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Interview ( 4 Oct 2021, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Need To Transcend From Nationalism To Universalism And Cooperate With Other Religions

By Mushtaq Ul Haq Ahmad Sikander, New Age Islam

4 October 2021

Eminent Activist, Poet and Secretary General Asian Muslim Action Network (AMAN), Thailand, Muhammad Abdus Sabur in conversation with Mushtaq Ul Haq Ahmad Sikander, about AMAN, Social activism, and challenges to humanity at large

Main Points:

1.    Only relief doesn’t help, what we need is an empowerment of people.

2.    There is need for reform of politics and political culture.

3.    Christians have Asian Networks, but Muslims only have Tabligh network, which only deals with religiosity and piety.

4.    Specific problems like women rights violation, Human rights violations need to be addressed.


Muhammad Sabur: "Working with socially-involved Christians, Buddhists and Hindus, I realized that we Muslims, too, need to do practical work"


Tell us something about yourself?

I was born in a remote village in Bangladesh and come from a humble background. We are ten brothers and sisters, and I am the eldest. I received my primary and secondary education in the village school. My inclination towards social activism started during my school days. The poverty and unemployment among the people in the village, touched me very much because many of my classmates had to drop out after primary schooling. Me and my friends in school tried to raise some through rural drama (Natak) social issues, which resulted in peoples participation in improving the conditions of the primary school. It was a one room primary school with five classes. So we raised funds locally from villagers and built a mud house with five rooms.

During the war of liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, I was an undergraduate student and member of a local Sangram Committee (Revolutionary committee). At one time I and my cousins decided to cross over to India, to be trained as Mukthi Bahini, (Freedom Fighters) but the plan didn’t materialize. I opened a little grocery shop, in my village and began to sell essential commodities in order to help my family. In the aftermath of the 1971 war I joined an NGO Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee (BRAC), which was engaged in the rehabilitation of war victims, particularly the refugees who returned from India, most of them were Hindus, in Sylhet district. Most of their houses were burned. Our first task was to build houses, then we shifted to health, education and agricultural activities. These activities gave me an understanding of social structure and obstacles in development activities. It is not easy to help the poorest of poor. Only relief doesn’t help, what we need is an empowerment of people, so that they can help themselves. Though politicians played vital role in creation of Bangladesh, but their post- war role was divisive and self serving, so the work of NGOs though limited in scope. Therefore there is need for reform of politics and political culture.

So what were your other social engagements besides BRAC?

I worked in BRAC from 1972-1980. In 1977 I had an opportunity to participate in a development workers programme organized by Asian Cultural Forum on Development (ACFOD), based in Bangkok, Thailand. Seven social workers from seven countries of Asia, visited each others project. It was my first exposure to different countries and to know about other people of varied faiths, different cultures, belonging to contrasting social milieu. I also became aware of the different forms of government existing in these counties. What impressed me the most was that though Christian population is small in number in Asia except Philippines, but they are very visible in education and social work. The best schools and health facilities are run by Christians. It was further revealed to me that Christians have Asian Networks, but Muslims only have Tabligh network, which only deals with religiosity and piety, with no concern about social issues. Other issues for the first time I came to know were the concept of consumer rights and advocacy work of Consumer Association of Penang (CAP). I was also inspired that social workers from various faith communities are working together, on common social issues. Being inspired by their work, I established Consumer Association Bangladesh (CAB) along with my friends in 1978. Later on we established Institute of Environment and Developmental Studies (IEDS) in 1983.

 In Philippines, I visited farmers organization and got acquainted with their struggle, for land reforms. That proved an inspiration for me to be involved in organizing Bangladesh Bhumihin Samiti (Bangladesh Landless Peasants Association). In 1983, I moved to Bangkok, to work with ACFOD. This was another opportunity, which enabled me to facilitate linking peasants, workers, fisher folk in Asia. Also during the 1980-1990 decade I tried to link the trade unions of Asia. These trade unions were small and not affiliated to big political parties. Hence, in order to have an alternative and real view of the issues concerning the traders, whose feeble and fragile voice got diminished and side-lined in the noise of bigger trade unions. This linkage was titled and Asia Pacific Workers Link (APWL). APWL was more socially oriented. Also I helped formulate the Liberation, Religion and Culture (LRC) linkage too.

