The Muslim World in a Bind – Whither the Ummah?

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Khalid Saleem[1]

“Verily in the sight of Allah, the most honoured amongst you is the one who is most God-fearing. There is no superiority for an Arab over a non-Arab and for a non-Arab over an Arab, nor for the white over the black, nor for the black over the white, except in God-consciousness”

“O people, every Muslim is the brother of another Muslim, and all Muslims constitute one brotherhood.”

(From the last sermon of Prophet Mohammad-pbuh- at Arafat)

The Muslim world is living through a perilous era – an era of tribulations and crises. These are trying times, not just for Islamic countries but also for the Muslim community or the ummah. Far from waking up to the gravity of the situation, most Islamic countries seem to be engrossed in local and regional issues, most of which are no longer relevant. The inescapable impression one gathers is   that at this critical juncture of their history, Muslims are oblivious of, or even indifferent to, the unwarranted slander that has been unleashed against Islam and the ummah. Their detractors have occupied the moral high ground though they have hardly ever distinguished themselves as the champions of just causes.

The Islamic worldview, central to which is peace and tolerance, seems to have been deliberately ignored. In the process, the doctrinal emphasis of the Quran proscribing aggression as anathema to its teachings is also obscured. This emphasis finds expression in  several Quranic passages, notably, verse 190 of the chapter titled Al Baqarah, which states: “And fight in God’s cause against those who wage war against you, but do not commit aggression – for, verily, God does not love aggressors.” Thus in common with other “religions of the book,” it is concord, not conflict, that Islam upholds so that a just and equitable international order can be established. The evidence of history, through the centuries, is that whenever Muslims have been obliged to take up arms, it has invariably been for self-defence and not for territorial expansion or for extra-regional power projection.

History has dealt the Muslim world a terrible hand. From the thirteenth century onward, the defining moments in the world of Islam have been the Mongol invasions and the imperialist intrusion into their lands by the West i.e., the advent of colonialism. The western approach to the Muslim world has changed little since then. Given what passed for normal times over the past few decades, the leadership of the Muslim states has been engrossed in the continuation of the puerile games, in which they and their elders have been indulging in for centuries. This has been the bane of the ummah.

Today, the Islamic world encounters formidable challenges – challenges that present it with stark choices. Ironically, Muslims appear to have brought these perils upon themselves. Far from being a unified monolith, the Muslim world has been a house divided against itself. This was particularly evident in the second half of the twentieth century. For instance, it is estimated that around 100,000 people died in the five Arab-Israeli conflicts in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1982 but statistics show that there were ten times as many casualties in inter-Arab rivalry conflicts during the near fifty years that the Cold War lasted. If anything, during this period, far from posing any threat, Muslim states were guilty of over-indulgence in their dealings with the industrialized West.

Even a cursory look at the international economic scene of the past few decades would indicate a net transfer of resources from Muslim states to the developed countries of the West. Why, then, should the Muslim world be in the dire straits that it finds itself in today?

Where, then, lies the flaw? The fault lies not in the stars, but within the ummah itself. What the Muslim world badly needs to do is to cultivate the habit of having a good hard look at itself now and then. Regrettably, the Muslim states have nurtured the somewhat unsavory habit of blaming others for their own failings. It is time that they shed this futile disposition by adopting the edifying practice of introspection.

A starting point in this introspection can be a determined effort to rectify the appalling state of education. In this age of information the importance of knowledge can hardly be over emphasized. The revelation of the Quran began with the exhortation to “read in the name of Allah”; Who had taught man through the pen – taught him what he knew not. Despite the inspiring example of early Muslims in the fields of education and research, Muslims of today have lagged far behind in the acquisition of knowledge. The statistics are startling. For instance there are only 500 universities among 57 Muslim countries comprising a population of 1.5 billion, while the US has 5,758 and India 8,407. Muslim majority countries have a mere 230 scientists per one million compared to 5,000 in the US. University enrolment stands at a paltry 2 percent of the population in Muslim countries compared to 40 percent in Christian nations.  A survey carried out by the United Nations Development Programme in July 2002 found that “in the 1000 years since Caliph Mamoun…the Arabs have translated as many books as Spain translates in a single year.”

There is no dearth of wealth in the Islamic world but how many prosperous Muslim states can in all honesty claim that they have contributed their due share towards the prosperity and stability of their co-religionists in less affluent Islamic countries?   Many among them may even discover that they have, in reality, shortchanged the very entity that they have so often pledged to preserve and to protect. Here a clarification may be necessary. It is not at all intended to apportion blame or to point an accusing finger at any one state. To be fair, the blame falls squarely on one and all.

It is time for the Muslim world to reflect. They need to ask themselves whether they have done their bit to promote Islamic unity. Has sufficient heed been paid to the words uttered by the Holy Prophet that all Muslims are equal, irrespective of colour or ethnic origin, and that all Muslims constitute but one single brotherhood? Had this been done, perhaps the Muslim world would not have been in the bind that it finds itself today.

