I had written this article back in August 2014, which was originally published on the blog-site of Global Youth. In the light of the barbaric terrorist attack in Brussels, here it is, reproduced on Khurpi.
The tragic recent developments in Iraq [the activities of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), that have come to light], Nigeria (the kidnapping of school girls by the Boko Haram), Libya (the attack on their airport by militants, followed by other such attacks), Israel (the rockets fired by the Hamas recently, leading to air strikes by Israel), Sudan (a pregnant woman there was sentenced to death for apostasy from Islam), Pakistan (the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan attacked an airport in the city of Karachi killing many innocent civilians, mostly Muslims) and Afghanistan (the recent terrorist attacks by the Afghan Taliban) have yet again brought to fore the already quite all-pervasive debate about how to tackle the global menace of political Islam. However, rather unfortunately, this debate has been hijacked by the hawks on one hand and the doves on the other, leaving the centrist voices almost completely drowned out. As Zuhdi Jasser, a concerned liberal American Muslim intellectual, points out in the context of his country (but this applies universally) – “At the end of the day the country is so driven and obsessed with left versus right and what side of the aisle you’re on, we sometimes lose the substance of what the bigger enemy is and what the values we share that our founding fathers established (are)…”
Also, while there has quite understandably been a great emphasis on terrorism in the name of Islam, since it is, of course, the most direct physical threat and therefore, naturally the greatest cause of worry, it is, at the end of the day, only a symptom of a larger problem that needs to be addressed, and one cannot eliminate a symptom without trying to cure the disease.
This article specifically seeks to offer some ideological dialectics, which can be availed of by those who believe in the contemporary understanding of human rights.
Dehumanizing Muslims or even Vilifying Islam is Not the Solution
Terrorism is certainly not a Muslim monopoly, as is demonstrated by the activities of the Irish Republicans, Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, Catholic terrorists who have bombed abortion clinics and even the Olympic Games in 1996, Zionist terror outfits such as the Haganah that had no qualms in killing even their co-religionists who disagreed with them like journalist Jacob Israel de Haan, and even the Jewish Defence League in the United States targeting Soviets, the Khalistanis in India who killed many innocent Hindu civilians acting in the name of Sikhism, the Ranvir Sena in India that has massacred many low-caste Hindus in the name of Hinduism, secessionists and Marxist radicals in different parts of the world who do target innocent civilians in addition to security personnel (such as the Maoists in India and secessionist insurgents in India’s northeast who have bombed polling booths, killing innocent voters, or even the Tamil secessionist insurgents in Sri Lanka who bombed marketplaces and banks and forcibly recruited children) among others, and it would indeed also be very interesting to note in this context that a report by Europol, the criminal intelligence agency of the Council of Europe, pointed out that only 3 of the 249 terrorist attacks (less than 2%) that took place in Europe in 2010 were carried out by jihadists (jihadism is not to be equated with the true concept of jihad in the Muslim scriptures, which is about internal self-cleansing or even under certain circumstances like forced displacements or violation of religious freedom as mentioned in verse 60:8 of the Quran, fighting a defensive war, following norms that interestingly, to a great extent, actually match those in modern international humanitarian law.
It also must be noted that the victims of terrorism in the name of Islam have often been Muslims in Muslim-majority countries, and this is not just a recent phenomenon in the light of what we have seen in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Libya, but also, earlier, much before Osama came to target the US regime, he bombed Muslim civilians in Arab countries (as has been shown in the excellent Discovery Channel documentary ‘Jihad – The Men & Ideas Behind Al Qaeda’). Not too long ago, American Muslim pilgrims were targeted by terrorists in Saudi Arabia (of course, for the terrorists, any Muslim paying taxes to a government which such people see as an “enemy of Islam” is a crime, unless you are there to bomb Time Square or those participating in a race in Boston!), and a study in 2009 showed that Al Qaeda had killed eight times more Muslims than non-Muslims!