So were these linkages, groups and organizations able to achieve their objectives?

To a certain extent, surely they were successful, in a sense that we could establish intra Asia solidarity. We were able to launch a campaign for encouraging Breast Feeding. The IEDS initiated campaign against use of insecticide, pesticide and advocated for organic farming and environmental protection. Bangladesh Bhumihin Samiti formulated demands and submitted to the government. The also agitated in Dhaka, but the problem with most of these initiatives is that they can’t sustain for long, without funding and man power. Also every political organization had its farmer organization, which made it difficult for independent organization to sustain. Also it is very difficult to sustain the linkage, as members many times become disillusioned or tired of struggle. Though Bangladesh Consumer Association and IEDS still exist and IEDS is now a part of Earth International too.

How did the project of Asian Muslim Action Network (AMAN) emerge?

Since 1972 I have been engaged with organized social activism. As I mentioned earlier, about Asian experiences that Christian communities are more organized and connected Asia wide. I found no parallel Muslim network. I witnessed that Christian organizations had built various institutions but Muslims only had political groupings and if they were active in other fields besides politics it was on adhoc basis and I felt a strong urge for collective effort. I also experienced that the Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist organizations were structurally weak and focused on certain specified areas only. I further found out that there was no organized and collective effort among Muslim organizations and the Muslim organizations didn’t interact on Social action. Muslims are living in some countries as majority and in some as minority. We have not seen effective solidarity among Muslim nations.

Saudi Arabia being oil rich country and care taker of Makkah, does provide financial assistance to other Muslim countries but these assistance did not bring any significant change in the life of the people. That means we need to bring changes from within. For that we need to develop human resources and education. We must realize that Asia is diverse in religion and culture that means while we strengthen Muslim organization and network, we also need to work with other faith communities. Hence, I found a dire need of an Asia wide organization, and after a series of communications nine people including me met on September 23-24, 1990 in Chiangmai, Thailand. They were Dr Asghar Ali Engineer, Dr Chandra Muzaffar, Dr Mubarak Ali, Dr Raisuddin, Ali Ahmad Ziauddin, late Omar Asghar Khan, Shabir Chik, Wiriya and I. We prepared a short draft and proposed the name Asian Muslim Action Network (AMAN). The meeting elected Dr Asghar Ali Engineer as Convener of AMAN.

I volunteered to initiate further communication and start a small secretariat. Islamic, resource development, youth leadership training and networking- linking Muslim scholars, institutions and NGOs were adopted as the modest initial program.

So the whole concept and idea of AMAN was yours?

Yes, but I shared the idea with others and together we formed AMAN. I learned from others too like in Thailand there is International Network of Engaged Buddhists, those days it was just being formed. Hence I burrowed the concept from others too. Despite my humble background and being a simple graduate, I left my country and moved to Thailand and helped in forming AMAN and since the last two decades I am engaged with its work and I have travelled to scores to countries and helped organize hundreds of meetings, seminars, conferences, workshops, study sessions over these years bringing thousands of people together. AMAN can’t do grass root level work or national level social work, but it can certainly link those who are working on these lines, so that they get to know each other and jointly work together. AMAN is to bring people together, so that they can jointly collaborate and formulate solutions to problems of mutual concern.

After Moving to Thailand do you still contribute to Bangladeshi society?

One needs to transcend from Nationalism to Universalism. One must practice one’s religion but shouldn’t discriminate but cooperate with other religions. Allah has created everybody and implanted the divine seed in very soul, and then who are we to discriminate and judge anybody. I haven’t forgotten my motherland and still contribute in my humble way. I was responsible for voicing concern about the people of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), and took their cause, when they were being repressed by the State. But I must state that establishing linkages is hard and sustaining them is more difficult.

Did you initially witness any discrimination or resentment towards your work by State or by fellow Muslims?