This is not a call to grasp an idealistic dream, because in the world of today realism is the name of the game. It is imperative, therefore, for the Muslim world to set out for itself some achievable goals and, thenceforth, to focus all energies to fulfill these. In talking of the “unity” of the ummah, it is not implied that all differences among Muslim states must disappear overnight. This would hardly be realistic and would, in effect, verge on wishful thinking. Healthy competition among the various Muslim communities and a reasonable measure of give and take is all one aims for. At the same time, it is imperative to ensure that internal differences are not of such a nature and magnitude as to destabilize the Islamic world which straddles the major global chokepoints and sea lanes and stretches in an unbroken swathe of geography from Morocco in the west through Pakistan and Bangladesh, to Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia in the far east.

A vicious propaganda blitz has been launched against Islam. Muslims worldwide are stigmatized as “extremists” and “terrorists,” without even the formality of indictment, trial or proof. The omnibus phrase “Islamic extremism” has been expressly coined to suit vested interests. These vested interests have predetermined that Islam is the “enemy” that needs to be subdued by any means, fair or foul. Responsibility for any and every act of “terrorism” is conveniently laid at the door of “Islamic extremists.”

Closer to the truth is that terrorism has no religion and Islam cannot be blamed for such violence. Professor Robert Pape of the Chicago University in his book, Dying to Kill: The Strategic Logic of Terrorism, has observed that there was no connection between Islam and suicide bombings in more than 462 such incidents between 1980 and 2003. Similarly, The Times of India, carried an article on 4 April 2008 in which the author, an Indian Muslim, argued that of the 2598 terrorist-related deaths in India in 2007 only 777 or less than one-third were caused by Muslim organizations. The remaining civilians were killed by non-Muslim outfits. Of these, left wing extremist groups caused 650 deaths, the ULFA of Assam 437, and the PLA of Manipur 408. In Sri Lanka the same year 4373 persons died as a result of LTTE violence while in the first four months of 2006, 237 were killed by Maoists in Nepal.

At the same time, no consideration is given at all to the glaring circumstantial evidence that the vast majority of the victims of terrorism over the past several years have been Muslims. For instance, in Pakistan alone, more than 4000 civilians were killed by terrorist violence in 2007.  Yet another glossed over truth is that Muslims have been in the forefront in the fight against global terror. The concept of “jihad” in Islam has also been twisted and distorted by vested interests in order to give it an unsavory connotation.

And what, it may be asked, have the Muslim states done to stand up to such calumnies? The irony is that they fight amongst themselves over trivial issues that are the creations of none other than the enemies of Islam and Muslims! The 9/11 outrage drew justifiable condemnation from all right-thinking people, irrespective of religious affiliation. Yet some responsible world leaders, who should have known better, took it upon themselves to give an uncalled for religious connotation to the whole affair. One cannot but recall with anguish the statement of the then British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, on television shortly after the “nine/eleven” episode to the effect that “We shall not allow Islamic extremists to destroy Christian and Jewish civilizations.” If ever there was a glaring instance of jumping to unwarranted conclusions, this was one!

The Muslim world needs must wake up from its slumber and put its act together. In particular, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), an organization that bears special responsibility, has a lot to answer for. The creation of the OIC did initially raise the hopes of the ummah but these were soon to be dashed. The Organization has singularly failed to address the issues facing the Muslim world. With a membership of 57 states, the OIC constitutes the biggest bloc after the United Nations. And yet for all the clout it exhibits, it may as well be non-existent. An Organization that was viewed by several Muslim states as a symbol of redemption has ended up more like a millstone around their collective neck. Barring honorable exceptions, the Secretaries General of the OIC singularly failed to carve a niche for themselves (and the Organization) in the comity of nations.

Some summers back, at the initiative of the then Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mahatir bin Mohammad, member states of the OIC agreed to work towards the restructuring of the Organization. A council of ‘eminent persons’ was constituted to look into this. Without meaning any disrespect for the eminent persons, it needs must be surmised that this initiative turned out to be something of a non-starter. The council went the way of all such committees. Its recommendations were more of a cosmetic nature rather than the drastic surgery that was called for. And even these somewhat inane proposals are nowhere near adoption so far. Meanwhile, the OIC remains in a state of suspended animation and is in urgent need of resuscitation.

To meet contemporary challenges the Muslim world has to look inward rather than without. This entails critical self-assessment in order to fathom the causes of its decline and then adopt remedial measures. It needs to be recognized that the ummah, like all other communities, consists of all sorts: the rich and the poor; the powerful and the weak; the righteous and the self-indulgent. This is but the law of nature. It devolves upon Muslims to not only make due allowances for these dissimilarities but also to use their resources and collective power of persuasion to right the wrongs where they exist within their ranks. It is only through such dispassionate appraisal will they be able to preempt outsiders from blatantly interfering in what are, after all, the internal affairs of the Muslim community.

The Muslim world finds itself today at a critical crossroad where the options are limited. The deck is heavily stacked against it. The portents are ominous. There is a dry wind blowing throughout the land and the parched grasses wait for the spark. The blaze, if lit, will spread like wildfire and the entire Muslim world will be engulfed. It is for the Muslims to read the signs and take the urgently required preemptive and remedial measures. Failure to do so would deal a crippling, if not permanent, body blow to the Muslim ummah. Another opportunity may not be available in the coming years.

[1] Khalid Saleem is a former ambassador of Pakistan and former Assistant Secretary General of  the OIC.