Indeed, there has been no dearth of statements by practising Muslims across the globe, including religious decrees from clerics, condemning terrorism as being totally antithetical to the teachings of Islam in letter and spirit. Recently, Muslims in Norway carried out a mass demonstration against the ISIS, and Indian Muslims have also carried out such demonstrations against terrorism in the past, other than Indian Muslim intellectuals specifically having issued statements condemning the ISIS. In fact, it must be noted that even within Iraq, there are Muslims bravely condemning the maltreatment of the non-Muslim minorities like Christians and Yazidis by the ISIS (one such Muslim professor raising his voice for the Christians was killed), and many Yazidis have been protected from the ISIS by Kurdish Muslims (mostly Sunnis).
There is also a fairly well-known website run by an apostate and basher of Islam who has offered a cash prize to anyone who can disprove his allegations against Prophet Muhammad (but there are books by apostates of other religions criticizing their former religions too, the most famous one being Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell, and there’s also Why I am Not a Hindu by Kancha Ilaiah, leveling very strong allegations), but practically, he is the judge of the debate, or to go by what he is saying, the “readership” of the website, a rather non-defined entity. In fact, he has acknowledged that he came across a Muslim who “intelligently argued his case and never descended to logical fallacies or insults” and while that Islam-basher “did not manage to convince him to leave Islam”, that Muslim earned his “utmost respect”, which implies that practically, the Islam-basher is the judge of the debate. Likewise, that Islam-basher has mentioned with reference to a scholar of Islam he debated with, that the latter was “a learned man, a moderate Muslim and a good human being” and someone he (the Islam-basher) has “utmost respect for”. So, that Islam-basher’s critique of Islam, whether valid or invalid, has no relevance in terms of making blanket stereotypes about the people we know as Muslims. By the way, that Islam-basher bashes Judaism too.
And it is worth mentioning that I have encountered several practising Muslims on discussion groups on the social media, who have, in a very calm and composed fashion, logically refuted the allegations against Islam on such websites.
Let’s Not Also Be Evasive about the Threat of Muslim Extremism
While Muslims need to be seen as fellow human beings, who do not deserve negative stereotyping, they also do not need to be viewed with purblind sympathy, and we should not resort to becoming apologists for crimes committed by some of them. Muslims certainly ought not to be made objects of prejudice, but they also do not need to make objects of pity, for they enjoy equal rights in most countries where they are in minority, often excelling in all walks of life, some very sporadic instances of slurring or violence against them, which undoubtedly ought to be condemned, notwithstanding (indeed, for example, sporadic riots between Hindus and Muslims in India in which some innocent people from both religious groupings lose their lives cannot be equated with the systematic ethnic cleansing of Hindus in rural Pakistan by an extremist faction of Muslims there). Indeed, the fact of the matter is that very many non-Muslims who may be, to varying degrees, prejudiced against Muslims do not really act on their prejudices in their actual interactions with individual Muslims, and may even have close, genuine friendships with some. I have interacted with several Indian and American Muslim adults, cutting across socioeconomic strata, some sporting attire that would indeed make their religion visibly evident, and most of them said that they had seldom or even never experienced any discrimination or slurs in their lifetimes. If you live in a country with Muslims in minority, ask yourself honestly if you have frequently witnessed Muslims being slurred to their faces or being maltreated, and chances would be that you haven’t.
While the anti-terror statutes in several countries that have undoubtedly been misused or can be misused against innocent civilians (in India, for instance, innocent civilians have been framed in connection not only with crimes attributed to jihadists but even left-wing terrorism or secessionist terrorism in the northeast, and anti-terror statutes have been misused in many countries, including even the United States), do most certainly deserve attention, to just promote an exaggerated narrative of Muslim victimhood, as very many left-liberals do, actually feeds the Muslim rightist narrative and also usually does not help to check Islamophobia. This article titled “Don’t worry Pakistani immigrant, the West will not treat you the way you treat your minorities” by a candid Pakistani Muslim is relevant in this context. This is not to suggest that Pakistani Muslims in general maltreat their non-Muslim countrymen, but that in the contemporary era, by and large, the Muslim extremists in Pakistan and, for that matter, many other Muslim-majority countries pose a much more serious threat to the non-Muslims in their countries than non-Muslim extremists in the West do to Muslims there. Sadly, Christians in parts of the Middle East (not only Iraq) are actually nearly facing a forced exodus, a phenomenon predating the rise of the ISIS. Christians have played a crucial role in the history of the Middle East even as a minority, and the Middle East, not Europe, is the birthplace of Christianity.