At every stage you feel discrimination and experience obstacles. The second meeting of  AMAN was hosted by our Malaysian members. The third meeting we planned in Indonesia, but Suharto era, for hosting such meeting government permission was needed, but unfortunately our local host was unable to obtain permission. So meeting at the last moments was shifted to Thailand. It is an irony that a Muslim organization can’t hold its meeting in a Muslim majority country, but we could do it in a Buddhist majority country. Though the situation is still changing. There are other obstacles such as NGO-NGO competition, funding or resource constraint, sectarian strife, post 9/11 restrictions particularly on Muslim organization. Part of it is because of action taken by fringe Muslim groups and part of it is hegemonic distrust.

How AMAN is perceived by the Muslims and Government?

We need to realize that Muslims are not homogenous community. We are divided on sectarian, ethnic, cultural and linguistic lines. We can see very clearly tension between Shia and Sunni. AMAN being a progressive network, is open to all Muslims. But when they consider to be part of AMAN, they think whether we are an authentic organization to represent Muslims.

Since post 9/11 scenario Muslim organizations are suspected by Western countries. Asian Muslim countries are also part of international security network, so they have an obligation to implement security measures, e.g. Funding to Muslim organization has become restricted, that is why AMAN can’t escape from these consequences. But if we continue the social work, people and state both will appreciate you. When people see you selfless they will help you. We have to prove our credentials that we don’t seek name or fame through Social work. It takes time to establish confidence and trust and they are possible only through Dialogue and Cooperation. Thus, confidence building and cooperation must be priority for any organization engaged in social work, as people like us work for a common cause irrespective of caste, creed or colour. Also for our work to be internationally recognized, we need to demonstrate our contribution and impact through our activities. 

What projects does AMAN engage with?

Though the word project is very much used in governmental and non governmental sector, the connotation of project itself is short term. The way we conceive our programme, we see it as a process which is long term, because there are web of complexities and difficult problem need to be addressed, which can’t be solved within a short span of time. AMAN since its beginning was concerned about how to link those people who understand Islam in its true spirit and have the ability to apply Islamic teaching to present crises of our societies. We think that knowledgeable people who are also socially engaged must be connected. It is also essential to practically manifest the concept of Greater Ummah as all these people are working at their respective places, hence bringing them together and develop an understanding and cooperation, is a step towards building the Universal Ummah.

Then the ideas and solutions of these scholars need to be transferred to younger people. For that purpose, we hold the Youth for Peace and Peace Study course at regular intervals. The need is that if the youth are empowered they can lead people and work together. We witness people being divided in the name of religion, caste and sect, but AMAN believes that it is our task to forge unity and integration. We must recognize that the Universal Ummah is diverse in nature.

Also specific problems like women rights violation, Human rights violations need to be addressed. How to build awareness about Human rights and not only Muslim rights is the need of the hour. To address the issues of Human Rights, Minority Rights, Gender Rights, AMAN formed Asian Muslim Lawyers Network. But the problem remains as to how sustain these linkages once they are formed.

So what are the Impediments being faced by AMAN?

1.       Establishing new linkages and solidarity.

2.       Sustaining the linkages. It happened that you may invite many people but only a few retain the interest.

3.       Developing Human Resources is more important than financial resources and many times we lack in the same.

4.       Distance matters, though we may be able to retain our relationship through e mails, but face to face contact is important. We can’t build mutual confidence and trust, in one meeting, but through working together. To come together costs money.

5.       The dynamics and speed of change in our contemporary world are very fast. To cope up with the changing technology and living in faith is getting difficult.

What are the areas and fields which need to be prioritized and how to overcome the impediments?

Poverty, Exploitation, Discrimination, Unemployment, Environmental and Climate changes are some of the issues. The individuals with vested interests use the institutions of Social, State and International Structure to gratify their baser instincts of greed, power and luxury. We need to change the discriminatory structure, which caters to the needs of few but leaves the vast majority high and dry. But to change the structure, we need real dedicated human beings who have purified themselves of these baser instincts, otherwise the new structure will be no different from the previous one, as structure has no brain of its own, and it needs man to run it.

Hence the need is to create dedicated souls. It is for these very reasons of self purification that religion and prophets came from time to time. The problem with us is that we are not managing the issues and resources on basis of virtues. We are not relating to people as Islam ordained us to do. We have to live knowledge which is contained in books and religions. As Muslim professionals, belonging to various walks of life we fail to uphold the virtues of Islam in our daily life.

