believe in existence before and after death: Inna lillahe wa inna e-laihe raajaoo (From Allah we come, to Allah we go). The Islamic view of heaven and hell is no more “unreasonable” than the Christian or Judaic one.
Problems arise when one incidental aspect of a faith is wrenched from context and used to demonize a religion and its believers. Every suicide mission is sneered at as a journey to the virgins of Heaven rather seen for what it often (though not always) is: a cry of despair. Even a cursory reading of the Islamic text indicates that we do not retain our physical bodies after death and that the needs and pleasures of this life are very different from those of the next. But allegory is deliberately misrepresented, because it seeks to trivialize the roots of sacrifice, particularly the sacrifice of life. Demonization is conducted like a choir through the media and it must be answered. This answer must come from a common voice.
The Organization of Islamic Conference must have two sets of priorities: tactical and strategic. An immediate priority is to establish that common voice to win the battle for the mind.
A critical fact: the intellectual onslaught against Muslims started long before 9/11, it was not a reaction. Huntington wrote about a clash of civilizations seven years before 9/11. It was a time when almost every Muslim nation had supported America in the wars for the liberation of Afghanistan and Kuwait. To blame the neo-cons is not enough. We have to answer them.
Judging by some of the reporting in the West, one would imagine that suicide was invented by Muslims. Suicide missions have always been an element of war tactics, with the highest honors being reserved for those who risk their lives to the maximum. One commentator wrote recently in the Guardian that surely Samson was the world’s most famous suicide-missionary. Japanese air force pilots in the Second World War made kamikaze a tool of battle. The American reaction was interesting and is still relevant. “The psychology behind (kamikaze) was too alien to us. Americans who fight to live, find it hard to realize that another people will fight to die,” said Admiral William Frederick Halsey (1884-1959), commander of the US 3rd Fleet, after the kamikaze attack on USS Intrepid, 25 October 1944.
The Japanese did not view kamikaze as suicide: they called it a moral victory over cowards who take comfort in numbers. They told the pilots: ‘Put the sorrows and joys of life behind you, for as you move towards death you move towards heaven.’ Vice Admiral Takiiro Onishi wrote a haiku for the pilots:
Blossoming today, tomorrow scattered
Life is like a delicate flower
Can one expect the fragrance to last forever?
The most effective use of suicide missions in what might be called irregular war has been made by the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, who are Hindus. One such mission took the life of a beloved Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi. But such has been the distortion of world opinion that the average person today believes that “terrorism” is something created by the doctrines of Islam. This is calumny of the most perfidious kind.
We must address the complex and emotive reaction to events like 9/11 and the London bombings. I do not agree with suicide missions, but surely we need to understand that they are not all alike. In some cases, as during the obvious occupation of territory by a foreign, hostile power, a suicide mission becomes an expression of the depths of a young person’s despair and desperation. We must work to end suicide missions by finding answers to that desperation. We must also define the difference between unacceptable terrorism and the need for struggle. There is no age in history without its share of problems and injustice. But if injustice is addressed through peaceful dialogue, which must always remain the objective of any sane individual or nation, then there is no need for armed struggle or suicide missions. This must be a central theme of our world view.
Sometime ago, I was at a seminar in Berlin on “Europe and Modern Islam”. My German hosts, members of a political party that hoped to be in power, were neither prejudiced nor malicious; in fact they were anxious to build bridges over the stream of ignorance that has entered contemporary consciousness. And yet, almost every prejudiced nuance about Muslims was raised, almost always unconsciously. The chairman of one session kept criticizing female circumcision until I pointed out that its origins were African-tribal. The hijab, naturally, was mentioned, until I argued that covering the head was a normal symbol of modesty for women in the east across religious denominations – and that I had never ever seen an icon or painting by a Christian of the Virgin Mary in which she did not wear a form of hijab; and that every Catholic nun till today wore the traditional headdress. It was a strange paradox, I thought, that a thong was considered civilized but a scarf was called barbaric. I heard the oft-repeated jibe that Muslims had not had their renaissance and had to point out that you needed renaissance only if you had gone through the Dark Ages: China, India, and the regions of the Ottoman Empire had no experience of such a dark age, for there were a hundred bookshops in Baghdad when Oxford University was still two hundred years away. A lady who had a doctorate said, in response to my remarks, that a Muslim had assassinated Mahatma Gandhi and was astonished when I pointed that a Brahmin called Godse had been the assassin.