Trying to tell Hindus, Jews and Westerners in general that they are all, by and large, oppressors of Muslims or to even subtly rationalize Muslim extremism by pointing to the wrongdoings of non-Muslims against Muslims but never applying the same logic the other way round (and indeed, intra-Muslim sectarian clashes, which erupt even in a country like India where Muslims are a minority, in places like Lucknow, or the kind of intolerance that has been exhibited by the ISIS to the Yazidis, a tiny, harmless non-Muslim minority in Iraq, cannot be explained as a retaliation against oppression by any non-Muslim entity) is not the solution to the problem of Islamophobia, nor is glossing over the wrongdoings of Muslim extremists.
Doing Away with a Theocratic Legal Framework Discriminatory in Nature
It would just be plain intellectually dishonest to shy away from acknowledging that a vast majority of Muslim-majority countries are theocracies (Muslim-majority secular states like Turkey, Chad, Kosovo, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are exceptions to the general norm) where, to varying degrees, the state officially discriminates against non-Muslims (this piece by a progressive Indian Muslim acquaintance of mine makes an interesting read in this regard), people following sects of Islam perceived as deviant (like the Ahmedias in Pakistan), homosexuals, and, in many cases, women. As Fareed Zakaria, a Muslim himself, points out in his acclaimed book The Post-American World, the “reactionaries in the world of Islam are more numerous and extreme” than those in other religious groupings, though it must be noted that other religious groupings, in very many cases, have had a longer history, and to borrow a phrase used by Lt. Gen. Ata Hasnain (Retd.) of the Indian Army, an eminent public intellectual, these older religions have had their own churning.
It is certainly true that most Muslim-majority countries are far from being another Saudi Arabia or worse still, like the erstwhile Talibanized Afghanistan, and women are allowed to work in most Muslim-majority countries, in some cases, even in the armed forces, and in most cases, there is no law ordaining them to wear burqas or even headscarves; nonetheless, there are archaic laws in many superficially modern countries, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), such as one that actually requires four male witnesses to testify rape, failing which the rape victim is punished for adultery (no, we can’t afford to be silent on issues like these in the name of respecting other cultures!) and Malaysia, where Shi’ite Muslims have, for long, not been granted full religious freedom, though on the other hand, one must also note that Tunisia, a Muslim-majority country, has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) without any reservations, something that even the United States hasn’t done!
The policy would have to be to strengthen interpretations of Islam that emphasize gender equality (citing examples of Muslim religious figurines like Prophet Muhammad’s wife Khadijah, a successful businesswoman, or Nusaybah bint Ka’ab, who fought in Prophet Muhammad’s army), a conception of which is not based on segregation (and with no room for ridiculous laws making it virtually impossible to book a rapist, for example, and here is a piece by a liberal Pakistani Muslim that offers a progressive interpretation of Islam in this context), according equal rights to people, irrespective of religion (including all the Islamic sects), and no punishment for apostates of Islam and homosexuals. Indeed, there is no dearth of practising Muslims who subscribe to liberal interpretations of Islam, citing references from the Quran and Hadiths, and these are the people we ought to support and strengthen. Sure, even critics of Islam, including its many apostates, do have the right to freedom of speech and expression (and historically speaking, often, much tolerance was shown to such ‘heretics’ in the Islamic world like Al-Ma’arriand Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, while there are even today ultra-rightist Christians, Jews and Hindus sporadically taking to violence or threats of violence against those engaging in what they deem as offensive), but these people cannot be our allies in the battle against political Islam, for such an approach would only prove counterproductive in the deeply religious Muslim societies. In fact, those viscerally against the idea of religion in general could expose themselves to a very interesting alternative narrative presented by Karen Armstrong in her highly acclaimed book The Case for God: What Religion Really Means.