What are the reasons for this apathy?

The major reason for this is present educational curriculum, which is making people to serve Multi National Corporations, and Institutions of exploitation. This curriculum is value neutral; hence the students never think how their jobs are going to affect the lives of masses. They get jobs in corporations and feel satisfied and content, but are never bothered what the corporations are doing to the poor and environment. The financial crises are created by rich people not poor people. The goal of this professionalism is only hedonist capitalism with profit making, as its ultimate aim. Also we as Muslims have failed to fill this void with our educational system based on virtues, pluralism, and mutual co-existence. We have failed as Muslims to form our own system. Why can’t we offer Islamic Banking and Zakah as solutions to the present crises? Islam made the usury unlawful; hence it can be one of the alternatives towards liberating the downtrodden. We need to think and develop organizations and institutions which impart education that is empowering, non exploitative and liberating.

Why the issues and concerns which AMAN engages in, are generally sidelined by Ulema in particular and Muslims in general?

When the Ulema speak they lucidly quote Quran and Hadith, but it still remains a mystery why they can’t influence the policies in Muslim countries. They will rarely talk about social justice, mutual cooperation and sharing the resources. They certainly will never talk of land reforms, which can give the land to the landless. Hence most of them, except a few are helping reinforce the status quo.

Why after every few years an AMAN assembly is held?

Asia is a big region with diverse culture. Through the AMAN Assembly we bring those people closer who are doing best in their respective countries. The Assembly is for people to come together, assemble and formulate new ideas. The assembly gives a sense of belonging to the Universal Ummah. Also we have the problem of refugees, people living with Hiv, physically challenged and lots more. It is the job of Muslim community to take care of these people. Hence need for solidarity is practically depicted by the Assembly.

Is AMAN engaged in promoting Inter Faith Dialogue too?

Yes, in our Assembly we have Muslims and Non Muslims both invited. We bring non Muslims together in each of our programme. We live together and to solve the problems we need each other. AMAN is a Muslim initiative, but not for Muslims only.

As AMAN regularly hosts Inter-Faith Dialogue conferences. Do you think that the culture of dialogue has percolated among the masses or is it just a few privileged elite who engage in the same?

Yes, there are limitations of these Inter-Faith Dialogues. We face the problem of financial resource generation. How to bring more grassroot activists together needs money. Then most of these people have the problem of communicating in English. Also every International get together has limitations. During the annual Hajj ceremony at Makka most of the Muslims can’t understand the sermon of Imam, as it is delivered in Arabic. The Muslims may feel spiritually elevated, but they can’t discuss the problems facing Ummah as they can’t communicate with each other. What the Imam is talking about may be good, but how to sustain the interest of the people in the same, when they don’t understand the language? Spiritual benefit can be one thing but finding solution of the problem at hand is more important. Also there are different levels of people, like scholars, writers, academics, activists and we need to cater to the needs of each segment. 

Is AMAN engaged in promoting Intra Faith Dialogue too?

Within AMAN membership we have representation from various sects within Islam. To conduct dialogue among our members is not so difficult because most of these people are exposed to other societies, but our membership is very small. Though there are many outside who hold very strong views against other sects, which reflects on going sectarian violence. This is one of the challenges that AMAN is trying to find ways, how to promote inter sectarian understanding through intra faith dialogue.

AMAN has been engaged in rehabilitation and relief activities among refugees. How grave is the refugee problem in Muslim countries?

The problem is indeed grave. More than fifty million people have been rendered as refugees in the world. Poverty, War, and conflict drive people to be refugees. We are facing the refugee problem in Iraq and Afghanistan due to war and in Pakistan (minority Shia and Ahmadiya population) is being targeted. Due to cultural aggression, religious discrimination and sectarian violence many Muslims have been forced to become refugees. These people have been rendered stateless, though this universe belongs to Allah, then any human being can’t be illegal, but Nation states divide us. We have to relate to these refugees and must help them as they are in problem. We must remember that our Prophet Muhammad (SAW) was at one time also a refugee.

Has AIDS epidemic presence in Muslim countries? If yes, how grave is the threat?

