New Age Islam
Thu Sep 29 2022, 02:38 PM

Islamic Society ( 26 Sept 2009, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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By Syed Akbar Ali


Since the 1960s, we have become familiar with a string of labels describing the various countries of the world. “The Third World”, “Developing Countries”, “Least Developed Countries” or LDCs, “Newly Industrialising” Countries or NICS, the “First World”, the West, the countries of the South, the “Islamic Countries” (why are there no such terms as ‘Christian Countries’ or ‘Buddhist Countries’?) are names or phrases that have been coined to capture in a snapshot of just a few words the entirety of a nation.


There have been many definitions and redefinitions of most of the terms quoted above.

The term ‘Third World’ is attributed to Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India to describe nations that were aligned neither to the West nor the Communists during the Cold War (Wikipedia). Here is one redefinition of ‘Third World’: “the technologically less advanced, or developing nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, generally characterized as poor, having economies distorted by their dependence on the export of primary products to the developed countries in return for finished products. These nations also tend to have high rates of illiteracy, disease, and population growth and unstable governments. The term Third World was originally intended to distinguish the nonaligned nations that gained independence from colonial rule beginning after World War II” ( Columbia Encyclopaedia).


An ‘Islamic Country’ usually suffers all the above, plus a little more. Often, an Islamic Country may also suffer violence either within its own borders against its own people or violence imposed from outside. Another feature of Islamic countries is that the people are always walking around in fear of suffering embarrassment from breaching some religious rule or another. They always seem to suffer a guilty conscience. They are an unhappy people. And, on top of it all, the ‘Islamic Country’ suffers the fit that it is somehow still blessed by God and that its inhabitants, especially its religious leaders, will all go to heaven.

A failed state is one where the clock has been turned back. Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran (all three being Islamic countries) are the clearest examples of this definition of a Failed State in the modern era. In the past, whole civilizations and empires have failed and had their clocks turned back. A very good example was the Islamic civilization. From being innovators and leaders in science, literature and almost all forms of knowledge the Muslims became superstitious, childish, unhygienic, violent and poor.


Today the vast majority of the Arab countries - which most definitely form the remnant of the ‘Islamic Civilisation’ - are Failed States. The Arab Human Development Report 2004 produced by the United Nations Development Programme summarises all the Arab states as:

·   lacking freedom and good governance

·   suffering acute corruption

·   marginalizing segments of their population like women and minorities

·   And also that Arab governments suffer crisis of legitimacy. This means their governments do not represent the will of the people.

Documenting the ‘Economic Collapse of the Arab World’ Stephen Glain in his book ‘Mullahs. Merchants and Militants’ laments that during the Islamic empire, Arab currency was held from Scandinavia to China and a draft order signed against a Damascus account would be honoured in Canton. The draft orders were known in Arabic as sek, which inspired the English ‘cheque’ (pg. 77).

Yet all the 22 members of the Arab League today are basket cases. Glain’s notes that from 1990 to 1999 the per capita income growth in the 22 Arab countries averaged less than 1 % growth whereas their population averaged 4% growth over the same period. Saudi Arabia suffered an economic contraction of 1.1% in the ten years from 1989 to 1999. The Syrian Government does not even publicly announce its economic growth rates. The US Embassy in Damascus believes that the Syrian economy is actually contracting by as much as 4 % a year. But Syria has an expanding clique of ‘noveau riche’ or the new rich. Some of them are almost billionaires who enjoy ties to the ruling elite and can corner vast monopolies. I think in Malaysia we call them cronies.


Let us look at some more definitions of a ‘Failed State’. These have been derived from various sites on the Internet. But I believe the message gets across about what is a Failed State.

“A state is failing when its government is losing physical control of its territory or lacks a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Other symptoms ... include the erosion of authority to make collective decisions, an inability to provide reasonable public services, and the loss of the capacity to interact ... with the international community”.