We would do well to note that the reforms within any religious grouping historically, be it Christians, Jews or Hindus, did not come from those who turned their back on the religion, but those who presented an alternative interpretation of the religion. Sure, there are verses in the Quran that may seem contrary to our modern understanding of human rights, and there are such verses in the Bible too (for example, Deuteronomy 13:12-15, Leviticus 24:16, 1 Samuel 15:3 and Matthew 10:34 are Biblical verses seemingly advocating violence), but liberal and progressive adherents of Islam and Judaism/Christianity would contend that these verses are meant in a certain specific context, and would produce many other verses from the same books (such as verses 2:256, 5:2, 5:8, 5:32, 6:108, 6:151, 49:13 and 109:6 of the Quran, other than verse 60:8 mentioned earlier in this article, that speak of peace, religious tolerance and human brotherhood, as does the letter from Prophet Muhammad to the Christian monks of St. Catherine’s monastery) that would broadly be in agreement with our understanding, and this is true for other religions as well. This article mentioning an anecdote from the British parliament makes an interesting read in this context.
If the idea that Islam actually provides room for a democratic framework in conformity with modern international human rights law can be promoted convincingly, it could lead to a radical transformation of Islamic states, which may not turn into full-fledged secular states but can at least become nominal theocracies like England. The idea that Islam and democracy are compatible, citing the Islamic principle of shura, ought to be emphasized. Muslim-majority countries that have democratic setups do have secular-leaning political parties, which can perform well if progressive interpretations of Islam become more commonplace, provided that these parties are also seen as holding out a promise of good and clean governance.
Indeed, it would have to be explained that legal frameworks have to be in accordance with the then prevalent society. To think of laws mentioned in the Quran or the Hadiths as immutable would be fallacious, and just as Muslims have taken to modern technology (which may not qualify as sunnat or imitating Prophet Muhammad), they would have to think of changing legal frameworks in accordance with the changing times too, for the laws introduced by Prophet Muhammad were relevant for the then lawless and crude Arab society. As Arif Mohammed Khan, an eminent Indian Muslim intellectual, has pointed out, Islamic law or sharia is not one of the five pillars of Islam that define a true Muslim. Interpretations of Islam that are about a personal equation of submission to Allah, rather than the imposition of legal frameworks in the name of Islam, with provisions that are actually not even grounded in the Quran or necessarily authentic Hadiths but only extreme interpretations (as is the case with barring women from driving in Saudi Arabia, requiring four male witnesses to testify rape in the UAE or even making homosexuality punishable by death in Iran), need to be highlighted. It must be emphasized that religious tenets have to be understood in the light of rationality and humanism, as that it is exactly how the religion was preached to its first adherents, who were convinced to embrace it. Indeed, it is important to note that there is no consensus among Muslims on what constitutes the sharia, and in its name, laws violating human rights are introduced. If we were to do away with theocracy and only function based on a modern human rights framework relegating religion to the personal sphere, this problem would not arise.
Some conservatives among Muslims even see music, painting, cinema and television as sinful, and while such debates have taken place and to a much milder extent, still take place among Jews (have a look at this and this) and Christians (have a look at this and this), interpretations of Islam that are open to fine arts also need to be promoted. With respect to music, the Pakistani film Khuda ke Liye has done a good job of promoting a liberal interpretation.
Dispelling Prejudices against the West, Jews, Hindus and even Muslims of Other Sects
Specific prejudices against certain religious groupings and even people of certain nationalities need to be countered effectively. Ironically, an American left-liberal intellectual expressing solidarity with the Palestinian cause was killed by an Egyptian Muslim rightist just because of his American nationality! Historical figures from the West, who have made positive contributions to Muslim-majority countries, like T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell, ought to be highlighted.
