| Look inwards
If the first two years of the millennium are anything to go by, the 21st century may be tagged as one of terrorism by future historians. There has been no respite in the killing of Muslims in India, burning of abortion clinics and targeting of doctors who work in them by right-wing Christians in the United States of America, and the outrageously disproportionate Israeli reaction to Palestinian misdeeds, clearly signaling that Newton’s law is best kept within the wraps of a physics book. Regrettably, this is par for the course. But be it the Ansal Plaza, the Indian Parliament, the World Trade Center, Bali, the French oil tanker, the US naval vessel, the blasts in the US embassies in Africa and Pakistan, the one thing common is the involvement of Islamic groups in these acts of violence. The alarming frequency with which acts of terrorism keep happening could indeed overshadow any other achievement of this century.
In trying to pinpoint the root of this cataclysmic aberration, Western political leaders, including the George W. Bush-Tony Blair duo, social scientists et al have asserted that Islam is a religion of peace usurped of late by extremists. Even if Islam has metaphorically been expropriated, it did not happen just prior to 9/11. It has evolved over the last seven centuries.
The period between the 9th and the 13th centuries was the golden period of Islam. A group of Muslims known as Mutazalites established a tradition of rationalist-liberal thinking and interaction with peoples of other religions like Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism. As a result, medicine, philosophy, science, music and arts prospered. It can safely be said that Muslims, as a whole, led the world in these fields during this period.
In the 12th century, orthodoxy was rekindled by the Arab cleric, Imam Al-Ghazali, in the very heart of the Muslim world. Science and mathematics were denounced as anti-Islam because they were intoxicants of the mind and weakened faith. Ghazali asserted and patronized revelation over reason, predestination over rational thinking. Mired in orthodoxy, Islam faltered. Interaction between Jewish and Christian scholars petered out and intolerance of other faiths crept in. Islam became insular. Abd-al-Rahman Ibn Khaidun was the last great Muslim thinker of world renown. He lived in the 14th century.
Meanwhile, led by Europe, the rest of the world moved on. Armed with technological superiority, European powers set about rapidly colonizing the entire Muslim world from Morocco to Indonesia. In time, it became clear to the Muslim elite that the colonizers had the decisive edge because of their possession of analytical tools of modern science and social and political values of modern culture. These two factors which made them rulers were specifically the ones forbidden in the orthodox Muslim world.
Later, in the 20th century, a few charismatic leaders of the Muslim world, no doubt influenced by the larger anti-colonial nationalist current sweeping the third world, prevailed over orthodoxy and fashioned their countries into modern nation-states. Not one of them was a fundamentalist. Their aim was to control and use national resources for domestic benefit.
Inevitably, they came into conflict with Western greed. The commercial interests of Britain and France in particular, and later the US, came into conflict with independent nationalism. Anyone willing to collaborate was preferred. Mohammed Mossadeq of Iran was overthrown in 1953 and replaced by Shah Mohammed Reza in a Central Intelligence Agency-engineered coup. Britain targeted Egypt’s Gamel Abdel Nasser. Sukarno was replaced by Suharto in a bloody coup that left hundreds of thousands dead. But perhaps the most astonishing of them all are the preference and active support of the ultra-conservative Islamic regime of Saudi Arabia by the West. While oil is the only binding factor, it is commonly held that the kingdom is also by far the biggest donor of aid for “Muslim causes”, some of which have been identified as fronts for laundering money for terrorists.
Meanwhile, the small but growing number of secular Muslim leaders were neither able to deliver nor defend their national interests. They turned out to be corrupt and incompetent and, with the aim of keeping out foreign interests as well as retaining their seats of power, began to frustrate democracy. These failures left a vacuum which Islamic religious movements began to fill. Pakistan, Iran and Sudan are prime examples.
The Muslim world suffered a serious and lingering trauma when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The CIA and its foremost ally, Pakistan’s Zia ul-Haq, openly recruited mujahedins (holy warriors), mainly from Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Egypt to drive out the Soviets. Fundamentalism was the flavour of the season and to legitimize it, Ronald Reagan feted its leaders on the White House lawns. The rest is familiar to all. The Soviet Union collapsed, the US walked away and the taliban stayed. Afghanistan became the hotbed of Muslim fundamentalism with al-Qaida as the instrument and Osama bin Laden as its undisputed leader .
Where do Muslims stand today' There are more than one billion Muslims in the world. Forty-eight countries have a predominantly Muslim majority. Yet not one has yet evolved a stable and truly democratic system. In a forthright article published in the Washington Post, Pervez Amir Ali Hoodbhoy, professor of physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, states “All Muslim countries are dominated by self-serving corrupt elites who cynically advance their personal interests and steal resources from the people. None of these countries has a viable educational system or a university of international stature ”. He adds, “You will seldom see a Muslim name as you flip through scientific journals and, if you do, the chances are that this person lives in the West ”.
The brilliant Pakistani physicist, Abdus Salam, was an exception. He deservedly won the Nobel prize for physics in 1979. By all accounts, he was a devout Muslim and proud to call himself a Pakistani. Yet, back in 1974 he was spurned by Pakistan and declared a non-Muslim by an act of parliament in his own country! He died a deeply unhappy man. Why' Because he belonged to the Ahmadi sect, which has always been hated and tyrannized.
What conclusion can be inferred from this' First, Muslims must realize that their societies are far more intricate than the small tribal one in Arabia 1,400 years ago, from which their religion originated. All sects and sub-sects must be treated as mainstream Muslims. If within the same sect hugely different kinds of Islam are practised, as is the case, how can there be a singular Islam' The relentless killing of Shiites and Ahmadis in their places of worship in Pakistan and of other minorities in other Muslim countries clearly indicates that terrorism is not a tale of the dispossessed as is so often claimed.
Second, Muslims must accept that the demise of the golden age of Islam is not the work of the rich and villainous West. It has largely to do with orthodoxy over seven centuries. Islamic scholars’ claim that their religion can prosper only in an Islamic state run according to the sharia or Islamic law has no place in today’s world. This claim itself is the very essence of fundamentalism, resulting in intolerance of other religions, and gives birth to jihadis. Muslims must recognize that they have to evolve secular democratic states with power to the people. Only then, this century may be remembered otherwise.