The Muslim world is made up of more than just people from the Middle East and the Subcontinent, and drawing on our wider heritage and perspectives could help us address the pressing questions of Islam and modernity
It would probably come as a surprise to most people to know that the largest ethnic group within the world’s billion or so Muslims, are not in fact, Arab. Nor are they Pakistani, or even Bangladeshi for that matter. Even the entire Muslim populations of Europe and America do not feature at the top of this list, and neither does China.
In Britain, our perceptions of Muslims – and thus of Islam – are shaped by the fact that the media shows us coverage of the Arab world as ‘Islam’ and also because the majority of Muslims in this country are of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin. The issues and challenges that raise themselves in the Muslim community, and which spill over into the national discourse about Muslims and Islam, therefore naturally stem from our Arabic and Sub-continental-shaped spectacles. Even within the Muslim communities the problems we see and the solutions we propose continually hark back to world-views and religious paradigms based in Arab and Sub-continental perspectives on history and modernity. British Islam tastes of korma curry with a side-serving of hummus. In the global political arena too, the Sub-continent and the Middle East (read ‘Arab’) are also front and centre when it comes to ‘The Muslim World’.
With this restrictive bi-focal approach, we try to address the big questions facing Muslims today. We ask in this context, how do we get to a meaningful understanding of Islam and governance in the modern world order of nation-states? Should we choose to interact (or not) in democratic processes, and if so, what methods should we use? What should our identity and role be in this globalised world? Is there a dichotomy between nation and ummah, and if so, how do we reconcile them?
The biggest challenge out of all of these for Muslims, is to find meaningful proposals to create a framework for participation with positivity and integrity in this new world order. Muslims constantly hark back to a ‘better time’ of Islamic empires and Caliphates, which were the spiritual home of Muslims, and for the most part were their physical homes too. However, such an empire, or a universal ‘home’ state no longer exists. In many cases Muslims live as minorities within non-Muslim majority countries. There is no option – and in many cases no desire – to ‘go home’. Muslims should already feel respected and at home, and should not be treated as aliens. In the context of such a relationship, it is timely for Muslims to construct a robust place within the national community that they are part of and establish very clearly the contribution that they will make.
This desperately needed enterprise is being subverted by a small minority who wish to hijack this process of development and change. Their desire is to return to a ‘better time’, and to ‘Islamicise’. But they created these false notions through Arab-Sub-continental lenses. The neo-conservatives who have created their empty identities and standing in opposition to this so-called ‘Islamist’ political ideology also see the world in these two blinkered dimensions.
So here is the surprise. Large swathes of Muslims are asking the above-mentioned first set of positive questions about this new globalised world that we live in. The groundswell is to participate and contribute, to explore traditional notions of Islamic governance and to advance new ideas of engagement and civic participation. By no means are they getting it all right but, as Confucius says, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
The most significant and flourishing example of this is Indonesia. This is a country of 221 million people, of which 88% are Muslim. This makes Indonesia the world’s largest Muslim population, a fact unknown and overlooked by most people. The country stretches from Thailand to Australia, punctuated by lush rainforests and epic lively volcanoes. Its spirituality is understated but intricately and gently woven throughout the fabric of society. Mosques are plentiful (as are other places of worship), almost on every street corner, but they are softly tucked in, little oases in the hubbub of day to day life. Scattered liberally amongst the emerald green rice fields are small huts, used to protect workers from the tropical rain storms, and offer an accessible place for prayer.
The country is founded on five principles, the first of which is the ‘belief in the one and only God.’ For a country with an overwhelming Muslim majority, its political principles define it not as Islamic, but as theistic. There is concern to ensure that the huge variety of ethnicities that make up the nation, as well as its six official religions, share a sense of cohesion which is expressed in another of its founding principles: ‘Unity in diversity’. It also envisions a just and civilised humanity, social justice for the whole of Indonesia and finally, and perhaps most significantly democracy guided by the inner wisdom in the unanimity arising out of deliberations amongst representatives. It is this fusion of democracy and faith that makes the physical, spiritual and social landscape of Indonesia so fascinating.
Ten years after the overthrow of a totalitarian government, the country is racing through a reformasi, and asking piercing questions about nationhood and faith. Whilst travelling there, I was constantly surprised by the strength of feeling amongst all the people I met about driving their country forward.
How did the fact that I am both British and Muslim manifest itself, and how did I relate to my nation, I was constantly asked. Instead of simplistic shock at the existence of Muslims in the UK, the Indonesians greeted my fusion of British Islam with thoughtfulness. They reflected on what they could learn from the experience of British Muslims, to create a cohesive nation state that could respect faith, benefit from it, and use it as a force to create unity – a slippery and elusive goal for a country of its huge geography, variation and population. They wanted to learn about how minorities were treated, and apply positive experiences to their own nation.
There was no possible question of not participating in political and civic processes. Faith – whether Muslim or otherwise – was a natural part of civic life. There was no need to make a headline fuss of it. It did not dictate the political agenda. Instead, it offered fresh perspectives on dealing with social, political and economic issues. None of this is to say that Indonesia is not dealing with pockets of extremist activity like we are in the UK. Indonesia has many human rights and security issues of its own to deal with. Despite the challenges it is facing, it was refreshing to be in a Muslim majority country, amongst politically and civically active Muslims, for whom Islam was not the only item on the agenda – if in fact it was on the agenda at all. Creating a society where faith is woven into nationhood, and exists happily under its banner were of greater concern to people on the street.
I came away thinking that as British Muslims we had many things we could learn from them. Indonesia sits very firmly as part of the Muslim world, and sees itself as a key player amongst Muslim nations. It is attempting to deal with some of the questions that face both Islam and faith in general in this new millennium. And like a child learning to sit up and survey the world around it, their experience can offer Muslims fresh eyes onto our modern day challenges. Muslims speak with pride about sharing the joy and pain of a global ummah. But sometimes we forget that the ummah stretches much further not only in geography, but also much further in culture, politics and creativity than we might think.
This article was published in The Muslim News