Islam Under Siege

The world’s 1.3 billion Muslims are being squeezed between two equally strong forces. On the one hand are the forces of the West that want to modernize them, if need be through regime change. On the other hand are the forces of Osama bin Laden who want to de-Westernize them, if need be by wrapping their women in dark flowing robes. The pain is being shared equally by the two-thirds of the Muslim population that lives in Muslim countries, and who are often governed by tyrants that suppress all independent scholarship and dissent and the one-third that lives in non-Muslim countries, where even some of the longest standing democracies are rapidly regressing toward tyrannical control over their Muslim minorities.

Critics of Islam in the West have begun to argue that the Koran asks Muslims to follow it blindly and resort to fanaticism. Yet in the words of linguist and translator Thomas Cleary, “Islam does not demand unreasoned belief. Rather, it invites intelligent faith, growing from observation, reflection and contemplation, beginning with nature and what is all around us. Accordingly, antagonism between religion and science such as that familiar to Westerners is foreign to Islam.” It is a fact of history that Islamic civilization eventually nursed Europe out of the Dark Ages, laying the foundation for the Renaissance.

It is unfortunate that Islam, which means “submission to the will of God”, and whose followers greet each other with the expression, “Peace be on you”, stands accused in the West of fomenting violence due to the acts of a few extremists who are acting contrary to the teachings of their faith. A few months ago, I interviewed a learned Islamic theologian about these issues, Dr Khalid Siddiqi. He teaches Arabic and Islamic studies at several colleges in the San Francisco Bay area and directs the Islamic Education and Information Center. With degrees from Dar-ul-Uloom Nadwa in India, al-Azhar University in Cairo and a doctorate from the University of London, Dr Siddiqi is in a unique position to judge the compatibility of terrorism with Islamic precepts. He said, “Violence against innocent civilians had no place in the life of Prophet Mohammed, and it should have no place in the life of his followers today.”

There is perhaps no better writer to analyze and diagnose the Muslim predicament than Professor Akbar S Ahmed, who holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair in Islamic Studies at American University. Professor Ahmed is an anthropologist by training who began his career in the Pakistan civil service and subsequently switched to academe. He has taught at Cambridge, Princeton and Harvard, and is the author of many books, scholarly papers, and newspaper articles. More tellingly, he is also the producer of a BBC film series about Islam and a feature film about Pakistan’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. He is also a former high commissioner to Britain.

His latest book, Islam Under Siege, takes head on the challenges facing the Muslims in the aftermath of the events of September 11. The book deals with the plights of Muslims from the vantage point of reflexive sociology, and certain parts of it constitute an ambassador’s memoir.

The thesis of the book
One would be hard pressed to disagree with the core argument of the book, which is directed at Muslims. It consists of two parts. First, don’t blame the “Great Satan” for all your ills. Second, be inclusive and compassionate toward other human beings regardless of their faith, because that is what God has willed the believers to do. Many (but not all) of the problems facing the Muslim world are indeed self-inflicted, and blaming the West for all of them has set the Muslims back on the path to progress. Conspiracy theories dominate Muslim views of the West, which is believed to be plotting for the extermination of Islam while indulging in an orgy of sex and violence. It is too often the case that the lives of Muslims are cloaked with a fatalism based on a misunderstanding of God’s will.

Ahmed eloquently debunks many commonly held myths about Islam, some of which are held by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. For example, he points out that there is no room for killing even a single innocent civilian in Islam. Much of the conflict between the forces of moderation in Islam and those that are inclined to take extreme positions and carry out acts of violence against innocent people arises from the misinterpretation of the concept of jihad. Islam allows jihad in the form of armed struggle against oppressors. However, there are very specific conditions under which fighting in self-defense is allowed. One must be deprived of the right to live and to earn one’s livelihood. Individuals are not allowed to take on this fight, and jihad has to be carried out with the collective will of the Muslim community. Individual acts of vigilantism would create anarchy and are prohibited.

Ahmed’s interpretation is consistent with that put forth by the vast majority of Muslim scholars. For example, Siddiqi asserts that the Muslim community has to observe very strict limits when carrying out jihad. Thus, those fighting a jihad cannot harm women, children and unarmed civilians on the enemy side under any circumstances. Willful destruction of property is condemned. A Muslim is prohibited from even harming a tree that is green, because it is a common asset of humanity. The Koran states, in the 192nd verse of the second chapter, “But if they cease, God is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” And this command is reiterated in the following verse, “But if they cease, let there be no hostility except to those who practice oppression.”

