Sunday, September 18, 2005

interview with m j akbar

Q: How can the OIC make itself relevant against the backdrop of what is happening in the Muslim world today?
A: The very fact that you should ask this question indicates the seriousness of the problems. There are, broadly, three major problems. First is the demonization and the misrepresentation of Islam and Muslims that is going on. It is being conducted like a choir through the media, and it must be answered — not by harangue or screaming but by rational statements and facts. It must be patiently explained until the perpetrators see the mischief for what it is. If Muslims are denigrated with what seems to be an increasingly common voice, then they must answer with a common voice.
The second problem is the political, social and economic apathy that is afflicting so much of the Muslim world. There is no common answer to this problem. Each Muslim country must find answers that emerge from its stage of development. The third problem is to understand why so many young Muslims are being tempted to acts of individual violence and terrorism. How much of it is because of wars of occupation that have been thrust upon them? How much of it is because Muslim establishments and elites have not voiced the anger that is so palpable on the Muslim street? And how much of it is because of unacceptable provocation by the likes of the Osama Bin Ladens who are consumed by an individual commitment to violence?
Before we are honest about others, we have to be honest about ourselves. The OIC must find that much-needed common voice and it must be one which is reasonable and factual. I will make some specific suggestions that can be used in debate, whether on television or across a table, because I believe that we can and must win the argument at every level since we coexist with the rest of the world. My point is: The alternative voice is not a hostile voice. The dialectic, framed largely by American neocons, has been established around a set of maxims with which anyone invited to a seminar or a TV show will be familiar.
This is as good a moment as any to note that Huntington’s basket-thesis (throw everyone into the same basket in order to paint them in a single color) did not emerge as a consequence of 9/11. It was first published as an essay in “Foreign Affairs” in the spring of 1994 - seven years before 9/11. There was no war being fought against Americans then. The only war we knew then was the First Gulf War, in which every Muslim nation of any consequence lined up beside America in order to end Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait and did so because they wanted to end the injustices perpetrated by Saddam.
Let us examine the nodal points of this dialectic. Take a favorite subject of discussion and debate, some of it well-meaning: “Islam and the West.” I was invited to one such seminar in Germany in August. The subject is utter nonsense: Islam is a faith and the West is geography. How can you compare the two? You can have a discussion on the West and West Asia, or the West and South Asia or wherever. But the text has been framed in that manner because of the subtext, in which the West represents, implicitly, all that is progressive, rational, scientific, modern and Islam signifies everything that is backward, regressive, etc., etc. The subject has thus condemned Muslims even before the discussion begins.
Similarly, Islam and Democracy. Islam is 1,400 years old, democracy only came into its own in the 20th century. Does anyone blame Christianity for the dictatorships in non-Muslim Africa? Was Pinochet a Sunni or a Shia? China has never seen a single day of democracy since Adam and Eve — is it because of Confucius? Similarly, any violence perpetrated by Muslims is quickly labeled “Islamic” but no one talks of “Christians” massacring innocents in Bosnia or Chechnya, or the “Jewish” massacres in Shatila refugee camp. But this fits with the attempt to repaint Islam as an inherently violent religion, spread by the sword — as I have pointed out in my columns, if Islam had been spread by the sword, there would be no Christians in Spain today nor would Jews have flourished during 800 years of Muslim rule on the Iberian Peninsula.
Faith is easily trivialized. Every suicide mission is sneered at as a journey to the virgins of Paradise rather than seen for what if often (though not always) is: a cry of despair. You will hear, very often: Islam has had no Renaissance. But you need a renaissance only if you have been through the dark ages. When there were no schools in England and France, there were a hundred bookshops in Baghdad. When the Mongols put Baghdad to the sword, it was said that half the Tigris was red from the blood of citizens and the other half black from the ink of books. What intellectual treasures were destroyed in that madness? But to tell the truth, we Muslims are passing through something akin to a dark age, and we need, very quickly, some renaissance out of our present despair.
Q: Where should the OIC go from here?
