Plight of Muslims: Some plain speaking
By Maqbool Ahmed Siraj
In a world where media is controlled by multinational corporations and academia looks towards them for funding, it is difficult to expect even a modicum of even-handed debate on various charges levelled against Islam and Muslims, as they do not figure anywhere on the world business radar. So those who own the media also monopolise the message and exclusivise the freedom of expression for themselves. Notwithstanding these handicaps, Muslims must engage themselves in serious debate on issues that concern their existence in particular in plural societies, and generally, their ties with non-Muslims or secular nations. Unfortunately, the academic trend within Muslim societies has been one towards raising a puritanical society rather than dealing with a secular world that is more socially, scientifically and technologically developed as well as powerful and has shown remarkable cogency in words and deeds in matters of statecraft.
True, the West does indulge in doublespeak on issues like fundamentalism and terrorism. Notwithstanding the fact that Apartheid, Stalinist terror, Bosnian genocide, colonization of the third world, World Wars, Chernobyl, Holocaust, et al were products of the West, it is capable of mocking at Muslims in particular and generally at the third world for its incapacity to come to grips with issues like poverty, social disharmony, diseases, violation of human rights, gender injustice, inefficiency and lack of transparency in governance. Ownership of the media lends it the advantage to impose its version of the civilisational discourse. However, the questions that Muslim must be addressing is as to why their media does not enjoy a credibility on par with the Western media; why universities in the Muslim world are bereft of original research on issues that matter their immediate surrounding; why science and technology continue to get a backseat in the Muslim world; why Muslim scientists and social scientists take the easy route of settling down in the West; why the best as well as the most critical writings on contemporary Islam emerge from the Western universities and why not from the institutes in the Arab world.
Mere criticizing the Western media for its doublespeak and the West for its double standards would not, in any measure, mitigate the sufferings of the Muslims or exculpate them from the charges of terrorism. There is total absence of introspection and lack of self-scrutiny among the Muslims and more so among the societies and nations which they rule. Howsoever the West might be inimical towards Islam and Muslims, an average educated Muslim, if given the choice of migrating to the West and any country in the Middle East, would invariably choose the former over the latter.
Obviously his choice is guided by the promise of access to good education, enormous opportunities for employment and blossoming of enterprise, freedom for women to work, freedom to express and above all the rule of the law that makes the West an attractive destination.
It is not for nothing that nearly 50,000 Muslim scientists are working in the United States; that the best books on contemporary Islam and Muslim societies have been authored by intellectuals like Murad Hofmann, Ziauddin Sardar, Jeffery Lang, Jamal Badawi, Karen Armstrong, G. H. Jansen, Carol L. Anway, Raji L. Faruqi, all having benefited from Western scholarship; that women could pray alongside men in the Western mosques; that erudite Muslim women scholars like Amina Wadud, Nimat Hafez Barazangi, Asma Barlas, Fatima Mernissi could blossom only after taking up asylum in the West; that Muslims could carry on the dawah in all these societies without hindrance; that innumerable non-Muslims find spiritual solace in the fold of Islam there; that ISNA or ICNA could stage massive conclaves in Washington or Chicago.
It is however not to deny that the West conspires to colonize the Muslim world. Islam is being developed as a bugbear for the world security by American think tanks. The West’s role in keeping afloat the Zionist state of Israel and destroying Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon is above board. Its MNCs are plotting to capture the world and eliminate the national borders under the guise of free market is also apparent.
But pause for a moment and take a hard look at the Muslims world. The humanity there cries for freedom. No former prime minister can continue to live in Pakistan. They are ensconced in London and Jeddah. No single president (Ghulam Ishaq Khan, Farooq Ahmed Laghari, Rafique Tarar) could complete his term. But the current incumbent (Musharraf in 2007) hangs on to power endlessly without any legitimacy. Except for a few, all countries are ruled by dictators, despots and monarchs. Sons succeed fathers in as diverse polities as Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Turkmenistan and Morocco. Rule of the law is pathetic. Visas to the West are issued as per law, against a fee and to the seekers who stand in a queue. Visas to any Gulf nation could be bought by a crook in black market and the trail of the money leads to some prince in Riyadh or Dubai.
And it could be denied to an intellectual, a scribe or even a genuine tourist. In most cases the wealth of the ruling family exceeds that of the nation, is regularly parked in Swiss banks and is beyond the pale of accountability. Morocco’s King Muhammad owns overseas assets worth about $40 billion in Spain while his country owes foreign debt to the tune of $ 7 billion. Elections are rigged. Even in nominal democracies electoral exercises are sham. Victories could be predicted without any shred of doubt and the margin of victories of rulers like Husni Mubarak of Egypt, Ben Ali of Morocco and Islam Karimov could embarrass the ruler himself. Gulf rulers feel no qualms in spending millions of dollars on their pet horses and hawks, but have no funds to invest in free media which could enable them to interact with their people. Kuwait’s emir had no inhibition in donating a million dollar to save the London Zoo but does not contribute 10,000 dollars annually to International Islamic News Agency in Jeddah, an outfit established by the OIC.
