By Hasan Suroor
March 23, 2015
If Islam is to move away from its current suicidal trajectory, the first thing that needs to be done is to get rid of the idea of one-size-fits-all Islam
As the global civil war tearing the Islamic world apart intensifies, there’s understandably deep pessimism over the future of Islam. Will it survive this self-inflicted existential crisis at all? And, if so, in what form? Will it be in the twisted form symbolised by the Islamic State (IS)? Or is this crisis the harbinger of a new awakening? The proverbial darkness before dawn? Will a new Islam rise from the ashes of the old?
There is a saying among Muslims, Islam Zinda Hota Hai Har Karbala Ke Baad, (Islam is reborn after every Karbala), alluding to Islam’s resurgence after the devastating defeat of Imam Hussein’s ragtag army in the battlefield of Karbala. After all, Christianity went through a particularly dark and bloody phase before it discovered Enlightenment. So, why not Islam?
Signs of Introspection
On the face of it, such optimism sounds almost like wild fantasy in these gloomy times when Jihadis seem to be the only show in town. Indeed, obituaries of liberal Islam are being routinely written. The Economist carried an article recently suggesting that liberals might have already lost the battle. But it also made an important point — that there are belated signs of introspection among Muslims in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings.
Pointing out that hitherto Muslims had “not taken kindly” to Western “hectoring” to do more to counter jihadist ideology, it noted that “they are starting to debate the role that Islamist ideology plays in extremism.” Most importantly, the traditionally conservative Muslim political and clerical Establishment had broken its silence with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar mosque — the oldest seat of Sunni Islamic learning — proposing a radical overhaul of Islamic teaching; and Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, calling for a “religious revolution” to purge Islam of extremist tendencies.
“The Islamic world is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost. And it is being lost by our own hands,” he lamented. The test, of course, will lie in whether he will be willing to review Egyptian textbooks which, according to a report of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, present the same interpretation of jihad that is preached by violent Jihadis.
Meanwhile, on the Muslim “street,” the mood music appears to be changing generally. A trend that the community complains of has been ignored amid the sexier narrative of Muslim youth “flocking” to join the IS. According to independent observers, anecdotal evidence suggests that “the centre ground has started to shift back,” as one British commentator put it.
“Now if you speak to liberal Muslims, you hear optimism: the centre ground has started to shift back. Voices are speaking up who, until recently, were cowed by fundamentalist preachers, fear of family disgrace, even violence,” wrote The Times columnist Janice Turner.
Canadian feminist-activist Irshad Manji, a hate figure for many Muslims because of her attacks on fundamentalist Islam, says that these days she gets “more love bombs, if I can put it that way, from young Muslims.”
“They are hungry — this new generation is hungry for debate and discussion. I think that if we all understood that, there would be less of a need for them to become defensive and less of a need for us, all of us, to be fearful,” she told an interviewer.
The problem is that this change has come a little too late — perhaps 10 years too late — and seems more like a panic reaction to the growing IS threat. Moreover, the debate is focussed on defeating extremist groups rather than the ideology that gave birth to them. Also, it is not enough to say that the Islam that extremists preach is a distortion of “true” Islam — unless there’s an agreement on what is “true” Islam. Is it the Islam that recognises religious freedom and urges its followers to respect other faiths? Or is it the Islam that allows Saudi Arabia, its de facto custodian, to sentence to death any Muslim who renounces their faith? Is “true’’ Islam represented by Wahhabism, the hang-‘em-flog-‘em Saudi creed, and the template for Jihadis? Or the more gentle Islam practiced in South Asia? And who decides which brand of Islam is more authentic? As the leading American specialist in Islamic and Jewish studies, Gordon D. Newby, points out, “The often asked question, ‘Who speaks for Islam?’ remains an enduring and important question.”
Any discussion on the future of Islam must factor in two things: one is that more Muslims today live in multicultural, open and democratic societies — mostly in the West — with very different notions of individual freedoms and human rights than the tribal cultural values that shaped early Islam and to which the Establishment Islam continues to cling on to. Secondly, the concept of a monolithic global Umma, undifferentiated by factors such as race, culture, gender and personal lifestyle choices, is a myth. It is a stereotype that, ironically, has been promoted both by Islam’s critics and its advocates to suit their own different interests.
Take, for example, Muslims born and brought up in the West. Let alone other Muslims, they have little in common with their own parents’ generation. The fact is that second and third generation American and European Muslims reject many of the so-called “Islamic” practices that interfere with their personal freedoms and don’t fit in with the dominant values of the free and societies they live in.
If Islam is to move away from its current suicidal trajectory, the first thing to do is to get rid of the idea of one-size-fits-all Islam. Well-known Turkish writer and publisher Levent Gultekin believes the problem is not Islam but “our inability to understand the religion in the context of the 21st century.”
“Unless we find a way out, we will destroy ourselves,” he told Al-Monitor, a Washington-based media site devoted to West Asian/Islamic affairs.
He made a distinction between strictly religious Islamic principles and secular concepts such as honesty, justice, equality and freedom which, he said, were “universal and the basis of virtually all religions, including Islam.” The way forward for Muslim societies was to embrace secularism so that religious issues “cease to act as a focal point for society.”
“What Christianity experienced in the West in the 17th and 18th centuries, Islam and Muslims shall experience now and in the future,” he said.
Contest between Approaches
American Muslim scholar Asma Afsaruddin sees the crisis in Islam as a consequence of the “intra-Muslim dialectics” played out between “absolutists’’ and liberals suggesting that the latter are very much in the fight contrary to the sense that they have given up. What we are witnessing is a contest between two different approaches to “the central issues of our time” — one based on “whether the past is conceived as a frozen, mythic entity available for wholesale replication today,” and the other “offering a repertoire of enduring universal values and possible courses of actions, mediated by contemporary contingencies.”
Ultimately, the future of Islam as a religion fit for the 21st century hinges on the liberal worldview gaining ground among Muslims, Professor Afsaruddin wrote in an essay, concluding with the optimistic prediction that “this will happen because that is the more historically credible and morally compelling alternative.”
Some would question whether a “new” Islam would be Islam at all. Like the old communists, who denounced the European New Left as heresy, they would dismiss a reformed Islam as a travesty arguing that it’s immutable. But that is a bridge we will cross when we come to it. The question for now is: are we getting there at all?
Hasan Suroor is the author of India’s Muslim Spring: Why Is Nobody Talking About It?