Thursday, November 14, 2013

Choosing Opinionlessness: On the 'Killed' versus 'Martyred' Debate in Pakistan


Maryam Sakeenah

We gloat over carrion; we gather like vultures to pick up the pieces. We discriminate between dead bodies under labels of ‘halak’ (merely killed) and ‘shaheed’ (martyred). As we do so, we don God’s hat, partaking of what is exclusively His right with a self-righteous audacity. Our opinions on the dead may not be worth a shred but they signify the sides we take in this melee over rotting corpses. And it all reeks of the deep sickness that gnaws into our body politic, the gulley-wide split that gapes like an open-mouthed hydra threatening to swallow us piecemeal- the tectonic gash that runs across us splintering us into opposed camps, eyeball to eyeball.

Pakistan today is a dangerously divided society with intense polarization around ideological affiliation. Reconciliation grows impossible with the unchecked and unabashed media stoking the flames of hate by bringing the sides on head-on collision course with malevolent deliberation. The commercial news media feeds itself on sensationalism, as is clear from the manner in which the Jamat e Islami leadership has been thrown the bait and drawn into the centre-stage of the melee. The result has been an angry storm of ‘with us or against’ us rhetoric. Either one endorses the official version of the narrative or he is with the Taliban- with this rabid logic, JI and PTI’s political opponents have grabbed the opportunity to accuse the two parties of being cohorts and allies of the Taliban. Strictly speaking, these claims are inaccurate, far-fetched and malicious, as both groups explicitly renounce the use of violence for religious and political purposes and while calling for dialogue, have consistently rejected the wayward ways of the TTP. The fecklessness with which Munawar Hasan faced the situation and the recklessness of his impertinent statements have discredited the JI’s decades-long largely non violent political struggle.

The fact that the drone strike killing Hakimullah Mehsud came at the time when the conversation on counter terrorism was being steered away from the blood and iron that had eluded peace exposes the U.S’s unilateralist pursuit of narrow national interest in the strategic region. This makes the targets of the brutal attack look more of underdogs and victims evoking sympathy, the sinner being viewed as sinned-against.

The ‘most allied ally’ only gets a few crumbs thrown its way from the bloody deal that has proven so costly for Pakistan. The enemy laughs at our wounds with sadistic glee; laughs our desperate overtures for peacemaking to scorn. The raw anger this generates drowns all sanity so that sentimental, reckless statements like ‘even a dog killed by the U.S is a martyr’ are made, making Islamic jurisprudence look puerile and inane.

Yet we choose to fight over juristic complexities about life in the unseen world from our entrenched positions. The media directs all attention towards this needlessly long drawn argument even though the conversation should be about strategies to effectively check the Global Bully on the loose. The conversation should be about the utter illegality and unacceptability of US drone strikes in Pakistan. To articulate such a response the nation needs to stand together in solidarity and speak out with a single emphatic, resounding voice. Yet at this critical juncture we seek to intensify divides in order to pep up the news bulletin on commercial television- all at a terrible cost.

The ideological polarization in our society reflected in the media has created an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion bringing social groups into confrontation and clash. The conversation about ‘halakat’ (killing) versus ‘shahadat’ (martyrdom) is not only in vain but calculated to provoke, divide and aggravate. It is not only unwise but ill-intentioned, seeking to disunite and pit some against others on vital national issues at a time when we need standing together. And as we take sides in this battlefield strewn with dead bodies, we forget that sometimes it is all right to be opinionless. Sometimes our opinion is just not the point, at all. Sometimes it is more important to just understand.

We need to understand that the dead we fight over and then forget as the next newsworthy story turns up, are not forgotten by their heirs. And the persistent victim becomes the blinded, insensate perpetrator. That ideas and ideologies are not fought with guns, but understood in order to be deconstructed, exposed and jettisoned. We need to understand that evil begets evil; that hurt transforms into hate and festers, and breaks down all boundaries of reason and logic. We need to understand that dividing ourselves into embattled camps around fixed ideological associations pertaining to faith or the lack thereof is disastrous. We need to understand that our weakness lends strength to the ones who will trample us underfoot in their relentless pursuit of global hegemony. It is in cultivating the ability to understand rather than shouting out our worthless featherweight opinions at each other that we can begin a healing.   


Sunday, October 6, 2013

Attack on Christians and the 'Comparative Religions' Controversy


Maryam Sakeenah

I am not very fond of conspiracy theories, even as they abound in this part of the world. There was some ire and annoyance over the insistence by the usual conspiracy-theorizing lot that there was a ‘foreign hand’ behind the bloodbath of Christian citizenry in Peshawar. But I am not trading in conspiracy theories for the time being.

 What unsettles me is the fact that whoever the puppeteer, the puppets that act it out and allow themselves to be manipulated are one of us; the actual perpetrators in this bloody instance just as in so many others of the past were one of us; sons of the soil- people like you and me. What makes the blood stop in its tracks and the heart miss a beat is the perturbing, eternally-staring-in-the-face How? and Why?

For if a single individual can give his life to wreak destruction on innocents with such brazen, insensate brute-force like a mechanized killing monster with a human face, my hair stands on end and I wonder, what went wrong?

‘And if anyone of you would punish and lay the axe on the evil tree, let him see to its roots. What judgement would you pronounce on him who slays in the flesh and yet is slain in the spirit? And how persecute you him who is a deceiver and oppressor and yet in himself is aggrieved and outraged?... a single leaf turns not yellow but with the silent assent of the whole tree. So the wrong-doer cannot do wrong but with the secret will of you all.’ (Kahlil Gibran).’

 “Ah, woe is me, to have seen what I see!”

I think I understand. I can make the connection between the mindset that can ready itself to kill another of a different creed out of searing, blinding, dehumanizing hate and the mindset that rejects the teaching of the History of Religions in schools. The difference is that while the former is deprived of privilege and marginalized by a society stratified by class, the latter is urban upper-middle class, privileged by education.
In a country where life and honour are dirt-cheap; where bare survival is a struggle; where economic indicators are abysmal; where prejudices and hate abound and where foreign interests play out undetected and unchecked making it a mere pawn, the fact that the teaching of Religious History became the highlight in the news media and the hottest issue on the social media for weeks is deplorable. It is an unfortunate testament of the times. It signifies a rabid, jittery, paranoid sense of insecurity about the faith we profess.

On a certain level it is somewhat understandable given how after 9/11, Islam as an identity has been put on the defensive. A terribly uninformed dominant narrative speckled with blind spots has been globalized. The political and intellectual assault of the strident secular clique on the Muslim world has created a reactionary conservatism arising out of insecurity and fear of loss of identity in a world that functions on the pernicious ‘West versus the Rest’ schism.

The disastrous consequences of this reactionary conservatism are appalling as have been brought out through this episode.

