By Javid Husain
July 07, 2015
In my last article, ‘Muslim World In Turmoil’, in The Nation of 23 June, 2015, I analyzed the causes of the current turmoil in the Muslim world, especially in the Middle East. I pointed out that intellectual stagnation, unrepresentative and oppressive political structures, economic underdevelopment and deprivation, cultural dislocation, and scientific and technological backwardness lay at the heart of the upheaval through which the Muslim world was passing. External threats and challenges had made the situation that much worse for the Muslim Ummah. The need of the hour was for dynamism in our thought and coherence in our strategy to overcome the challenges of modernity. Instead, what we see is ideological strife in the Muslim world in the form of antagonistic ideologies vying for following and influence in the world of Islam. These competing ideologies reflect confusion in thought and the absence of a well thought out strategy in dealing with the world of today.
Confronted by the challenges of modernity and the Western political, military and cultural onslaught, some Muslims sought refuge in secularism or separation of religion and politics on the pattern of what had happened in Europe after the Wars of Religion in the 17th century. Arrayed against the secularists in the Muslim world were Islamists who sought solutions to the challenges of the modern world in the Holy Quran and Sunnah. The basic difference between the two opposing points of view is the degree to which Islam should determine the laws and institutions of state.
Turkey as founded by Kemal Ataturk after the end of the Ottoman Empire was a prime example of a secular Muslim state. In recent years, however, Islamic influences have reasserted themselves in Turkey under the leadership of Prime Minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It seems to be gradually evolving into a hybrid kind of Islamic democracy. The final form that the political evolution in Turkey takes still remains to be seen. On the other hand, the Islamic Revolution in Iran established a theocracy with the veneer of representative institutions. In fact, the supreme power in Iran lies in the hands of the Rahbar (Supreme Leader), Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a senior member of the Iranian clergy. It is possible that in the long run, democratic elements and representative institutions, under popular demand, may gather greater strength in Iran than is the case at present. However, this is far from certain because the clergy is well entrenched in various centres of power.
The constitution of Pakistan, in its present form, presents a happy blend between the Islamist and secularist influences. In its Preamble it acknowledges that the sovereignty over the entire Universe belongs to Almighty Allah alone but it also affirms that the state shall exercise its powers and authority through the chosen representatives of the people as a sacred trust in accordance with the principles of democracy, freedom, equality, tolerance and social justice as enunciated by Islam. It establishes a Council of Islamic Ideology to furnish recommendations for bringing the laws in conformity with the Injunctions of Islam but the final decision on these recommendations lies with the legislature in accordance with the advice given by Allama Iqbal. Thus, in contrast with the situation in Iran where the opinions of the clergy prevail, in Pakistan the views of the chosen representatives of the people prevail in matters of law.
Only time will tell how the competition between the Islamists and the secularists is ultimately resolved in the Muslim world. What is essential is that this competition should be waged peacefully through the force of reason and arguments rather than through the use of gun. Each Muslim country must decide its system in accordance with the preferences of its own people. The world of Islam should develop the spirit of tolerance so that under the rubric of the Islamic system different models of government mirroring different geographical, cultural and historical circumstances may coexist in the Muslim world.
In particular, we should not allow the old schism between the Sunnis and the Shias to divide the Muslim world into irreconcilable parts. Shias in a Sunni majority Muslim country should have the same freedom to practice their personal laws as they would have in a Shia majority Muslim country, and vice versa. No Muslim country should engage in organized efforts to export its religious or sectarian preferences to other Muslim countries, certainly not through non-transparent and clandestine means. Thus, instead of allowing Sunni-Shia differences, which relate to peripheral issues rather than the fundamentals of Islam, to create unbridgeable divisions in the Muslim world to be exploited by hostile powers, the Muslims should respect sectarian diversity in the spirit of moderation and tolerance.
Unfortunately, this is far from the case in the Middle East where efforts to export religious ideologies through the use of gun are currently at display, especially in Iraq and Syria. The resultant violence has claimed thousands of innocent lives besides allowing extremist ideologies like IS to take root in the region. It is inevitable that external powers would exploit the growing ideological strife and differences in the Middle East to their advantage and to the detriment of the people of the region in accordance with the principle of divide and rule. It is, therefore, in the interest of the regional powers themselves to prevent sectarian and ideological differences from ballooning into local or regional conflicts.
Overlaid on these ideological differences between the secularists and Islamists, and between the Sunnis and Shias are the battles being fought by terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIS to grab political power and establish the supremacy of their extremist ideologies in the Muslim world. These organizations because of their obscurantism cannot provide the answers to the challenges of modernity. Their use of terrorism and brutality for achieving their political ends pits them directly against the moderate Muslims who constitute the overwhelming majority of Muslim Ummah. These extremist organizations and their franchises in different regions are a bad news for the Muslim world. The sooner they are eliminated from the Islamic body politic, the better for the world of Islam.
Finally, a tussle is going on in the Muslim world between democratic forces, on the one hand, and non-democratic forces supporting various forms of non-representative governments like monarchies and dictatorships, on the other. The verdict of Islam, which lays so much emphasis on the principle of consultation in running the affairs of the government, is clearly in favour of representative governments in the Muslim world. The historical trend is also in favour of democracy. The establishment of representative governments, therefore, suits the best and long-term interests of the Muslim world. However, each Muslim country must be allowed to make this move towards a representative form of government in accordance with its own peculiar social and political circumstances.
The ideological strife in the Muslim world covering political, cultural, and social spheres basically aims at finding answers to the challenges of modernity and the threats posed by external powers to the integrity of the world of Islam. It has the potential to explode into cataclysmic conflicts in the Muslim world if not handled carefully. Such conflicts would retard the intellectual and material progress of the world of Islam for several decades. It is, therefore, incumbent upon the intellectuals and the political leaders of the Muslim world to put their heads together and suggest ways and means of avoiding these conflicts, generating intellectual dynamism among the Muslims, and ensuring the progress and prosperity of the Muslim Ummah.
Javid Husain is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.