The Recent Upheavals in the Muslim World

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The Recent Upheavals in the Muslim World (2011-2012)- Analysis and Cures

Professor Nazeer Ahmed

 

Like an angry ocean whipped up by violent storms, the rage in the Islamic world hammers at everything in sight, whipped up by long pent up passions, the gale force winds created by depressions of centuries old grievances, of defeat, humiliation, conquest, colonialism, insults and exploitation. The secrets of how intense these storms will be and what damage they will cause are hidden in the womb of the future. As students of history we watch these storms with fascination and we experience them with trepidation. Without the benefit of perspective which the passage of time affords, we can only document our observations, declaring, “We bear witness!”, and leave the lessons to be learned to the future.

 

There are analyses galore about what is going on in the Muslim world and in the Arab core of that world. There is no dearth of pundits who pontificate on the events and make a good living doing it. Their vocabulary is punctuated by a new lexicon: Arab spring, Arab fall and so on. And there is the old lexicon that includes democracy, religion, Arab-Israeli conflict, Islamophobia and Anti-Americanism. These attempts remind us of the story of the four blind men of Hindustan and the elephant.  The four men embark on a joint expedition to discover the shape of an elephant.  A friendly, domesticated elephant is ushered into their presence. One man touches its trunk and declares that it is like a water spout. Another wraps himself around a leg and exclaims it is like a tree. A third touches the ear and cries aloud it is like a fan made of banana leaves. The fourth one moves his hand around the trunk and asserts it is like the throne.

The analysis of current upheavals in the Islamic world suffers from the same limitations of perception, mired as these perceptions are in the jargon of the times. Very few grasp its extent or its intensity.  People in the west ask: “What is it about Muslims that make them so thin-skinned when it comes to their religion?” On the other hand Muslims often ask, “What is it about Westerners that makes them so thick-skinned that they continue to needle us?”

 

It is a grand enterprise to capture the multiple dimensions of these upheavals. They have historical roots as well as perceptual, emotive and socio-political dimensions.  Nonetheless, we will make a fresh attempt to tune in to the heart beat of the Islamic world.  What we hear in that heart beat may startle the listener. The voyage and the discoveries will change our world view. Old paradigms are destroyed and new ones have yet to be built. We summarize our observations at the outset:

 

  1. Technology has knocked down the barriers to communication. It is as if the entire world, men and women of different faiths, all live together under one tent. The lion and the lamb have been forced into the same habitat. In this confined space, every faith must rethink how it retains the sanctity of its own religious space while honoring the sanctity of all others. It requires the evolution of a new paradigm of interfaith ethics. A new lexicon of “us” versus “them” is urgently needed.
  2. The concept of the sacred is different in different faiths. In addition, all faiths struggle in a materialist world that is secular and is arrayed against the sacred.
  3. A new etiquette of free speech is required which preserves independent thought but avoids trampling and desecration of others’ sacred space.  Muslim scholarship must address this issue as well and address it must with urgency.
  4. Religion has become too serious a business to be left in the hands of professional religious men.
  5. The “Arab spring” lost out before it got started. It was hijacked first by a lexicon of democracy, then by the compulsive forces of a global Empire and right wing, home grown extremist ideologies. Now it is torn between the two.
  6. The half-time score in the Arab spring is: Empire: 1, Democracy: 0, Outcome: uncertain.
  7. The convulsions in the Islamic world are about fair play and a level playing field. The central issue is the increasing polarization of the haves and the have-nots. The convulsions are not about trappings of democracy which has long since been co-opted by big money.  In addition, people are fed up with dictatorships, internal corruption and external military occupations.
  8. The Islamic world is caught in a strategic contest between an American Empire which is under stress from economic contraction and a resurgent China, economically strong but still a distant second to America in military might. As the old African saying goes: “When the elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”
  9. The three major challenges before the Islamic world are: the rise of extremism, rampant corruption which gnaws that every facet of Muslim society, and the hegemonic  pressures  of a shrinking American empire supported by western powers.
  10. Islam in America has a historic opportunity to realize its existential destiny as the true brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind. Muslim Americans must build bridges and work in cooperation with those who seek to construct the edifice of a more tolerant, economically resurgent America but one that modifies its compact with the military-industrial complex.
  11. America can win the strategic contest with China based on the values of Jefferson and Lincoln, not on the strength of its arms.

The spark that lit the fire that spread to forty nations was a crass, despicable movie about our Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) and his noble family. This was not the first provocation nor is it likely to be the last. The fuel that provided the energy for this fury was the pent up frustrations of people with economic disparity, lack of opportunity, political oppression under dictatorships, military defeat, occupation and continuing humiliation by the west. We will examine these issues in some detail. But first the overarching influence of technology that empowers a devilish loner to set the world on fire must be understood and its awesome implications fully grasped.

