AP
cover story
Crescendo Of Rage
Violence in the Muslim world is as much a creed of social churning as it is of religious inspiration
COMMENTS PRINT
OPINION
Militants are always the rabble-rousers. This, however, doesn't mean they have the support of the majority, or that they are more powerful.
Bernard Wasserstein
Prof Edward Said talks to Rahul Sagar about the US role in West Asia and the burden a history of suffering places on the Palestinians.
Rakesh Kalshian

Is The Quran An Open Book?

Does the Quran justify violence?
Yes, when there is  persecution.

Has persecution  been defined?
Yes, when...freedom of religion is denied; or when people are oppressed; or their land is invaded

Is democracy  un-Islamic?
No, the concept of shoora or consultation in the Quran justifies democracy.

Do women enjoy  less rights than  men in Islam?
Yes, but largely because Islamic laws have been narrowly interpreted.

Is the Quran immutable?
All holy books are. Its interpretation isn't.

Is Islam irrational?
No, the word ilm, or knowledge, is the  second-most used  word in the Quran.


A few days from now, it will be a month since kamikaze pilots crashed hijacked planes into the wtc towers and the Pentagon. And since a deft combination of images and commentary subtly informed global TV audiences about a bristling, backward, atavistic Islam seeking to destroy the peaceful, modern, democratic West. This perception was bolstered via US President George W. Bush's description of the audacious attack as a battle between good and evil, inadvertently evoking images of a 21st century version of the bloody wars between Islam and Christianity the medieval world was witness to.

Suddenly, TV anchors and analysts were waxing eloquent on the imminent "clash of civilisations", a phrase Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington had coined in 1993. And though Bush wised up quickly enough to dispel this notion, the crisis post-September 11 has continued to be popularly perceived as a face-off between an implacable, militant Islam against a pacifist, liberal Western world.

Criticism of this simplistic theory is valid enough. But beyond that, there is no denying the crisis in the Muslim world, the spectre of sundry militant groups invoking the Quran to wage jehad against the 'enemies'—which are as many in number—Muslim governments, the West, especially the US, intellectuals, artists, feminists.... Indeed, from Indonesia to West Asia to Africa, the Crescent seems increasingly bloodied by the zeal of the devout.

The Islamists' invocation of the Quran for their politics has led some to claim that violence has an ideological justification in Islam. Others, though, point to innumberable verses extolling peace and compassion. It's true that Islam doesn't completely preclude violence. For instance, the chapter Al-Baqarah says: "And slay them wherever necessary, and drive them out of the places from where they drove you out, for persecution is worse than killing." Says Muqtedar Khan, director of International Studies, Adrian College, Michigan: "The theory of jehad forbids violence except when Muslims are not allowed to practice their faith, or when people are oppressed and subjugated, or when people's land is forcibly taken."

But violence isn't duty in such circumstances. For, in Chapter 8, the Quran also says: "Tell those who disbelieve that if they cease persecution of believers, that which is past will be forgiven them." Al-Baqarah, too, says: "And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is for Allah. But if they desist, then let there be no hostility except against wrong-doers." In other words, the Quran not only prohibits violent struggle at the cessation of persecution, but makes it incumbent upon the devout to forget past wrongs.

Pakistan: A hijab-wearing lady at a McDonald's outlet in Karachi : between binaries

The first kind of verse does indeed leave the pacifist aghast. Khan, however, asks: "Are peace and non-violence to be valued to such an extent that the fear of violence and instability in the process of change compel us to indefinitely defer change? I wonder how many would challenge my contention that justice, equality and freedom are values more valuable than peace?" Definitely not Bush, who has invoked precisely these principles to rally together countries against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.

The philosophy of violence is nothing unique to Islamic culture. But as Dr Nasrin Murad of the University of uae says: "Nobody talks about Catholic or Protestant terrorism in Northern Ireland; nobody talks about Jewish terrorism in Palestine.... What about Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Malcolm X who opposed the American foreign policy violently?" Vijay Prashad, director of the International Studies Program at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, thinks the media is partly responsible for representing Islam as militant.

He argues rhetorically: "When Timothy McVeigh was arrested for the 1995 Oklahoma bombing, no one talked about Christianity being in crisis. And when several large corporations (Boeing, airlines) fired over a lakh of workers post September 11, nobody talked about capitalism against civilisation, or profits against people."