Pride is a delusion born out of a subconscious awareness of inadequacy and vulnerability. The prevalent attitude of religious chauvinism and hegemony among Muslims and the manic enthusiasm to monopolize and legitimize a single unvarying and unaccommodating interpretation of religious truth is born out of the Heart of Darkness where Hubris sits enthroned with its clay feet. Righteousness degenerates into Self-righteousness, giving way to a sneering narcissism that gazes at its own magnified image trivializing all others. It creates a terribly blinkered worldview that excludes and oversimplifies. It is afraid of intellectual scrutiny, aware of its untenability. It is intolerant and unrelenting. Hajrah Khan writes, "This power-play is ironically running deep within each of these schisms themselves: Sunnis lashing against Sunnis, Shias against Shias, Salafis belitting Salafis, Sufis mocking Sufis and the battle goes relentlessly on… the truth now is not about ideology. It’s about power. “My” truth should triumph. And this truth is nothing but an empty and usually an autonomous assertion. And an assertion can never wholeheartedly convince and give comfort. And truth – Islam – is a matter of the heart, and should bring comfort."

I was shaken when a friend who counsels parents confided in me that ‘Religious parents have failed to pass on the real values of Islam and their kids are clueless about and disinterested in Islam.....the pity is that instead of recognizing their fault they blame the ‘unIslamic’ institutions.’ And again, I am not surprised.

And in the thick of this melee what we most brutally sin against is Islam, the ethos of whose tradition is vilely distorted and misunderstood; whose call is unheard in a deafening clamour of clash and confrontation and vain argumentation.

Lesley Hazleton notes that after receiving the first revelation, the Prophet (SAW)’s first reaction was doubt, awe, even fear. And yet this experience became the bedrock of his belief. Doubt and questioning need to be appreciated as stepping stones to genuine faith and in fact the foundation of secure faith. Such secure, poised faith can also be an antidote to religious fundamentalism. Ibrahim A.S’s journey to the truth recorded by Allah in the Quran begins with questioning and grapples with a doubt that is thoroughly human and inescapable. The questioning and doubting that he began with, and the reflection and reasoning he exercises until faith is realized has all been recorded by Allah as the natural journey of the human self from questioning and seeking into the certainty of faith. Ibrahim (A.S)’s faith was inexorable and passionate because he had gone the whole way; he had reached conviction after genuine questioning and honest inquiry. The faith he was blessed with as the ultimate reward for his courageous quest was profound, whole, robust. “Thus did We show Abraham the kingdom of the heavens and the earth that he be one of those who have Faith and certainty. When the night covered him over with darkness he saw a star. He said: "This is my lord." But when it set, he said: "I like not that those who set." When he saw the moon rising up he said: "This is my lord." but when it set he said: "Unless my Lord guides me, I shall surely be among the erring people." When he saw the sun rising up he said: "This is my lord, This is greater." But when it set, he said: "O my people! I am indeed free from all that you join as partners in worship with Allah. Verily, I have turned my face towards Him Who has created the heavens and the earth ‘Hanifan’ (unifocally) and I am not of the Al Mushrikeen (those who worship others besides Allah)."

Faith is not imposed or policed. Faith is not attained through voluntary partial blindness to the complexity of life. Faith cannot be seated in the narcissistic self. Faith is not attained without seeking, inquiring, discovering and wrestling with doubt. Only through making this precarious journey is the sweetness of faith relished. Those who shrink from the effort will always have the faith of the verbal testament, the external facade. And it will always give them the delusion of being Holier than thou. It will always be supercilious, self-righteous, condescending and hegemonic- and pathetically superficial.
A Christian delegation from Najran consisting of Christian theologians and priests visited the Prophet (SAW) and undertook exhaustive religious discussion with the Prophet (SAW). The delegates were treated honourably although none chose to accept Islam. The Prophet (SAW) concluded a peace treaty with their Chiefs and Bishops, which guaranteed rights, liberties and protection.
In another instance, the Prophet (SAW) asked Zaid bin Sabit (R.A) to learn the Hebrew and Syriac languages in order to engage with the Ahl ul Kitab (Jews and Christians). He was appointed to communicate and correspond with non-Muslims.

The two batches of students who had completed the course at the private school where the Religious Studies course was taught had views on the subject that are deeply insightful about the raison de etre for experimenting with a project of the sort at the school level. Maryam Ahmad of class IX said studying the course ‘answered my question, Why Islam? We cannot just blindly follow a religion, we have to know why we believe in it.’

Amenah Raza of class VIII confided that she had often been confused about existential questions but studying the course made her understand the superiority of faith in God, and that answers will come to us if we learn to ask the right questions.
Eman Imran of the same class said the course helped her not to judge and stereotype unfairly those who believe differently. It also made her understand that faith is embedded deeply in the hearts of mankind and religions express this faith in many ways... but most importantly it taught her why Islam is actually a universal faith and why we have chosen to be Muslims.

The controversy over the teaching of Religious Studies that included faiths other than Islam also resonates with pertinent questions about the role of an unruly commercialized and sensationalist media. The program that first raised the issue was based on a set of lies, half-truths and exaggeration in order to stoke conservative religious sentiment to score brownie points in order to increase viewership. A naive, gullible populace tuned into the media matrix bought into all the sensationalism, creating hype over an utter non-issue. No one was really concerned about ascertaining the truth of the spurious claims from a dubious source of information. 

“O ye who believe! If a wicked person comes to you with any news, ascertain the truth, lest ye harm people unwittingly, and afterwards become full of repentance for what ye have done.”(49:6)

But there are still bigger questions that echo even after the hype dies down and we move on to other issues for drawing room small talk. There are vital questions that arise about the aim and methodology of religious instruction in schools. In a world teeming with ideas that influence, interact, integrate, rebound and abound, diversifying a programme of religious instruction in order to put Religion in perspective through its evolution over eons, the power of the God idea and the universal essence of revealed religion that Islam fulfils, perfects and protects is right after the Quranic call to “Invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with ‘Hikmah’ (wisdom) and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious: for thy Lord knoweth best, who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance.” (16:125) 

Hikmah, the verse says, is the key: a deep wisdom and sagacity and a profound insightful understanding of ideas, issues, human psychology and society and how religion bears upon it; a sense of caution, a humility, a gentility. In the midst of all this grand mess, the greatest casualty has been Al Hikmah. The greatest unmourned tragedy is the banishment of ‘Hikmah’from our wretched lives.