 

Technology Has Compressed the World into a Single Unit

 

Technology transforms individuals, societies, alters old social paradigms, propels some civilizations to the heights of power while it destroys others. The invention of the stirrup in the ancient world, for instance, empowered the nomads of Central Asia to extend their sway over the settled civilization of India and Iran. The invention of the gunpowder transformed warfare, and in the sixteenth century, cannons mounted on boats gave the decisive edge to the Europeans to conquer and colonize the Aztecs of the new world as well as the coastal cities of Africa and Asia. In the nineteenth century, the appearance of the automobile changed the political landscape of New York State and shifted political power from the bucolic upstate to the emerging megapolis that is New York City.

 

The internet is a much more powerful tool than any of the previous inventions of man, perhaps comparable in its impact to the invention of the wheel. It removes barriers to communication across national and continental boundaries, empowers millions in Asia to enter the global marketplace and enables individuals to bypass governments and project their voice to millions, perhaps billions around the globe.

 

But human beings have shown a propensity to apply every technological advance as much for evil as for good. The stirrup enabled the nomadic horseman to conquer and plunder. The cannon mounted boats were used to destroy ancient civilizations. Advances in physics were used to build the atom bomb. And now, the internet has given free rein to pornography.  Statistics differ but there is no denial that pornography is the lifeblood of the internet.

 

It is in this context that we must examine the recent upheaval in the Islamic world. The awesome power of the internet has enabled a few sick people to set the world ablaze. Religion itself has become hostage to the work of Satan. Deeply held beliefs of people and the sacred space of communities far away can be trampled upon with impunity by anonymous ghost writers and pseudo-artists. The complex interplay of a selective and self-serving, often hypocritical application of freedom of speech with the rights of individuals to be left alone and the sanctity of deeply held beliefs of communities and nations far away presents the world with intellectual, ethical and juridical challenges not experienced in the past.

 

There is Need for an Interfaith Religious Etiquette and Protocols

 

It was a time that has long since disappeared, swallowed up by the unceasing march of technology. That was when men and women lived by a code of honor that had been developed and refined over centuries of living together. In that world, a man’s home was his citadel. It was designed and built to preserve the sanctity of its occupants and encourage politeness and humility on the part of outside visitors.

 

Our ancestral home in India was built of mud walls reinforced with straw. No one knew how old the house was.  My grandma used to say it was at least two hundred years old. The mud walls had a thickness of more than three feet at the base and tapered off to about two feet at a height of ten feet. The inclined roof was a laced labyrinth of bamboo poles and was covered with neat rows of curved baked black tiles.

 

It was a spacious house with a large angan (courtyard), always cool in summer and warm in winter. My great-grand father, Gulam Hussain had moved down from the Northwest with the British army, and after retirement as a soldier circa 1920, settled down in the South and had bought the house for sixty rupees. There was one characteristic of the house that was distinct. Every door in the house cut low, less than the height of an average man, and tapered slightly as a cone to carry the weight above it; a larger door would have caused the mud walls to collapse.

 

A visitor would first say Salamu alaikum, seek permission to enter, take off his sandals and then bend down as he passed the low entrance door, naturally saluting those inside, as if with humility.

 

All the mud houses in the neighborhood were similarly constructed. It was culturally accepted that a visitor would bow as he entered your house. Once inside, the visitor would honor the sanctity of the owner. If it was prayer time, the man of the house always led the prayer, even if the visitor was an accomplished scholar.

 

Modern life provides no such sanctity for private living space. Technology beams in images, some wanted and some unwanted, right into your bedroom. What used to be an inner sanctum is now public space. Stand alone houses with mud walls and thatched roofs have given rise to high rise buildings, some large enough to accommodate a small town. It is not just the physical space that is invaded; it is also the social, intellectual, emotional and religious space. People are all exposed.

 

How does one conduct oneself in this private space which has become public? What rules of etiquette and behavior are acceptable to the visitor and the visited?

 

The question becomes complex and extremely sensitive when one realizes that there is no accepted standard of what space is considered sanctified and what is not. This is particularly  true of emotive and religious space. In a global village, each community, each religious group and each nation has its own distinct and separate ideas of what is sacred and what is not.  The demarcation between public and private is largely a function of the group’s historical experience as well as its national socio-political-religious structure.