A: It must first accurately assess where Muslims are. All Muslims don’t live in the 21st century. Many are still in the 19th and through no fault of their own, for they have been betrayed by their leaderships. Once we know where we are, we can chalk out and estimate the distance to the first horizon.
Q: Mahathir Mohamed used to tersely exclaim “Oh, I See,” while referring to the OIC. What steps should the OIC take in order to be taken seriously by the world at large and by Muslims in particular?
A: The OIC needs to use its influence to enforce an agenda. The reason why we are in an age of despair, in my view, is because we have lost the Knowledge Edge. When Frederick I (1123-1190) came on what was called the bloodless crusade, the Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt, presented him with an astronomical clock, which opened a gate of knowledge for Europe. By the 18th century, we could not compete against the cuckoo clock. Empires were preserved, and today nations are built on the basis of technology and the sciences, including the social sciences. Why can we in Muslim nations not have great universities with the finest libraries and the best teachers from around the world paid the best salaries? Why should young men and women have to go to England or America or France for a good education? It is not a question of resources. Many Muslim nations have more than enough money needed for a fine, genuinely first-rate university. The OIC needs to make a stand against the silly sectarianism that divides Muslims — we often behave as if the interpreters of law were more important than the faith! The Prophet (peace be upon him) gave us one Islam. Muslims then divided it into sects.
Q: What does the presence of a high-profile Indian Muslim scholar, writer and prominent editor at such a prestigious world conference in the holiest of Muslim places indicate?
A: I am grateful to King Abdullah for the honor he has bestowed by inviting me. I think this is an important gesture to the second-largest bloc of Muslims in the world, after doors were shut in 1974 at Rabat. I hope I can do justice to this honor by suggesting ideas for the common good. I believe that the Makkah discussion is an opportunity for rebirth and has the potential to become a historic milestone — and this has been possible only because of King Abdullah. I have read about him, most notably the piece written by Khaled (Almaeena); and it would be no exaggeration to say that the Muslim world has suddenly begun to feel excited about new possibilities. He has been offering political leadership — you will recall his peace proposal for Israel. I believe he realizes that as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques he has a larger domain than the Middle East, that the concerns of the Ummah have to be addressed during his leadership. The resurrection of the OIC fits into that emerging pattern.
Q: Where does India fit in?
A: The experience of Indian Muslims is very interesting, not least because they have become adept democrats and make effective use of the ballot box to redress their grievances. The answer to the evil riots in Gujarat lay not in counter violence, but in something far more powerful — the defeat of a government that had exonerated that violence.
Q: As the author of the celebrated book on jihad, “The Shade of Swords,” what steps do you think the OIC should take to stop extremists and deviants from hijacking the peaceful religion of Islam?
A: There is no short answer to this question, and newspapers always have a shortage of space. But one of the problems of Muslim intellectuals and interlocutors is that they are so often defensive about basic tenets of their faith. In other words, they have become victims of what Edward Said called “orientalism.” Jihad is a war against injustice. It is not a permanent state of war. The call for jihad has to be given by a responsible leader of a state; it cannot be given from the fringes. The Prophet never took up arms, even during years of oppression and tyranny in Makkah; it was only when he was persecuted and became responsible for the protection of believers as well as the first, and perhaps only truly Islamic state, that he took recourse to arms.
As I wrote in my book, every jihad is a war fought by Muslims, but every war fought by Muslims is not a jihad. There are specific rules for jihad, and among them is a rule that is stressed and repeated: that innocents such as women and children cannot be killed in a jihad. You cannot even destroy palm trees — in other words, no scorched-earth warfare. How do we stop deviants? The governments of Muslim states must look into their hearts and ask whether they have done enough to prevent injustice in states where war has been thrust upon Muslims. Why do Muslims dream of a Saladin? Precisely because they cannot see a leader who will stand up for them and their beliefs. Putting thousands in jail can only be a temporary answer. And yes, even that may be required. But that is not the complete answer.
Original Source: Arab News


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