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ISLAM AND THE WEST – WHAT MUSLIMS SHOULD DO?

Asghar Ali Engineer

Islam and Modern Age, May 08

Muslims and the West seem to be on collision course. I read every day in Urdu papers about the conspiracies the West hatches to attack and destroy Islam. Western countries do something or the other which offends Muslims and results in protests, street demonstrations and at times results even in violence. Huntington's book, 'Clash of Civilizations', Rushdi's novel 'The Satanic Verse's' controversy, Taslima Nasreen's warm reception by European countries, Pope Benedict's statement about Islam, the Danish cartoons and now a member of the Netherlands's parliament making a film Fitna have all struck headlines. This new controversy has seized the Muslim world.

Some Muslims argue that West is enemy of Islam and keeps on attacking Islam and Muslims to serve its own agenda. Some even argue there is limit after all and how long Muslims can tolerate these attacks. They must act to stop this war against Islam. Many burn the flag of the country concerned or trample it underfoot, some give call for boycott of goods manufactured in that country and some even threaten to indulge in violence.

The ways our newspapers report, give an impression as if all in the West are hostile to Islam, and all Muslims are bent upon violent protests. But this is far from true. The Muslims should understand that all Westerners are not supporters of whatever some Westerners do, and Westerners should understand that all Muslims do not appreciate violent protests. It is also not true that Western governments patronize anti-Islam cartoons, films or novels. Nor governments of Muslim countries can be held responsible for violent demonstrations.

The matter in fact is very complex, and intellectuals on both sides should understand these complex issues involved and make constant efforts to promote proper understanding and smoothen mutual relations. Unfortunately such serious attempts are not being made or even if made do not get proper projection in the media. I would like to make a few suggestions in this regard to be seriously considered.

First, we must mutually appreciate our cultural differences which are responsible for a great deal of misunderstandings between the West and the Islamic world. The West has by now a long tradition of secular democracy, freedom and human rights. The Islamic world is still not conversant with such concepts. It has not even ushered in to democracy; and there is no concept of secular democracy or human right in this part of the world.

Europe has undergone a long struggle against the Pope and the Church to win its right to criticize. The religion as propagated by the Church, the freedom of its press and certain other fundamental rights. There was a time when the church did not tolerate any criticism or deviation from its theology which had the status of divine injunction. Deviationists were severely punished. Even by death or by burning them at stake. Religious persecution had assumed serious proportions.

Since the West had won the rights against the Church after great sacrifices, it is not prepared to give them at any cost, and considers them almost, as sacred as the religious injunctions. It was because of this that philosophers like Bertrand Russell wrote a book like Why I am not a Christian and ridiculed in this book many doctrines propounded by the Church. Several books and articles were written attacking even Christianity and continue to be written even today. Recently a book has been published which questions even existence of Christ. The author quotes several documents to prove that Christ never existed and what church preaches is mere mythology.

Whether such a state of affairs is desirable or not is a matter of values to which one subscribes. Today in the West, especially in Europe freedom, secularism and human rights have status of what religious doctrines had in the medieval age. And in democracy these rights have to be ensured without which democracy may lose its meaning. Now it can also take extreme forms e.g., right to ridicule, right to mock at authorities, and political cartoons often make a caricature on mock at the false claims of political authorities.

Political cartoons are frequently used to ridicule political leaders. Now the question is whether cartoons can be drawn to ridicule religious leaders or not, and if so, can one draw cartoons of founders of religions who are held in high esteem by their followers? It is of course a matter of ones perspective. Many would insist that it is sacrilegious to draw such cartoons and some would insist it is part of ones fundamental rights.

Salman Rushdi too insists on his right to ridicule religious authorities, and mocks at Gabriel and Prophet's (PBUH) wives. The West defended him saying it is part of his human rights or fundamental rights. Western culture as it has developed over the last one century, promotes even sacrilege as part of ones rights as people in the West insist sacrilege is the ultimate right in democratic culture.

It was for this reason that the West defends persons like Salman Rushdi, or Danish cartoonist who mocked at the Prophet and showed bombs in his turban. When Muslims protested more papers in European countries published these cartoons in support of the right of the cartoonist. This led to even more protests in Islamic world. Similarly Taslima Nasreen is perceived as one who is persecuted by Muslims and she is projected as a brave woman who must be accorded warm reception to appreciate her courage and fortitude.

When Muslims protest, the Western media dub it as act of "fundamentalism" and "religious fanaticism" and condemn it as unbecoming behaviour of enemies of media freedom. The West emphasizes on individual rights, and 'individual is at the centre of all rights'. There is no concept of collective rights in the Western culture. In democracy individual enjoys all the rights available in the constitution. Also, there is concept of separation of church and state which is quite central to secular democracy.