 

Jews, for instance, consider the holocaust to be a national tragedy and would consider it anti-Semitic if anyone dared question it. Christians are sensitive about the Trinity and the place of Jesus in it. Blacks in America are sensitive to issues of racism while the Hispanics are concerned about ethnic profiling. Each group has an emotive, religious, social space that is sensitive, perhaps even hallowed. For the Muslims, this hallowed emotive and religious space is occupied by the Qur’an and the love of the Prophet.   These deeply held perceptions, while differing in their emotive intensity to those who hold them, illustrate the difficulty of civil communication in a shrunken world wherein the barriers have been knocked down by technology.

 

One can see that in a pluralistic society, even a discussion of what is sanctified and what is not becomes difficult.  If a committee consisting of a Christian minister, a Jewish rabbi, a Muslim imam, a Hindu priest and a Buddhist monk were to work on a common definition of what is to be considered sacred, there would emerge five different opinions.  It would be a futile exercise. Their perceptions are differentiated not only by doctrinal issues but also by centuries of historical and collective social experiences. For the Jews, religion and people co-mingle. Most Christians accept a separation of the sacred and the secular. For the Hindus, all creation is sacred. For the Buddhists, it is the interconnectivity of creation, not the Creator that is important. The Muslims separate the Creator and creation and insist on the transcendence of God. And so on. Exhausted, the interfaith committee would agree that each faith must define its own sacred space and the others must honor that space.

 

A post-religious, secular world knowingly flaunts this manifest wisdom and insists on selectively imposing its diktat on everyone. While Germany bans any questioning of the holocaust, it permits the screening of a film offensive to Muslims.  The British take down advertisements of a winking Jesus but defend freedom of speech when it comes to trespassing on Muslim sensibilities. America legislates that discrimination based on race, ethnicity and national origin is illegal but leaves out religion from this definition. This satisfies powerful electorates among Blacks, Hispanics and Jewish Americans but leaves the Muslims totally exposed. Freedom of speech is a fundamental human right. But does this mean you have the freedom to walk into somebody else’s domain, insult, humiliate and denigrate him?

 

The world has not addressed these questions. A universal, religious code of etiquette is yet to evolve. Worse yet, a selective application of freedom of speech has stoked the perception that it is a hypocritical mask worn by some when it suits their sinister political or social agenda. The same groups that jealously guard their turf are the first to defend freedom of speech when it tramples upon and denigrates the sacred space of other groups. It is in this perception that one has to look for the origins of the sparks that have ignited the Muslim world.

 

Religion, however, does not exist in a vacuum. It is a living, breathing organism that exists in the economic-social-political domain.  The major religions of humanity have been around for thousands of years.  People of faith have learned to work with each other despite their differing views of the transcendent. So, why is there a global upheaval at this time? What are the economic, social and political factors that provide insights into the current upheavals shaking up the Muslim world, constituting one quarter of humanity? And what are the constructive alternatives that would help address these issues?

It is obvious to me that there is a crying need for an accepted etiquette in interfaith and interreligious dialogue. Charity begins at home. Muslim scholars must first get their own house in order.  The terminology of “Muslim”, “Kafir”, “Darul Harab”, “Darlul Islam” must give rise to a new terminology based on genuine faith, mutual respect and shared space. This, in my opinion, is the message of the Qur’an.

 

If I was asked to advance a Declaration of Interfaith Etiquette or aDeclaration of Interfaith Protocols it would be along the following lines:

“As a Muslim, I believe in the Oneness of God, and in the Angels, the Books and all the Messengers of God;

I believe that the Qur’an is the last of the revealed Books and Muhammed (pbuh) is the last of the Messengers of God;

I hold the Qur’an in the highest esteem as the Word of God;

I accord the most profound honor and love for the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh);

I expect those who do not share my faith to respect my sanctified space when they chose to enter it, and if they do disagree with me, to do so with due respect;

I undertake on my part to honor and respect the sacred space of other faiths, and if I do disagree with them, I will do so with due respect;

I hereby undertake to work with the utmost zeal to foster mutual respect for the sanctified space of all faiths and to honor the shared humanity of all men and women on this planet independent of their origin, race, color or creed.”

 

Islamic Education Must Combine the Traditional and the Modern

 

In a shrunken world, religious leadership is too serious a business to be left to the professional mullahs. The modern world demands that those who speak for a religion before a global audience must have a firm grounding not only in the traditional disciplines but also in modern communications, science, technology, mathematics, history and sociology.

 

When I was a graduate student at Caltech more than fifty years ago, I shared my office with an ordained Catholic priest, father Arenz. Father Arenz held an earned doctorate in theology from a distinguished school near Princeton and had been sent by his archdiocese to obtain a PhD in Aeronautics from Caltech which at that time was the best school for space sciences in the world. I lost touch with him over the years but I am certain wherever he served he excelled in presenting a synthesis of his tradition with the best of modern scientific knowledge.