For one, Jews are the most despised religious grouping among Muslims globally (though there are, of course, many Muslims who do not have such prejudices, and the Muslim scriptures are quite clear on how the Jews in particular are not to be generalized in a negative fashion), and dispelling these prejudices is absolutely necessary, as Canadian Muslim intellectual Tarek Fatah has brilliantly attempted to do in his book The Jew is Not My Enemy. A similar approach would have to be adopted with regard to Hindus, especially among South Asian Muslims, as my Indian Muslim acquaintance has attempted to do in this piece.
Furthermore, it would have to be emphasized that Muslims enjoy more civil liberties and in many cases, even better security of life and property in countries like the United States (and other Western countries), India and even Israel than even Muslims do in very many Muslim-majority countries (not to speak of the non-Muslim minorities in those countries), and in the West, India and Israel, Muslims have become prominent figures in all walks of life, and the people of the majority religion in the respective cases have complete freedom to embrace Islam as their faith if they so desire (as Malcolm X and Michael Jackson did, for example). Also, ludicrous conspiracy theories that pin the blame of terrorist attacks by jihadists on non-Muslim entities (such as disgustingly ascribing the Jews in the city of New York as a collectivity to have actually been complicit in the attacks on the World Trade Centre twin towers in New York, or suggesting that the 26/11 Mumbai attacks were not carried out by jihadists) would have to be effectively countered, for these unfortunately make even peace-loving Muslims adopt a stance of denial.
Likewise, given the sectarian divisions among Muslims, Fatah, in his book countering anti-Semitic ideas, has countered anti-Shi’ite prejudices too, which have been made to flow from anti-Semitism by linking the Shias to the Jews. In this very article, Quranic verses emphasizing peace, religious tolerance and human brotherhood have been enumerated, and these very verses should be cited to apply not only to non-Muslims but even Muslims of other sects. There are actually very many Muslims who are quite tolerant to other religions, but not to other sects of Islam, and Malaysia, Pakistan and Iran, for instance, have placed much more serious legal restrictions on practice of religion for Shi’ites, Ahmedias and Bahais respectively than for non-Muslims. In this context, the Munir Commission Report in Pakistan is interesting, for it points out how very many Muslims of one sect or one sub-sect write off all others as not being Muslims! Prophet Muhammad himself is believed to have said that differences in opinion are a blessing, and he wanted Muslims to discuss and debate in a civil fashion, which is necessary for the evolution of ideas.
Addressing the Concept of a Global Muslim-Muslim Fraternity (the Muslim ‘ummah’)
A reading of geopolitics based on religious fault-lines, assuming Muslims and everyone else to be two separate and antagonistic monoliths, would also have to be countered. It would have to be emphasized that the desire to wield power has existed even among Muslim rulers in history (who did not hesitate to fight even other Muslim rulers), and now, in the era following the Second World War, imperialism has given way to neo-imperialism, but the dominance of the powerful has been a reality in every society down the ages, and this has nothing to do with religion. Indeed, US neo-imperialist tendencies have manifested themselves even in Christian-majority countries like Nicaragua and Congo, and if the United States attacked Iraq to gain control over its oil reserves, Muslim-majority Pakistan quite literally invaded Muslim-majority Balochistan incorporating the same in its territory back in 1948 for exactly the same reason with the Baloch still yearning for their lost independence (but do we get to hear sloganeering against Pakistan as an “enemy of Islam” in Muslim-majority countries?)! On the other hand, American forces protected Kosovar Muslims from the atrocities of the Milosevic regime in Serbia.
If the Israeli establishment is ruthless with the Muslims in Gaza (some of whom pose an existential threat to Israel), which it is and that ought to be condemned, it also accords equal rights to Muslims living within its borders, many of whom have gone on to become cabinet ministers, Supreme Court judges and army generals. Besides, why do Muslim rightists and left-liberals seldom talk of the fact that the Hamas killed many innocent Muslims in Gaza, including even those on hospital beds, in 2007, when they were not voted to power?