We would now throw light on what prevails in the Islamic world today and why there is such sense of confrontation between Western values and values prevalent in the Muslim world today. The West, instead of outright condemnation of these acts, must try to understand value system of the Islamic world. This value system is undoubtedly more feudal than democratic. Individual rights are subsumed in community rights. There is no concept of full-fledged human rights.

Religion is sacred and divine and above any criticism including all its social and cultural traditions. Love and respect for tradition are universal and beyond the pale of any criticism. Often vested interests exploit this situation to their advantage and put many practices not remotely religious, also beyond pale of criticism. Even governments, declaring themselves as Islamic, try to shun criticism.

Once you declare something as 'Islamic', it becomes so difficult to criticize it and all sorts of vested interests, particularly the rulers, pass off their mis-governance also as 'Islamic'. Add, to these, low levels of secular education, and the picture becomes complete. There is hardly any awareness among Muslim population of the real issues. Also there is no open society and democratic governance.

As there is no democratic governance, there is no concept of human rights. Any such concept is limited to a few intellectuals who cannot air their views publicly. In one International conference in Morocco a couple of years ago, I met several Arab intellectuals who were highly critical of many traditional practices and autocratic governance in the Arab world. It gave me great pleasure.

II

ISLAMIC WORLD AND ITS VALUES

As is well known Islamic world is yet to go through democratic revolution and hence there is no concept of individual and fundamental rights. There are various reasons for this which needs another article to discuss. It is important for the Western world to understand and comprehend this vital difference between two cultures.

Religion and religious values are quite central to Islamic countries or for Muslims who are living in countries like India. Though India is constitutionally a secular democratic country it still lacks modern rational and secular outlook. Indian society too, despite political democracy, lacks what can be called 'social democracy'. Traditional religion has strong grip over the minds of the Indian people and much more so, in the case of the Muslims.

India at least has political democracy. Islamic world, by and large, does not have even that. In Islamic world traditional religion and religio-cultural values reign supreme. There is absolutely no rational intellectual tradition spread all over society. Even if there are a few intellectuals who care for rational approach, they are isolated and are hardly heard with respect. Often they have to pay heavy price for their intellectual conviction.

It should suffice to give two examples as to how such intellectuals have to suffer. One example is of Prof. Fazlur Rehman, a noted Islamic scholar who was also believer in Islam and Islamic values. However, he had different understanding of the nature and meaning of revelation (he never denied revelation per se) and he also believed in rational approach to Islam. There was hue and cry when he published his ideas about the nature and meaning of revelation and he not only had to resign as director of an Islamic institution, he had to leave Pakistan and teach in Chicago University for rest of his life.

Another example is of Abu Zayd Nasr, an Egyptian scholar who had studied in al-Azhar, the renowned Islamic University in Cairo and also later taught there. He also expressed his ideas about revelation (tanzil) and its interpretation (ta'wil); which were not in accordance with traditional thinking. He was tried in a court of law for sacrilege and the court ruled that he was no more a Muslim and hence his married wife became harami (prohibited) for him. Both Zayd Abu Nasr and his wife escaped and found refuge in Holland, and he has been teaching there ever since.

Both Fazlur Rehman and Zayd Abu Nasr were respected scholars of Islam but did not subscribe to traditional views about revelation and paid heavily for their views. Both were believers and had profound knowledge of their religion but were not conformists and so had to pay a price. Their views were considered sacrilegious and deviationist. In this atmosphere of total lack of freedom even within the framework of religious beliefs, one can understand the reaction of Muslim theologians and politicians (who always want to be on the right side of 'Ulama) if persons like Rushdi or Taslima Nasreen or Danish cartoonist, express their views.

The Westerners must understand that the whole value system in Islamic world is very different from their own. In traditional Islamic societies religion and religious traditions are considered holy and beyond pale of criticism. Also vested interests exploit this for their own advantage. Often even mis-governance is projected as 'Islamic' and any criticism is banned.

Add to this lack of any democratic values and awareness of human rights and low levels of literacy and the picture is complete. Most of the Muslim countries are governed by autocrats who are completely insensitive to people's rights and any movement for human rights is crushed. It will take long time to usher in democratic values in Islamic world. Entire education system is to produce conforming minds.

However, there are intellectuals who are critical of this state of affairs. I met many of them in an international Islamic conference in Morocco a couple of years ago. It was highly refreshing to listen to them criticizing lack of democratic rights in Muslim countries and the disproportionate role-played by traditional 'Ulama. However, this is limited to a few intellectuals and even these intellectuals are unable to publicly criticize their governments, or even 'Ulama in their countries.

Also, let westerners know that religion and religious traditions are very much integral part of people's lives in Islamic world. These are not only sacred but lived traditions for them. The western perspective is very different. For them, except those who belong to Church, religion is far from sacred. It is democracy and freedom of thought that is sacred. It is part of human rights to mock at religion. Thus these are two different worlds. They must appreciate this world view of Muslims. If they have intimate knowledge of Muslim world and their religious traditions and cultural values probably there will be no such confrontation.

