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Change Is Coming To Islam

By Ziauddin Sardar

26 December 2009, 05:13am IST

Last week, I took the Euro Star from St Pancras International station in London to Paris. Just after clearing immigration, I was stopped by a security officer. Nothing unusual in that, except I was the only one he stopped and questioned in literally thousands of passengers. I had some time to kill so I stood beside him to watch who else he interrogates . In 40 minutes, he only stopped two other people. The first was an old man clearly recognisable as a Muslim: beard, cap, badly-fitted suit, Arab (I guessed Tunisian) origins. The other was a person who strikes terror in the heart of every security officer: a Muslim woman in hijab.

This is perhaps the most noticeable feature of the passing decade for us Muslims. We are now universally regarded as objects of suspicion and subjects for interrogation.

The main reason behind this is the momentous atrocity that began the Noughties: the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. It is hardly surprising that the last decade has been dominated by the consequences of that attack. Most of the negative as well as positive developments in the Muslim world during the last ten years can be traced to that fateful event.

Terrorism, however, was not new to the Muslim world: it had been a problem before 9/11. In Pakistan , Kashmir, Egypt, and in Palestine, the cycle of sectarian and ideological terror and counter terror had already cost innumerable lives. In Chechnya, Bosnia and occupied Palestine, Muslims were victims of what can only be described as state-sponsored terrorism. And the vast majority of the victims of this internal and external violence were Muslims.

But the 9/11 atrocity did create a new chapter. To begin with, it compounded a set of problems that existed for some time. For more than a generation , since at least the 'Islamic Revolution' in Iran, the political rhetoric in the Muslim world had been changing from the hyperbole of sabrerattling nationalism to macho militancy seeking to clothe itself in the legitimating mantle of Islam. The response to the 9/11 atrocity, the so-called 'war on terror' , took that tendency to a new height.

The 'war on terror' had a devastating impact both on the external realities of Muslim societies as well as on Muslim consciousnesses. It changed not only the course of history in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan but also served as a springboard for the revival of the Taliban and the emergence of new militant groups such as the Jemaah Islamiya in Indonesia and the radical Shabab in the Horn of Africa. It also laid the foundation for home-grown al-Qaida-inspired terrorism in Europe and America. The hatred of America in the Muslim world, a direct consequence of the 'war on terror' , also became an ideal substitute, in certain circles, for introspection and reflexive thought on the economic, social and political problems of many Muslim countries.

There were other consequences as well. Western reactions to 'Muslim terror' in Iraq and Afghanistan reinforced the negative views of Islam and Muslims. The fear and loathing of Muslims has been an integral part of European consciousness almost from the inception of Islam. Bloody terrorist campaigns by fringe Muslim organisations brought these anti-Islam and anti-Muslim narratives, 'the darker side of Europe' , to the fore. What was conventionally described as 'Orientalism' , a refined literary and scholarly way of ascribing radicalism, backwardness and violence to Muslims, was transformed during the Noughties into what came to be known as 'Islamophobia' : crude, unabashed religious discrimination and racism against Muslims.

Europe has seen a frightening rise in Islamophobia since the July 7, 2005 bombings in London . As 'Muslims in Europe: A Report on 11 EU Cities' , published last week by the Open Society Institute , shows, prejudice and discrimination are the routine, everyday experience of European Muslims in such cities as Antwerp, Berlin, Copenhagen , Paris and Stockholm. Riding on openly anti-Muslim tickets, far-right political parties have made considerable gains all over Europe - from Denmark to Italy, Belgium, Germany and Britain. Even the so-called moderate conservative parties now routinely employ anti-Muslim narratives that tell of an indigenous culture being 'swamped' by 'alien' and 'hostile' Muslims with their fundamentally incompatible attitudes to gender, sexuality and freedom of expression.

The much-vaunted freedom of expression was itself curtailed throughout much of the Muslim world as a result of the 'war on terror' . The outcome was predicted by Anwar Ibrahim, one of the most lucid voices of sanity in the Muslim world, in early 2002. Ibrahim, one-time founder of an Islamic movement and former deputy prime minister of Malaysia, was a major threat to the corrupt regime of the then prime minister, the autocratic Mahathir Muhammad. Mahathir had Ibrahim framed on homosexuality charges, and after a sham trial, sentenced to fifteen years in prison. The development of the 'Anwar phenomenon' , as it came to be known, kept Muslim intellectuals throughout the world gripped for most of the decade.

One consequence of the 9/11 atrocity, said Ibrahim in an open letter written from his prison cell, would be that "the nascent democratic movements in Muslim countries will regress for a few decades as ruling autocrats use their participation in the global war against terrorism to terrorise their critics and dissenters" . Indeed, this is exactly what happened in Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Iran and many other Muslim countries.

The problem for Muslim societies, Ibrahim explained , was simple: "In the centuries when Islam created civilizations, men of wealth created pious foundations supporting universities and hospitals. Princes competed with one another to patronize scientists, philosophers and men of letters." That was then, now: "bin Laden uses his personal fortune to sponsor terror and murder, not learning and creativity, and to wreak destruction rather than promote creation. Osama bin Laden and his protégés are the children of desperation; they come from countries where political struggle through peaceful means is futile. In many Muslim countries, political dissent is simply illegal."

