Recent History of Muslims since the departure of Colonialism has been studded with violence and nationalist wars. But the new millennium ushered a new era of wars and mass migrations in Muslim lands. Every monstrosity that History and human experience could offer has been enacted again and again. This onslaught of benumbing chaos has shaken every social and cultural bond on which Muslims around the world were learning to anchor their bruised societies.
Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Arab Spring, Rise and fall of ISIS, Yemen war and several other local conflicts clearly indicate that Muslims societies are in a stage of upheaval that has not been witnessed with such magnitude throughout the recent History.
This essay aims to discuss the nature of the major problems and possible alternatives. It should not be read as an end point but rather a spark that might initiate a much needed debate and reconciliation process for all those Muslims who claim Islamic references to be their main guide in social and political matters.
To begin with, we must realize that current realities in Muslim countries are more complex and variegated than they seem on surface and to completely understand them, we must have a holistic approach keeping in mind economical, social and historical factors in mind for each region that we wish to study. Nonetheless if we wish to roughly summarize the present state of Muslim fabric, we see before us three major local or indigenous factors and multiple external players like US, France, China and Russia. We will mainly focus on the three local factors that are influencing the present shape of Muslim societies in detail but that does not mean that we are relegating the external forces to be of lesser magnitude, this neglect is only due to the limitation of a single introductory essay. These three factors are Saudi Arabia, Iran and various Nation States that came to exist after the Colonial enterprise was over.
1- Saudi Arabian Monarchy:
Saudi Monarchy has been actively influencing Muslim countries all over the world since at least 1980 in many ways. Most important of them are in the shape of economic Aid and the other Saudi strand of reformist Islam which has been an effective vehicle for Saudi influence in many poorer countries from Africa to Asia. This equation, whether good or bad, (it does not come under the purview of this essay to pass judgment on this) lay undisturbed till Iraq war. Arab spring and growing Iranian influence in Middle East have alarmed the Saudi Arabian monarchy to a great extent eliciting seemingly disjointed and frantic efforts to effectively counter the dual threats to its existence.
Saudi Arabia enjoys a great degree of influence in majority of Muslim countries because of geographical possession of Islamic Holy sites which are near and dear to Muslims around the globe, and because of its reformist strand of Islam whose mirror images can be found in almost all Muslim countries barring probably Iran. But it is also a fact that Saudi Arabian monarchy has close ties with US government since its inception. This puts it in a position to heavily influence almost any debate regarding Muslim politics or what direction our cultural growth should take. After Arab spring, they have been directly influencing the events unfolding in all of the Middle East from Egypt to Syria and even Afghanistan. Along with it, Monarchy has started a process to reform or “wrench” the Saudi Arabian society into the modern era. In this process, they have disappointed their influential religious clerics who have been a corner stone of hogging support and moral justification for the existence of Monarchy since its inception. How this modernization scheme will alter the outlook of those religious groups in other Muslim countries who follow the same strand of Islamic and social views is yet to be seen.
Iran or to be more precise, active Iranian Revolution that is still effective in disseminating it around the world since it took control of power in 1979 are the second major factor that is currently influencing the Muslim upheaval and often times contributing to this upheaval in a bid to increase its sphere of influence throughout the Muslim world. Until the start of this millennium, Iranian method of regional spread was mainly focused on Human resource development and via Shiite minorities scattered in all Muslim countries. This process was incredibly successful in creating an Iranian narrative that came to rival the other established foci of influence in a short span of time. Iranian civilization saw its long dreamt resurgence that was last time seen in Safavid area. Once again Iranian pre-Islamic civilization impulse was mixed with Shiite strand of reactive Islam to create a force that spread easily with less material investment.
However, all of this changed once War on Terror, changed the old equilibrium of last century. After the downfall of Iraq’s Baathist regime, Iran capitalized on the opportunity and started materially spreading its influence through military means. With the help of external forces, in a relatively short amount of time, it has succeeded in gaining military ascendancy in a region rocked by an endless circle of violence and blood-letting. This has created a strong sense of fear and unease in Saudi monarchy. The aim of this essay is not dwell in detail or demonize different communities but to set a sufficient background for our conversation.
The third local factor active in shaping the course of recent history is the concept of post-colonial geographical Nation state. These nation states were not a natural organic outcome of a continuous cultural process .Instead most of them had an amalgamation of various sub nationalities and ethnic groups. These nation states have strict borders that were forged by their departing colonial administrators and effective Military and Bureaucratic elites that have been managing them since then with some power sharing with local elites and land holding classes. The formulae for power sharing differ in different countries. Slowly but gradually Muslims living in these nation states forgot about their counterparts in other similar regions and it would be foolish to assume that the borders have not had a negative impact on the cultural unity and vital exchange of ideas among the collective Muslim body. The state which almost always started with a promise of a way to express the potential of newly freed people eventually came to dominate and subdue those very same people in lieu of providing some sense of economic security. The laws regulating the conduct of people slowly multiplied and morphed into tools for constricting the very freedom that people had struggled to achieve. The economic mobility also has not happened instead corruption lies at the very heart of many of these nation states.
