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Are the Moderate Muslims a Silent and Voiceless Majority


The Crusade Within

By Prasenjit Chowdhury

6 January 2015

The reaction against the Taliban attack that killed 132 children in Peshawar army school rekindled a question: if a breed of terrorists can kill so many children with such abandon and indiscriminate fury in the name of Islam, isn’t it time to distinguish the ‘good’ Muslim from the ‘bad’?

Yes, this dichotomy between the good and the evil is as old as the dawn of moralism. In the days of yore, the political leadership of the anti-terrorism alliance, notably former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former American President George Bush, spoke of the need to distinguish "good Muslims" from "bad Muslims”. Barely a day after the Taliban massacre in Peshawar, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif promised there would be no distinction made between “good” Taliban, the code for militants used by the Pakistani establishment for ‘strategic’ purposes in the region, and “bad” Taliban, or those who implode the Pakistani state. The implication is undisguised: whether in Afghanistan, Palestine, or Pakistan, Islam must be quarantined and the devil must be ‘exorcised’ from it by a civil war between good Muslims and bad Muslims.

Fundamentalist sects like the Jamaat-e-Islami have posed a simple question that has haunted Pakistan since its inception: since Pakistan was created in the name of Islam, why is it not a fully Islamic, Shariah-compliant State?  While most of today’s jihadi groups are the ‘mongrel’ offspring of Pakistani and Western intelligence outfits, born in the 1980s when General Zia was in power and waging the West’s war against the godless Russians, who were then occupying Afghanistan, no other Pakistani President and Prime Minister had had the temerity to sing the secularist refrain of its founding father while support for theocracy has grown among the people, encouraged surely by the dismal character and governance of their rulers.

The original sin took place in the late Seventies — or, more precisely in 1979 — the annus terribilis when America ‘lost’ Iran and the Soviet Union blundered into Afghanistan — when Western strategists dreamt up the idea of ‘co-opting’ Islam to fight Communism.

One of the curious side-effects of the US foreign policy, led first by Jimmy Carter, and then Ronald Reagan who hailed the Mujahideen as freedom fighters and encouraged the CIA and its Pakistani counterpart, the ISI, to spend millions of dollars arming and training them to fight the Soviet occupiers was that it divided the Muslim world into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims. Anti-American Iranian Shi‘ite Muslims were self-evidently bad; anti-Communist Sunni Muslims self-evidently good. Mind you, America was yet to wake up to the horrors of the 9/11 or to the depredations of the ISIS.

Now if we call upon the ‘moderate’ Muslims to take on the mad mullahs, the question is: who is a moderate Muslim in Pakistan and in the world? Put rhetorically, is he the one who wears a face veil or a full-length beard but hates everything ISIS is doing and wants nothing more than to live in peace? Is a moderate Muslim someone who goes clubbing and boozing but hates the United States for its policies vis-à-vis Israel and Palestine? How many of the royals, presidents-for-life, commanders-in-chief and hommes d’état in the post-colonial Muslim-majority countries could be said to observe the way of Islam to the letter?

The moot question is: are the moderate Muslims “a silent and voiceless majority”, effete in the face of Islamist extremism, and, therefore, does not their existence as the nearly 99 per cent of Muslims worldwide count on the world stage? Lebanese-American intellectual Fouad Ajami’s observation that “wherever I go in the Islamic world, it’s the same problem: cause and effect; cause and effect” holds true across the spectrum. How radical Islam has gained influence only in the last several decades while for centuries, it was a fringe element and was seen as an outlier of the Muslim world bears reflection.

Olivier Roy in his book Globalised Islam: The Search for a New Ummah draws a distinction between two types of Muslim either living in Europe or in the Muslim world: those whose lives are inextricably attached to an Islamic identity, grounded in what they see as the incontrovertible precepts of their faith; and those whose faith is more a function of politicisation in a secular world. Western commentators err, he believes, when they confuse the first group, the ‘fundamentalists’, with the second, the ‘Islamists’, who are more typical and more numerous, and who have “profoundly altered relationships between Islam and politics by giving the political precedence over the religious in the name of religion”.

The early Islamic jurists had sought to reconcile the Qur’an and the traditions with the demands of ordinary justice, and had developed a system of law which could be applied in the developing circumstances of social and commercial life. The interpretation of the law was subject to study and amendment by the individual effort (Ijtihad) of the jurists, who were thereby able to adapt the injunctions of the Holy Book to the reality of Muslim societies. In the tenth or eleventh century of our era it became accepted that “the gate of Ijtihad is closed” — as al-Ghazali himself declared. Since then Sunni Islam has adopted the official position that no new interpretations of the law can be entertained, and that what seemed right in twelfth-century Cairo or Baghdad must seem right today.

The austere Islam in West Asia and its plurality, say, within, Africa and Southeast Asia might point to a religion that is not universally interpreted. Today Islam has been left to be cannibalised by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries supporting and funding the spread of Wahhabism that had earlier identified Kemal Ataturk, King Faruq and Presidents Nasser and Sadat of Egypt, Hafiz al-Asad in Syria as enemies from within. “If these fanatics and fundamentalists had twisted the word of God for their own political ends”, a prominent British-Pakistani writer Hanif Kureishi once asked, “why shouldn't the Qur’an be reclaimed and reinterpreted by the better intentioned?” America has long turned its back on petro-Islam to reap rich benefit from it forgetting the cautionary words of Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” It is time not only for the “moderate” Muslims but also for us to choose between earthly peace and paradisal grandeur.

Prasenjit Chowdhury is a teacher and social commentator