Ibrahim A.S prayed: "O my Lord! Bestow Hikmah (religious knowledge, insight, right judgement of the affairs, power of decision making) on me and join me with the righteous.” (Surah Shu’ara, 83-85)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Still, I Rise: Reflections on the Massacres in Egypt

In the Name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.
"By the sky containing great stars. And by the Promised Day. And [by] the witness and what is witnessed, Woe to the makers of the pit (of fire)! Fire supplied (abundantly) with fuel: When they were sitting near it. And they witnessed (all) that they were doing against the Believers. And they ill-treated them for no other reason than that they believed in Allah, Exalted in Power, Worthy of all Praise!- Him to Whom belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth! And Allah is Witness to all things.
Indeed, those who have tortured the believing men and believing women and then have not repented will have the punishment of Hell; they will have the punishment of the Burning Fire.
Lo! those who believe and do good works, theirs will be Gardens underneath which rivers flow. That is the Great Success.
Truly strong is the Grip (and Power) of thy Lord. It is He Who creates from the very beginning, and He can restore (life). And He is the Oft-Forgiving, Full of Loving-Kindness, Lord of the Throne of Glory, Effecter of what He intends. Has the story reached thee, of the forces- Of Pharaoh and the Thamud? Nay, but those who disbelieve live in denial. But Allah doth encompass them from behind!" 
(Surah Burooj: Chapter 58)
Hope is a stubborn thing. From the blood and gore, the spine-chilling images of charred bodies clinging to the pages of the Quran, there still rises hope.
History's verdict is unforgiving. Pages of history are reddened with massacres, genocide, killing of innocents: but at the end of the day what matters is whose side we were on, or whether we chose to be passive bystanders in a time of crisis.
Echoes from Egypt shall ring on for a long time to come, the images shall remain etched in memories. And the lessons we learn shall endure, reshaping our narrative, our destinies.
And that is the most crucial point: the lessons we learn. For one, the events in Egypt have exposed the hypocrisy of the secular-liberal elite that has proven itself to be a bedfellow of the military junta, the ruling oligarchies. We have all learned the terrifying truth, as Peter Galey puts it, that
"many would rather see a military junta rule with impunity and autocracy than see a democratic administration govern with fecklessness and error. Many people who call themselves revolutionaries and advocates of democracy simply hate Islamism more than they love freedom. That people are fully prepared to welcome the army back to political life, with a cheer, two fingers up to those killed since 2011, and a good riddance to Egypt’s first experiment with democracy.” There is hope for the future of political Islam as the terrible events necessitate a soul-search, reflection and engagement with the daunting socio-political issues and realities we face. Such a soul-search took a long time in coming, but it will help us make vital conclusions for steering the course of the journey.
The more simplistic and superficially drawn lesson will be to abandon democratic process- but it will not hold because the victim for whom sympathy is understandably high, was committed to democratic process; while the brutal perpetrators subverted the democratic process- even though the rhetoric of democracy was shamelessly used for the purpose. Only a very superficial understanding would consider this to be the death-knell for Islam's democratic experiment.
But to ensure the right lessons are learned, Muslim scholars, writers, academics and ulema have a crucial role to play: to rescue the narrative from those who would use it for subversive ends calling for rejecting the democratic project.
Muslim scholarship must also recognize, following the events in Egypt, Syria, Bangladesh, Pakistan- the terrible danger of schisms and ideological polarization within Muslim societies- the widening rift between the secular and the religious, the cleavages of sect, denomination, ethnicity, nationalism. Understanding the gravity of this danger, they must become active agents of reconciliation- mending the cracks and helping the healing process by empowering the voices of 'middleness' that refuse to take sides, except as supporters and advocates for the sinned-against, the sufferers, the anonymous victim.

It is heartening to see the black-n-yellow image signifying solidarity with the victims of the Rabia massacre going viral on facebook profiles. It is in our capacity for empathy that our humanity lies. The symbolism of it is remarkably suggestive and layered, too: with the resistance bearing the name of a Muslim woman (Rabia Al Adawiyyah). It has in it the makings of a fresh and brand new Muslim feminism articulated as a response to the savage use of chauvinistic power: military and political.  The fact that Rabia Al Adawiyyah was an icon of Islamic spirituality- a tradition ignored and eclipsed as we embroiled ourselves in the battle for temporal power- is significant too. Salvation lies in rediscovering and reviving that spiritual tradition- not as a clever antidote to the socio-political struggle; not as a ploy to neutralize, but as a means to return the soul to that struggle; to inspire and revitalize and direct the course; and render that struggle meaningful.
Blood has been shed- but not in vain, inshaAllah. It must water the springtime- which may not reach its blossoming in our lifetimes, but we must sow the seeds and water it with sacred blood and tears. We must stand on the right side of history, realizing that we owe this to the future. Or we shall never be forgiven as History pens down its verdict in eternal stone.
"You may write me down in history With your bitter, twisted lies, You may trod me in the very dirt But still, like dust, I'll rise."
Just like moons and like suns, With the certainty of tides, Just like hopes springing high, Still I'll rise.
Out of the huts of history's shame I rise Up from a past that's rooted in pain I rise I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide, Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear I rise Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear I rise Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope... I rise I rise I rise." (Maya Angelou: Still I Rise)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

''And they made not a just estimate of Allah..." (39:67): Reflections

 In the Name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
‘They made not a just estimate of Allah such as is due to Him.’ (39:67)

The man whispered ‘God, speak to me!’ 