The concept of state and its near holy status has been used by the elites to further suppress and even worse than that corrupt and manipulate the genuine democratic aspirations of their lesser privileged fellow beings. In recent times, once again the ideology of statehood is being re packaged as a third alternative or a counter poise to the other two local factors.
What is to be done? Comparisons:
With this background in mind, we come to the original question which often arises when such discussions come up in young circles. Where shall a Muslim go; wherein lie his salvation and a way out of this chaos and wherein lies sure damnation. The answers vary considerably but generally they fall on a spectrum comprised of the above mentioned local forces and then there are some outliers. Our purpose here is not to denounce any of those arguments but to give a commentary on all of these scenarios.
On surface all three options look poles part but upon deeper inspection they all have striking similarities. If we follow the arc of Saudi Monarchy or Iranian Oligarchy, they eventually fuse in time. Their ambitions are similar and many of their methods to gain control of other Muslim communities have a recognizable pattern. In fact, in many instances they work in tandem. The complicating thing which hides this glaring similarity between the two is a Historical blind spot present in Muslim community i.e. the great Schism between Sunnites and Shiites. These two strands of religion have had a shaky and varied relationship before any of these two states even came into existence. The only difference now is that these fault lines have been accentuated and manipulated to such a degree that a compromise and a common or shared struggle for freedom seem all but impossible. The feeling of insecurity and anxiety present in both communities become a weakness and a gateway for both of these states to gain control over the affairs of other countries. Amidst all this religious debate what stays hidden most of the time is the naked pursuit of Power for power’s sake and a way to secure their own survival and longevity. For this no price is too large, no approach too low.
So, we are left with the third option, which many people turn to after witnessing the dangerous outcome of the first two options; A return to a relative stability of Geographical nation states of previous century. Setting aside the fact that it is completely impossible to be completely free within a sealed geographical territory that by its very nature is deficient and not self sustaining. If we have been paying attention, to the signs of the time it indicates that the idea of State in its current form is degenerating faster than it can be secured. Economic security and a peaceful future seems more uncertain today, than it was a decade or two ago and all economic experts have been warning of a further growth in the economic inequality. Unemployment with sharp contrasting life style of the ruling elite and the majority populations portend a dangerous and violent mixture. Welfare state and current neo liberal world economy are at a diverging pathway. Population explosion and rampant corruption in government setups further aggravates the danger. The current model of state is dysfunctional to be very benign.
Therefore, we propose, that all the three loci of influence and power mentioned above are manifestations of a single pathology, Statehood gone malignant. Every one of them asks for complete monopoly of Violence and power. All three of them have never shown any compunction in sowing seeds of hatred and militarizing poorer nations to fight wars on their behalf on their own lands for the sole purpose of power and self preservation. All of them espouse violence despite claiming to be forbears of Peace and solidarity. Different varnishes cover the hand of tyranny perpetuated against the weaker social groups and nationalities, in the name of religion, in the name of patriotism and in the name of revolution.
What is the solution? Stateless violence? Kill and in the process be killed? The answer is an unambiguous and emphatic No. Violence begets further violence. Tyranny cannot be extinguished by further tyranny. The pursuit of violent death and a psychological desire to be consumed is nothing but Nihilism and the extreme of Hopelessness. The body politic of Islam has no place for such nihilistic and zero sum mentality. No supposed edifice can be built and sustained on top of unending Death and disease. Such self flagellation, strengthens the hands of the very evil this lost minority claims to be delivering the rest of the innocent Muslims for. But thankfully, Muslims as a collective social group have never embraced this nihilism and cultish pursuit of violence. Every thinking Muslim should take care not to stray towards this blind cull de sac, in search of self affirmation and personal life solutions.
What should be really done then?
Well, if we claimed to have the answer to myriad issues our fellow beings face, then it would be a clear and obvious mistruth. This never was the purpose of this essay.
Before we dwell into the possible better solutions, I would like to mention some miscellaneous local forces and players that I omitted before. The reason for their omission is because of their weaker power to influence the current realities of Muslim World and its inhabitants.
The foremost among them are “political Islamic” groups or parties present in many countries. Here we will briefly comment on Pakistani example that will elucidate our point. Jamaat Islami is one such party that claims to represent Political Islam in Pakistan. It began with high aspirations by its founders and saw a period of growth and ideological appeal in those early days but over time, it slowly lost the creative power needed to stay relevant and effective in the changing political landscape of Pakistan. At present it has degenerated into a weak electoral party that is struggling to gain any amount of traction or influence with bleak future aspects. There are other many examples in Pakistan of religious groups that claim to reverse the rapid social decay of Pakistani society. But their reformist spirit has either gone sterile with nothing new to offer the myriad challenges, or they simply play to self chosen smaller and smaller audiences. This exclusiveness and inability to learn from past and present mistakes have led to their increasing irrelevance. Many of these religious groups are hampered by their petrified ideas and solutions, which might have worked in some distant past but at present fail to impress Muslim societies.