But the Quranic justification of violence under certain circumstances apart, what is it with the Muslim world that makes it feel that their people are being persecuted? And do they necessarily have to resort to violence to usher in change?

The one important reason why disaffected groups take to arms is the near absence of democracy in the Muslim world. With violent suppression of dissent, it isn't surprising to find mosques becoming the beehive of fervent political action. Opposition is articulated through religious idiom, and religious figures embody the rebel. In such societies, non-violent protests don't stand a chance; violent political action, though often futile, provides the perpetrators a sense of ersatz power. Militant Islam, call it that if you will, is a pathology of undemocratic, corrupt and oppressive societies.

Much of this opposition, at least till the '70s, was essentially a quest for answers to the decay in many Muslim states, the growing impoverishment and inability of governments to alleviate the plight of a people alienated further by urbanisation. In the circumstances, the mosque—and the organisations that mushroomed therein—yielded both succour and a vent to the disenchantment.

The mosque-based politics, as expected, accorded centrality to religion, erroneously believing that a return to 'true' Islam would be the solution to their problems. As Yoginder Sikand of London University points out: "Decline from the so-called Golden Age is traced to Muslims having abandoned the path of true Islam. Now this simple, indeed simplistic, logic is a compelling one for many looking for simple solutions to the complex problem of the contemporary world." But once when their protests were crushed—for instance, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt—these disenfranchised groups adopted a more virulent form of politics.

Abetting this decay in Muslim societies was the undoubted legacy of colonial and post-colonial policies of the US and the European powers. Says Nazif Shahrani, director, Middle Eastern Studies Program, Indiana University: "They have supported unrepresentative and exploitative national regimes in Muslim countries, where the elite were offered a western secular education devoid of any knowledge of Islam, while the underclasses got parochial old madrassa education often innocent of modern knowledge systems. The decaying society was bifurcated into the rabid secular modernist/ communists and the even more rabid 'traditionalist' ignorant mullahs. They are incapable of talking to each other."

That ire became manifest against the West, particularly the US, given its sustained support to authoritarian regimes. Way back in 1956, a cia coup replaced the democratic government of Mohd Mossadegh in Iran with the Pehlavi dynasty, all because the former was believed to be favourably inclined towards nationalising the oil industry. Again, in Turkey, the Islamic Refah (Welfare) Party was banned in 1998, to deny it the chance to repeat its spectacular performance in the 1995 elections. In Algeria, the Islamic Salvation Front was proscribed in 1992 after it swept the first round of elections, sucking the country into a horrific vortex of violence.

Ironically, all these countries have secular regimes—as do Egypt, Libya, Iraq—and look askance at attempts of Islamists to capture the levers of power through election. This exacerbates existing tensions in the society. We in India can only imagine the consequences of such an anti-democratic scenario should the Congress and the Third Front come together and ban the bjp from electoral politics.

Not only the anti-Islamist secular regimes that they support, the West is equally blase about supporting blatantly authoritarian-orthodox regimes. For instance, the West backs Saudi Arabia, where the repressive government rules in accordance with the Sharia. It has also been responsible for financing and supporting the Wahabi movement, an ultra-orthodox version of Islam.

Washington's policy of backing authoritarian regimes has been largely guided by its "addiction to oil". A change in status quo could destablilise the region and adversely affect its interests. No wonder the Muslim masses also blame the US for their lack of freedom and disempowerment. Says Khan: "Add to this the death of over a million Iraqi children through US-sponsored sanctions, and the daily atrocities, assassinations and dispossession of the Palestinians by a US armed and funded Israeli army, and it is not difficult to imagine why the US is not seen as a beacon of freedom and virtue in the Muslim world." Adds historian Mushirul Hasan: "I think Bosnia persuaded the Muslims to believe that there is no justice in the current world order. There was a pogrom against Bosnian Muslims, but the West didn't intervene for years."

Politics apart, the clash of civilisations assumes a fundamental, even irreconcilable, difference between Islamic tenets and the values the West subscribes to—forgetting that such binaries totalise all of the Muslim world, ignoring its internal variations, the Sunni, Shia and other sects, the Sufi stream, and the regional/cultural/political specifics. Two principal aspects of the Muslim world are specially pointed out. First, that Islam and democracy sit uncomfortably, and are consequently antithetical to individualism. Two, Islam is particularly harsh on women. That democracy, individualism and women's rights are the three defining features of the West, something Islam will always deny.