Another definition says a State is failing when there is “extensive corruption and criminal behaviour, inability to collect taxes or otherwise draw on citizen support, large-scale involuntary dislocation of the population, sharp economic decline, group-based inequality, and institutionalized persecution or discrimination are other hallmarks of state failure. States can fail at varying rates of decline through explosion, implosion, or erosion”.

I would like to stress that these are not fixed and fast ‘rules’ and neither are any of these definitions of a Failed State written in stone. They are just a simple and organized way to arrange our thoughts about this thing called a Failed State which I hope will make for easier discussion. I am sure the reader may have other definitions or more structured thinking on the matter.


What is important to realize is that there are such things now as Failed States. 50 years ago when many countries in the world were still colonies or had just been released from the grips of colonialism - the problem of the ‘Failed State’ was not such an issue especially to their own peoples because at that time they did not have freedom to determine their future. But a ‘Failed State’ is becoming an increasing reality now after 50 years or more of independence for the Malaysias, Bangladeshs and Egypts of the world. We are now operating under our own steam. After 50 years of post World War II independence, many of these countries or people are just falling down.


The point I would like to make here is that a country can regress and become a Failed State. The other thing that I would like the reader to bear in mind is that all the Islamic countries are well qualified to become Failed States. I would especially like the Muslim readers to realize this and then hopefully they will start panicking immediately. Perhaps they will then be motivated to urgently do something useful and positive to rectify the predicament they are in. They really do not have the luxury of time. Of course there will also be those who will bury their heads deeper in the sand and say ‘We are fine. Leave us alone.’


Sometimes the failure is not in the whole state but among certain population groups only. In some countries that are multi cultural, multi ethnic or multi religious (especially like Malaysia) we may observe some of the characteristics of the Failed State in one group of people - for example within the Muslims only. Lets coin a phrase for them. These would then be the Failed Population Groups. However whether a State or a Population Group the characteristics of their failure are the same.

The following definition of ‘Failed State’ does narrow it down to a population group and not necessarily the whole State.

“Characteristics of Failed Countries: Whether analyzing military capabilities, cultural viability, or economic potential, these seven factors offer a quick study of the likely performance of a state, region, or population group in the coming century.

These key "failure factors" are:

1  Restrictions on the free flow of information.

2  The subjugation of women.

3  Inability to accept responsibility for individual or collective failure.

4  The extended family or clan as the basic unit of social organization.

5  Domination by a restrictive religion.

6  A low valuation of education.

7  Low prestige assigned to work.

It is unnerving yet many of the above seven characteristics are also descriptive of the situation of the Muslims in Malaysia vis a vis the non Muslims in the country. In Malaysia the non Muslims can discuss their religion at will. The Muslims can go to jail or have fatwas issued against them if they raise issues that are deemed as insulting to the religious authorities. The non Muslim women can dress in just about any way they want but the Muslim women are frowned upon if they don’t wear a head cover or tudung. Marina Mahathir, a newspaper columnist and a commonsensical person, has said that Malaysian Muslim women suffer "apartheid".


Here is an excerpt from the AFP news service:

AFP KUALA LUMPUR, March 9, 2006 - The daughter of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has likened the status of Muslim women in Malaysia to that of South African blacks under apartheid. Marina Mahathir, a prominent social activist, made the claim in her regular Wednesday column for the Star daily to mark International Women's Day. The column did not appear Wednesday but will be published Thursday, she said. Marina Mahathir said that apartheid was still being practised in other forms even though it had disappeared from South Africa.


"In our country, there is an insidious growing form of apartheid among Malaysian women, that between Muslim and non-Muslim women," she wrote in a copy of the text obtained by AFP. Malaysia's population of 25 million is dominated by some 60 percent Muslim Malays. Chinese and Indians make up 26 percent and 8.0 percent respectively. "We are unique in that we actively legally discriminate against women who are arguably the majority in this country, Muslim women. Non-Muslim Malaysian women have benefited from more progressive laws over the years while the opposite has happened for Muslim women," said Marina Mahathir.


