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Islam and Tolerance ( 6 Jan 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Asghar Ali Engineer

(Islam and Modern Age, January 2010)

Diversity and tolerance are considered very basis of modernity as one of the modernity’s fundamental principles is individual and community rights and also, as modernity implies democratic rule, tolerance and right to pursue any ideology or religion assumes great importance. The western countries consider themselves as role models for democracy and freedom. Mr. Bush, after 9/11 attack often used to say why (read Muslims) are jealous of our democracy and freedom?

Most of us believe in this myth that west stands for freedom of conscience, democracy and liberty. And in theory it is quite correct. But is it is in practice?  First of all let us ask one question did they ever consider non-whites, non-Europeans as equal and entitled to equality and liberty? The history tells us no. The white superiority was always underlying assumption and the blacks (now known as African-American) were always discriminated against. Even Jews, until Second World War, did not enjoy equal rights. They were always discriminated against and forced to live in ghettoes, apart from what Nazis did with them.

Also, until Second World War when the Western world was mono-religious and mono-cultural its tolerance for non-western religions and cultures was never tested. It is only when economic migrations began from the erstwhile colonial countries that west began to experience what they now call multi-culturalism and western society became multi-religious and multi-cultural.

It was then that strains appeared and we saw number of cases of prejudice and discrimination against non-white, non-western people migrating to the west. The most re cent case is of Switzerland voting to ban minarets for Muslim mosques. In the poll held 57 per cent Swiss people voted against allowing minarets to Muslim mosques. In Switzerland close to four million people are Muslims

It is heartening that the New York Times editorially condemned this proposed ban. It is worthwhile to quote excerpts from the editorial which was published on November 30, 2009, immediately after the referendum in Switzerland: “Disgraceful. That is the only way to describe the success of a right-wing initiative to ban the constitution of minarets in Switzerland, where 57 percent of voters cast ballots for a bigoted and mean-spirited measures.”

Further the editorial says, “But the vote also carries a strong and urgent message for all Europe, and for all Western nations where Islamic minorities have been growing in numbers; and visibility, and where fear and resentment of Muslim immigrants and their religion have become increasingly strident and widespread. The warning signs have been there: the irrational fierceness of official French resistance to the shawls and burkhas worn by some Muslim women; the growing opposition in many European quarters to Turkish membership in the European Union.”

The New York editorial is, indeed the voice of sanity in the growing intolerance in the Western world towards Muslims in particular and, non-western cultures and religions, in general. We would again like to reiterate here that in principle West does stand for equality, freedom of conscience and human rights which most of the Muslim countries have yet to learn. But, as we will show herein below that Islam also stands for tolerance and respect for other culture and faiths and believes diversity is creation of Allah but test really comes in practice.

It is also true that terrorist attacks in some countries, and especially after 9/11 has intensified hatred against Islam and Muslims but then in Switzerland, the Muslims have been peaceful and there have been no instances of such attacks and it appears quite irrational that people of Switzerland should display such intolerance towards their peaceful minority. However, the signs were in the air.

I had delivered a lecture on Islam and non-violence way back in 2004 in Zuric which was held in collaboration with the local church. When question answer session began the journalists present there said how Islam can ever be non-violent and peaceful. I said I have based my speech on the Qur’anic text and anyone can verify what I have said but the journalists did not seem to be convinced. They kept on arguing until the church official intervened. What these journalists must have been writing about Islam is obvious. In modern society media plays very important role.

 This is further borne out by the TV debate between noted Swiss Muslim intellectual and my friend Tariq Ramadan and Oskar Freysinger on ban on minaret. It became evident from the debate that the real issue was not minaret, but Islam itself. Dr. Patrick Haenni, a researcher at Religiouscope, who believes that religion, not politics, was the core of the initiator’s discourse through a perspective full of misconceptions and stereotypes.

The ban on burqa in France by the Government is another instance of this intolerance for non-western religions and cultures. This writer is no advocate of burqas covering entire body and face from head to toe but the question is not one should wear burqa or not, more fundamental question is of individual right and choice? Whatever reason for wearing burqa, personal conviction, social or peer pressures or identity issue, does one have right to wear or not? Should one ban it outright?

Here I would like to narrate an interesting experience. I was lecturing on secularism in the University of Bukhara and in the audience were mostly young women dressed in skirts as western women do. During the lecture two burqa clad women (wearing burqa from head to toe) entered and sat down. After my lecture was over some of those women stood up and agitatedly said sir, why should we not thrown out these two women (wearing burqa)? I was shocked at the aggressive tone of these agitated women.

I enquired why do you want to throw them out? These women (all of them Muslim) said why are they wearing burqa and why do they cover themselves? I said I ask you one simple question suppose all these women were clad in Burqa and two of you had come wearing skirts and with modern haircut and if they had asked by not throw these two skirt-wearing women out, what would have been your response?