Critics say the real motive of the argument that Islam and democracy are incompatible is political. It serves as an alibi for the West's complicity with the worst of Islamic tyrannies (on the grounds that the West must respect their "cultural specificity") and also justifies the suppression of their radical movements in the name of democracy. Thus, if there has to be dictatorship, at least let it be pro-West.

But there is nothing to show Islamic doctrines are inherently opposed to democracy. The Quran specifically states: "And those who respond to the call of their Lord, and are constant in their prayer, and whose rule is in consultation among themselves, and who spend on common needs out of what We provide for them." Those who believe Islam endorses democracy argue that true consultation is possible only by eliciting the popular will through universal franchise. Ironically, the apologists of authoritarian regimes too invoke this verse, interpreting 'consultation' to mean a meeting of tribal heads. Yet democracy has flourished in Indonesia and Malaysia; Bangladesh had an election last week. As for the Quran, it can be invoked to justify or negate modern concepts of democracy and nation-state.

Nor is Islam specifically opposed to individual freedom. It, for one, doesn't recognise the priestly class and the individual is expected to exercise ijtihad, or interpret the Quran, to follow what s/he thinks is the true path. It is quite another matter that the practice of ijtihad has been hijacked by the ulema, some of whom take it upon themselves to issue fatwas to suit their whims. But then the problem is not of Islamic tenets, it's more an outcome of anxiety that modernity breeds.

What does remain a prickly issue is the rights women enjoy in Islam. Though Islam empowered women in very dramatic ways in the seventh century—by way of widow remarriage and property rights—there are Quranic verses which, in comparison to modern norms, render women subservient to men. The Quranic prescription of a dress code and acceptance of polygamy are often cited to prove this.

Such arguments take strength from the fact that women in most Muslim societies are denied the freedoms their western counterparts have. Says Kamala Visweswaran, assistant professor of Anthropology, University of Texas, Austin: "The history of Islam is a history of struggle too. Muslim women have been active and vocal in working to change practices and traditions that are restrictive or hamper their freedom.... While there are a lot of theological constants in Islam (and all other religions), Islam as a practiced religion has not only adapted to its environments across the world but has also engaged in serious internal debates about its practices." For instance, Sisters of Islam, a Malaysia-based organisation of women professionals, have been campaigning for a more liberal interpretation of the Quran, and their endeavour has enabled women to enjoy rights hitherto denied to them. Now 60 per cent of the country's workforce comprises women.

Islamist modernists say what matters is not the text but the context: many laws from the days of the Prophet were appropriate for those times, and to understand Islamic law, one must see the context in which they were formed. Today, they say, one must reinterpret those laws in the light of contemporary circumstances.

Which is not to say the Quran be made an open book for Islamists to interpret at will; there has to be a limit to such activity. Ultimately, the Muslim world also has to grapple with the process of secularisation. Except that politics impinges here too. Says Eugene Rogan, director of the Middle East Centre, University of Oxford: "The veil returned in the '70s. The notion that it is men who have imposed the veil on women is not necessarily correct. That is happening only in parts of Iran, and Afghanistan. But in Egypt, Palestine, Sudan and Libya, the veil returned as a form of political protest by women against repressive regimes seen as compromising Muslim values." Witness the Dukhtaran-e-Millat's role in j&k.

In fact, a struggle has ensued between establishment clerics and radical Islamists. The former generally support despotic regimes, arguing Muslims should not rebel against the unjust ruler, that injustice is better than anarchy. Partly inspired by Western political theory, many Islamists have now turned this concept on its head and argued that Muslims must rebel against unjust governments. This is what has pitched militant Muslims against totalitarian regimes and their props.

The West though is not their sole enemy. Islamic states have to accept the crisis in their societies, and realise that ills plaguing them do not accrue entirely on account of the West.Besides a massive dose of introspection and reformation, also needed is the ushering in of democracy, the upholding of human rights and the empowering of women. As Mushirul Hasan says: "Not only will America emerge differently from the September 11 attacks, but so will also the Muslim world." Amen.

Rakesh Kalshian With Sanjay Suri in London, M.G.G. Pillai in Kuala Lumpur

COMMENTS PRINT
OPINION
Militants are always the rabble-rousers. This, however, doesn't mean they have the support of the majority, or that they are more powerful.
Bernard Wasserstein
Prof Edward Said talks to Rahul Sagar about the US role in West Asia and the burden a history of suffering places on the Palestinians.
Rakesh Kalshian
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