Marina’s views were eloquently restated by Zainah Anwar – another spokesperson for the Sister’s in Islam - in her column in the New Straits Times where she wrote : “For Muslim women it is all the more painful that it is Islam that is used to deny change. Is it any wonder then that many are beginning to describe Malaysia as a country that practices religious apartheid as it formally establishes one set of rights for non-Muslims granting equality and justice between men and women, and a separate set of rights for Muslims, moving toward more inequality and injustice for Muslim women. As it was under apartheid rule in South Africa, separate can never be equal”. (NST 7/4/06).


Other than Marina’s and Zainah’s observations about the social welfare of Muslim women under the religious enactments and in the religious courts, the New Economic Policy and after that the Outline Perspective Plan or OPP are acknowledgements of the dire economic straits of the Muslims in Malaysia. Malaysia has indeed become an economic success story but the Muslims do not yet feel comfortable enough to lay claim to much of the success. As the ruling majority they have maintained the peace and been good administrators of the land which has provided opportunity for the non Muslims to go about their business largely unhindered.


Everyone has benefited from this relationship but there is much that simmers under the surface. There is now the real threat that with the increasing creep of religion, the Muslims may outwardly start to manifest the bad characteristics of a Failed Population Group within the larger Malaysian economy and society. The fact is this failure is already becoming visibly apparent.


Another definition of a Failed State has narrowed it down to the ‘Twelve Indicators of a failed state’ which are:


1 - Mounting Demographic Pressures

2 - Massive Movement of Refugees and Displaced Persons

3 - Legacy of Vengeance - Seeking Group Grievance

4 - Chronic and Sustained Human Flight

5 - Uneven Economic Development along Group Lines

6 - Sharp and/or Severe Economic Decline

7 - Criminalization or Delegitimization of the State

8 - Progressive Deterioration of Public Services

9 - Widespread Violation of Human Rights

10 - Security Apparatus as "State within a State"

11 - Rise of Factionalized Elites

12 - Intervention of Other States or External Actors


The world cannot ignore the Failed States or the Failed Population Groups anymore. If we ignore them it is at our own peril. Since self interest is the best interest, it is high time the world started paying real attention to these people or states and sees what makes them fail. Then we must take steps to remove those cancers, viruses, toxins and whatever else there is that makes these people fail. Among all the Islamic countries, religion seems to have a larger than life role in ultimately causing State failure. This is the subject of this book. And when Islamic countries also suffer other problems – like limited arable land in Egypt – then they suffer a double whammy.


Experts have for years discussed an “arc of instability”—an expression that came into use in the 1970s to refer to an “Islamic Crescent” extending from Afghanistan and the “Stans” in the southern part of the former Soviet Union and on to the Horn of Africa and beyond. Although the definition of Failed States is not restricted to the Muslim countries, a large proportion (almost all) of the Muslim countries falls within this unfortunate classification.


Those Islamic countries that gained independence from the British and other European powers in the 20th century would have collapsed much earlier if it had not been for physical infrastructures and certain institutions of government and administration that were put in place by the colonials which sustained them for a time. Transportation networks, railway signalling systems, traffic codes, education systems, penal codes, government administrative departments and so on that were put in place by the colonials to serve rudimentary needs of a colonial economy were not sufficiently expanded to nourish development and growth.


The Developed World constantly adapts quickly to the changing environment to continuously make life easier for its people. The Third World believes that most things, especially its religions, are written in stone. Hence their people suffer. But in some Islamic countries, something even more nefarious crept into the system. The luckier ones only suffered weak implementation of a workable system. If a system is good and workable, weaknesses in implementation can be overcome by cleaning up the implementers. Corrupt judges, lazy bureaucrats or scheming lawyers can all be disciplined and the system will revert to good working order.


But many of the Islamic countries started creating their own way of doing things, usually according to some religious model, which could not work from day one. Like square shaped tyres, they were inherently flawed. Then after that they still suffered weak implementation of these already unworkable ideas. This was the double whammy again. In an inherently flawed system, no amount of cleaning up corruption or reducing laziness is going to help. They are doomed. This is one horror movie that does not end even when the lights are turned on. Remember that in this chapter we are talking about the Failed States and some of the factors that make them fail.