The terrorists have reinforced a common misperception in the West that the Koran asks Muslims to kill Jews and Christians. In fact, the Koran addresses the believers among the Jews and Christians with great respect, calling them “the people of the book”. Former president Jimmy Carter, winner of a Nobel Peace prize, wrote about the common family ties among Jews, Christians and Muslims in The Blood of Abraham in 1985. It was this broad vision that brought about the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. In the Koran (46th verse of the 29th chapter), God says to the Muslims: “Do not argue with the followers of the earlier revelations otherwise than in a most kindly manner – unless it be such of them as are bent on evil-doing – and say: We believe in that which has been bestowed from on high upon us, as well as that which has bestowed upon you; for our God and your God is one and the same, and it is unto Him that we all surrender ourselves.”

It is a common misperception that friendship between Muslims and non-Muslims is prohibited in Islam. That is also incorrect because the Koran (7th verse of the 60th chapter) even encourages making friends with one’s enemies, “It may be that God will grant love [and friendship] between you and those you [now] hold as enemies. For God has power [over all things], and He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” It goes one step further and says, in the next verse, “God does not forbid you, with regard to those who do not fight for [your] faith nor drive you from your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them: for God loves those who are just.”

Ahmed’s methodology is derived from the concept of group solidarity (or asabiyya in Arabic) first propounded by Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), regarded by many as the father of modern social science. Group solidarity serves a constructive purpose when it gives individuals a sense of identity and belonging to society. However, exaggerated feelings of tribal and religious loyalties can lead to a pathological case that the author terms hyper-group solidarity.

The collapse of group solidarity also brings with it the collapse of justice, compassion and balance in society. These concepts hold a society together and their absence creates conflict and violence in society, leading to chaos and confusion.

The author cites the Taliban, who were originally religious students confined to an Islamic seminary in Kandahar, Afghanistan as an example of a tribal society with social cohesion. Once the Taliban took over the regime in Kabul, their lack of training in political and civil administration, coupled with their exclusivist political identity that prevented them from assimilating non-Taliban ideas, ensured their failure. Their puritanical variant of Islam, which had been their strength in Kandahar, now became their weakness. They resorted to placing restrictions on women and destroying ancient Buddhist statues and when the US demanded they give up their special guest, Osama bin Laden, they failed to do so, because that would have compromised their tribal sense of honor.

The author is quick to point out that hyper-group solidarity, as exhibited by the Taliban and the clerics in Iran, is not confined to Muslim societies. He mentions the Serb militias in Bosnia and the Hindu mobs that killed thousands of Muslims in Gujarat as examples of people who have succumbed to the same social disease.

He also mentions that the freedom of speech and religion in the US prior to September 11 had created an atmosphere that could be compared to that of Muslim Spain (Andalus) when Christians, Jews and Muslims lived side by side in peace. However, everything changed after the terror attacks, as the US came in the grip of hyper-group solidarity. Muslims could be arrested anywhere and held without charges indefinitely, merely for being Muslims. Many who were arrested had their beards shaven forcefully.

Is the book hard on Muslims and soft on the West?
This question arises because depending on how one reads certain sections of the book, it comes across as being hard on Muslims and soft on the West. For example, there are instances when the book seems to equate Muslims generally with the bin Laden ideology, and holds them collectively responsible for his alleged actions. While discussing president Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, the book suggests that Muslims interpreted the president’s actions as being those of a dishonorable man, and took that to mean that all Americans were dishonorable. The book says, “Muslim reading of Clinton had much to do with their planning for September [11], bin Laden misread Bush on the basis of Clinton’s behavior.”

Second, the book is silent on the harm that has been inflicted on the Muslim world by the West over the past two centuries. It does not analyze why the grievances of bin Laden and his cohorts have acquired much legitimacy in the Muslim world. In its 12 pages of references, there is no mention of the Project for the New American Century. By now it is common knowledge that the neo-conservatives in Washington have a very definite plan to remake the Muslim world in their image. As they carry through on this agenda, they make it easier for bin Laden to recruit young Muslims to his cause. This point has been made by a variety of non-Muslim writers, including Gore Vidal, Noam Chomsky and Norman Mailer in the US and many others in Europe and Latin America. Both parties are fighting a “war of self-defense”, using whatever weapons are at their disposal. For the fighters of al-Qaeda, terrorism represents a form of guerilla warfare, which helps them overcome the asymmetrical balance of military power between themselves and the West. It may not have religious legitimacy in the opinion of the vast majority of Islamic scholars, but they are undeterred because they have chosen to interpret the Islamic scriptures differently.

Third, the book may suggest to some readers that the Muslims are at the center of political violence. A review of the past century will reveal that millions were killed in political violence and wars that did not originate with either the Muslims or their religion. The primary examples being of course the two world wars, followed by the internal wars carried out in the name of communism by Josef Stalin in the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong in the People’s Republic of China. The Korean War killed hundreds of thousands, the Vietnam War killed a million, the civil war in Kampuchea (now Cambodia) killed almost 2 million and another million were killed by the Soviet-Afghan war. In none of these wars were Muslims perpetrators of political violence. If anything, Muslims have often been the victims of political violence. As the book shows, large scale and systematic rape against Muslim women has been the hallmark of the past two decades, first in Bosnia and then in Gujarat.

