Islam has become its own enemy Muslims in denial
War on Terrorism: Observer special
Islam and the West: Observer special
Saturday October 20 2001 The Guardian
Muslims everywhere are in a deep state of denial. From Egypt to Malaysia, there is an aversion to seeing terrorism as a Muslim problem and a Muslim responsibility.
The meeting last week of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference in Qatar condemned the 11 September attacks, but refused to accept any responsibility. Instead of taking the lead in tackling the problem, once again they are being railroaded into joining a 'global coalition'.
Terrorism is a Muslim problem for some very good reasons. To begin with, most of the terrorist incidents actually occur within the Muslim world. In Pakistan, for example, terrorist violence is endemic. Marauding groups of fanatics, such as Sepa-e-Shaba ('Soldiers of the Companion of the Prophet') and Sepa-e-Muhammad ('Soldiers of Muhammad'), have spread terror throughout the country. In Egypt, militants of Islamic Jihad have killed tourists, and members of the extremist organisation Gama-e-Islami have made the life of ordinary Muslims a living hell. The Abu Sayyaf group of the Philippines, far from fighting for 'liberation', is nothing more than a band of ruthless kidnappers who kill other Muslims without hesitation.
Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Algeria, Bangladesh, Lebanon, Iran - there is hardly a Muslim country that is not plagued by terrorism.
It goes without saying, then, that the bulk of victims of terrorism are also Muslims, 11 September notwithstanding. This is particularly so when we consider that violence and brutalisation has become the norm in unending quests for self-determination in such places as Palestine, Kashmir and Chechnya. Terror and counter-terror forms an endless cycle that has cost countless Muslim lives.
Thus, terrorism, the horror it provokes and the consequences it breeds, are more familiar to Muslims than to any other people.
Yet, while they have been shocked and sympathise with the victims of the atrocities in the US, Muslims have stubbornly refused to see terrorism as an internal problem. While the Muslim world has suffered, they have blamed everyone but themselves. It is always 'the West', or the CIA, or 'the Indians', or 'the Zionists' hatching yet another conspiracy.
This state of denial means Muslims are ill-equipped to deal with problems of endemic terrorism. Indiscriminate violence, terror by governments against their own people, by opposition groups and between factions, has now become such an integral part of the political discourse of failed polities that it is taken for granted.
In the US-led coalition against the Taliban, liberal Muslims have found an ideal substitute for self-examination and the critical, internal struggle needed to address home-grown problems.
The coalition now waging war against terrorism in Afghanistan harbours another danger for Muslims. In the indiscriminate politics of coalition, the first people that the hesitant Muslim states will turn against are the few voices of sanity in their midst. As Anwar Ibrahim, the former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia and a rare lucid voice, points out, the democratic cause in Muslim countries 'will regress for a few decades as ruling autocrats use their participation in the global war against terrorism to terrorise their critics and dissenters'.
Anwar has to know. The article was written from the prison cell where he is serving a 15-year sentence. His crime? To stand against the tyranny of Mahathir Muhammad's government.
This is not the time, he says, to stir up anti-American sentiments, or sermonise over US foreign policy. It is time to ask 'how, in the twenty-first century, the Muslim world could have produced a bin Laden'.
The answer has two components. Anwar hints at the first. There is simply no place in the Muslim world to express dissent. Autocratic, theocratic, despotic regimes allow no political freedom, all thought is outlawed, and brute suppression is the norm. In such circumstances, violence is seen as the only way of expressing dissent.
In his youth, Anwar Ibrahim founded a dynamic Islamic movement. I also spent my youthful days working for various Islamic movements; it was how we first met in the borderless internationalism of the worldwide Muslim community. And it is in the Islamic movements that we must look for the second reason for the violent state of affairs in Muslim societies.
In the Sixties and the Seventies, the Islamic movements, such as Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan and the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, represented hope, the language of justice, the ideal of self-reliance for the masses languishing in misery. A plethora of Islamic movements and initiatives made their appearance; and we toiled against autocracies and despotism in Muslim societies.
But the movements became a mirror image of what they were fighting. The leadership passed from intellectuals to semi-literate demagogues. What the Islamic movements have generated is fanatic militancy, a fundamentalism that is as autocratic, illiberal and repressive as the established order they seek to dethrone. Instead of allowing debate, and a rethinking about the contemporary meaning of Islam, fundamentalist notions became something to die for and finally something to kill and destroy for in pure hatred.
The failure of Islamic movements is their inability to come to terms with modernity, to give modernity a sustainable home-grown expression. Instead of engaging with the abundant problems that bedevil Muslim lives, the Islamic prescription consists of blind following of narrow pieties and slavish submission to inept obscurantists. Instead of engagement with the wider world, they have made Islam into an ethic of separation, separate under-development, and negation of the rest of the world.
The struggle against violence in the Muslim world is much more than a struggle against murdering fanatics like the Taliban. Or despotic leaders like Saddam Hussein and Mahathir Muhammad. It is also a struggle against the Islamic movements whose simplistic and virulent rhetoric often ends up sanctifying the fanatics and demonises everything else in the absolutist, unquestioning terms of all totalitarian perspectives.
The answers to the problems of the Muslim societies are not hard to find - merely difficult to initiate. Political freedom, open debate, the liberation of society to be civil, plural and humane - these are obvious remedies. But the Islamic movements have become a barrier to them.
We need reasoned creativity and critical awareness. These used to be favourite phrases of Anwar Ibrahim. But his most frequent prescription was humility. The humility to acknowledge one's own mistakes and shortcomings.