Also, those Muslims who have migrated from Muslim world and live in Western countries, carry these cultural values with them, are greatly disturbed when they see their religious traditions being insulted. The film Fitna made by a member of the parliament of Netherlands, is the result of such confrontation. Such people have hardly any intimate knowledge of Muslim societies, let alone of the Qur'an.

Some Westernized and secularized Muslims like Salman Rushdi, Hirsi Ali and others also take completely westernized view and attack traditional Islamic values, and they are naturally lionized by western media and projected as great champions of human liberty and human rights. This has created an atmosphere of Islamophobia in Western countries. What is needed is dialogue between representatives of these two value systems – Western and Islamic – to end the atmosphere of confrontation.

Films like Fitna are not going to make things easy. They would lead to further intensification of confrontation. There are rightist elements in Western countries who want confrontation, not peace between the two value systems. Maker of the film, Fitna, is well known rightist politician. He could not be persuaded even by the Prime Minister of Netherlands not to make the film. He had definite rightist agenda.

WHAT MUSLIMS SHOULD DO?

As it is necessary for Westerners to appreciate Muslim cultural viewpoint, it is also necessary for Muslims to understand Western point of view and their respect for democratic values and human rights. While it is true that many Western scholars and media persons are rightist in their political agenda and attack Islam deliberately, there are many other who criticize Islam and Muslims as they feel many Muslim beliefs are undemocratic and anti-modern. They cannot understand why Salman Rushdi should be killed for his criticism or mockery of Islamic beliefs. It is his right to do so, especially in a Western country where the culture of democracy and human rights prevails.

Even while opposing views of Salman Rushdi, or Taslima Nasreen or Danish cartoonist, there is no need to get violent. Muslims must prove through our conduct that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance and individual dignity. The Qur'anic teaching is not to abuse others or insult others. The Qur'an requires Muslims even not to abuse others gods lest they should abuse Allah out of ignorance (6:109). Even if others attack out of ignorance we must be dignified in our opposition to their views of Islam.

Qur'an also says that even while debating with people of the Book, debate in the best possible manner. Thus Qur'an says, "And argue not with the people of the Book except by what is best save such of them as act unjustly." (29:46). Qur'an is saying all this when democratic culture or democratic rights were totally unknown. Even while disagreeing we must respect other's views. This is Qur'anic culture. Qur'anic culture is culture of tolerance. Tolerance is one of the best values of civilized people. Islam came to create a new human person. This human person is called m'umin by Qur'an and mu'min means believer – believer in best human values like justice, compassion, tolerance and wisdom.

As Muslims we must also reflect critically whether we seriously believe in these values. These values are so important that they represent Allah's names in Qur'an – Allah is just, compassionate and wise. If we believe in Allah we must believe in these values and if we worship Allah we must practise these values making them part of our lives. Then and then only we can call ourselves as believers!

Today Muslims are thought to be most intolerant and fanatic. Why? Should we not seriously reflect on this situation? All sorts of vested interests abound among us styling themselves as Muslims and leaders of Muslims. They often mislead us. Islam was torch bearer of 'ilm (knowledge) and we have become torch bearers of ignorance. Our 'Ulama  (it means those who know) represent ignorance rather than knowledge. They acquire nothing but traditional knowledge of Islam and are narrow minded, sectarian and totally ignorant of world they live in. They still believe that the Greek knowledge once studied by their ancestors as final and even sacred. This is what is taught under m'aqulat (rational sciences) in madrasas.

It is we Muslims who have made persons like Salman Rushdi, Taslima Nasreen, Hirsi Ali and others as great heroes of the Western world. Had Muslims not protested violently and issued fatwas to kill them, they would have been unknown entities. This way we have brought nothing but disgrace for Islam and Muslims. Some Urdu papers use word mal'un and mal'unah (those accursed by Allah) even while giving news about them. When Muslim media behaves so irresponsibly how can we expect western media to behave with dignity? Disagreeing with their views does not mean invoking curses for them.

There are selfish political leaders who want to cash in all such opportunities for their political interests. These opportunistic leaders exploit innocent Muslim religious sentiments for promoting their own interests. We have become emotional instead of rational. We instantly sacrifice rationality on the altar of emotions. In Qur'an wisdom is the highest value and Qur'an says, those who are given wisdom have been given good in abundance.

Muslim intellectuals should also shed their fear and come out boldly for defence of Islamic values of tolerance and wisdom. If we really care for positive values of Islam we must oppose such opportunism as displayed by our politicians and ignorance and sectarianism displayed by so called 'Ulama. The Prophet (PBUH) said that best form of jihad is speaking truth on the face of tyrant ruler. Time has come to speak out truth in the face of those who exploit Islam for their selfish ends. They are not really defenders of Islam but defenders of their own interests.

Will we come out in defence of true Islam?
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Institute of Islamic Studies, Mumbai
E-mail: csss@mtnl.net.in

 

 

 

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