By Ziauddin Choudhury
Oct. 17, 2014
THE quirkiness with which world events change every day makes any forecast on future political outcome more difficult than predicting storm in fair weather. Only months ago, when Ukraine and Russia were centre of world attention and caused belly aches in Europe, everyone expected the crisis to explode and embrace at least part of Western Europe and its ally, the US, in a new battle. Sanctions from the west did not seem to bend the event to Ukraine's favour as the force behind the crisis appeared unmoved. But this is our world; events do not remain frozen in one stage. They shift, and shift quickly. The world stage was stolen by the new crisis in the Middle East where new actors seized attention, resurrecting the world phobia of religious militancy and radicalism.
Islam has been in focus for some time in the past. It has been a frequent topic of discussion in the media in the west, particularly US, after the most horrific events of September 2001. The discussion has not been always very favourable, but in the aftermath of the sad happenings of 2001 the discussion has helped to spread more awareness about the religion and its followers. And over the past years, the followers of Islam also have come to appreciate more the need to educate others about the true nature of their religion, and its message of compassion, humanism and tolerance.
In a way, the September 2001 incident became a watershed event also for the Muslims in the US to turn attention to themselves and make themselves better understood by their neighbours and people of other faiths. The diversity of faith and ethnicity along with the general atmosphere of mutual respect and acceptance of diversity in the country helped the Muslims in their effort. They found that they live in a country that is much safer, tolerant, progressive, and accommodating than the places they migrated from. They also found that equality and respect for humanity that their religion Islam preaches is actually more in practice here than the places they have left behind.
But Muslims in the US or other parts in the world do not live in islands. Events in Ukraine or Russia may not affect them in their identity as Muslims, but when other Muslims make claims in their name declaring war on others and adopt abhorrent practices in the name of religion, all Muslims are affected. They are affected because the great majority of them do not subscribe to these views, neither do they want battles to be called in the name of Islam. To the dismay of the great majority, their religion seems to have been hijacked by a group of fanatics who really want to establish a domain of their own to intimidate and terrorise innocent people. But a bigger concern for the Muslims is the label of Islamist that these radicals arrogated to themselves and the media acquiesced to.
An Islamist, properly speaking, is a person who wants to lead his life in the way his religion prescribes. Viewed in this context, it should not be different from a person who wants to lead his life in the way his religion has prescribed, be it Judaism, Buddhism, or Christianity. Unfortunately, the current definition of the term is politically charged because many Muslims extend the term to a set of ideologies holding that “Islam should guide social and political as well as personal life.”
There would have been little dispute if the ideology that Islam dictates was rooted to one interpretation of the Quran and teachings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The reality is that it is not so.
The Islamists can have varying interpretations on various Quranic verses, sayings of the Prophet (pbuh), and his practices. They differ on whether the Quran allows judicious inferences, or exercise of intellect in interpreting the Quran. In one word, there is no consensus in the Muslim community as to how it shall govern itself. And hence many Muslims differ from the Islamist views that emphasise the implementation of Sharia (Islamic law); of pan-Islamic political unity; and of the selective removal of non-Muslim, particularly Western, military, economic, political, social, or cultural influences in the Muslim world. The Islamic militants take this ideology to another level and want to fight all who in their eyes stand in the way of establishing this ideology. Their world view is a unilateral interpretation of the religion and imposition of the laws and practices that they think most appropriate. Hence their fight, and hence the war that the militants are waging seizing the opportunity that the civil war in Syria and a moribund Iraq has given them.
The most important reason why the so-called Islamic State that the militants claimed to have set up and have been able to hold is the inability or unwillingness of the neighbouring countries, including Turkey and Iran, to engage in this battle. In fact, bickering among Muslim nations on how to handle political Islam and the forces that promote the religious militants is the root cause of the spread of this armed movement. Absence of democratic practices and institutions in most Muslim countries and their abject failure to engage popular will in government have not helped much in stopping the growth of radical groups and their extreme philosophies in the Muslim world. The Islamic State is only a conglomeration of the radical groups and their radical acolytes spread across that region, with sympathisers from other parts of the world.
It is difficult to predict when and how this militancy will be stopped. The airstrikes that have begun have a limited capability. Even ground attacks can have limited effect. The militants will move from place to place, seek new territories, and find other means to spread their mission. And we all know that these will be no peace missions.
The only effective way to stop this malignancy and prevent its growth is for the world Muslims to recognise that the state that extremists want to found is a threat to their religion, and urge that their governments meet this threat more earnestly and seriously. This includes allowing more democratic participation in governance, and ensuring civil liberties and freedom of speech for all their citizens. The threat of militancy and extremism in religion can only be stopped by allowing the population to have an open dialogue on what type of government they want, how a people want to lead their life, and what role religion should play in their lives. Rhetoric alone on Islam as a peaceful religion will not work; Islam will be better understood by its practice as a peaceful and tolerant religion. Unless Muslim countries and all Muslims of the world realise this, Islam phobia among non-Muslims will likely spread.
Ziauddin Choudhury is a political analyst and commentator.