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.continue reading
This article was published in The Muslim News
Terror and the Veil are two recurrent symbols that appear in Western discourse about Islam and Muslims. But these were just myths created to serve one political view. Why do these potent historical symbols still haunt us today?
The Occidental view of Islam has been characterised by two vivid symbols – the sword and the veil. The West built up an image of an Islam that was “spread by the sword”, that forced violent conversion on non-Muslims as the Muslim dominion spread outwards from its origins in Mecca and Medina. The Muslim empire grew quickly geographically and politically as its armies spread both east and westward. Instead of using the sword, the faith of Islam grew more organically, through marriage and trade.
The West’s Myth of the Sword crystallised into its definition of the Muslim world, and it was hailed as the rallying cry against what was demonised as a violent and barbaric religion. The myth was nothing but political smoke and mirrors, as early as the time of the Crusades.
The Church and the kingdoms of Europe cleverly counterpoised the newly created idea of the ‘sword’ against the “love thy neighbour” and “turn the other cheek” proclaimed ethos of Christianity, failing to notice the irony of the Crusader hordes that rushed towards the Muslim heartlands to recapture the Holy Land. The conquests and counter-conquests of Christian Europe were not for religious or humanitarian reasons, we should note, but to secure trade and control through the Middle East and to the Far East as well. The irony is not lost till today when the last 500 years have been dominated by ‘Western conquest’ and massive military superiority. Today, the ‘sword’ is wielded by the military hyperpower of the Western United States that uses it to spread and enforce its notions of democracy and enlightenment values.
The sword was a simple yet powerful symbol that Christian Europe projected from its own lexicon onto a Muslim world that it did not try to understand, and could not fathom from within the prism of its own ideology.
When Orientalists spoke of the ‘exotic’ lands of the Middle East, they conjured up evocative images of harems and mysterious women with dark eyes hidden behind translucent black veils. The Occident was enthralled by the paradox of how women were covered, often hidden in women’s quarters, or at least behind their modest dress. But what was once a healthy, Islamic yet palpable sexuality of the Muslim world was an incomprehensible contrast to the prudish values first of Puritanism and then of the Victorian Age.
Again, by interpreting through its own prism of understanding, the Occident turned the veil into a symbolic issue that defined a ‘barbaric’ and ‘oppressive’ personality of Islam. Again, it was the simplicity of the symbol of the veil that raised it to define everything that the West saw as wrong with Islam and the Muslim world.
These two symbols have come back to haunt us today and still define the West’s view of the Muslim world. Today’s sword has been replaced by its modern counterpart – terrorist attacks. The veil, the small simple piece of cloth that is so rarely worn, still holds its own.
If the veil did not hold such symbolic and historic weight, why has it ignited such a whirlwind? Muslims reacted passionately not because most Muslim women wish to wear the veil – quite the contrary, only about five per cent of Muslim women in the UK wear a veil – but because where ‘veil’ was written, there was a caveat which said “for veil, read Islam”.
The same applies to the rhetoric about terrorist attacks, and foreign policies that take Western forces into Muslim countries to ‘help’, but end up creating more strife and destruction to meet their own ends. Indeed, we all agree that there are terrorists out there and their actions are vehemently rejected by Muslims round the world. But Western terminology around terror attacks and the War on Terror, has the same resonance to it as the Myth of the Veil. The same caveat applied “for terror (or sword), read Islam”.
The Sword and the Veil are once again at the centre of polemics. They uncover the simplistic view that the West holds buried deep inside itself of Islam’s supposedly inherent violence, oppression and barbarism. But they are myths created from icons that have been misrepresented and conveniently fitted to meet a political narrative.
The Sword and the Veil are symbols that lie deep within the European narrative, and are therefore easy to hook onto. They were myths on which to build a political vision when they were first created. But the power they hold over Europe is only because they draw on Europe’s own heritage. The myth of the sword can only be meaningful in Europe because Europe understands what it means to use force and violence to further its cause. The majority of Muslims are confused by this myth of expansion of faith through violence. ‘Jihad’ for them is simply a spiritual struggle, military force is for defence. “There is no compulsion in religion” is the clear Islamic edict, so faith cannot be induced by bloody means.
The veil too is only potent because of Europe’s uneasy history of social values regarding women and their status. The issues of oppression and sexuality of women that the Muslim world is accused of, are simply a mirror of the schizophrenic nature of western society with regards to the rights of women and how they should be treated. The West at first could not understand these mysterious women of the Orient who supposedly came from a heritage of liberation, passion and social participation. But this was all hidden behind a veil, behind modest coverings. And this seemingly paradoxical combination, and its contrast with the status quo in Europe where women had no rights till the 20th century, created fear and misunderstanding. The Myth of the Veil was embodied with this recoiling and incomprehension and came to symbolise oppression and mediaeval values.
Alas, where once the Muslim world led the world in providing a blueprint for the equality of women through the statements of the Qur’an, the Muslim world today also has little to be proud of with regards to the status of women. The veil was clearly a myth because Islam offered a framework that worked towards rights, status and equality. But now it has become paralysed by the same gender relations and sexual guilt, and the oppression of women that it claims to reject and which it accuses the West of. More worrying, is the fact that the Muslim world is in denial. The Myth of the Veil in the West has created a Counter-Myth in the Muslim world – that because the basic laws of Islam liberate woman, give her rights and status – then it follows that the Muslim world is de facto implementing these values. The sad fact is that Muslims have a long way to go before the rights they trumpet about Islam with regards to women become social reality.
If you watch the media and political rhetoric unfold, you will see the discussions about Muslims and Islam punctuated by the leitmotifs of the Sword and the Veil. It seems that the West can only understand Islam and Muslims through these very simplistic and mythical symbols that evoke such deep-seated and irrational emotion. Talking about “markers of separation” and ‘wars’ only entrenches these myths in an historical and irrelevant narrative, instead of allowing new connections to be built and instead of shattering misconceptions and building an honest and open reality.continue reading
This article was recently published in The Muslim News