Wrongdoings against anyone ought to be condemned (and surely, wrongdoings against Muslims have partially fuelled Muslim radicalism, just as wrongdoings by some Muslims have fuelled anti-Muslim rightist movements, and no one should be apathetic to the victimhood of Muslims or non-Muslims), but if Indian soldiers have committed gross human rights violations in Muslim-majority Kashmir, they have also done so in other regions with secessionist insurgencies like Hindu-majority Assam, and human rights violations by security personnel unfortunately do take place in perhaps every militarized conflict zone across the globe. Besides, Kashmiri Muslims (and even Assamese Hindus) have also been targeted by secessionist militants of their own faith for expressing disagreement with them, on mere suspicion of being an agent of the state, for extortions or even to abduct and forcibly marry women. If the Chechen Muslims in Russia, many of whom have secessionist aspirations, have faced aerial bombings, the Muslims of the Muslim-majority province of North Ossetia in Russia with no secessionist aspirations haven’t. If Muslims of the Rohingya ethnicity have fallen prey to Buddhist majoritarian violence in Myanmar (howsoever oxymoronic as that may sound!), so have Christians of the Chin ethnicity, just like Christians have been targeted by the same ultra-rightist Hindu groups in India that have targeted Muslims (and as mentioned earlier, there are also instances of Christian extremists forcibly converting Hindus to their faith in India’s north-east, and Hindus and Christians attacking each other busts the mythical Hindu-Jewish-Christian alliance against Muslims that many Muslim rightists talk of), and even Hindus have been victims of violent Muslim radicalism in the form of riots (during the horrendous riots in Gujarat in 2002, in which Muslims are often erroneously portrayed as being the only victims, hundreds of Hindus were also killed and were rendered homeless by Muslim rioters, as has been pointed out by Human Rights Watch and respectable media publications in India like The Hindu, which is a favourite of left-liberals, the Times of India and India Today, and the riots started with Muslim extremists burning down a railway coach) and even terrorist attacks by groups like the Indian Mujahidin, other than most of the Hindus in Kashmir (the Kashmiri Hindus are also known as the Kashmiri Pandits) having been forcibly driven out of their homeland. Strangely enough, there is a conspiracy theory circulating in Kashmir that there was no threat to the Hindu minority and they left their homes and belongings to settle in shoddy relief camps only to malign the Muslims in the valley! There are, however, rational and intellectually honest Kashmiri Muslims (including some I know personally, and this piece by a pro-India Kashmiri Sunni acquaintance of mine defending a book Our Moon Has Blood Clots written by a Kashmiri Hindu, Rahul Pandita, on the problems faced by his community, is amazing), even among the separatists, who do not subscribe to this ludicrous conspiracy theory (Basharat Peer, a Kashmiri separatist writer, known for his acclaimed non-fiction novel Curfewed Night belongs to this category, and even a prominent former militant Yasin Malik has acknowledged that militants had targeted the Kashmiri Hindus in those “dark days” of 1989-90) and some of them have even taken up the Kashmiri Hindus’ cause in the United Nations Human Rights bodies. It may also be noted that while hundreds of Hindu rioters including Hindu politicians like Maya Kodnani (and Muslim rioters as well), have been convicted by the Indian judiciary and so have several police personnel for dereliction of duty, none of the militants who targeted Kashmiri Hindus have been convicted. In fact, the local Kashmiri Muslim policemen didn’t even pursue the cases against the murderers of the Kashmiri Hindus seriously, leading the perpetrators of these crimes to not be convicted. In one such case involving militant Bittoo Karate, who had confessed to his crimes in a recorded interview, the judge was led to remark –
“The court is aware of the fact that the allegations leveled against the accused are of serious nature and carry a punishment of death sentence or life imprisonment but the fact is that the prosecution has shown total disinterest in arguing the case…”
Like the killings of Muslims by Hindu extremists in Gujarat, this too has been a sad Indian reality. Even the writer Arunadhati Roy, who has been a strong supporter of the Kashmiris’ right to secede from India (a conviction I do not share), has, to her credit (and I say so despite not in the least being her fan), unlike many of her somewhat like-minded comrades, been intellectually honest enough to state clearly that what she describes as the freedom struggle in Kashmir “cannot by any means call itself pristine, and will always be stigmatised by, and will some day”, she hopes, “have to account for, among other things, the brutal killings of Kashmiri Pandits in the early years of the uprising, culminating in the exodus of almost the entire Hindu community from the Kashmir valley.”