I said throwing out or banning a practice is not the solution but to dialogue with each other and to understand each other. They then appreciated my viewpoint and sat down quietly and we continued our discussion. Thus to accept the other, as other is (not with prescriptions) is the essence of democracy. Prescription for the other violates the very spirit of others’ rights and dignity which is the basis of modernity. Now it has been universally accepted that it is not only individual rights which are important but also group rights of minorities as well are equally important.

The west, whatever its principles and values, is yet to come to terms with non-western others. Also, it should not depend on the doctrine of reciprocation but group rights should be absolute. I remember in U.K. there was debate in eighties how Muslims treat Christian minorities in Muslim majority countries. Do they give them equal rights and freedom of religion? If not, why do they expect such rights in western countries?

This reciprocative approach contradicts the very spirit of democratic values and principles. These values and principles are absolute and no conditionalities could be prescribed. Of course there are complex reasons for the growing intolerance towards Muslim minorities in the western world. As everywhere the rightist forces thrive on hatred of the other and the ban on the minaret in Switzerland is also the result of rise of rightist politics. The Muslims in India too have experienced it when the BJP tried to come to power through hate politics of Ramjanambhoomi.

 In France too, ban on hijab came under the regime of Sarkozy who is known rightist. Secondly, the rising number of immigrants also creates fear in the minds of original inhab -itants of the country and, in order to press the issue, these numbers are highly exaggerated. Muslims, both by way of migration and birth, are the fastest growing minority in the Europe. Thirdly, most of the Muslim migrants are non-whites, many of them blacks from African countries and here both religious as well as racial prejudice combine and intensify hatred and intolerance.

 In France, for example, most of the Muslim migrants are from former French colonies and hence happen to be black. Discrimination against them and their marginalization totally alienates them and this alienation finds expression through complex ways – through aggressive behavior or overemphasis on their identities which in turn further intensifies their alienation.

 And, if this is followed by economic crisis as Europe is undergoing these days, majority fear against the ‘migrant other’ becomes even more aggressive born out of fear and the rising tide of rightist forces in such circumstances further aggravates it. Also, the US policies in the Middle East has resulted in intensifying extremism in a section of youth in the Muslim countries resulting in terrorist attacks such as 9/11 which excites even more hatred against Muslims in the west.

 What is the way out then? Where to stop this vicious circle of action and reaction? It is for sure that we cannot control all the factors. But it is also equally certain that we need a wise political leadership who is not after power but welfare of people. Democracy ideally speaking is for people’s participation and for their well being. However, like other political systems, democracy too, has become means of grabbing power by certain groups and classes. Also, it tends to be majoritarian i.e. heavily tilted in favor of racial, religious or linguistic majority. There has been hardly any exception to it in the world.

 Certain Muslim countries who swear by Qur’an as their constitution also flagrantly violate Qur’anic provisions. Qur’an gives certain ideals and values for governance, an idea of the desirable society. It says diversity is Allah’s creation and must be respected and celebrated. And this diversity includes linguistic, racial and religious and human beings, whatever religion, race or linguistic group they belong to, must be accorded equal dignity and which means all of them should enjoy equal rights.

 However, you will not find any Muslim country swearing by Qur’an as book of Allah implementing these ideals. You find discrimination on the basis of religion, even sects, language and ethnicity. You very much find discrimination for example in Saudi Arabia, against non-Arabs, against non-Wahabi Muslims and against other ethnic and racial groups. One finds discrimination in Iran against Sunni Muslims, against Arabs, against Bahais and against non-Persians.

 In Pakistan one finds discrimination against certain linguistic groups like Baluchis and Sindhis. It is dominated by the Punjabi majority. Not only that there is sectarian violence between Shi’ahs and Sunnis besides Christians and Hindus. It is Punjabi majority which rules the roast. One has yet to see any Muslim country which does not violate injunctions of the Qur’an while swearing in by it as one has yet to see any western democracy not violating injunctions of their own constitutions enshrining ideals and values of modern democracy.

 As long as the goal remains power, this is bound to happen. Another bane of the situation is current rise in rightist forces which arouse emotions of people on the basis of religion, race and language. Again no country is an exception to it. Education system itself, which prepares children and students for future material of the society, is controlled by, in most, if not all cases, by rightist elements.

 The Netherlands is also undergoing severe problem of anti-Muslim tirade. One politician made a film called Fitna and refused to take it back. Also, a Muslim fanatic murdered a film maker from the Netherlands who caste slur on Islam and this further led to anti-Islamic surge there. I met a professor of Islamic studies from Netherlands in Germany who spoke on Islam. The seminar was on progressive Islam.

 I was stunned by his anti-Islamic outpouring. It was nothing short of hate-Islam speech. When we protested the organizers maintained that all views are allowed to be expressed from this forum. May be it was so. But what was worrying factor was that the person was teaching Islam in the Netherlands. If such Islam is taught in universities of a country what mindset would be generated? One shudders to think.

