Tuesday, December 18, 2007


The letter I wrote to the editor of the Statesman

But first the original article and then my letter

Ignorance the worst enemy

Muslim majority countries suffer from severe economic sclerosis because, most scholars believe, they pay little attention to educational and scientific development, writes HARUN UR RASHIDWithin the Islamic world of about 1.4 billion people, disparity between rich and poor is stark. The leaders of the Islamic community have not been able to rescue many of them from oppression and humiliation.About the Islamic community, former Prime Minister of Malaysia Dr Mahathir Mohammad at the OIC summit in KL in 2003 said: “Some believe that poverty is Islamic, sufferings and being oppressed are Islamic. Some preach that the world is not for us. Ours are the joys of heaven in the afterlife. All we have to do is to perform certain rituals, wear certain garments and put up certain appearance.”President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan at a seminar in 2002 expressed critical comments on Islamic community. He stated that the Islamic world was: “The poorest, the most illiterate, the most backward, the most unenlightened, the most deprived and the weakest of all the human race.”Whether these statements of Muslim leaders are correct or not, it provides food for thought for the Islamic world.We live in a war-torn world. We live in an unequal world. We live in a world where 15% per cent of world’s population of rich non-Muslim countries hold 80% per cent of the world’s wealth. Non-Muslim G-8 countries have 60% of the world’s Gross Domestic Product. The aforesaid rich countries are becoming richer day by day. Why do they become rich? Does the Islamic world seriously think about the causes of its current plight?Although the Muslim world may control 60% of the world’s known oil reserves, its gross GDP stands at $1,200 billion, a paltry sum compared with Germany’s $2,700 billion and Japan’s $5,600 billion Muslim majority countries suffer from severe economic sclerosis because, most scholars believe, they pay little attention to educational and scientific development. For example, it is reported that Greece, a backwater country of Europe, publishes more books annually than the entire Arab world. What does it signify? It demonstrates that education and pursuit of scientific knowledge is at the bottom in the Islamic world. How many Muslims get Nobel prizes in medicine, physics, or chemistry? What the Islamic world needs is the self-assessment as to why this pitiable situation has developed. It seems that whenever serious critical self-examination is done by some Muslim authors, they are not welcome in their own Muslim-majority countries. As Socrates said: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Alexander Pope in Essays on Man wrote: “The study of mankind is man.” All these sayings tell us one thing, that is, self-examination. Regrettably, envy and self-denial tend to stand in the way of self-examination. We tend to blame others for the situation. We should take a look in the mirror rather than blame others. Some observers say there is an Islamic code of silence among most of the Islamic scholars. The early history of Islam is so evocative that that Muslims have felt compelled to take strong political and moral positions on the side of this or that party to the conflict, plagued in the early days of Islam.History has it that the Battle of Camel (656 AD) was fought between two Muslim forces where about 5,000 Muslims were killed during the battle. Many Islamic historians hold the view that the Battle of Camel was a flagrant violation of the fundamental Islamic tenet because Muslims fought against Muslims.There is a view that in early Islamic history, four divisions in the Islamic ummah appeared. These were Shi’ia, the Khawarij, or seceders who regarded any authority in the ummah other than their own to be illegitimate, the Mutazilah who isolated themselves from political life altogether and Murji’ah, who withheld judgment regarding the ultimate fate of all parties to the conflict that led to the assassination, leaving it to Allah to judge on the day of final reckoning.The purpose of indicating the divisions within the Islamic ummah is to highlight the difficulties faced by Muslims in consolidating the spirit of brotherhood.Ideas and beliefs change over time and they are made of a variety of strands of thought and multiple interpretations. Therefore, the solution to the ills of Islamic society cannot be the same. As they say, one size does not fit all. The Muslim world is severely fractured along ethnic lines ~ all having very different views on Islam and the world. Muslims include a variety of individuals, extending from China to the US, from the oil-wealthy Middle East to Africa. It demonstrates that Islamic ideology is not uniform or rigid. A modern state is an entity of multi-religious, multi-ethnic, and multi-linguistic