 

There is nothing equivalent to such training in the world of Islam. There are fifty seven Muslim countries. Almost a quarter of the population of the world is Muslim. But there is not one academy that produces scholars who are at home at once with the traditional, natural and human sciences. Our higher institutions of religious learning at Nadwa or Deoband excel in the traditional religious sciences but offer little or no training in the modern scientific disciplines. Al Azhar and Qum have made an attempt to modernize their syllabus but they still have long ways to go. It was not always so. Imam Abu Haneefa was not only one of the greatest ofmujtahideen but was also a very successful and rich merchant, a mathematician of repute, an accomplished architect and city planner who was responsible for the layout of the city of Baghdad when it founded in 760 CE. In the classical period, Muslim scholars were trained in the Qur’an and Hadith, mathematics, the languages, discourse, astronomy, medicine, chemistry and tasawwuf. These disciplines were a part of the curriculum as late as the Mogul era. The marginalization of the syllabus in our religious academies is a recent phenomenon, dating back to the onset of the colonial era. I have covered in depth the history of this marginalization in the Encyclopedia of Islamic History www.99chats.net.

 

Great civilizations use every major challenge to renew themselves from within and rise to new heights of achievement. Lesser ones recoil and disappear. Great moments in history are occasions to reshape, mold and transform a civilization. Where was Muslim scholarship during the recent upheaval? Did it rise to the challenge and use the upheaval as an occasion to chart new ground for religious and interreligious discourse? Or, was it bogged down in descending spirals of condemnations, denials and self-righteous proclamations? There were indeed condemnations of the movie and of the violent response to it. Are mere condemnations and hand-wringing enough? Muslim scholars are stuck in ancient paradigms, unable to extricate themselves from its inertia and move forward or lead others to new vistas in the unfolding panorama of God’s will through human history.

 

Arab Spring- A Historical Turning Point

 

The recent upheavals in the Muslim world are of extraordinary historical import. More specifically, the Arab spring marks a turning point in the history of the peoples of the Middle East.  There have been social movements, religious movements, anti-colonial movements in parts of the Arab world but one has to go back centuries to find a movement that swept across the entire region. Comparing it to the Abbasid Revolution of the eighth century would be an exaggeration but comparing it to the post World War II nationalist movements that brought in Nasser of Egypt and the Baath party of Iraq and Syria would be an understatement.  For a moment, the Arab masses woke up and gave vent to their pent up frustrations through what Jesse Jackson used to call “street heat”.

 

No sooner did the Arab spring start than forces opposed to it went into action and co-opted it intellectually and suppressed it militarily.  The motive forces behind the Arab uprising were two-fold: (1) the increasing economic centralization which left out millions from the benefits of growth in trade, industry and commerce, and (2) the rampant corruption that has overtaken their societies like a tsunami inundating the political, social, economic and even religious landscape. Both of these are universal issues. The global economic engines have worked in favor of a few to the disadvantage of the many. While there are more billionaires today than at any time in history, millions have very little to eat and no jobs to support their families. Two-tiered economies flourish in most part of the world: one for the rich and the other for the poor. The same cup of coffee that is sold for ten cents in a hut and served in an unfired clay cup is served next door in a five star hotel to the wealthy for ten dollars in glazed Chinese cups. I was among the first ones to point this out, way before the outbreak of Arab Spring in my article on Egypt, under the title, One River, Two Egypts, published in the Link.

 

Graft and corruption gnaw at the social fabric of a society just as termites gnaw at the inside of a tree and ultimately destroy it. That is why the Qur’an repeatedly warns against the perils of corruption. Corruption saps the creative energies of a people and makes rational, strategic business planning impossible. How can you plan to build a bridge when more than half of your budget is siphoned off by graft and corruption? In some Muslim societies, the percentage consumed by graft is even higher. The Arab Spring was the voice of millions that cried out aloud:  “Enough is enough! Give us a level playing field.”

 

The Arab Spring was the collective voice of the Arab people. It emanated from the pent up frustrations of the masses, and was led by the secular elite. Its origins were basically non-religious and were rooted in the anger against the corruption in their societies. It was a genuine mass uprising.

 

The moderate and secular groups suffered from a fatal flaw. They did not have an ideologue who could articulate their positions in a cogent, coherent language in conservative Islamic societies.  Allama Iqbal (d 1938) successfully did this in the subcontinent. Ali Shariati (1977) attempted the same for Iran. However, even in these two cases, the results have been short lived. Iqbal’s Pakistan was hijackied by extremist jama’ats while the Iranian Revolution was taken over by the clerics. In the Arab world there have been notable intellectuals from Mohammed Abduh (d 1905) onwards who have tried to articulate a consistent modernist theme for the Arabs. But the results have been mixed. Sometimes the efforts have degenerated into Arab nationalism; at other times they have veered off to the religious right.