The disoriented sexual behavior, blood transfusion and drug addiction can be some causes of spread of HIV. Yes we have thousands of people suffering from HIV in Muslim countries. We can’t say that it isn’t a Muslim problem. Instead of asking the victims about the root cause of getting HIV, we should help them to live their remaining days in peace and love, also we must promote awareness among those who are not yet affected by HIV. For these reasons we formed the Asian Muslim Positive Network.

 What programmes does AMAN conduct for youth?

We have certain programmes which engage with youth and include

1.       Peace Studies and Conflict Transformation, a three week study course for youth.

2.       Young Women Leadership Programme.

3.       Youth for Peace Programme.

4.       Researcher Fellowship Programme for young Muslim scholars, through which every year we engage a few scholars to research on certain projects related to Muslims and Islam in South-East Asia.

5.       Inter and Intra Faith Dialogues.

6.       AMANA, Quarterly Magazine.

Do you feel that anger among the youth particularly Muslim youth is brewing against the West because of its hegemony, Globalization and Free Market Economy?

Anger is with everybody. The younger people in modern societies with speeding bikes, enjoying in dancing clubs, shopping at malls and watching pornography are little concerned with the fate of Palestinians or Ummah. They are living in a fantasy world, having a utopian worldview. The need is to channelize the energy of youth in a proper direction.

Those who get angry are presented the facts in twisted manner, but there are some genuine reasons to get angry like occupation of Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine etc. Even if the youth are angry they are being helped by the elders. Libyan leader Gadaffi was hacked to death by youth, but with the help of outsiders and now they are trying to repeat the same in Syria. Though the fact must be acknowledged that Gadaffi ruled too long and committed huge atrocities against his people.

It is not that youth are getting angry, because of West’s hegemony but even we are helping them in getting angry, as in Muslim countries there is no rule of law, respect for dissent and immunity from exploitation. Within Nation-States we have hegemony. Within our families and offices we have hegemony. The whole west can’t be blamed for atrocities. There have been mass demonstrations and protests in the West against the attacks on Iraq. There are many people in West who express solidarity and extend hands for Justice.

What future projects would AMAN like to engage in?

We have three programmes for future

1.       Integrated Peace Actions in Asia

2.       How to develop Islamic Resources i.e. Knowledge Building

3.       Transferring the knowledge to younger people.

Also included are advocacy for women, minorities, migrant workers, children, youth, animal, and planet rights.


Interfaith cooperation is one of AMAN's priority areas. Buddyagama Chandraratana, a Buddhist Monk from Sri Lanka, and Reverend Tan Chi Kiong from Hong Kong are seen in an AMAN Assembly in Bangladesh


Any message for humanity in general and people of South Asia in particular?

If we look at South Asia and contrast it with South East Asia, the poverty and corruption is less in South East Asia. South East Asia could also attract many migrant workers, though in South Asia, India is a big power and is also attracting migrants and is developing, but Human Rights Violations and many other atrocities taint its image. Pakistan is in real chaos, economic development is stagnant, human security has declined and democracy is endangered. Most of the South Asian countries are spending heavily of arms but very little on education. The education and literacy rate is quite high in South East Asian nations. Though South Asian nations produced good number of women politicians but their rise in politics couldn’t help in the status of women becoming better in their country. South Asian Association for regional Cooperation (SAARC) couldn’t help better integrate South Asian nations, but Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to a large extent was able to achieve this kind of integration, and these ASEAN nations maintain good relationship with both China and USA.

The urge for the solidarity must come from the people, we must stop dividing ourselves and for progressing we must transcend these fault lines. Civil society needs to work for these cooperative measures. In this world the nation states are needed but we need greater cooperation among people too. South Asian states must also bring an end to being repressive towards their people. In addressing the elite corruption and exploitation prevailing in South Asia, religious and cultural values can help. Instead of being violent we need to work for solidarity and peace across the borders. Also if people need to resist and protest they must employ non violent means as they attract more sympathy, as Peace and Human Lives are precious, which need to be saved. Also we must understand this fact that nobody can win alone, we need to win together. As triumph of humanity, is victory for all.


Mushtaq Ul Haq Ahmad Sikander is Writer-Activist based in Srinagar, Kashmir


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