Like so many other Muslims, I too have been taunted and told that my religion is nothing but “Jihad”. I am not defensive about the basic tenets of my faith. Islam is a religion of peace, but it recognizes that in certain conditions, war may be forced upon you. It defines a legitimate war vis a vis an illegitimate one. Jihad is a war against injustice. The Prophet (PBUH) never took up arms during the long years of oppression and tyranny in Makkah; the war verses of the Quran were revealed only when persecution began to try and destroy the faith, and the Prophet was forced to take up arms against injustice. Jihad has clear rules: it has been stressed that you cannot kill women, children and innocents in a Jihad; you cannot even destroy palm trees. And hence my proposition: Every Jihad is a war fought by Muslims, but every war fought by Muslims is not a Jihad.
The very title of the Berlin seminar, “Europe and Modern Islam”, was nonsense. To begin with, there is nothing called modern or medieval or ancient Islam; Islam is Islam. Second, ‘West’ is geography and ‘Islam’ is a religion. How can you compare the two? You can discuss the West and West Asia, or South Asia, or wherever. Alternatively you can discuss Islam and Christianity. West vis a vis Islam means something only if there is a prejudiced sub-text in which ‘West’ implicitly corresponds to enlightenment, progress and all that is modern-good, while ‘Islam’ represents darkness, regress and all that is old-decadent. The notion of Islam as a “barbaric” religion while Christianity was civilized, a staple of the Crusades, has not been eliminated from the discourse.
The term ‘Islam’, when used as a collective noun for Muslim nations, throws a range of different histories and cultures into a meaningless common basket: the reasons for Indonesia’s current levels of economic, political and social development have absolutely nothing to do with Morocco’s. To suggest that Islam has kept some nations both poor and/or autocratic is a corruption of facts and a reduction of complex reality to stupidity.
Similarly, ‘Islam and Democracy’. Islam is 1400 years old. How old is democracy? America is the only nation with any right to call democracy two centuries old, for the American Constitution is an outstanding template of individual and collective freedom. And yet American democracy did not mean the same thing to a black and a white a generation ago. It was only after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the number of registered African-American voters in a state like Mississippi rose from 7%, in 1964, to 70% by 1968. France promised itself liberty, equality and fraternity three years after America won her independence, but took another century before doing something institutional about it. Universal franchise in the mother of democracies, Britain, is a 20th century story. Eastern Europe is just discovering the pleasures of adult franchise, and more than a billion Chinese have not known democracy till this day. I do not know if any academic institution has held a seminar on Confucianism and democracy.
If many Muslim nations remain undemocratic, the reasons lie in their history, including, in many cases, the history of colonization and neo-colonization, rather than in faith.
It is wrong to blame Islam for the sins of Muslims. It was not Christianity’s fault that Latin America was mostly run by dictators who went to church. Islam does not glorify autocracy; instead it consciously advocates democratic ideas like social justice, equality and charity as fundamental principles. Progressive Muslim scholars have noted consistently that Islam is a democratic doctrine. In 1940, one of the great Indian Muslim thinkers and freedom-fighters, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, gave a speech at Ramgarh upon being elected president of the Indian National Congress. Among Islam’s greatest contributions to India, he argued, was the gift of democratic ideas.
A famous thesis talks of the end of history. When attempting to understand the state of the Muslim world today, let me propose an alternate thought: The beginning of history. This history begins in 1918, for that was the year in which, for all practical purposes, every Muslim in the world was colonized. Iran might claim that it was independent, but only nominally so: Britain and Russia had divided the country into “zones of influence” as far back as in 1906. The defeat of the Ottoman empire in 1918 (after the collapse of the Mughal empire sixty years before) was the last nail in the long-festering coffin of Muslim independence. Nationalist Arabs expected what had been promised during the war. Instead, the policies of the West, then led by Britain and France, hinged around the politics of oil. For the people, the control of oil became the most important definition of independence.
Democracy is essential, but it is impossible without sovereignty. A free vote under the watchful eye of American soldiers will always be suspect, irrespective of how sincere it is: no one needs a fifth wheel on the democracy coach. This is not the first time that occupation has been sold as a form of liberation: this was the rationale used by the British in Egypt in 1882. I might add that no one wants to conquer a poor nation. Robert Clive called Murshidabad, a provincial capital of India, as rich as London when he entered the city as a victor in 1757. In 1790 (about 85 years after the death of the last great Mughal, Aurangzeb, and therefore nearly a century of instability) India produced more than 23% of the world’s manufacturing output and Britain less than 2%. In 1947, the year India became free, Britain had more than 23% of the world’s manufacturing output and India less than 2%. An ideologue could not have hoped for neater figures.