And a meadowlark sang. 
But the man did not hear. 
So the man yelled ‘God speak to me!’ 
And the thunder rolled across the sky. 
But the man did not listen. 
The man looked around and said ‘God let me see you’ 
And a star shone brightly. 
But the man did not notice. 
And the man shouted ‘God show me a miracle’ 
And a life was born. 
But the man did not know. 
So, the man cried out in despair.
‘Touch me God and let me know that you are here!’ 
Whereupon a butterfly brushed past him. 
But the man brushed the butterfly away and walked on.
This very often quoted anonymous piece of writing illustrates how man turns away from the ayaat (signs) of Allah in the universe, is ungrateful for the innumerable blessings that encompass us, unmindful of the grace, bounty and glory of Allah that pervade and animate the universe.
The verse hits home hard- the Lord of the universe laments over how man has debased himself by not giving to his Creator what he owes Him: the exclusive devotion, adoration, self-surrender that was due only to Him, and through which man discovers and lives out his own true potential.
In surah Yasin in a similar vein Allah says,
‘Ya hasratan ilal ibaad!’ (Alas for mankind),
that they wronged themselves by refusing to acknowledge the One they owe their existence to, who calls to Sakeenah (restful Peace, Godliness) through His love; who calls to the Truth that sets us free from bondage to falsehood, deception and evil.
Man has been ennobled by Allah through the ‘Ruh’ He breathed into the human nafs from His own spirit. Humanity is a gift bestowed by Allah through the crowning glory of divinely inspired 'Ilm' (knowledge) and the nobility of the ‘fitrah’ (nature) on which man has been created.
‘Verily, We have honoured the sons of Adam…’ (17:70) 
‘Verily, We did offer the trust to the heavens, and the earth, and the mountains: but they refused to bear it because they were afraid of it. Yet man took it up – verily, he has been prone to be most wicked, most foolish.’ (33:72)
Faith in God is a transforming force that makes one transcend above and beyond the confines of the here and now; it raises above the personal, selfish, temporal, material and physical that holds us down to an ephemeral level of existence, caged in the id, embroiled in the pursuit of short-term self-gratifying goals.
Faith makes selflessness possible. It makes forbearance, patience, forgiveness and undaunted courage possible. It makes a deep inner tranquility possible regardless of external circumstance. This inward peace enables the faithful individual to radiate peace around him. It enables one to
‘find the best in others. To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived…’ (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Faith makes possible deeds larger than life, motivated by that mysterious magical thing called love for God which has over millennia driven people to live meaningfully, act nobly and altruistically with an incredible spiritual largesse; which has over history made human beings capable of the most superhumanly heroic deeds for no selfish, worldly, material purpose. It has made faith-driven human beings live meaningful, beautiful lives that have left ‘footsteps in the sands of time…’
Lives of great men all remind us 
  We can make our lives sublime, 
And, departing, leave behind us 
  Footprints on the sands of time; 
Footprints, that perhaps another, 
  Sailing o’er life’s solemn main, 
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother, 
  Seeing, shall take heart again. 
Let us, then, be up and doing, 
  With a heart for any fate; 
Still achieving, still pursuing, 
  Learn to labor and to wait.
(Henry Longfellow)
Faith in God has made immortality attainable to the mortal being of man; has made permanence possible through evanescence; it has healed and purged and elevated and delivered. Yet so many, as the verse says, have failed to recognize the sublime beauty and power of faith in God, recklessly turning away from it, bedazzled by the pomp and show of the transient life of this world.

Very broadly, there are two ways in which man fails to make a just estimate of faith in Allah. Man either carelessly disregards the meaning and value of the Divine in his life out of forgetfulness and the lure of the material world; or he distorts, abuses and exploits the faith he verbally professes in the most vile and heinous ways for his own ends.

Crime, war, racism, slavery, conquest, imperialism, colonialism, nationalism, capitalistic exploitation, environmental degradation have all been impelled by lust for worldly benefit, temporal power and material gain- all of which are corollaries of faithlessness and distancing from the Divine.Great crimes and injustices have also been committed in the Name of God, out of an odious sense of being holier than thou by the self-righteous who wittingly or unwittingly sin against God when they use His name for ignoble, unworthy ends. This is contemporary Islam’s greatest challenge. Khalid Abou El Fadl writes,
‘the worst injustice, and the one most worthy of Muslim outrage, is that committed by Muslims in the name of Islam, because that is more deprecating to God than any supposed heresy or legal infraction.’ 
Man disparages the meaning of the Divine by his own heedlessness and misdeeds. He sells off his faith for paltry gains and sins against his Loving Maker from Whom he came and to Whom he is bound to return. But in so doing, the greatest harm comes to his own self, against his own God-given nafs… only that he does not recognize it. And the undimmed everlasting Glory of Allah abides and endures forevermore:
‘God will requite them for their mockery, and will leave them for a while in their overweening arrogance, blindly stumbling to and fro.’ (2:15)
‘They want to extinguish the light of Allah with their mouths, but Allah will perfect His light, although the disbelievers dislike it.’ (61:8)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Egypt: Learning the Right Lessons


Maryam Sakeenah

The obvious conclusion from Egypt is that political Islam’s ‘concordat’ with democracy has proven a failed experiment. As predicted by Essam Haddad, ‘the message will resonate throughout the Muslim world that democracy is not for Muslims.’ The message has in fact been enthusiastically taken up, with Islamists saying ‘we told you so.’ An article on one such website states, recent experience in Egypt has once again exposed the reality of ‘democracy’ and the true face of democracy- worshippers... democracy isn’t meant for us Muslims.’ The few willing to undertake a deeper and more insightful analysis of the dynamics of political Islam as unfolded in Egypt and the greater Middle East are led to conclude that the problem is not democracy but the lack thereof.

The problem is with the deeply entrenched secular elite and the powerful civil-military bureaucracy in the Muslim world that has persistently obstructed the transition to democracy in order to perpetuate the status quo that sustains them. The problem is with the regressive mindset of these so-called liberals whose lust for power and influence holds democracy hostage as they pay conventional lip service to it, to dupe gullible masses; who laugh the symbolism of the ballot to scorn, not willing to see through a fledgling democratic regime for its mandated time. The problem is with these blue eyed boys of Western powers- that hold a nascent democracy under the thumb; the problem is with the double standards of Western torchbearers of democracy complicit in the brutal travesty of democracy in Egypt; who shamelessly use democracy as a buzzword to legitimize governments servile to the diktat coming from on high; and to delegitimize those that are not amenable to functioning as instruments to safeguard their interests. The problem is with using the pretense of commitment to democracy to disguise a unilateralist pursuit of political and geostrategic interests in the region. The problem is with refusing to call a coup by its name so that the new post-Morsi administration installed by the military could continue to receive assistance from Western nations so as to guarantee and promote the interests of the players of the global Great Game for power.

The heart of the matter and the bitterest lesson is what Patrick Galey has said in ‘The Day the Revolution Died’: I’ve learned a basic and terrifying truth today: That many would rather see a military junta rule with impunity and autocracy than see a democratic administration govern with fecklessness and error. That many people who call themselves revolutionaries and advocates of democracy simply hate Islamism more than they love freedom. That people are fully prepared to welcome the army back to political life, with a cheer, two fingers up to those killed since 2011, and a good riddance to Egypt’s first experiment with democracy.”

The right lesson to learn is that the still embryonic democratic culture in the Middle East is to be defended against the illiberal, valueless secular elites and powerful civil-military bureaucracies that pay lip service to democracy while vying for the maintenance of their own power and influence with blessings of their foreign mentors. That is why the coup in Egypt is to be rejected and opposed.

The right lesson for societies in transition is to create infrastructure salubrious for democratic values and practices to take root. Democratization of polities is long, arduous and painstaking. Egypt may be going through the birthpangs of it, but for democracy not to perish in the throes of its birth, it must not be understood as and confined to a balloting exercise. State institutions must respectfully stand by to see it through. Democratic institutions need to tame down and cut to size emboldened militaries with a history of political intervention and influence. Morsi’s greatest failure was in not being able to create constitutional checks and balances against the unwarranted interference of Egypt’s powerful secular military, and in his ineffective dealing with a variegated and vociferous opposition. Without such measures to let democracy take root, it will remain on life support with the ever-present threat of the military boot’s heavy tread stomping the life out of it. The right lesson is not less but more democratization- social, economic and political- from the grassroots so that the balloting exercise has more meaning and the legitimacy of the results it yields, commands respect.