If Muslims have been at the receiving end of Buddhist majoritarian violence in Sri Lanka recently, it would be worth recalling the mass murders of Hindu Tamils by Sinhalese terrorists in that country; thus, a sizable section of Muslims should indeed stop imagining that only Muslims in particular are everyone’s collective target, and they need to come out of what has been described in this well-written piece as “a fantasy of victimhood” (unfortunately, even an otherwise progressive film like Khuda ke Liye falls prey to this narrative, using the same to rationalize, though not justify, terrorism by Muslims).
It is indeed this very idea of the Muslim ummah that prevents many (though certainly not all) Muslims from identifying with their non-Muslim countrymen, which contributes to their lack of integration in the mainstream society, as has been the case in several European countries, leading the likes of Angela Merkel and David Cameron to talk about the failure of multiculturalism, and this problem has been acknowledged even by practising Muslim scholars in Europe such as Bassam Tibi. It is indeed this very anachronistic idea of a Muslim ummah that leads a number of Muslim clerics and politicians in, for example, Hindu-majority India to spew venom against Jews for acts attributed to Israel, making India’s tiny, harmless Jewish minority, far outnumbered by its Muslim counterpart, feel insecure.
In today’s age of international human rights activism (people of diverse faiths and nationalities boarded the Gaza Flotilla in 2010) on one hand and the rise of pluralistic nation-states on the other, the idea of a Muslim ummah or global pan-Muslim fraternity is completely anachronistic (it may have been relevant when Islam had just emerged in the 7th century, being confined to a somewhat culturally homogeneous Middle East, and when Muslims were facing the threat of persecution), and a conception of the entire humanity as a family, but one which is divided into nations (without a religious connotation) with different languages and cultures for the sake of the beauty of diversity, as enunciated in verse 49:13 of the Quran and put in practice by Prophet Muhammad in the constitution of Medina drafted by him in which he used the term ummah for ‘nation’ in a non-religious sense, is what ought to be emphasized. This would help ensure better integration of Muslims in countries where they are a minority as also of the non-Muslim minorities in Muslim-majority countries.
As many liberal Muslims point out, trying to back to some “golden age” when Muslims were supposedly the most advanced and powerful, and blaming all non-Muslims has gone to abysmal lengths in Muslim societies. To quote Tarek Fatah-
“Muslims have been led to believe by their leaders that the panacea to their pain is not a historical correction in their view of the world and their role in the emergence of multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation states, but in turning to the past as their path to the future.
The Muslim leadership today can best be compared to someone driving in a car rally with their eyes fixed on the rear-view mirror. As they crash into one obstacle after another, instead of changing their driving habits and focusing on what lies ahead, they believe the obstacles they crash into have been deliberately placed in their path by the ‘enemies of Islam’ – the West, the Jews, the communists, the atheists, the Hindus, the banking world, the entertainment industry, and the rest of what is perceived as the hedonistic ‘Islam-hating’ infidel universe.
Instead of trying to understand and analyze the challenges of poverty, underdevelopment, illiteracy, racism and disease that Muslims face alongside other peoples of the developing world, Muslim leaders have craftily framed their problems as essentially a Muslim versus Non-Muslim conflict.”
He further points out that the “promotion of this false dichotomy has helped the mosque establishments tighten their grip on the prevailing Muslim narrative and project themselves as the guardians of the faith and true patriots of Islam”.
