Dr. Aslam Abdullah
Challenges before Muslim intellectuals
“We condemn violence in Pakistan, Libya, Tehran, Beirut, Damascus, Nigeria and Gaza. Islam is against violence. Islam promotes peace. The silent majority is peaceful. Only a handful are bent on destruction. The violence has its roots in sociopolitical alienation the Muslim masses suffer in the Muslim world. Islam is for freedom of expression. And on and on.”
For Muslim American leaders these expressions have become a kind of routine drill after every act of violence involving Muslims. Through our press releases, we try to distance ourselves from the behavior of those who speak in the name of religion. But do we do anything substantial to bring about change in the behavior of those whom we criticize? The answer is not very encouraging. Muslim intellectuals and the religious scholars and leaders have generally remained aloof from the every day realities in the Muslim world as well as Muslim Americans. They have left the task of molding the younger minds upon those who themselves appear to be very myopic in their comprehension of the world as well as their religion.
There is no systematic attempt on the part of Muslims either at the global, regional or national levels to address issues facing the Muslim people seriously. In cases where they have addressed the concerns of the Muslim masses, they have remained focused on issues that relate to their relations with Europe, USA or Israel. Somehow there exists a notion among Muslim leaders and intellectuals that the root of all their problems is the Israel-Palestinian conflict or the regular intervention of the big powers in their national affairs. Most tend to believe that once, these problems are resolved to the advantage of Muslims, their societies would become prosperous, progressive and at peace.
I believe these dominant notions have prevented Muslim intellectuals from effectively addressing some of the key social, political, economic and psychological issues in societies where they live. One issue that in general has escaped the attention of most leaders during the last six decades is the role of violence in bringing about change. There are some who seem to give a tacit approval for using violent methods in bringing about social or political change as long as it serves Muslim interests. This is no different from those in the world political scene who believe that might is right and violence is a legitimate means to achieve stability in the world. Obviously, there is a difference between a faith that claims to reflect the divine grace and mercy and an ideology that believes in the survival of the fittest no matter what means one adopts to remain the fittest.
The presences of violent conflicts within the Muslim societies speak volumes of this apathy towards this issue. Shia-sunni conflict in Pakistan and now in Iraq, the Palestinian suicide bombing, killing of civilians in Kashmir and Arab or Turk-Kurdish conflicts are no longer isolated incidents carried out by a fringe. Killing individuals for their opinion often considered heretical is prevalent in several societies. These, unfortunately, are social realities and not many leaders are willing to address them seriously.
Lack of human rights and emotional and cultural torture of those who are different are also not uncommon within Muslim communities and societies. Isolating those who have different perspectives and offending those whose idioms of communication are not shared by the majority is also common. Even though, most people do not go beyond scratching the surface, yet the claim they often espouse is that they have found the truth and positive inquiry and empirical research are of no use. Often, the differences of opinions become personal involving egos and super egos where the other is seen as a combatant aggressive enemy. Thus the real issues remain in the background and trivial matters occupy the minds of many of those who claim to speak on behalf of the community. A more serious analysis on the part of Muslim intellectuals about the world in which we live is much needed.
There are not enough Muslims speaking for the welfare and well being of humanity as a whole without dividing it in this or that religious, sectarian or racial camp. When was the last time, Muslims produced a treatise on the prevailing hunger in the world? When was the last time, we spoke about the dangers of nuclear proliferation? When was the last time, we spoke and did something about the homeless in America? And when was the last time, we participated in the debate about health insurance for those 44 million Americans who lack it. We cannot argue that we don’t have resources to address these issues. There are thousands of doctors amidst us. There are thousands of millionaires amongst us and there are thousands of educationalists amongst us.
We live in a world where widening economic and social disparities have been causing millions to live below the poverty line. High illiteracy rates among men and women, majority of who happen to be Muslims, malnutrition and ever growing health problem especially among women predominantly within Muslim societies have caused millions to live in constant misery without any hope ever to get out of their plight. In general, the response of Muslim scholars and religious institutions has been very lukewarm. Neither have they been able to present an analysis of the root causes of these problems nor have they developed an organized, systematic and effective plan to address these issues in a bold manner. They spend hours and hours explaining the virtues to be educated, but they do little to actually organize something to educate those who are less fortunate to hold a book in their hands.
A lack of concern for the overall state of humanity has diluted our religious institutions. On one hand we have those who believe that if all Muslims start focusing on their ritual prayers, their problems will be solved and on the other are those who argue that if Muslims renounce this material world, they would find themselves in a better world. Neither seems to be willing to identify with those masses that are in the thick and thin of the problem.
Education that is the primary tool to effectively mold the thinking of an upcoming generation has become a tool in the hands of political or ideological groups without any relevance to the social realities prevailing in the Muslim world. For example, millions of Muslims are taught the Quran everyday, the fundamental source of their guidance, without understanding its meaning or message or relevance in life. Educational institutions cater to the interests of the power or politicized intellectual elites who are often motivated by their subjective ideological understanding of Islam. Education is rarely presented as a method to enhance one’s own understanding of the universe for a better future.
In the absence of a proper education of our Religion the average Muslim is at loss about his or her true identity and role in the society he/she has been living. People are living because they are born and they have to live somehow. Obviously, a group that is not aware of its true identity and that is always at the mercy of those who claim to speak on behalf of God even though serving their own political agenda would find itself in stagnation in all its dimensions. This is what, unfortunately, has been happening with Muslims and Islam. Thus the root cause of the problem of social alienation and political restlessness lies within the intellectual confusion that is exacerbated with any slight provocation.
Certainly, one cannot ignore the existence of forces who have not accepted Islam as a genuine divine faith and who have been constantly engaged in activities to undermine Muslims and Islam. But what is new in that. Everyone pursues their own agenda often at the expense of the other. But why should Muslim intellectuals and leaders become prisoners to the agenda of others. DonÕt they argue that being the final message of God, Islam is for the welfare of not only Muslims but for others regardless of their relationship with Islam. It is perhaps time to introspect one’s own attitudes, behavior and understandings towards the world. It is perhaps time to reflect seriously on the erosion of true Islamic identity that has always been disfigured by those who promote the divine faith as a sectarian or factional political ideology negating its universalism and concern for humanity at large. Why is it that we Muslims remained conspicuously silent on the sectarian conflicts going on in Iraq or in Pakistan? How come we didn’t express our outrage at the killing of sunnis and shias?
Unfortunately, there is not much changing in the Muslim societies in the world that would give a sense of hope in challenging the status quo and working towards improving the situation. But, Muslim Americans can certainly play their part in the rediscovery of the true Islamic identity. They live in a country that is still not marred with sectarian conflicts of shia sunni, Arab-kurdish feuds or other ethnic conflicts that unfortunately have dominated the Muslim world. They live in a country where many are discovering their universalism and true Islamic character. They have among them a community that has proven to the world that it can survive the worst in every sense of the term. The example of African American community is a glaring evidence of the universality and effectiveness of Islam and its message of pristine clarity.
Muslim Americans are at a historical crossroad. However, they have to play the role according to the challenges that the world has been putting out for them. What is needed is the emergence of a group that understands the world and is willing to act on the basis of true Islamic identity of universalism rather than ethnic Factional or sectarian identities. There are organizations and leaders who are still hesitant to shed their cultural and political biases towards others including Muslims
There is out there a younger Muslim generation that is willing to challenge every icon that the community has built over the last few decades and they are eager to return to those true Islamic teachings that promote progress, growth, stability, peace and concern for humanity as a whole.