The consequences for political Islam have been graver still. The Egyptian experiment is a significant let-down for the moderate voice that had reconciled Islam with democratic practice and had quite monumentally eked out a way for Islamic regimes to function in a secular-democratic milieu. It lends strength to the more simplistic thesis easier to draw and hence enthusiastically embraced by the Islamist: Democracy is the system of the unbeliever. Through its double standards and complicity with the brutal military that ousted Egypt’s democratic government, the West has ignored this far-reaching consequence to its own peril.

But as we resent the hijacking of the popularly voted Morsi regime in Egypt, we cannot bury our head in the sand when it comes to Morsi’s fatal mistakes- his all-too-frequent fumbling and blundering that showed a complete lack of vision and foresight, or even an understanding of the complex issues he confronted. It was not just ineptitude but spineless, dim-witted lack of political acumen displayed by the Muslim Brotherhood in both its advisory and decision making roles. Given the fact that the Brotherhood is the most well-organized Islamic political group with decades of struggle behind it, raises an important concern about the development of seasoned, visionary and pragmatic leadership in the Muslim world. The vital lesson most pressing in its gravity and urgency is to develop a comprehensive strategy and make a Herculean effort to chisel such leadership that possesses fidelity to faith and yet is conversant with modernity, and is poised for mediating between the polarized extremes in Muslim societies. Iqbal wrote: ‘sabaq phir parh sadaqat ka, adalat ka, shujaat ka / liya jaye ga tujh se kaam dunya ki imamat ka’ (learn your lessons in integrity, justice and courage; and you shall be chosen to lead the world) Islamic organizations throughout the length and breadth of the Muslim world must unifocally devote themselves towards this end.

Events in Egypt also expose the juvenile euphoria over the Arab Spring and the ‘revolution’ in Egypt. The thrilling, glamorous buzzword has been opportunistically taken up by the interim regime to describe the popular movement that called for the ouster of the Morsi regime by the army under the approving eyes of foreign actors pulling the strings. Students of history are aware that revolutions, while exciting, electrifying and spectacular are also bloodstained and often in vain, seldom yielding enduring change. The French revolution was trailed by the Reign of Terror, and the Russian revolution dwindled into the dictatorship of Stalin. Lasting change follows a bottom-up trend, rising from the grassroots. It is engendered through gradual and consistent evolutionary process. Gradualism is an important insight employed by the Quranic method of social reform. Groups believing in and calling for revolutionary change to install Islamist regimes which will- needless to say- involve clash, blood and gore, are terribly misguided. Such a revolutionary change will rest upon feet of clay. Those looking all starry- eyed for revolutionary Islamist upheaval must drop off the ‘r’ to rediscover the more enduring and profound scope of gradual, evolutionary, phased reform.

A fundamental, vital lesson less noticed and talked about is that the polarization of Muslim societies into the religious and the secular is an open-mouthed Hydra waiting in the wings ominously. This is likely to create wide and irreparable rifts that will threaten social stability and solidarity and flare up in times of crisis into clash and confrontation. Few in the Muslim world however have deciphered this writing on the wall. Egypt’s political showdown stems from its deeper ideological crisis gnawing into the roots of its body-politic. Conflicting aspirations of the secular and the religious, exacerbated by the Salafi extreme with its rigidly conservative agenda and its rejection of Brotherhood rule lending strength to the secularist-dominated opposition made the country virtually ungovernable and the weak leadership caved in. This ideological rift running threateningly like a tectonic faultline through society posed a formidable challenge to democracy, making the achievement of a consensus over just about everything, impossible to reach.

Muslim scholars and leaders are not cognizant of the danger this poses, and in a desperate, sincere but ill advised attempt to ‘defend’ Islam from the assault of the powerful secular-liberal lobby, become more insular and exclusivist. This leads to ghettoization and reinforces, aggravates and intensifies the polarization. It results in two embattled ideologically opposed camps with strong in-group solidarity and out-group hostility. This is the much-speculated ‘war within Islam’ we have often heard mentioned by neoconservatists. Islamists must realize that given the resourcefulness of their opposition and the backing and support from powerful Western allies, such a clash will be hard, long-drawn and ugly. They must learn that by being on the defensive and ghettoizing, they bring the clash closer, lend strength to the polarization and at the end of the day the Leviathan monster unleashed is going to swallow us all up, indiscriminately.

The right lesson for Islamic leaders is to recognize this danger and actively work to prevent such an eventuality through education and dissemination of ideas that do not deepen the rifts but reach out by speaking in a universal, inclusivist voice that is essentially the ethos of Islam. They must work to engender a consciousness that is rooted in faith and guided by common values, ready to take the plunge into the abyss that stares us in the face; ready to take up the grand project for social reform by infiltrating into the rank and file of a stratified, broken society- and not under narrow parochial labels and confining banners of ‘Islamic’ or otherwise. And this is not to be misunderstood as lack of fidelity to the faith. This will bring the additional advantage of the struggle for Islam becoming more discreet and elusive in the wake of rising hostility and even active opposition to and persecution of identifiable Islamists- in the process taking the struggle out of ghettos into the wider society, waging it at all levels.

Organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood would be well advised to hold off the political struggle and prioritize the bigger social project which requires an all-embracing, universalistic approach that is less exclusivist and less essentialist. This will bear upon education and the media, creating leadership for the wider community, the academy, the media, courts of law and the civil-military bureaucracy. The political struggle- not needing to be called by a label, can then be erected on surer footing, a more secure and deep-rooted social foundation grounded in an ideological framework that is inclusive and all-embracing, visionary and pragmatic, faithful to its religio-cultural roots and yet confidently forward-looking and willing to engage.   

And at the end of the day it all boils down to what lessons we choose to learn from Egypt.

Monday, June 3, 2013

On the Woolwich Incident and responses to it...


Maryam Sakeenah

To condemn the Woolwich incident, spine-chilling and disgusting as it may be_ is pointless. Not because it may by any stretch of imagination be justified, but because the haste and anxiety with which this is so promptly done both by spokespeople of Western nations and by Muslim leaders denotes the uncritical acceptance of the predominant narrative on terrorism on the terms of the powerbrokers and the media that tell us who to condemn, how and how much. It is also inadequate to only condemn these instances when they occur while failing to understand and take on the deeper dynamics that set them off. For, terrorism and the usage of the term are far more nuanced than these facile proclamations make us believe.