Once the issues of the Muslim ummah and Islamic sharia are resolved, the issue of terrorism in the name of jihad would hardly remain as problematic, for it is carried out either in the name of upholding the sharia (when Muslim citizens of Muslim-majority countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan are targeted, even in mosques, by their own jihadist countrymen, this is the reason) or to fight the enemies of the ummah. Sure, even most Muslims subscribing to versions of concepts like ummah and sharia unacceptable to us (such people are called Muslim rightists or Islamists; Islamism cannot be equated with Islam) do not endorse an interpretation of jihad that validates killing innocent civilians, but such people are still, metaphorically speaking, actually standing at the top of a potentially slippery slope that can slide into leading them into condoning, supporting or worse still, even engaging in, terrorism (the most extreme form of Islamism). As American writer Meredith Tax points out, the Muslim right actually includes “a range of transnational political movements that mobilize identity politics toward the goal of a theocratic state.” She elaborates in the following words, referring to the Muslim right-
“It consists of those the media call ‘moderate Islamists,’ who aim to reach this goal gradually by electoral and educational means; extremist Salafi parties and groups that run candidates for office but also try to enforce some version of Sharia law through street violence; and a much smaller militant wing of Salafi-Jihadis, whose propaganda endorses military means and who practice violence against civilians. The goal of all political Islamists, whatever means they may prefer, is a state founded upon some version of Sharia law that systematically discriminates against women along with sexual and religious minorities.”
The reference to Salafism (also known as Wahabism, leaving the academic distinctions aside) by Tax in the context of terrorism is relevant, given that most terrorists justifying their heinous crimes in the name of Islam do subscribe to the supposedly puritan versions of Sunni Islam like Wahabism, but again, not all Muslims subscribing to such versions of Islam can be stereotyped as terrorists or supporters of terrorism, and even the legal setup in Wahabi Qatar is more liberal than Wahabi Saudi Arabia, and even Saudi Arabia was very different till the 1960s, nor are all the adherents of mystical versions of Sunni Islam, like Sufi schools of thought, or even all Shi’ites, liberal and progressive by modern human rights standards. For instance, Iran, a Shi’ite state, as mentioned earlier, has accorded the death penalty to homosexuals and also meted out shameful treatment to its Bahai citizens.
However, the role played by extremist schools of Islamic theology belie the idea that Muslim extremism is solely borne out of American neo-imperialism, of which, as mentioned earlier, Muslims haven’t been the only victims. To quote eminent intellectual Tariq Ali, otherwise a severe critic of US neo-imperialism-
“The people of Indo-China suffered more than any Muslim country at the hands of the U.S government. They were bombarded for 15 whole years and lost millions of their people. Did they even think of bombing America? Nor did the Chileans or the Cubans or the Brazilians. The last two fought against the US-imposed military regimes at home and finally triumphed.”
Fortunately, as mentioned earlier, there is no dearth of Muslim intellectuals identifying with Islam as their faith who are against Islamism of any shade and who conform to a modern understanding of human rights (here’s a rather entertaining video in the Egyptian context in this connection) and in many cases, such people have very strongly taken on the Islamists. Indeed, such are the people who offer us hope for the future. The way forward definitely does not lie in dehumanizing Muslims or even vilifying their religion. But appeasing them, especially their regressive elements, shying away from acknowledging and condemning Muslim rightist attitudes just for the sake of some rather skewed sense of political correctness, which a well-known apostate of Islam, Ali A. Rizvi, has described as “the phobia of being called Islamophobic” or mindlessly parroting grossly exaggerated narratives of Muslim victimhood is certainly, by no means, the solution either, and other than being intrinsically unfair to non-Muslims and even feeding the Islamist brigade, such an approach is indeed actually quite counterproductive for it also ends up strengthening the anti-Muslim rightists by giving them legitimate grounds to criticize their ideological opponents.
I would like to thank Mr. Tarek Fatah and Lt. Gen. Ata Hasnain for having read the manuscript of this piece and encouraged me by way of appreciating the same. I would also like to thank Mr. Arif Mohammed Khan and Mr. Maroof Raza, as also my dear friends Khalid Baig and Hafeez Khan Gouran, for their rather interesting insights in the interactions he has had with them. I would also like to thank my friend Mushtaq Dar for having shared the piece of information on Prophet Muhammad’s letter to Christian monks.
(Image Courtesy: Flickr)