By Arshad Alam
Over half a billion Muslims, nearly one third of their total population, live in contexts in which they are minorities. The context of their being minority differs from place to place. In places like Europe, this is the result of migration owing to the wars in Arab world. These communities are new, and need to adjust to the new political environment which they find themselves in, which is very different from their home Muslim majoritarian context.
Then there are Muslim minority contexts which are in the form of historically established communities who have been living together with other communities for centuries. India is an obvious example.
Yet, over the years, owing to a number of factors, there has been a growing alienation of the Muslim minority communities. Some reasons for this are internal: there is increasing reliance on particular readings of religious texts which is weaning Muslims away from their shared cultural contexts. But the problem is also from the outside: increasing Islamophobia has meant that Muslims have come to be considered as untrustworthy and their religion as the epitome of backwardness.
In some places, such stereotypical construction of Islam and Muslims have resulted is pure unadulterated hate towards them. Muslim minorities have been the unfair targets of discriminatory policies including from the highest echelons of the state.
Rohingyas for example, have been systematically made stateless through a series of state level policies designed to obliterate their language, identity and citizenship rights. While these minorities have negotiated their trajectory within the political limits of their respective nation-states, there was always a need for a platform to bring them together, perhaps to listen to their specific problems and formulate a strategy so that internationally they can act as a pressure group in order to influence policy decisions.
It is for this reason alone that the proposed establishment of World Council of Muslim Minorities should be welcomed. The stated objectives of the proposed Council is to “coordinate the efforts of Muslim minority institutions and enhance their role by encouraging members of Muslim minorities to contribute to the renaissance of their states, correcting the stereotypical image of Islam and Muslim minorities and bridging the intellectual and cultural gap between the components of the human society”.
The council also aims to “promote cultural pluralism and respect for the cultural and intellectual specificities of the Muslim minorities in the world and to promote the values of moderation, dialogue, tolerance and national belonging, and to reject religious fanaticism and hatred of others and to promote the civil and political rights of Muslim minorities as an inherent human right in accordance with international and national convention”.
The stated objectives of the Council are laudable. However, there are certain important things which the proposed Council should deliberate when they meet in May at Abu Dhabi. The first is the very political locus of this initiative. A platform like this should have been initiated through the efforts of Muslims who live in minority situations. What we see here is quite the reverse: the call to establish such a Council has come from a Muslim majority context. What is perhaps more disturbing is the very tone of paternalism adopted by the founders of the Council. They state that they were ‘obliged’ to establish this platform after learning about the difficulties that Muslims living in minority contexts are facing.
Now, there is no denying the fact that Muslims in minority contexts do have their share of the problem, but then this is a problem which should have been resolved by them. They should have been the initiators of such a political action. In taking away the agency from Muslim minority contexts that actually experience discrimination, the Arab world is trying to re-establish its hegemony over the rest of the Muslim world. There is therefore a very real danger that the voices of those Muslims who are experiencing alienation would not be represented in such a forum.
Therefore, one of the first measures that the proposed Council should adopt is to have adequate representation of Muslims from minority contexts in its executive body. Any failure to do so will certainly send a signal that the Council is not serious at all in the welfare of Muslim minorities.
Secondly, it is certainly admirable to talk of promoting pluralism as one of the aims of the Council. However, fostering pluralism should not just be done at an inter-community level but also at the intra-community level. What is being argued here is that without looking at the internal dynamics within Muslim societies, it will not be possible to promote pluralism and dialogue between Muslims and other communities. The Council aims to correct the perception of Islam amongst non-Muslims and for this it wants to present the true face of Islam to other communities.
However, there is a huge problem here: there is no correct way of defining Islam and hence search for the true face of Islam will always remain illusory. What is more worrisome is that from the moderate to the most radical factions within Islam, all claim to be the true face of Islam. Recognizing the plurality of Islamic tradition itself therefore is a more refreshing idea; something which the proposed Council is silent about.
Coming back to the question of internal pluralism within Muslim societies, it should be fostered on priority. The proposed Council must see to it that the internal diversity within Muslims-culturally and religiously-must be reflected within all decision making bodies of the Council. We know that Sunnis have deep mistrust of the Shias and vice versa. We also know both together look at the Ahmadiyyas as a heretic community within Muslims and therefore beyond the pale of Islam. The question that needs to asked of this Council is whether these communities and by extension these historically valid interpretations of Islam will be part of the leadership of the Council or not. It is all very good to talk of dialogue, moderation and pluralism, but such noble intentions will make more sense when we ask ourselves the more difficult question as to why we lack these things within our own societies in the first place.