The title of this article, taken from Bernard Lewis’ famous book on Islamic societies, is perhaps not so much an exposition of what went wrong but how we ought to think about the present situation Islam has put the world in. I do not care to either denounce or defend Islam per se, but as someone interested in policy and social order, I am more interested in proposing a solution.

Scholars, journalists, policy makers, clerics, and even ordinary citizens around the world have been asking for the past thirty years (contrary to American perception, the world was as much troubled by Islamic terrorism before September 11, 2001) why there seems to be a surge of violence around the globe, carried out in the name of Islam. Indeed, there have even been televised debates held on whether Islam is a religion of peace or not. This, I believe, is the wrong approach and a largely irrelevant question. It ought to be obvious by now that any idea, however noble, can be corrupted and misinterpreted by people seeking their own gains. Christianity has the Crusades and the Inquisiton on its conscience; Marxism has the death of untold millions slaughtered by Stalin and Mao; democracy seems to cater to the mob and can easily be subverted as was witnessed during the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Furthermore, democracy certainly did not stop numerous other U.S. incursions over the past sixty years. Lest this be seen as an American problem, it is noteworthy to remember that democratic England seems perfectly comfortable with holding on to the Falklands, a stigma of their imperialism. Not all interpretations need be horrendous – Sufism, seen as a corruption of Islam by many, is an interesting and syncretic belief system that has coexisted harmoniously with its neighbours. Hinduism, despite degenerating from a highly intellectual belief system into a collection of incoherent superstitions and rituals, is yet to launch wars of cleansing and purification upon its neighbours.

Perhaps a more suitable approach to one of th most pressing issues of the day – Islamic fundamentalism – is to ask what needs to be done to protect laws, institutions, and values that non-islamic societies hold dear. Democratic openness, never challenged until now, has become the Achilles heel of modern secular society. Without pointing fingers to Muslims specifically – the Christian Right is a brewing problem no one seems to be keeping an eye on due to the immediacy of Islamic terror – it can be objectively agreed that Islamic countries have an abysmal human rights record. In Saudi Arabia, women still are not allowed to drive, nor are they allowed to venture out of the home without being escorted by their son, brother, or father. In 2002, Saudi policemen stopped 15 girls from leaving a burning school building because their hijabs were not worn properly. In April 2008 it came to light that some months prior, a Saudi woman was killed by her father for chatting on Facebook to a man. In the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, it is believed that 3-4 women per month are killed in honour killings. Over the course of six years, over 4,000 women have fallen victim to this practice in Pakistan from 1999 to 2004. More recently (in 2005), the average annual number of honor killings for the whole nation ran up to more than 10,000 per year.  In Iran, despite its rich history with ample examples of intellectual openness, it is safer for women to wear the chador lest a basij accost them. Political terror has, over the past 30 years, become synonymous with Islamic groups. Womens’ rights are rarely, if ever, respected in Islamic countries.

It is perhaps easier to dismiss problems internal to Islam (such as womens’ rights, homosexual rights, or honour killings) more easily than the outward manifestation of terrorism. Politically, this is the easier option. However, it still points to fundamental rifts in basic values. I am truy intrigued by how apologists for Islam will come forth readily and in great numbers, claiming that acts of terrorism are done by a few radicalised minority who do not represent “true” Islam. These same apologists are scarcer when it comes to condemning acts of terror or openly taking a stand against the radicalised “wrong believers” by advocating and working towards reforms within the system. Instead, the outsider is fed with asinine claims of Islamic “feminism” and how women are protected in Islam. Suddenly, the hijab becomes, not a symbol of oppression, but one of liberation. Personally, I am not opposed to any item of dress, however outlandish it may be, provided it does not hamper security or functionality. it is worth mentioning though, that the same tolerance apologists for Islam ask of secular societies when it comes to wearing the hijabis not extended to secular values such as freedom of expression. Cartoons of Mohammad that appeared in a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, in 2005 became the focal point of a worldwide orgy of violence and mayhem. The argument suddenly became one of hurting the sentiments of the Muslim community and the values of self-censorship. To be fair, Hindu brigands were no less tolerant of MF Hussain’s paintings, but a dollars and cents evaluation of the scale of destruction, the lives lost in the chaos, and the geographic extent of the disturbance reveals the extent of radicalisation in the two communities. Another marked difference between these two events is that there was an outcry against Hindu intolerance in the latter case but no such protest is yet to be voiced in the former. Such behaviour is not reserved for dhimmis or kafirs – Taslima Nasreen’s book launch was attacked in Hyderabad by members of the Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) in 2007. Her mistake? The audacity to criticise the plight of women in Islamic societies such as Bangladesh (on this topic, she has written much – her autobiographical four-volume Amar Meyebela, Utal Hawa, Ka, and Sei Sob Ondhokar, Lajja, for which a fatwa calling for her assassination was issued, and Shodh).

Of course, what “true” Islam is remains a matter of speculation as both the radicals and the apologists accuse each other of not keeping to the “true” faith. However, for all claims of Islam as a religion of peace, there is no doubt that there are a number of questionable lines in the hadith as well as the Qur’an. Any attempt to get rid of such lines is seen as heretical. The question arises, why is there no reform movement? Hinduism went through several reforms to outlaw atrocious practices such as Sati and the mistreatment of widows. The Vatican apologised to the Jewish community in 1998 for its role in the Holocaust. Why is there no evidence of similar measures by the Muslim community? It is not my place to demand reforms in Islam. However, I do have the right to demand that as long as I live in a free and secular society, all citizens are treated equally and that Sharia not be implemented. I have the right to demand that I be allowed to express my ideas freely (another hypocracy is that Islamic countries do not allow missionary work, while they expect secular and non-Islamic states to allow freedom of religion for their conversions). It is also my right that subversive methods employed by the Islamic community be aggressively countered, not by violence but by enforcing the law (which would presumably have restrictions on discrimination based on religion).

Ultimately, policy analysts should not care whether Islam is a religion of peace or not – it is merely a matter of intellectual curiosity better left to scholars. Policy should dictate a firm defence of liberal values, applied equally to all citizens. It is not of immediate concern to civilised states what the barbaric medieval states do internally. Political correctness should not be allowed to spin facts on the ground, that many acts of political violence are being carried out in the name of Islam – “true” or not is not our concern but the casualties are. Trade, issuance of visas, etc. should be informed by our values and reciprocity. For example, Islamic missionary work should be banned as long as non-islamic missionary work remains banned in Islamic countries. Free speech should be actively defended and any attempts to subvert its practice should be dealt with severely. Visas should be controlled to countries with a track record of human rights violations. Noise ordinances should disallow the use of megaphones in the muezzin’s calls to prayer.

To state that something has gone wrong with Islam makes the implicit assumption that there was something right with it in the first place. It is indeed the case that Ibn Sina, al Farabi, Ibn Rushd, and many others contributed greatly to world civilisation during the Islamic Golden Age. However, even then, the Mu’tazilites were persecuted and their work was not freely propagated. Those who experimented with and contemplated other belief systems were ostracised from the community if not killed – Sufis are one example, but the irony is that the first Muslims to come to India via the trade routes circa 680 CE were escaping the persecution of the Umayyad Caliphate! It is indeed a miracle that science and philosophy flourished in such a repressive system. Nevertheless, even that system no longer remains. it is not correct for us to ask that Islam be reformed, but we can demand that in non-Islamic societies at least, it remains a system which one can opt out of. Too long has secular society put up with religious zealots in the name of liberalism; too long has it feared to defend its values.

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Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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