But answers do not lie in anger. They lie in introspection.
The strategic vision of the OIC must address the basic problems of the Muslims, problems that Muslims have created for themselves. The OIC must offer an agenda for action to reverse this decline.
A deep political, economic and social apathy afflicts too much of the Muslim world. There is no common formula for this: each Muslim country must find answers that emerge from its own stage of development. We must have the honesty to acknowledge that all Muslims do not live in the 21st century. Many still live in the 19th century, through no fault of their own, for they have been betrayed by their leaderships. But there is at least one idea that can be considered relevant across boundaries: the need to invest in knowledge.
We are sitting in the shadow of the Kaabah Sharif: I suggest to you that there are two Islamic conferences going on, one inside the room and the other in the Holy Mosque. We are the establishment. The other is the conference among the people. The distance between the two has grown too large. Look at the faces of Muslims and you will see on many of them poverty. The OIC has little right to exist unless the elimination of poverty among Muslims becomes a vital priority of the next ten years. Hunger is the worst form of oppression. We need an immediate anti-poverty programme. This does not mean just handing out aid: aid is just band-aid when the disease is a cancer. We need programmes that create an economy in the poorest Muslim nations, free of waste and corruption.
Muslim nations are in decline not because they have a shortage of guns, but because they have lost the Knowledge Edge. Power does not flow from the barrel of a gun; it flows from the fountainhead of knowledge. In 1232 the Sultan of Egypt presented Frederick, leader of the Bloodless Crusade, with an astronomical clock that opened the doors of technology to Europe. By the 18th century Egypt could not compete with the cuckoo clock. That decline has to be reversed. We need a Knowledge Fund that can create half a dozen universities and many times that number of schools that rank among the best in the world, pay the best salaries to teachers and create an environment nurtured by academic freedom. There is enough money; we need the will.
The OIC must stake a strong stand against the self-destructive sectarianism that divides Muslim societies. We often behave as if the interpreters of the law are more important than the faith. The Prophet gave us one Islam. Muslims have divided it into many sects.
We need social reform – to ensure the full participation of women in education and development that was among the glorious achievements of the first phase of Muslim history. If you tell a non-Muslim today that the Prophet’s wife ran a successful business, you will invite an incredulous sneer.
We need political reform. Every Muslim nation must have an inclusive polity in which traditional systems leave sufficient space for contemporary demands. Democracy may be a new idea, but it is the best one we have. The test of a democracy is the vulnerability of a government. Europe has shown that democracy can co-exist with a traditional system like monarchy.
We are vulnerable because, in a classic symptom of despair, the Muslim voice is being taken over by deviants. Why? Muslim governments must look into their hearts and ask whether they are doing enough to end internal and external injustice. Why do Muslims fantasize about Saladin? Precisely because they want a leader who will stand up for their legitimate demands. Saladin was no extremist; he was in fact almost assassinated by deviants of his time.
The OIC has a claim to be the legitimate voice of Muslims. If so, it must challenge double standards. An Iranian has the right to ask why his nuclear programme is being threatened while Israel is permitted to become a nuclear military power. Why should there be two laws? Israel no longer has to fear for its existence. King Abdullah’s breakthrough peace proposals recognize the right of Israel to exist, and correctly so. Does Britain, which actively helped Israel to become a nuclear military power, accept that there are conditions in which a nation might be justified in becoming a secret nuclear power?
Too many Muslim nations believe in a bank account rather than an economy. Many nations have wealth; how many have used it for laboratories that employ scientists to do basic research on biotechnology? Instead of creating industries to produce goods that can be better than the best, we have created a mall economy in which shops are full of imports. I am not an isolationist; but I would like ‘Made in Saudi Arabia’ to compete with ‘Made in USA’.
We are vulnerable because our intellectual elites have lost the plot, and our political-financial elites have lost the courage to dream of a future for their people.
The Makkah conference, convened at the behest of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz, to formulate a new vision for the many nations in which the ummah lives, must begin the long and difficult journey towards a new dream.