 Media is no exception. While it must be made clear there are honorable exceptions and some newspapers and TV channels which are quite objective or tend to be so but then such papers and channels are, more often than not, popular. They are read or watched by serious kind of people. Popular media tend to be prejudiced. Also, media is often owned by certain interests and it is not committed to the cause of objective reporting.

 And media plays most crucial role in democracy. I would say if media plays responsible role rising above all interests modern democracies would be far more conflict-free than they are today. And in answering the question raised above media provides one of the crucial factors. Despite all the laws made by the state, media behaves the way it wants to as various state organs fail to implement the laws.

 It is true we cannot have ideal democracy as the German philosopher rightly points out ideal is not real and real is not ideal, still one has to try to come as close to ideal as possible. Even such efforts are lacking in modern democracies. Invariably it is powerful interests which determine the shape and direction of things and there is always tension between vested interests and the ideals and interests seem to win.

 Of course if the conflict remains manageable it is one thing but disaster takes place when it goes beyond manageable proportions. The attack on 9/11 and subsequent attack on Afghanistan and Iraq took this conflict between Islam and the west beyond all imaginable proportions as here too very powerful interests were involved. However, it would be wrong to consider it a self fulfillment of Huntigntonian prediction of ‘clash of civilization’. It was, instead, clash of political interests on both sides.

 It is interesting to note that Huntington’s book received such media attention in the west precisely because certain interests in the west wanted such book written to promote conflict. Of course things may not have gone as planned but to an extent those interests were served but at a great social cost. It greatly sharpened prejudices in the west against Islam. And this has been going on for quite some time now.

 Since Muslims began to immigrate to the western countries in the post-colonial period the anti-Islam prejudices began to acquire sharper edge. The Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses in the eighties and the support it received in the west was also part of this process. The enthusiastic support was not for the sake of freedom of opinion. There was a purpose behind it. The Islamic revolution had occurred in Iran which was anti-west in its thrust and made Iranian oil beyond western powers.

 Thus the west adopted anti-Iran posture and when Khomeini, for his own political compulsions, issued fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the swords were drawn on both sides and west lent unqualified support to Rushdie in the name of freedom and Muslims stood by Khomeini’s fatwa. It was neither freedom nor Islam but who will dominate Iran and its oil, west or people and rulers of Iran.

 All these developments through eighties culminated in 9/11 attacks and everything was complete for anti-Islamic prejudices in western countries and media. As far as Arab oil is concerned the clashes are likely to continue and will go through different phases. It reached its culmination during the Bush’s unqualified support to rightist policies and outright adventure in the West Asia.

 However, since it crossed critical limits in conflict management Obama took over the reigns of administration. But it would indeed be too much to expect that Obama would resolve the conflict. But yes, certainly he may succeed in managing the conflict a shade better and he appears to be sincerely trying. He is far from free agent as many think. His hands are tied by so many uncontrollable factors.

 Al-Qaeda and Taliban issue is not here to disappear in few years. Afghan people are fiercely independence loving and even Muslim rulers like Moghuls failed to subdue them, much less totally aliens like Americans. American policy makers should study history of Afghan rebellion much more seriously than they have done. US jackboots cannot crush Afghans. Obama has to an extent realized this and though he is sending more forces but has also promised to withdraw by 2011.

 Withdraws or not but certainly solution does not lay in trying to crush Afghans but to resolve it through dialogue and accommodation which again is not easy. US is also not in Afghanistan for just to wipe out Al-Qaeda and Taliban but to control rich gas and mineral resources in Central Asia. It did not invaded Afghanistan for nothing. And as long as US wants to control rich resources of Central Asia it cannot find accommodation with Afghan Taliban and as long as Taliban issue continues anti-Islam prejudices will remain strong as ever.

 It is also absolutely necessary to solve Palestinian problem if one desires peace in West Asia. While Afghan Taliban are more concerned about peace in their region but Al-Qaeda is more focused on West Asia and to solve both the problems sans US interests in both the regions is asking for let us say impossible. Should we despair then? Not really. But it is a challenge which few politicians can succeed in facing.

 The Muslim countries too will have to seriously contemplate policy changes and have to make concerted efforts to project peaceful Islam on their part. They will have to fight powerful interests and confrontationists mindset on their part. The rulers in the west Asia have to go for modernization, changes in their education system and promoting spirit of understanding and dialogue with the other.

 King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is wiser than his predecessors and following strategies to contain extremist elements in his own country. Like Obama’s his hands are tied too. In Pakistan military establishment is too powerful to be contained easily and for quite sometime to come civilian rule will not be able to ascertain its independence and Pakistan is very crucial for peace in Afghan-Pakistan region.

 Well, while working for greater understanding let us understand these challenges too.

Institute of Islamic Studies, Mumbai. E-mail:

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