 

This is a general observation: the Islamic world has yet to produce a thinker who can successfully integrate the traditional and the modern and articulate this synthesis in a cogent manner that is understood and accepted by the thinking elite as well as the conservative Muslim masses. This is a monumental task as the secular and the religious establishments jealously guard their turf and are always ready to pounce upon anyone who they perceive to be not one of them. Considering the fragmentation of the Islamic world and the enormous tensions within its body politic, it is not likely to be a person like Mujaddid Alf Thani (Shaikh Ahmed Sirhindi, d 1624) who will articulate and implement a grand vision but a process extending over many generations to which many thinkers will contribute.

 

A second flaw of the modernist front in the Arab Spring was that it had no social and political infrastructure to back it up once the existing corrupt infrastructure was eliminated. A successful revolution needs many elements: a goal, an ideology, a spokesperson, an organizer, a mass movement and a sound social and political infrastructure. The modernist front achieved its first goal of shaking up the existing political structure but it could not follow through to fill the resulting political vacuum. There were others who were ready to move in and take advantage of the vacuum. An imperfect analogy is like that of a lion who hunts and kills its prey but is unable to eat the meat because it has no teeth. In total frustration, it walks away and surrenders its prey to the foxes who are waiting not far away.

 

No sooner had the Arab Spring started, first in Tunisia and then in Egypt that the forces of reaction went into high gear. The counter revolution was both internal and external. Internally, the forces of the Islamic right, long quiescent under political pressure from entrenched dictators raised their head. Here again, one finds a wide spectrum of rightist forces, ranging all the way from extremist salafists to the moderate Ikhwan ul Muslimeenwho have been vetted over the last fifty years in the crucible of international politics and have learned to moderate their posture. The salafists are comparative newcomers on the international scene. They cause havoc wherever they go. They target their own people as well as foreigners. Their actions result in massive social dislocations and political turmoil.

 

Interference from the West Derails Social Transformations from Within

 

The external resistance to modernist and secular change came from the Western powers. Contrary to popular perceptions that the policies of the West foster democracy and fair play, the actions of these powers work exactly in the opposite direction.  They support dictators and strongmen who suppress democracy and foster corruption. A more correct assessment of the policies of the West is that they are geared towards their own self interests and the preservation of a world order in which capital has a free reign to exploit the resources of the world. Philosophically, there is nothing right or wrong with this position. The position may indeed be legitimate. It is the hypocrisy with which these self interests are wrapped in a jargon of democracy that irks people.

 

The Arab Spring was no exception to this rule. First, the propaganda machine in the West went into action projecting the objective of the uprising not as a demand for economic justice but as a desire for electoral democracy. Genuine democracy, which means government by the people, of the people, for the people is one of the most profound political ideas to grace the civilization of man. But alas! Political democracy has been hijacked by Big Money wherever it is practiced. The rituals of democracy, the elections and the voting are there, but lurking behind the ballot boxes is Big Money which controls the process itself and makes a sham of the genuine will of the people. The Arab Spring was about economic justice and a level playing field, not about the trappings of a manipulated ballot box.

 

The results speak for themselves. In Libya, the overthrow of one dictator, Mo’ammar Qaddafi, has resulted in the dictatorship of anarchy. There is no law and order. Armed gangs roam the streets. The economy is in ruins. People endure even without the most basic amenities. No one knows what happened to the billions that Libya had deposited in foreign banks. In Tunisia, there is political instability. In Egypt, the modernist forces that had organized the demonstrations in Tahrir Square were shunted aside by the Muslim Brotherhood which has a vast, well organized network of social and political institutions. Mubarak was dethroned but the right wing forces have moved in. The salafis, massively funded from abroad, stirred up disturbances against the minority Copts, and have cornered a respectable share of the right wing votes. Democracy is suppressed in Bahrain by force. The civil war in Syria ranges on. It is not hard to see the intervention of western powers in each country. In Libya, the intervention was overt. In Syria it is covert. In Bahrain it is indirect. In Egypt it is subtle. And so on.