Fourth, the book seems to attribute the backwardness, illiteracy and misogynistic nature of society so prevalent in Muslim countries to the religion of the people who live there. Vast numbers of Muslims come across as simpletons who are gullible followers of the Egyptian activist Sayyid Qutb in the 1950s and 1960s and bin Laden in the 1990s. However, a review of the data published by the World Bank in its World Development Report and the United Nations Development Program in its Human Development Report reveals that the same problems bedevil much of the Third World. Muslim countries do not have a monopoly on backwardness. As others have shown, the problems faced by developing countries around the globe are caused by a miasmic interaction of culture, ethnicity, politics and economics, set against the backdrop of centuries of imperial conquest and colonialism by the West.

As the author notes, the horrifying case in which a young boy was sodomized for walking alongside a young woman in Mianwali (Pakistan) and the girl gang-raped had nothing to do with the religion of Islam and more to do with a perceived violation of group honor by the elders of the tribe, ie, it was an act of hyper-group solidarity.

Fifth, the book offers an incomplete analysis of terrorism. It seems to suggest that terrorism is caused by the existence of vast numbers of unemployed youth in the Muslim world, who are easily swayed by figures like bin Laden. This explanation overlooks the social and political grievances that are possibly the major drivers for terrorism. It was the Gulf War that spawned al-Qaeda. Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza causes Palestinians to resort to suicide bombings. Beijing’s repression of its Uyghur minorities in Xinjiang and Moscow’s brutal suppression of Chechens leads the survivors to commit acts of terrorism, just as New Delhi’s failure to accommodate the aspirations of Kashmiris leads them to carry out terrorist acts. Nor is terrorism a recent phenomenon. Throughout history, oppression has led to what is called terrorism now and was called fighting for freedom in days past. Such was the case when black Africans were fighting the apartheid regime in South Africa, and when the American colonies were fighting imperial Britain.

The proposed solution
After reviewing the driving forces that have placed the Muslims and the West in conflict with each other, the author proffers a solution in the last chapter called the Global Paradigm. He argues that a just, compassionate and peaceful global order would be created if both parties would become inclusive in their thinking, and engage in a dialogue of civilizations.

While agreeing with the noble premises of this solution, it is difficult to be optimistic that an early solution will be found to ease either the Muslim or Western predicaments. As the author notes, the Bush administration has embarked on a war that has no boundaries or time horizons. It is seething with as much anger and rage as its adversaries, and it is difficult to see any end in sight to this conflict that threatens to kill and maim Muslims in large numbers, in addition to curbing their civil rights in many countries. Viewed against the backdrop of the recent wars that the US had waged against Afghanistan and Iraq, and its plans to create a thousand military bases in 99 countries, a call for a dialogue among civilizations seems awfully Utopian.

The book proposes that ultimately the Muslim world has to embrace democracy, and that is undoubtedly true. However, just as true is the fact that any form of government that is imposed externally in the Muslim world will reduce the new leaders to Western puppets, and undercut their credibility. Unfortunately, the West has a long tradition of installing puppet governments, under the guise of establishing democracy. US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s comment that the liberated people of Iraq can elect any type of government as long as it is not an Islamic theocracy is an ominous development. Similarly, the West’s objections to the Islamic laws being promulgated by the democratically elected government in North West Frontier Province in Pakistan does not serve the cause of democracy. There is a long list of Muslim grievances that can be cited, including Algeria’s decision to ban the Islamic FIS party just as it was about to win the elections in 1992, the banning of the Muslim Welfare party in Turkey and the Central Intelligence Agency coup that overthrew the Mossadeq government in Iran in 1953. In fact, the West has a long track record of supporting military dictatorships during the past half century throughout the globe, including those in Chile, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines and South Vietnam.

Thus, if there is going to an inclusive dialogue between Muslims and the West, it has to be carried out by both sides. Lack of trust between the two sides remains a major impediment to the beginning of such a dialogue. A dialogue has been initiated by inter-faith groups on all sides. However, these groups often do not represent the center of gravity of the people who they represent, so that even total cohesion of viewpoints in the inter-faith dialogue may not carry over to the much-needed dialogue between civilizations.

It is also important to recognize – and the author acknowledges this – that there is no monolithic entity called the West or the Muslim world. There is a lot of diversity in both. The Iraq war showed strong opposition in the West to the actions of the US government. There are many in the Muslim world who are opposed to the views articulated by bin Laden, and many in Pakistan are opposed to the Talibanization of parts of the country. It is this diversity in views within both worlds that gives hope that Samuel Huntington’s apocalyptic clash of civilizations can be avoided.

In closing, Ahmed has penned a must-read book. Part memoir and part exposition in social science, it should be required reading for scholars, policy makers and opinion leaders in both the Muslim world and the West.