In Malaysia after independence, all men and women had recourse to the Civil Courts which were based on British Common Law principles in dealing with all matters. Then it was said that Muslims should only have legal recourse limited to the religious courts to handle their domestic and family matters. The British Common Law was an ‘undang undang kristian’ or Christian inspired western law and therefore in certain matters the Muslims should have their own laws. Now after decades of suffering, many Muslim women are loudly complaining of poor treatment and prejudice at the hands of the religious courts in matters of divorce and matrimony. Non Muslim women in Malaysia do not have as many complaints about the workings of the Civil Courts. Hence Marina Mahathir’s and Zainah Anwar’s comments about apartheid for Malaysia’s Muslim women. The perceived prejudice is not only by the implementers like the judges and the administrators of the Islamic courts but also by the laws themselves. The Sisters in Islam, women’s’ rights group submitted a Memorandum to the Government of Malaysia in March 1997 which had the following complaints about the Syariah System:


” For years, Muslim women in Malaysia have complained about the injustice they have suffered in the syariah system, both when they seek help and advice at the Religious Departments and when they seek judicial redress to their problems in the Syariah Courts.

In spite of speeches and public support for the plight of women under the syariah system from the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, in spite of the continual newspaper coverage of the problems women face in getting access to justice, no comprehensive action has been taken to end. The widespread suffering of women and children when marriages break down.


The seeming arbitrariness with which judgments are made had left many women with the impression that the Syariah Courts are unable to give women a fair hearing and have failed to play the role of the impartial arbiter in cases of dispute between two parties. The widespread report of the injustice women have suffered in the syariah system has undermined women's confidence that the system can indeed dispense justice.” (


The views expressed by the Sisters in Islam in 1997 echoes the suffering felt by thousands of Muslim women in Malaysia until today. The system does not work.


To make matters even murkier, the Government of the religiously educated Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi sponsored and passed a new law called the Islamic Family Law Bill for Muslims in December 2005 which has been strongly criticized even by Ministers. The women’s’ groups feel that this law will be even more prejudiced against women especially in its implementation.

Some commentators in Malaysia have even questioned if indeed the Islamic Family Law Bill is part of the Syariah laws. This is not a surprising query. Often different Islamic countries have different flavours of Syariah law. While one party may claim that it is part of the Syariah, others may not agree. In Afghanistan, they once implemented a law whereby as punishment, a brick wall was dropped on convicted homosexuals. Other Islamic countries may not agree to the Afghan type looney tunes. In Malaysia the ruling party UMNO does not agree with all the Hudud Laws proposed by the PAS religious party.


In advocating a just system, the Quran does take the route of ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’. The Quran does not make new rules out of thin air but it affirms rules which observe what is fair to humans. For example murder is wrong not because the Quran prohibits it but the Quran prohibits murder because it is indeed wrong. The proof against murder is that human society cannot accept it. Conversely when so many intelligent women are complaining of injustice in the Islamic Family Law Bill we cannot say that they do not understand. What we do need to understand is that the Islamic Family Law Bill is not written anywhere in the Quran.


This is typical of the fate of many Islamic countries. They have inherited a workable system from their colonial masters. Then they start to fall down in the implementation of these old but proven systems. Corruption, laziness and inefficiency set in. Then to overcome these weaknesses in implementation they may start creating newer religion based systems that are flawed from the beginning. This Islamic Family Law Bill is a clear example. And when it is implemented, it will be implemented by the same inefficient implementers from before. The double whammy again.


Very frequently what we are told is Islam or part of Islam is not only NOT stated in the Quran but it is often very different to the Quran. I believe the Muslim countries are falling down simply because they do not read and understand the Quran well. As just one example, this Islamic Family Law Bill has kicked up so much unhappiness in the country. They do not fully implement the grand teachings of the Quran. Here we are referring to their intelligentsia and their lawmakers. As for the vast numbers of the masses, we can almost completely forget about their understanding much from the Quran.

Syed Akbar Ali is a noted writer and activist from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be contacted on <