 

On the broader global scene, the interventions of western powers led by the United States have reinforced the perception that the west is waging a war on Muslims, with some even going so far as to say that it is a war on Islam. Those who subscribe to these perceptions cite the American invasion of Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, the drone attacks in Pakistan and the NATO bombing campaign in Libya to support their position. They suspect that America is out to undo the Middle East and remake it to suit its long term strategic interests. Specifically, they maintain that seven countries are targeted for destabilization and remaking: Iraq, the Sudan, Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Iran and Afghanistan. Add Pakistan to this list as an encore. Iraq has been destroyed and a virtual new state has been set up in the Kurdish North which threatens the territorial integrity of Turkey, Syria and Iran alike.  Sudan has been bifurcated with continuing pressures for further fragmentation.  Libya is in shambles and there is talk of dividing it into two.  Afghanistan is in ruins.  Pakistan is bleeding from drone attacks, its economy in shambles, one of its provinces in ruins and its body politic at the mercy of extremist groups.  Now, it is the turn of Syria where an insurgency goaded and armed from outside is pitted against an entrenched dictatorship supported by Russia. The raging wars and the political turmoil have segmented the Middle East into two camps: one including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Shaikdoms who support the west and the other group that includes Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon who oppose the west. So far it is the United States that has prevailed, although the long term benefits of its interventions, which were achieved at great cost, are questionable. The so called unity of the Muslim countries has been shown to be what it is, namely, a sham. The Organization of Islamic Countries cannot even hold a quorum and spends its time expelling one member or the other. In short, the situation is a mess. The Arab Spring which started as an expression of the genuine hope of the masses for economic justice has instead been manipulated to destroy left leaning dictatorships and replace them with right leaning dictatorships. The mid-term score for the Arab Spring is: The Empire 1, Democracy 0.  The future remains unstable and highly unpredictable, offering opportunities for creative solutions as well as possibilities for destructive disintegration

 

Historical Analogies with the Maghreb and Spain

 

Historical analogies are imperfect. However, if one insists on an analogy to the current situation in the Muslim world, the disintegration of the Maghreb between 1212 and 1578 CE offers some parallels. The Almohad defeat at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212 CE) set in motion the fragmentation of Muslim Spain. The Omayyad Khilafat of Andalus disappeared.  Its place was taken up by petty principalities in Seville, Cordova, Granada and North Africa, who constantly waged wars with one another in collusion with the Christian forces of Castile, Aragon and Portugal.  The fall of Granada in 1492 was not the end of this story. The Conquistadores continued their onslaught on land in North Africa and at sea in the Mediterranean and the Indian Oceans. Religion was the major driver in these conflicts.  It was not until the year 1578 when the Sa’adid Sultan Ahmad of Morocco defeated an invading force from Portugal at the Battle of Al Qasr al Kabir (1578) that the threat to Muslim North Africa was lifted. King Sebastian of Portugal was killed in the Battle and Portugal became a protectorate of Spain. The Ottomans advanced on North Africa from the East. Thereafter, a balance of power prevailed in the Maghreb between the Ottomans and the Spaniards. During this entire period (1212 – 1578) there was constant meddling from the Christian powers of Spain and Portugal in the affairs of Muslim North Africa.  The objective was to keep the Muslim powers divided and prevent the emergence of a unified political and military front that would challenge the ascendancy of the Iberian Christian powers.

 

As it was in the Maghreb historically, the Muslims today are at loggerheads with one another. The divisions are ideological, political, economic and cultural. The ancient fault lines along Shia-Sunni divide are well known. Add to it the competition for regional political dominance and the control of oil and other natural resources. Historical memories divide people. The Arabs and the Iranians are at each other’s throats. The Turks enter the fray, discarding the prudence that had governed their policies since the days of Ismet Inonu (d 1973). The Kurds, seeing a historic opportunity to carve out their own state are doing so at the expense of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. And so on.

 

Overarching these internal political struggles is the intrusion of a western economic empire led by the United States. The meddling in the internal affairs of Muslim states is unceasing. The overthrow of Mosaddeq in Iran (1954), the Arab-Israeli wars (1948 and 1967), the invasion of Iraq (1990-91, 2003-2010), widespread killings and abuse of women in Bosnia (1992-95) (which were mercifully stopped by President Clinton with a bombing campaign against Serbia) ,the destruction of Libya (2012) and the unending war in Afghanistan (2001 -ongoing) are only some of the obvious examples. Outside interference makes it impossible for internal political processes to mature.  When there does emerge a political change, it appears as a sudden hiccup, a disjointed response to an event and its effects dissipate and disappear just as do the waves in a pond when a stone is thrown into it.

 

The Muslim world suffers from a wounded psyche. It is not just the physical abuse, the invasions, defeats and unending wars that have taken their toll.  It is also the continuing ideological abuse that throws salt over raw wounds. The propaganda machines in America and Europe drown out Muslim civilian casualties as mere statistics. How many women and children have died in the drone attacks on Pakistan? Has anyone compiled their names? Is the life of an Arab child any less precious than the life of a child of any other nationality? Yet, the media pass over 100,000 civilian casualties in Iraq as if it was a number from a book in arithmetic.