The reasons for failure or lets say diminishing influence of Tabligh, Jamaat and other such reformist parties are as multiple or complex as their varied natures. But what really puts a dent in their future prospects is the rigidity and inflexible positions they have taken in almost all the social, political and economic issues prevalent in the societies they operate in. People following them in hope of a religious solution are forced into intellectual ghettos with blinkered and often time erroneous views of what’s happening in the world.
The second reason for their irrelevance is the separation of Islam into categories, then focusing on one certain aspect whilst completely disregarding the rest of Islamic body of knowledge. How can this approach bring a true reform is beyond any regular logic.
Youngsters following them for many years learn nothing about the basic concepts of Islamic knowledge. A normal person in Tabligh ( Editor’s Disclaimer: this example is not meant to denounce the whole organization and its positive influence, but to merely point out a common question put up by people following them) never graduates from the book detailing the benefits or Fazaail of different Ibadaat and wazai’f. Same is the case with other parties claiming to represent political Islam. They never furnish their young followers with any practical tools or skills with which to study and derive viable ideas and perspectives from the whole body of Islamic knowledge.
In order for Islamic reference to become truly viable in our social and political lives, it must not be separated from economy, society or its politics. This upheaval and chaos cannot end by it the tested solutions. Our societies are in perpetual decay, there is no denying it any more. The social and moral fabric lies in tatters and those who claim to look down upon the present and bully their fellows into following dead traditions in the name of Islamic reality are doing no honor to themselves. The only religious group that can ever hope to gain healthy amount of influence in a society has to fulfill or address at least these three criteria:
1- A SOUND ECONOMIC OUTLOOK:
Islamic politics till now has been done in an elitist fashion. The idea was to create a sort of vanguard of trained personnel that would bring forth change from within or stop matters from getting worse. That model has failed time and again. Without grass roots mobilization no political organization can stay effective. Without a sound economic policy that can be put into practice, these organizations fail to deliver on one of the core issues affecting the majority of Muslim population, which lives on in miserable squalor. Turkish reformist model succeeded because of a workable economic model. We do not offer it as a model to imitate, as the ground realities of Turkish society are different than others. A successful party must devise newer approaches to give alternative ways to evade the death trap of consumerist liberal economy. To achieve this end we propose the announcement of an economic emergency. It has to promote wide spread mass economic literacy among its followers and the societies they live in, so that in a due course of time healthy and indigenous economic models can become functional realities.
2- Come up with a comprehensive Social reform and justice package with respect for basic Human rights for all the groups with equal focus on all the sub nationalities. This process should not become a hostage to the sterile and useless binary of Liberal and conservative. Times for those frivolous debates are long past. Women must be equally present in the formulation of such Social contract, for it is a reality that they have been most oppressed by our social malaise.
Many religious groups tend to suppress every ethnic and local language reference in a fictional zeal of gaining uniformity. This is a useless and counterproductive approach. Ethnicities and local identities are not something to be frowned upon but rather celebrated and given due justice. Otherwise this reductive technique undercuts the universal message and alienates sizable social groups which have no recourse but to turn towards other political sources for representations. This quest for one uniform language and culture is a burrowed item from nationalist ideology and recently on a wider scale by the globalization project ,the very regression which has resulted in so many brutal examples of state led violence and civil wars. Thus, the cultural diversity present in Muslim lands can act as a protective measure, if properly utilized, from the global social uniformity we see taking place around us thanks to the current economic order.
Will the present state concept have any role in this social bond? The answer lies in another question. Will such participation work towards more just conception of this social bond or will it retard this process?
3- It should furnish the young people with necessary skills to gain Islamic knowledge and the ability to come up with their own thoughts that will then lead to new ways of progress from current ideological and philosophical impasse. (Progress here is used in its literal sense; it must not be confused with the political loaded term in vogue nowadays)They must learn to interact with History as an organic record of human experience and then move forward, they must not be bullied into simply following the old regressive norms.
Muslims today have to look beyond the borders and see their individual struggles in a shared perspective. We have forgotten to communicate with people who does not look like us or speak like us. Our identities have become our barriers. The old historical Trail of knowledge in Muslim world could present us with some ideas to enhance much needed communication. This tunnel vision of the world with same dead divisions between liberals and conservatives, Literalists and Traditionalists need to be recognized and dealt with before we can begin the process of much awaited regeneration and peace.
Strength lies in conviction and life.
This essay was published here to start a healthy debate among fellow Muslims, a thing we are becoming increasingly afraid of for fear of volatility and aggression. Nonetheless, it has to happen someday. It is not an attempt to discredit any religious or social group or to spare the others. The topic is too vast to be covered in such short space and time. The ideas expressed in it are not a judgment or indictment, but rather an invitation for research and study. Any contribution will be deemed valuable and appreciated. Obviously many things have been left out and many things are imperfectly described. Any errors of knowledge or facts are unintentional. They must be put down as the mistakes of a novice. And Allah knows best.