That’s all about the Muslim rulers. If rulers’ despotism constricts the political space, the narrow-minded clergy narrows the mindscape of the masses. It does not see anything beyond the letter of the scriptural text. So when a girls’ school in Makkah caught fire, the police instead of rescuing the girls, pushed them inside to come out in hijab. Fourteen innocent girls perished in fire. The Talibans destroyed the world heritage site of Bamiyan by blasting the Buddhas which had stood there for 2000 years and even an iconoclast like Mahmood Ghaznawi had not touched them. A Muslim televangelist from Mumbai, immensely popular on the dawah circuit, legitimizes this destruction telling the jubilant audiences that Talibans in fact helped Buddhist follow the real teachings of Gautam Buddha as he did not teach idolatory. Would he similarly legitimize the destruction of Taj Mahal if VHP demolishes it camouflaging its intentions behind the directive of the Prophet to level the graves? Wouldn't this amount to helping Muslims to follow the real Islam which does not sanction raising of mausoleum?
For the last three decades puritanical quest has kept the Muslim youth engrossed in debating frivolous issues like validity of ablution (wuzu) on painted nails and lips, if perfumes containing alcohol could be applied on body, the ideal length of the beard and height of the trousers above ankles. These educated youths should have been discussing as to how social and economic justice could be established, how globalization is ruining the livelihood of people in the third world countries, how women are downgraded in Muslim societies, how consumerism is altering lifestyles of people in the developing countries and depleting their natural resources. But alas, there is no cogent thinking on these issues in the Muslim world.
An offshoot of the Islamic revival manifests itself through ritualism running berserk in the Islamic world. It appears Muslims have mistaken rituals for values. Even as public life in the Islamic societies is bereft of rule of the law, accountability and transparency, truthfulness and honesty, rituals are drawing larger than ever hordes of faithful. Nearly 2.7 million now attend prayers on the 27th holy night of Ramazan in the Mosque of Haram in Makkah, clearly surpassing the numbers that perform the annual Hajj pilgrimage. Even as Muslim schools, media, libraries, housing, research institutions go abegging for funds, faithful are prepared to squander money on religious tourism masked under pilgrimage. A Muslim individual is willing to sacrifice any number of animals on Eidul Azha, but would not dole out the same resources for immediate social needs of the community. The prime motivation is accumulating sawab, not the social welfare. Narrow pieties befog the Muslim mind and keep him away from the larger public good.
Muslim clergy takes the human rights as a one-way street. They are jubilant on winning some converts from among the whites and publicise it widely in a show of one-upmanship. But feel no qualms in declaring death penalty for Muslim converts to other religions and would generally dub it an outcome of a conspiracy. Marrying a Christian and Jewish woman is permitted for Muslim men but the vice versa is a taboo. And even the leading members of the Islamic clergy feel no prick of conscience while explaining it in a plural society. It barely hides the patriarchal attitude ingrained in such archaic laws.
Talk about women’s right, and the ulema would ceaselessly sing paeans of Islam’s progressive laws. But would refuse to take notice of the ignominy suffered due to the arbitrary divorce. Mehr is invariably never paid to women who are expected to write it off while dying or even as husband lies on the death bed. Dowry is as much rampant among Muslims as among other Indians. Slums reek with broken homes, uncared children, child marriages and early motherhood (which denies girls access to education), rampant polygamy and alcoholic husbands who do are economically irresponsible. But our theological schools only produce muftis, not musleh (social workers and reformers). Any plain talk on the issue of women is considered a slur on the Muslim Personal Law, hence taboo. Intellectuals offering objective analysis live under the threat of being declared heretics. The community raised a ruckus when a frail and old Shah Bano was granted alimony, but no one took notice of denial of share in inheritance to Muslim women in Uttar Pradesh Wetland Act in 60s. More Muslim women are deserted by their husbands in India than divorced, yet the Muslim Personal Law Board has no provision to build homes for such destitute women. There are virtually no Islamic marital counselling centres in this vast country. We choose to ignore the tensions of urbanized and industrialised life.
Simply criticizing the West for our plight would not work. Making others wrong does not offer solution to our ills. Muslim world and communities are in need of rationally analyzing the mess that surrounds them. They need to shift from rituals to values, from hollow advocacy to activism, from praising Islam to practicing it, from denigrating the West to learning from it, from criticism of others to introspection. Unless this is done, the siege would deepen, snuffing out life from the ummat e wasat (the moderate nation) that we need to be.
Maqbool Ahmad Siraj is the executive editor of the Bangalore-based English monthly Islamic Voice.