The long term trends in the propaganda war against Muslims are there for anyone to see. In the 1960s the Arabs were the bad guys. Gradually, the propaganda was expanded to include the Muslims. After 9/11 Islam itself became fair game. Even the Qur’an and the Prophet were not spared. Buses roam the streets of New York and San Francisco with advertisements suggesting that the Arabs and Muslims are savages. The word “terrorist” appears to be reserved for Muslims. Even an individual crime by a Muslim is branded a terrorist act whereas more heinous crimes by non-Muslims are couched in more forgiving terms. The feeling of hurt among Arabs and Muslims is real. Their grievances are genuine.

 

There are Gaps between Perceptions and Realities

 

While many in the Arab and Muslim world perceive that the west led by the United States is out to re-colonize them and denigrate their religion, the general perception in the west is that their interventions have been positive and have been directed towards introducing democracy and reforming Muslim societies.  There are multiple issues with these perceptions. The west is not a monolith. Neither is the Islamic world. There are millions of people in America who have a genuine love for democracy and respect the Islamic world. And there are millions in the Islamic world who admire America for its universal ideas and its achievements.

 

The reality is that the west is not out to destroy Islam, or for that matter any other religion. The empire of the west is an economic empire. It is not an ideological empire as was the Spanish empire.The banker in New York, London or Copenhagen could care less how you pray or when you pray as long as you work during the day and spend the evening shopping at the mall. He would love you even more if you use a credit card and get into debt so that he can charge you interest.

 

The real issues facing the Muslim world are corruption and economic and social injustice. These are the same issues facing the entire globe. Abject poverty in the face of opulence, the continual squeezing of the middle classes, the corruption and abuse of power by the ruling elites, these are the real issues at the heart of the Arab Spring. Indeed, these are the issues facing the world at large.

 

Extremism Is a Menace

 

The Muslim world faces, in addition, the rising specter of extremism which feeds on poverty, war and political disaffection.  It wraps itself in a religious mantle and advertises itself as the shield against western onslaughts. In reality, extremism is a cancer on the body politic of Muslims. There is no doctrinal basis for extremism in Islam. The Qur’an declares clearly: “Innallaha la hubibbul mo’tadeen” (Indeed, Allah does not love the extremists). And whom God does not love, His creation must discard. The Muslims have themselves to blame for allowing this cancer to spread as much as it has. The extremists impose their contorted vision of religion by force and by coercion.  Ignorant and cruel, they are a menace to their own people. Only a broad-based concerted civil effort can contain this menace and extirpate it.

 

That a despicable movie produced in the back alleys of California could set half the world on fire startled many people. But they need not have been so surprised. The movie was only a trigger, a spark that set off the fire. The fuel was already there through decades of war, defeat, humiliation and denigration. Will this episode impel the Islamic world into a period of creative thinking or will it sink it further into an abyss of recriminations, complaints and finger pointing? Only the future can tell.

 

A Vision for the Future

 

As early as 1995, I offered my own vision for curing the malaise that afflicts the Islamic world. I abbreviated it with the acronymSEEEC:  Spirituality, Ethics, Education, Economics and Cooperation.  To reclaim its destiny as witness over all humankind, the Islamic world must have its firm anchor in the spirituality ordained by the Qur’an. Where there is no spirituality, there is no faith and where there is no faith, there is no civilization. The community must be committed to the ethics of moderation, integrity and fair play. It must provide a broad based education to its men and women in the traditional as well as the modern sciences. It must improve the economic condition of its masses, eliminating graft and corruption and providing a level playing field for its toiling millions.  And this great community of nations must work together in cooperation and peace to achieve justice for all peoples of the world, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

The Fire This Time- Part 2

Professor Nazeer Ahmed

 

It was a time that has long since disappeared, swallowed up by the unceasing march of technology. That was when men and women lived by a code of honor that had been developed and refined over centuries of living together. In that world, a man’s home was his citadel. It was designed and built to preserve the sanctity of its occupants and encourage politeness and humility on the part of outside visitors.

 

Our ancestral home in India was built of mud walls reinforced with straw. No one knew how old the house was.  My grandma used to say it was at least two hundred years old. The mud walls had a thickness of more than four feet at the base and tapered off to about two feet at a height of nine feet. The inclined roof was a laced labyrinth of bamboo poles and was covered with thatch on top of which were laid neat rows of baked black tiles.