While Tarek Fatah has rightly pointed out this inadequacy in his article ‘UK Beheading Shows It’s Time to Fight the Doctrine of Jihad’, and reminded Muslims of the need to take on such criminal elements within their ranks, the rest of the article teeters on presumptions that are ignorant at best and dangerous a worst: ignorant because of a complete inability to understand the ground realities of contemporary international politics and dangerous for the ideologization of terrorism that lends credence to the idea that Islam is inherently violent and Muslims inherently predisposed towards violence.

The writer makes the same error many neoconservatives calling for a ‘War on Terror’ made, with disastrous consequences: accepting the motives and objectives of terrorism as interpreted and explained by American rhetoric. He tells us that such elements wish to ‘sow fear into the soul of British people’ and are ideologically motivated ‘by one powerful belief of the doctrine of Jihad against the kuffar...’ Readers are asked to make some leaps of faith here as this denies any possibility that such dastardly acts may be a crazed protest out of desperation and frustration, driven by vengeance over what is seen to be unfair and brutal, such as unfair occupations, drone strikes and brutal torture in illegal detention camps. By ideologizing the motives, attention is deflected away from the policies that provoke extreme and desperate reaction. Moral culpability is ruled out and the inaccurate and dangerous idea that the problem is with the ideology believed in by these people is given credence. Hence an image is conjured up of a clash between Islam and the West: a false and pernicious idea that makes the world madly careen towards a clash of civilizations.

The fallacy of the premise of this ideologization of terrorism and whose interests it serves, need to be exposed. Terrorism, in fact, is a tactic used by disaffected individuals and communities, not an ideology. It is not inspired by a hatred of all that the West stands for, but is a reaction to policy and actions of Western nations. Michael Scheuer states: “There is no record of a Muslim urging to wage jihad to destroy democracy or credit unions, or universities. What the US does in formulating and implementing policies affecting the Muslim world is infinitely more inflammatory.” The smokescreen of rhetoric, however, keeps a dispassionate analysis of the real grievances that fire such acts at bay.

Fatah goes on to state that Muslim terrorists have been ‘emboldened’ by the West’s ‘passivity’ towards terrorism, implying that Western nations are victims too infirm to take on the horrifying, audacious enemy consolidating its ranks in the wings. There clearly is in this a criminal oversight of the glaring and undeniable reality that wars, occupations, kidnappings, tortures, detentions have been carried out by Western nations on the pretext of pre-empting and countering terrorism; that Guantanamo still detains thousands without charge, that only 2% out of the many thousands killed in drone operations against terrorists have any suspicion against them.

While what happened at Woolwich was grotesquely inhuman, refusing to acknowledge similar grotesque wrongs at the hands of powerful occupying armies in other parts of the world is diabolical. While Woolwich is unjustifiable, one cannot lose sight of the connection between the actions of armies abroad and the psychology of vengeance. In all honesty, one may also be reminded of the fact that barely weeks ago an unarmed seventy-five year old was similarly hacked and butchered to death in Birmingham while on his way home. The reason no one heard of it was because the victim being a Muslim on his way back from the local mosque made the story not newsworthy enough. Islamist terror is the in-thing- other acts of violence and terrorism are relegated to individual criminality or insanity.

The writer reminds us that the tactics used by the Woolwich attackers were ‘straight from medieval times’, recklessly making a direct link with Islamic doctrine and tradition. Anyone with a basic understanding of terrorism would know that desperate tactics like this one are used when the might of perceived enemies is too great and invincible, defying conventional tactics. Reading more than that into it and connecting it to medieval Islamic doctrine is grossly irresponsible for the devastating social and inter-subjective consequences in an atmosphere of great prejudice and hostility against Muslims and Islam. The UK Muslim community is already targeted for hate-speech by white supremacist groups like the English Defence League, and Mr. Fatah’s proclamations serve to keep this atmosphere of hate and suspicion charged.

It is vital and urgent that Muslims take responsibility for such elements and tendencies within their community and the writer did well to highlight this, but to interject ‘Islam is the enemy!’ when the religion and its practitioners already stand much stereotyped and pigeonholed, misunderstood, mistrusted and maligned is highly irresponsible and reckless.

However, such reform has to come from within the Muslim community from authentic representatives and spokespeople of Islamic tradition. The gusto for ‘fixing Islam’ from the West is misplaced, insincere, uninsightful and comes loaded with malafide agendas and political interests.  Tarek Fatah’s exhortation to Western leaders to take on the Jihadic ideology and defeat it, is fatal nonsense.

Having said that, Fatah’s disappointment with liberal Muslims rubbing in the fact that ‘Islam is Peace’ and keeping mum about the doctrine of physical Jihad as part of Islam, is valid- but for different reasons. Liberal Muslims desperately try to deny and eclipse this aspect of Islam and in so doing, implicitly accept the ignorant allegation that physical Jihad is a violent doctrine. Mr. Tarek Fatah too shares this inability to understand and appreciate the concept of Jihad with its contemporary ramifications in a holistic and insightful manner. This explains his enthusiastic call for rejecting Jihad altogether, and his great disappointment that Islamic scholars are not too excited about jettisoning the murderous idea once and for all.

Liberal Muslims often either deny or denigrate Jihad, as if it was an embarrassment. Jihad, standing for struggle spanning all means to resist injustice, evil and falsehood is to safeguard and protect the sanctity of human life, not to violate it. It aims at protecting the weak, the suffering and the sinned-against. Jihad purged the concept of war from excesses. The first Quranic exhortation to fight came with the emphasis to ‘be not aggressive.’

The Quran and the example of the Sunnah clearly and categorically lay down the conditions when Jihad should be resorted to. Simply, all is not fair in war, and rulings for protecting non combatants and those not directly engaged in confrontation are explicit. Besides, its objectives are clearly laid down: it is neither for territorial aggrandizement nor national power nor spreading the faith, but for resisting oppression and injustice and helping in the establishment of a just and peaceful social order. Fatah makes an ignorant and misleading connection between the senseless butchery at Woolwich and the concept of Jihad: the same criminal mistake that the perpetrators themselves made.

Mr. Fatah makes a pathetic attempt to validate his claim that Jihad is a savage expansionist ideology by quoting an inaccurate and false definition of Jihad from A Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam which makes the unforgivable error or defining Jihad as ‘the spread of Islam by arms’, a claim unsubstantiated by any Islamic text or source of authority.

The need of the hour, contrary to Mr. Fatah’s prescription, is to rediscover and elucidate the concept of Jihad in contemporary context and expose its distortion, misperception and abuse by those hostile to Jihad as well as those claiming to wage it. The silence on this from Muslim scholars leaves the misconceptions and confusions to proliferate and hence provide justification to fringe extremist and criminal elements like those who carried out the brutal display at Woolwich in the name of Jihad.

