A moment of reckoning for the Muslim world

Published 25.07.2014 01:11

Muslims around the world will be celebrating Eid al-Fitr in a few days. After a full month of fasting, prayers and self-discipline, this is a time of joy and celebration. This is also a time of reflection and contemplation. It is an occasion for self-assessment and reckoning.

Far from giving a sense of joy and happiness, however, the current state of the Muslim world presents a rather bleak picture. Almost 1,000 people die every month in Muslim countries in recent years. The main toll is in Iraq and Syria, with a significant amount of violence and death in Egypt, Somalia, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Yemen, among others. In most cases, Muslims are killing Muslims. In addition, Palestinians in the occupied territories and Arakan Muslims in Myanmar, among others, are subjected to systematic killing and ethnic cleansing.

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has taken its insanity and barbarity to new levels. They kill Iraqi Shiites because of their sectarian identity. Now, in defiance of hundreds of years of a tradition of religious pluralism, they are presenting Iraqi Christians with two choices: either convert to Islam by force or die. Various al-Qaeda groups including al-Shabab in Somalia and al-Nusra in Syria attack Muslim targets and kill Muslims more than non-Muslims. The logic in both cases is the same: my way or the high way.

These exclusivist ideologies and their brutal tactics have no religious basis. You cannot simply kill Shias or force Christians to convert to Islam. This is not religion but petty imperialism. It is not any different from the "you are either with us or against us" ideology. It uses different sets of arguments to justify its totalitarianism but ends up in the same type of destruction and savagery.

These groups, like all extremists, have Stockholm syndrome : they adopt the tactics of their enemies and in the process become like them. In the name of fighting injustice, cruelty and imperialism, they become petty imperialists.

The trick is to fight the monster without becoming one.

Killing people on account of their sect or religion is barbaric and has no ground in Islam. Most Muslims reject an exclusivist and totalitarian interpretation of their religion. The overwhelming majority of them are moderate and abhor the distortion of their faith at the hands of extremist bandits. Yet they do not have the means to contain the extremists among them. Most of them are powerless against powerful states, international corporations, regional rivalries, extremist networks and global imperialist adventures. This, however, does not absolve them of their moral duty to stop cruelty and stand for justice.

Muslims have themselves to blame for many of their calamities. As I written before, "the legacy of imperialist interventions, failed states, poverty, illiteracy and the sense of dispossession and alienation has created deep wounds in the social and political landscape of the Middle East. A divisive identity politics has become a powerful ideological tool. In the name of religion, nationalism or anti-imperialism, political opportunists and extremists have used the longstanding grievances of ordinary people to advance their political goals."

Blaming others, however, does not solve our problems but leads to intellectual laziness and moral conformism. It is true that Western democracies have betrayed their own values and principles in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Palestine, Myanmar and other places. In the name of realpolitik, they have supported oppressive regimes and watched the killing of innocent people. As in Palestine, they have tolerated occupation, racism, collective punishment and destruction. Some have turned a blind eye to the rising danger of Islamophobia and in some cases enticed it.

But Muslims, too, have betrayed their own values and principles. They have allowed injustice, inequality, poverty, extremism and terrorism to fester in their countries and communities. They have failed to address their legitimate grievances in a morally sensible and rationally effective manner. Instead of working to resolve their problems with wisdom and patience, they have resorted to intolerance, fanaticism and violence, all of which are rejected by Islam.

It is futile to take pride in the great achievements of classical Islamic civilization without reproducing them today. It is useless to blame the West without stopping the internal bleeding in Muslim societies. It is pointless to reject global imperialism without first rejecting our own imperialist impulses.

The Muslim world needs to have a moment of serious reflection and reckoning. This needs to start from within. The Islamic intellectual tradition has always emphasized the complementarity of the inner (al-batin) and the outer (al-zahir): what is out there is a reflection of what is within you, and the good within you needs to come out and establish peace, justice and mercy in the outside world.

No need to despair. Muslim scholars, religious leaders, intellectuals, political leaders, NGO networks, activists, artists and others can and should take a leading role in fighting against fanaticism and violence in Muslim lands. The reckoning starts with our own souls.

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