 

It was a spacious house with a large angan (courtyard), always cool in summer and warm in winter. My great-grand father, Gulam Hussain had moved down from the Northwest with the British army, and after retirement as a soldier circa 1920, settled down in the South and had bought the house for sixty rupees. There was one characteristic of the house that was distinct. Every door in the house was only five feet high, tapered slightly as a cone to carry the weight above it; a larger door would have caused the mud walls to collapse.

 

A visitor would first say Salamu alaikum, seek permission to enter, take off his sandals and then bend down as he passed the low entrance door, naturally saluting those inside, as if with humility.

 

All the mud houses in the neighborhood were similarly constructed. It was culturally accepted that a visitor would bow as he entered your house. Once inside, the visitor would honor the sanctity of the owner. If it was prayer time, the man of the house always led the prayer, even if the visitor was an accomplished scholar.

 

Modern life provides no such sanctity for private living space. Technology beams in images, some wanted and some unwanted, right into your bedroom. What used to be an inner sanctum is now public space. Stand alone houses with mud walls and thatched roofs have given rise to high rise buildings, some large enough to accommodate a small town. It is not just the physical space that is invaded; it is also the social, intellectual, emotional and religious space. People are all exposed.

 

 

How does one conduct oneself in this private public space? What rules of etiquette and behavior are acceptable to the visitor and the visited?

 

The question becomes complex and extremely sensitive when one realizes that there is no accepted standard of what space is considered sanctified and what is not. This is particularly  true of emotive and religious space. In a global village, each community, each religious group and each nation has its own distinct and separate ideas of what is sacred and what is not.  The demarcation between public and private is largely a function of the group’s historical experience as well as the national socio-political structure.

 

Jews, for instance, consider the holocaust to be a national tragedy and would consider it anti-Semitic if anyone dared question it. Christians are sensitive about the Trinity and the place of Jesus in it. Blacks in America are sensitive to issues of racism while the Hispanics are concerned about ethnic profiling. There were large scale riots in India not long ago over a site which the Hindus consider to be the birthplace of Rama. Each group has an emotive, religious, social space that is sensitive, perhaps even hallowed. For the Muslims, this hallowed emotive and religious space is occupied by the Qur’an and the Prophet.   These deeply held perceptions, while differing in their emotive intensity to those who hold them, illustrate the difficulty of civil communication in a shrunken world wherein the barriers have been knocked down by technology.

 

One can see that in a pluralistic society, even a discussion of what is sanctified and what is not becomes difficult.  If a committee consisting of a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu and a Buddhist were to work on a common definition of what is to be considered sacred, there would emerge five different opinions.  It would be a futile exercise. Their perceptions are differentiated not only by doctrinal issues but also by centuries of historical and collective social experiences. For the Jews, religion and people co-mingle. Most Christians accept a separation of the sacred and the secular. For the Hindus, all creation is sacred. For the Buddhists, it is the interconnectivity of creation, not the Creator that is important. The Muslims separate the Creator and creation and insist on the transcendence of God. And so on. Exhausted, the interfaith committee would agree that each faith must define its own sacred space and the others must honor that space.

 

A post-religious, secular world knowingly flaunts this manifest wisdom and insists on selectively imposing its diktat on everyone. While Germany bans any questioning of the holocaust, it permits the screening of a film offensive to Muslims.  The British take down advertisements of a winking Jesus but defend freedom of speech when it comes to trespassing on Muslim sensibilities. America legislates that discrimination based on race, ethnicity and national origin is illegal but leaves out religion from this definition. This satisfies powerful electorates among Blacks, Hispanics and Jewish Americans but leaves the Muslims totally exposed. Freedom of speech is a fundamental human right. But does this mean you have the freedom to walk into somebody else’s domain, insult, humiliate and denigrate him?

 

The world has not addressed these questions. A universal, religious code of etiquette is yet to evolve. Worse yet, a selective application of freedom of speech has stoked the perception that it is a hypocritical mask worn by some when it suits their sinister political or social agenda. The same groups that jealously guard their turf are the first to defend freedom of speech when it tramples upon and denigrates the sacred space of other groups. It is in this perception that one has to look for the origins of the sparks that have ignited the Muslim world.

 

Religion, however, does not exist in a vacuum. It is a living, breathing organism that exists in the economic-social-political domain.  The major religions of humanity have been around for thousands of years.  People of faith have learned to work with each other despite their differing views of the transcendent. So, why is there a global upheaval at this time? What are the economic, social and political factors that provide insights into the current upheavals shaking up the Muslim world, constituting one quarter of humanity? And what are the constructive alternatives that would help address these issues? (to be continued)

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