This said, Mr. Fatah needs to be reminded that resistance to wrong and defence of the weak and marginalized against oppression and injustice is a basic virtue attested to by all spiritual and moral doctrines, hence the Jihadic philosophy is not an invention of Islam even though it may be a culmination of this universal idea. Stripping Islam off this beautiful crowning glory is a preposterous and revolting idea he can never find any support for. Both Mr. Fatah and his ilk as well as sheepish Liberal Muslims need to be reminded of the fact that Islam extols and idealizes peace but also accepts the idea that when the rhetoric and pretense of peace hides the demons of injustice, it must be exposed and rejected and resisted. Farid Esack writes, “When peace comes to mean the absence of conflict on the one hand and when conflict with an unjust political order is a moral imperative on the other, then it is not difficult to understand that the better class of human beings will be deeply committed to disturbing the peace and creating conflict.”

What is important to realize, however, is that in the absence of this understanding of Jihad and the spineless, fragmented state of the Muslim world, resistance to the great wrongs by Western nations at present is febrile, maniacal and as vicious as the actions of the powerful perpetrators. Yeats lamented, ‘the best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.’  Esack writes, ‘The problem with Muslim fundamentalism is that it is as totalitarian and exclusivist as the order that it seeks to displace. It seeks to create an order wherein they are the sole spokespersons for a rather vengeful, patriarchal and chauvinistic God.’ That is a judicious and vital understanding we as Muslims must acquire in order to reclaim the Jihad for our time.  

Incidents like Woolwich as well as the great wrongs that engender such sickness: stemming from both Western policy as well as Muslim degeneracy- are to be rejected and actively opposed. The underlying logic of wars of powerful Western nations against “terrorism" and terrorist attacks provoking or provoked by them is the same: both punish human beings for the actions of their governments or of individuals or groups sharing religious or ethnic identity. We are left with an important question: If terrorism is the direct and intentional killing of innocent people with the purpose for achieving a greater goal they are not directly linked with, are not both terrorism? While we correctly acknowledge Woolwich as savage terrorism, why are similar instances in Afghanistan or Pakistan or Yemen or Iraq also not recognized as equally unacceptable, intensely provocative and deeply damaging? As long as contemporary politics continue to operate on the premise of ‘some are more equal that others’, such ugly outrages will keep happening at the hands of the psychologically vulnerable. The need is an all-out struggle- a progressive ‘Jihad’ if you will- against all wrongs that fuel the vicious cycle, regardless of who the perpetrators may be.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Stasis of the Muslim Mind


Maryam Sakeenah

“Lost in the loneliness, we turn inwards- with a knife in our hands and a lump in our throats”, writes Muhammad Fadel describing the deep crisis in contemporary Muslim consciousness. The loss of the Khilafah has imbued Muslim sensibility with a deep and haunting nostalgia for a bygone glory. The direction of foreign policy taken by Western nations vis a vis the Muslim world has not helped assuage the raw sentiment, leaving Muslims to harbour the supposition that the ascendant West is locked in a crusade against the Muslim world in the throes of despondency imposed by a malevolent external enemy. The frustration this engenders often makes itself felt in spasmodic bouts of violence like the gasps of an etherized patient laid across on the table.

The experience of long-drawn colonial rule across Muslim lands intensified the nostalgic longing for a lost glory as well as the need to hold on ever more strongly and exclusively to religious fundamentals as a means of self-preservation and protection of religio-cultural identity. This exacerbated the disconnect between ‘deen’ and ‘dunya’ in Muslim consciousness in general and education in particular. Aurangzeb Haneef notes in his article, ‘Learning from the Past’, that one of the most important effects of European imperialism in Muslim society was that the pursuit of rational sciences (maqulat) was abandoned in favour of transmitted sciences (manqulat)in the spirit of preservation in an attempt to re-center and standardize the traditions of religious knowledge. Madrassas ceased to be the training grounds for the intellectual and cultural elite and increasingly came to be identified with religious education only, which was an aberration from the tradition.

The rising popularity of Salafism is a reactionary response out of a prevailing sense of defeatism, victimhood, vulnerability and insecurity over what is seen as the encroachment upon Muslim identity and culture by an ascendant Western civilization. The call for a puritanical ‘return to the sources’ down to the letter shunning the accretions of theology and jurisprudence over centuries is distressingly ahistorical, uncreative and mimetic. It refuses to recognize the need to creatively and rationally respond to the exigencies of the times. Ironically while it claims fidelity to authentic Muslim tradition, it actually betrays the essential dynamism of the same. This dynamism is the defining trait of Islamic jurisprudence which traditionally accorded space to diversity. Muslim jurists were remarkably tolerant of ‘ikhtilaf’(difference of opinion), and were adept at the ‘adab’ (etiquettes) of ikhtilaf. Towering jurists of the sunni school like Imam Abu Hanifa and Imam Malik discouraged blind following (taqleed) of their opinions, encouraging critical thinking and research.

These Muslim groups demonstrate all or most of the traits of fundamentalism, that is: ‘a sense of chosenness tied to the demonizing or damnation of all others who refuse to get behind the truth subscribed to by the subject himself.’ (Farid Esack) By refusing to defer to historical understandings of Islam in theology and law, these Muslim groups place themselves at the fringes of Islamic tradition they claim to be guardians and restorers of.

Due to a radical subjectivism that confers quasi-divine authority to a certain set of literalist opinions these innovation-resistant groups refuse to subject their opinions to rational inquiry. In so doing, they implicitly refuse to recognize intrinsic human diversity as well as the status of individuals as rational subjects imbued with the Divinely-bestowed gift of intellect and free will. “Unto every one of you have We appointed a [different] law and way of life. And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but [He willed it otherwise] in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto, you. Vie, then, with one another in doing good works! Unto God you all must return; and then He will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ.” (5:48)
At a subconscious level, the deep realization of the untenability of opinions that refuse to defer to critical examination has resulted in an inward-looking stasis characterized by an uncompromising exclusivism and exceptionalism.

Muslim exceptionalism betrays the Quran’s universal embrace of humanity with its consistent appeal to mankind as the creation of God, a single family. O men! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is all knowing, all aware.” (49:13) The Quran attaches sanctity to all humankind when it narrates how God blew of His own spirit into the first created person. Muslim exclusivism refuses to recognize the fact that our well-being as a species on a finite planet is tied to the well-being of all others we share it with, and that in the face of this reality, all labels and artificial boundaries are secondary. It is only the extremely narrow-minded and short-sighted who would refuse to recognize the fact that our well being is inextricably tied to the well being of all others.

