By Ibrahim Hewitt
September 10, 2013
In an increasingly secular world religions are often blamed for all the trouble besetting the international community. Believers, say critics, are intolerant; they overlook the fact that secular tolerance tends to dissipate when the position of Muslims in society is at stake.
Despite this, I believe it is not only fair but also reasonable for anyone with a worldview based on Islam, especially in Muslim-majority countries, to have a major input in political life. A faith-based worldview is just as valid as a secular version; indeed, more so in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey whose Islamist political parties have not only been voted into power in recent years but have also faced a secular backlash.
Secularist horror at the mere thought of Islamist parties winning democratic elections in the Muslim world exposes Western double-standards. America’s reaction to the coup-that-wasn’t-a-coup in Egypt is a perfect example of an avowedly secular state apparatus putting its democratic principles to one side in order to ensure that a religious party does not stay in power in a Muslim country. Such verbal gymnastics were copied in European capitals with the coup being accepted as a fait accompli, “so let’s get on with life”; it’s business more or less as usual.
Given events in Egypt, it is no surprise that the focus has been on the Muslim Brotherhood and its alleged weakness in government. The movement did make mistakes but I would argue that instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater there is a strong case for saying that in Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey, where there is strong electoral support for Islamists, there should be more faith-based political activity and not less. And that would have to start in schools and colleges with better, more comprehensive religious education.
The degree of ignorance about Islam which has surfaced recently is surprising; from those for whom faith is all about gaining power in the state with little personal religious practice to speak of, to the other end of the spectrum where Muslims are content with their personal religious bubble and do little to take Islam out into the world around them. As often happens, the truth can be found somewhere in the middle, which shouldn’t be a surprise; Islam, is, after all, a faith of moderation for the middle way; the radical middle way, as some have called it.
This is where education comes in. The world more or less follows a Western-dominated education agenda as it does with most other things. It is meaningless to speak of “the West” as a geographical term these days, because the influence of “the West” is global. At a conference of Islamists in Beirut last year I sat through tirade after tirade against “the West” and its influence. When it was my turn to speak I asked those present, mainly men, to take a look at themselves. With just one exception, they were all dressed in Western suits, shirts and ties. Their minds remain colonised years after their countries achieved political independence; such has been the subtlety of the indoctrination they’ve undergone. In fact, this goes even deeper than the education system. Trivial as it may sound, the first episode of a children’s cartoon series called Babar the Elephant is revealing. Made in France, it is a good example of how the colonial mindset is disseminated through a seemingly innocuous cartoon. Babar is an African elephant; in order to become “civilised” he has to adopt Western dress. Ridiculous as it may be, it is through this sort of thing that seeds are planted and grow.
The task to counter such propaganda is huge. Even in Muslim countries, life, including education, is dominated by Western thought, technology, culture, civilisation and politics. At its root is the Christian concept of “rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s”; in other words, a religious/secular dichotomy is prevalent which, for a Muslim, simply should not exist. The Islamic education paradigm is a holistic approach. We cannot exclude Islam from so-called secular subjects, and why should we? What is “un-Islamic” about 2 plus 2 = 4? Or science, history or languages? Such is the degree of brainwashing targeting the Muslim world ever since Muslim scholars, well-versed in the Islamic sciences, led the world in all major academic disciplines for centuries. The knowledge of the ancient world was preserved, developed and passed-on by Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars in Islamic Spain for the 800 years that the rest of Europe describes as its “Dark Ages”.
The mentality which has airbrushed from history this invaluable contribution to the European Renaissance was reflected by Britain’s Lord Macaulay in his “Education Minute” of 1835, intended to “improve” the situation in “British” India. It is worth quoting this at length: “It seems to be admitted on all sides that the intellectual improvement of those classes of the people who have the means of pursuing higher studies can at present be effected only by means of some language not vernacular amongst them... I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia... We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”
The colonial mindset is encapsulated perfectly in that statement. Disdain for the people ruled by Britain and total dismissal of centuries of indigenous scholarship and culture. Has anything really changed?
Education is part of Islam. Religious education is not part of education, it is education and the education on offer to young Muslims in Muslim-majority countries should reflect that fact. It should be broad enough to develop young people skilled and confident enough to tackle the issues of this life with confidence, and to do so in the knowledge and belief that they are fulfilling a very specifically religious role by applying their faith to “secular” affairs. The education we provide should abandon the false religious-secular dichotomy. Islam most certainly should not be an add-on to a largely secular education; it has to be much more than a well-meaning stab at cultural equality by “doing” religious studies as a separate subject on the school timetable. If Islam is as the cliché claims a “complete way of life” then it cannot and should not be absent from any aspect of life, including education.
The problems being experienced in Egypt at the moment and, to a lesser degree in Turkey and Tunisia, illustrate that a Muslim populace which lives “traditional” Islam after a traditional education often seems to be unable to grasp that the faith means more than praying in the mosque, wearing traditional clothing and having a beard. These are important, as bans on Hijab, Niqab and beards in various countries have shown over the years. It is interesting that such issues have been relaxed in Turkey but France, the home of liberté, égalité, fraternité, has imposed strict bans on Muslim women’s dress; so much for liberty. Nevertheless, the scope of Islam as a faith goes beyond all of those things and should extend to every aspect of life, politics and education included.
The lack of such broad Islamic education has left the field open for Western-educated elites to exploit the masses with their “superior” US and European degrees. While adopting Western manners and tastes, though, they have fallen short in the democracy stakes. Western hypocrisy over accepting electoral winners regardless of which party has polled the most votes has encouraged these elites to ignore the fact that democratic governments need a strong opposition to hold them accountable on behalf of the electorate. The winner must take all approach which sees opposition groups plotting to bring the government down by non-democratic means should have no place in Muslim societies. The West’s endorsement of this in Egypt has possibly set-back the democratic cause by decades, perhaps intentionally in order to protest Western “interests”. Muslims should not sit back and accept that things have to be this way.
A Muslim’s code of conduct, ethics and moral values should have an Islamic point of reference. Corruption and illegal activities have no place in a Muslim’s life, from personal indiscretions to major issues which affect whole populations. Sadly, we seem to have lost the bigger picture and succumbed to the “render unto Caesar” doctrine that faith is a private issue and the public domain has to be a faith-free zone. This cannot be right, not least because if Muslims actually implement Islamic tenets in daily life the whole society will benefit. The Prophet, peace be upon him, was, after all, sent as a “mercy for mankind”, not just Muslims; it follows that the same is true of Islam itself.
The pagan tribes of Makkah hated the Prophet’s message at first but loved his character. Character development, and education which encourages it, is thus vital. When people are of good character they reshape society. In a world of double-dealing, hypocrisy and unbridled capitalism, unfortunately profits overrule the Prophets; the strong dominate and exploit the weak; and honesty is rare. This has to change.
A faith-based education of the type I propose will inevitably face opposition from those who see no place for faith in daily life; that includes many people who would call themselves Muslims. That in itself is testimony to the success of the Lord Macaulay approach to the education of those still living under colonial domination ideologically, mentally and philosophically, if not physically. We need to break free from those colonial bonds and free education from the shackles of secularism. Islam led the world in this for centuries and can do so again.
To the people of Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia, I say please take note. Change has to be meaningful; we can’t afford to have a simple change of management within a corrupt system. Although your votes for Islamic parties are a step in the right direction and should be encouraged, we need a change of ownership. Religious education in the broadest sense has to be the starting point and in the current climate your countries are the ideal places for this to begin.
Ibrahim Hewitt is Senior Editor of the Middle East Monitor.