In many - but not in all. And this is where the dark clouds of the Noughties revealed their silver lining. While the centre of Islam - the Arab world, Iran, Pakistan - was embroiled in strife and turmoil, something very interesting was happening at the periphery. Muslim democratic movements in Indonesia and Turkey made substantial gains. A miracle was performed in Morocco: Islamic personal law was totally changed and transformed . In Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim himself was released in September 2004; and went on to lead the opposition in April 2008 after an election that shattered the absolute dominance of UMNO, the corrupt ruling party of Malaysia.

The 2002 election in Turkey brought the Justice and Development Party (AKP) into power. Led by Recep Tayyip Erdogen, former mayor of Istanbul, the AKP has deep Islamic roots. Both its leaders and the mass of its supporters are committed Muslims . Almost immediately, AKP demonstrated that it was more committed to democracy than any other political party in Turkey.

The AKP used standard Islamic principles to realign Islamic politics towards democracy. Its leaders argued that politics in Islam has to be based on the Qur'anic concept of shura, or consultation, and therefore must be consensual and democratic. They introduced far-reaching reforms: death penalty was abolished, minorities were given more freedom , including the right to their own language education , and various aspects of human rights legislation were put on the statue books.

The AKP even tried to change the law to ensure that the military cannot intervene in the political process. And, as its resounding success in 2007 proved, AKP turned out to be an effective and efficient manager of the economy; it has been credited with being economically the most successful party in Turkey's history. The AKP has proved that Islamic politics need not be the sole preserve of the fanatics and the Mullahs. It can be an effective instrument to establish civic society and a thriving democracy.

Indonesia went through a similar transformation . The first direct presidential election in 2004 was a watershed for the largest republic in the Muslim world. Unlike Pakistan or Bangladesh, where the Islamic movements are marginalised and have never won more than three or four per cent of the votes, the Islamic movements in Indonesia are a mass phenomenon. Organisations like Muhammadiyah , Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Liberal Islam Network (LIN) have followers in scores of millions.

Since the return of democracy in Indonesia, these organisations have argued that Islamic politics is not about establishing a utopian 'Islamic state' where 'the shariah is supreme' but about creating a civic society where accountability, transparency and participatory democracy are the norm. Moreover, the shariah's overemphasis on formality and symbolism has drained it of all ethical and humane dimensions; and as such, it needs to be totally reformulated. Both democracy and Islamic law must evolve from below with the participation of the masses. This is the message that the largely young members of Muhammadiyah and LIN have been promoting in mosques, schools and universities throughout Indonesia. This outlook was the cornerstone of the peaceful settlement in 2005 of the long-running armed conflict in Aceh.

While the Islamic movement in Indonesia is still grappling with ways and means of reformulating the shariah, Morocco has provided a clear lead. The family law in Morocco, known as Moudawana, was based on the traditional Islamic rules on marriage, divorce, inheritance, polygamy and child custody. Women's groups and enlightened Muslim scholars had been campaigning for decades to change and reform it without much success. But 9/11 and its aftermath provided a new impetus. A special commission , which notably included women, was created with the specific task of producing fresh legislation based on the principles of Islam. The resulting family law, which was introduced on the statute books in February 2004, sweeps away centuries of bigotry and bias against women.

The new Moudawana allows a woman to contract a marriage without the legal approval of a guardian. Verbal divorce has been outlawed: men now require prior authorisation from a court, and women have exactly the same rights. Women can claim alimony and can be granted custody of their children even if they remarry. Husbands and wives must share property acquired during the marriage. Men are no longer the 'leaders' of the family; both husband and wife share the leadership role. The old custom of favouring male heirs in the sharing of inherited land has also been dropped, making it possible for grandchildren on the daughter's side to inherit from their grandfather, just like grandchildren on the son's side. As for polygamy, it has been all but abolished. Men can take second wives only with the full consent of the first wife and only if they can prove, in a court of law, that they can treat them both with absolute justice - an impossible condition.

Every change in the law is justified - chapter and verse - from the Qur'an , and from the examples and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. And every change acquired the consent of the religious scholars. With the exception of the gripes of a few extremists , the new shariah has been widely welcomed, even by the Islamist political organisations. Justice and Development Party described the law as "a pioneering reform" that is "in line with the prescriptions of Islam and with the aims of our religion" .

If the shariah can be changed then anything and everything in the Muslim world is amenable to change. Not least in India, where the efforts of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board to declare 'triple talaq' null and void suggest stirrings of a forward movement. But the narrow-minded conservatives , in India as elsewhere, move quasi-statically . For sure, fundamentalism will continue to be with us for some time. But it is totally vacuous, based on nothing more than hateful slogans and, as such, is bound to wither away. Adaptation and emulation of the successful aspects of the Islamic movements in Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey will increasingly become the dominant theme. As in the past, so in the future: the centre of the Muslim world will be slowly but surely transformed from the periphery.

Source: The Times of India in New Delhi

ZIAUDDIN SARDAR is London-based author of Desperately Seeking Paradise, Balti Britain: A Provocative Journey Through Asian Britain, and many other books

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