By Saad Hafiz
It is hard to dispute the assertion that the Muslim world is in a mess because of a forceful and influential minority whose aim is to acquire political power under the garb of religion. It is part of historic power struggles that have plagued Muslim society for centuries using Islam as a political ideology, rather than as a religion.
Political Islam or Islamism harks back to a time when an absolute ruler or Khalifa (caliph) looked after the affairs of the people like a shepherd caring for his flock. It touts the notion that in democracies people live as lonely individuals who are free to express themselves in ways that harm themselves and society, rather than live as families, communities and cohesive societies. It blames injustice and misery being endured by Muslims solely on western colonialism and imperialism. Its solution is to bring about unity of one religion by dispensing with the little democracy existing in the Muslim states.
In fact, the broad pattern of tyranny, oppression, misogyny, poverty, illiteracy, lack of religious freedom, and more prevailing in many Muslim societies has a great deal to do with a lack of democracy. The dismal political and economic stagnation in the Islamic world is a direct result of centuries of centralisation of power in the hands of demagogues and ideologues with intolerant policies and politics.
Very few Muslim states encourage a pluralist identity, where being a Muslim is not considered synonymous with unflinching adherence to theology, or even with religious belief at all. Clearly, this rigid ideology is incompatible with modernity embodied in democracy and freedom of thought and expression.
Extremism is so deeply entrenched in some Muslim societies that it will not be easy to root it out. Its followers believe they possess the absolute truth and they go on bullying others through threats, slander and defamation. They claim to be Muslims — indeed, the only true Muslims — and they explicitly claim that their religion motivates, inspires, and even commands them to commit their horrific acts of violence in God’s name.
The street power of extremist storm troopers is rarely challenged by the state. These groups openly peddle the extreme political aspects of Islam, which includes the imposition of Shariah law and governing the state — and eventually the world — according to religious jurisprudence from the 7th century. They see the criminalisation of husbands beating their wives, giving women judicial equality, or the outlawing of child marriages as contradicting the religious law.
Radicalism is also having an impact in the west where most Muslim immigrants thrive, compared to their countries of origin, because of democracy and freedom of expression on offer. A minority of immigrants who are unable to adjust are often led astray by leaders in their own communities.
An example of poor leadership and warped thinking that could influence young Muslim minds comes from the imam (prayer leader) of one of Britain’s biggest mosques who praised Mumtaz Qadri, a religious extremist in Pakistan, who was executed recently for murdering the liberal politician, Salmaan Taseer. Mr Taseer had voiced his criticism of the country’s blasphemy law. The imam’s messages, detail how he was “disturbed” to hear of the condemned murderer’s execution and gave him the religious blessing usually reserved for devout Muslims. The imam apparently wrote: “I cannot hide my pain today. A true Muslim [Qadri] was punished for doing that the collective will of the nation failed to carry out.”
The global religious extremism agenda is not only medieval and tribal, it is misogynist and reactionary, and has been a serious threat to progressive forces in Islam throughout history. It must never be confused with the struggle for social justice, equality and enlightenment. Religion cannot be about alienating people and pitting groups against each other rather than leading to respect and working together for the good of all. It is not meant to become rigid and doctrinal and demand strict orthodoxy. Religion is about our relationship to God. It is about what God does for us: His mercy, His love, His care for us.
The path forward for the universal Muslim community seems clear. Stay in the rut of obscurantism and fanaticism by following the extremists, or embrace democracy and freedom and get rid of the deadweight of wasteful and vain centuries of tribal and clannish feuds and sectarian strife. Progressive Muslims must continue their struggle against religious fascism. The true faith requires the stripping of violence, intolerance and hatred.
On the political front, we should aspire for more democracy and elections. As proven in major Muslim countries bar a few, extremist are afraid of the ballot box. A regular cycle of elections will eventually lead to institutionalised change such as effective rule of law, minority rights, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and much more. To hold back the process of elections is in no one’s interest. Off course, democracy is an evolutionary process that takes generations to fully take root but to hold it in abeyance for the fear of short-term instability seems a regressive step.