A further corollary of such exclusivism is the tendency to view ideas as mutually exclusive, with an either/or approach. The middle ground, the many grey areas of overlap are lost sight of. This generates a characteristic intellectual extremism that infects Muslims en masse. It is not understood that neither of the extremes is an acceptable alternative to the other, hence the world appears all black and white, like an arena for a clash of ideas. The ‘Us versus Them’ psyche translates into ‘Islam versus The West.’ This is dangerous as it understands both Islam and the West as monoliths and glosses over the many instances both historical and contemporary, of coexistence, intercultural exchange, common grounds and shared values. It denies the universality of commonly held values, viewing them as ‘Western’ or ‘Islamic.’ The actual confrontation as recognized by Islam, is between Haqq and Baatil (Truth versus Falsehood), and before deciding if anything that passes for Islam is the whole truth, we need to ask ‘whose Islam?’, given the fact that the Quran and sunnah are open to diverse readings and interpretations and the self-appointed spokespeople of Islam are as many as the possible interpretations. Nor is Falsehood equivalent to all that the West is about, given the fact that the military-industrial complex and the clique of influential policy-making elites are responsible for the highhandedness of foreign policy decisions and the injustices that have wreaked havoc and provoked backlash among Muslim populations.

Muslims often invoke the ideal of Islam comparing it to the reality of Western society which often betrays its own values such as freedom and liberty, to show the degeneracy of the latter as compared to the Divine system they have been denied- unmindful of the many ways Muslim societies consistently betray the values of Islam.  

The myth of ‘Islam versus the West’ also denies the collective heritage of Islamic and European civilizations and the instrumental role Islam had in making the Enlightenment possible. “Arab science altered medieval Christendom beyond recognition. For the first time in centuries, Europe’s eyes opened to the world around it- Arab science and philosophy helped rescue the Christian world from ignorance and made possible the very idea of the ‘West.’” (Jonathan Lyons, ‘House of Wisdom’) Aime Cesaire beautifully and powerfully reminds us of this collective human heritage and that attempts to claim a monopoly over the achievements of human civilization are a form of intellectual dishonesty, whether done by scholars in the West or the Muslim world. "But the work of man is only just beginning, and it remains to conquer all the violence entrenched in the recesses of our passion, for no race possesses the monopoly of beauty, of intelligence, of force. And there is a place for all at the rendezvous of victory." - Aimé Césaire 

In the same vein, there are other binaries like ‘Islam versus Democracy.’ In the recent Pakistan elections numerous religious groups propagated that casting a vote was an act of ‘kufr,’ because democracy is based on the sovereignty of the masses over the sovereignty of God. While the system of electoral politics in Western societies has elements that are incompatible with Islam, the values of democracy are universal and are part and parcel of Islamic governance. Following the majority opinion a standardized practice in Muslim tradition (‘Ijma’ has many forms, the last of which sanctions general voting by the public to settle questions that bear upon the interests of the general masses and can be put to a public vote). Moreover, respecting popular sentiment and being accountable to the public are fundamental Islamic political values. The procedural rules of electoral politics can and should be reformed to conform to Islamic standards and shari’ rulings made exclusively the job of a panel of qualified ulema, beyond the purview of general voting- and it no more is ‘an affront to God’s sovereignty.’ Numberless Islamic scholars have talked of the compatibility between democratic principles and Islamic politics. Sameen Sadaf notes the irony in ‘The Dynamism of Islam”: The alternative, they say, is ‘Khilafat’ (which in many ways is democratic in its ethos). However, since there is no comprehensive system and candidature for khilafat at the time, one can suppose that all we can do is wait for a savior while the forces of actual ‘Kufr’ take over and ruin us.” Pro-Sharia activists seem to assume that mainstreaming the Islamic way of life through dialogue and dawah can be discounted without any loss and they can march straight to an Islamic Khilafah state that will somehow miraculously tame the Muslim masses into believing slaves of God. 

The binary thinking pattern and exclusivism has made Muslim consciousness be preoccupied with narrow, parochial concerns considered ‘Islamic.’ It is forgotten that being slaves of Allah means being good human beings first and that as Muslims everything in the universe is our business. Zaid Hassan writes of the need to ‘reclaim our relationship to the whole’ in his wonderful article, ‘Notes towards an Incomplete Manifesto for Liberating the Muslim Mind.’ The growing distance between ‘deen’ and ‘dunya’ in Muslim consciousness has made Muslims unconcerned about aspects that belong to the secular domain as profane and unworthy. Hence there is an intellectual degeneracy, and a clear absence of contemporary Muslim discourse in science, philosophy and the humanities, a near-absence of Muslim contribution to research.  In the recent elections, Islamic parties in Pakistan exclusively talked of the need for a return to rule by Islam, invoking Shariah, the Islamic identity and ethos of Pakistan. Talking of issues that resonate with the masses like poverty or the energy crisis was considered redundant given their ‘Islamic’ credentials. The growing unpopularity of these parties and their less-than-expected performance comes as no surprise.  
This ghettoization of Muslim thought threatens to make us dwindle into a cult at the margins of civilization. Religious discourse that fails to take account of the modern mind and appeal to the youth with their voracity for rational argument cannot be shoved down people’s throats. It is condemned to survive as no more than a fringe-cult.  

Still more lamentable is the fact that Muslims are failing to realize the need to introspect in these critical times. Any manifestation of the deep crisis in Muslim consciousness is dismissed as ‘unrepresentative of Islam’ at best, and ‘propaganda against Islam’ at worst. Self-criticism is noble, highly needful and the essential trait of the faithful. Muslims have abandoned it altogether, and any voice helping us to examine ourselves critically or calling for a reform is disdainfully rejected with suspicion and sneering self-righteousness. The belief that terrorists or criminals or misogynists ‘use’ the name of Islam to justify their deeds is comforting but unhelpful because it does not recognize the fact that many interpretations of the Quran and sunnah actually give some grounds to sanction such acts and that therefore there is great responsibility on Muslim thinkers to expose and oppose the textual basis of such arguments.

The stasis of the Muslim mind is a daunting project before us. Muslim society is terribly fragmented and polarized between the extremes of the secular and the religious. So much of Muslim scholarship today is pitiably out of touch with the vicissitudes of contemporary society, rationally indefensible, in a language far removed from and inaccessible to the mass man and incognizant of the psychology of modernity and post-modernity. ‘Maqulat’ must be brought at par with the ‘Manqulat’ as central to a holistic Muslim education, precisely because that is how it had always been and was supposed to be before things went awry. The need today is for Muslim scholars to negotiate between entrenched extreme positions, address issues of the here and now in a language that appeals to the common man, and to appeal to modern sensibility in a manner that is faithful to the ethos of Islamic tradition. Such voices need to collate, organize and rise to a crescendo that can drown out the clamour of extremisms. It is a grand project and an urgent one, but cannot be begun until we first realize the need for such effort today and cease to live in denial of the terrible crisis that threatens to rob our faith of its very soul and reduce it to perpetual irrelevance.