people, and religion has been separated from the governance of state in western democratic process under the Treaty of Westphalia. Some say that the industrial revolution took place in Europe because of unfettered intellectual inquiry and empiricism that was promoted.Currently, even the sovereignty of a state has been diminished by economic globalisation. World history at the 21st century is at a turning point: one era is closing down and another is opening up. The two great developments of modern time ~ growing demand for popular political participation and the Islamic resurgence ~ have come together, creating new realities that affect Islamic ummah and participatory democracy.A major issue in democratisation of Islamic communities is whether or not Islamic scholars and leaders have successfully made the transition from listing “democratic doctrines of Islam” to creating coherent structures of Islamic democracy, that are not simply reformulations of western concept of democracy. Indonesia, Malaysia, and Turkey are examples where democracy and Islam co-exist.Across the Muslim world, governments and Islamic community grapple with issues of democratisation and equality of rights between men and women. Despite commonalities of religion, differing national contexts and identities give rise to a broad spectrum of political systems, reflecting the multi-faceted relationship of Islam to the state.If the current predicament of the Islamic ummah is to be lifted, there is a view that the ummah cannot ignore these developments in the political process and the Islamic doctrines have to be interpreted in the light of time-place.It is argued that Muslim majority states must be built upon representation and political participation and the challenge is one of power-sharing and inclusiveness, creating conditions that will allow political pluralism. Another matter that is relevant in the contemporary world is the rise of militant Islam. Pseudo-Islamic extremism and violence have distorted and warped the image of Islam. The extremist have hijacked Islam to meet their narrow ends.The pseudo-Islamic extremists argue that the solution for advancement of Islam lies in going back to “the basics of Islam” ~ as interpreted by them. The writings of controversial Islamist, Syed Qutb, an Egyptian, hanged by the Nasser regime in 1966, have influenced many of the contemporary radical militants. The extremists found followers amongst the young urban poor who are unemployed and suffer from deprivations. Another probable reason of militancy is arguably the deficit of democracy, that is, lack of participation of people in running the governments in the Middle East, and the alternative strategy returning “back to the basics” of Islam has been packaged in an uncomplicated manner that has gained popularity and influence among youth and ideologues.What is often overlooked is that the Islamic world is in an uncertain position in the 21st century. There are at least two groups ~ supporters of orthodox interpretation of Islam and supporters of moderate and tolerant version of Islam. The strength of the debate between the two is likely to determine the future of Islam.Some suggest that moderate Muslim majority states may spread the view of peaceful and tolerant Islam in democratic society as against the version of orthodox Islam that is hell-bent on establishing a kind of regime in the name of Islam that goes against the root of Islam.The Islamic world has enough resources and must rise from the slumber and show that Islam can be a boon to humanity.nThe Daily Star/ANN(The author, a Barrister, is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva)

The Editor
The Statesman


Harun Ur Rashid in his writeup ‘Ignorance the worst enemy’ in yesterday’s Statesman has raised a pertinent question: ‘how many Muslims get Nobel prizes in medicine, physics or chemistry?’ It bears recall that the only Pakistani ever to have received the Nobel Prize was declared a heretic, a non-Muslim and hounded out of his country as he belonged to the Ahmaddiya sect. It is indeed an irony that in oil rich Saudi Arabia, which incidentally is a firm ally of USA, even today a woman victim of gang rape is sentenced to two hundred lashes while a thousand times more liberal and progressive Iraq under Saddam is pulverized to smithereens by Uncle Sam. Every religion has a well-entrenched concept of Utopia: the justest, the most honest, the most honourable and the most pious society on Earth. For the Christians it is the early congregation in Rome during the rule of Caesar Nero, for the Muslims it is the society prevalent in Mecca during the longevity of the Prophet and for the Hindus it is obviously the Ram-Rajya. It is no wonder that the supporters of orthodox interpretation of Islam wish to harp back to the long bygone era that has been etched so fervently on their souls.

Thanking you 19th December 2007


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