Open Essay

Don’t Demonise Islam

Yusuf Anis Ahmad Ansari, the author of two books, is currently completing a biography of Akbar. He is a scholar of Islamic History
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Muslims are caught between religious extremism and the moral weakness of those who say ‘Islam is evil’

LAST SUMMER, the editor of Open, S Prasannarajan, wrote—in my view a trifle mischeviously— in this magazine that ‘talking about Islam is problematic today, given the alacrity with which the epithet Islamophobe is being thrown at anyone who dares to question, or initiate a conversation on a religion in whose name the worst crimes against humanity continue to be committed in our time’.

As a Muslim, I have certain problems with that particular, ‘problematic’ context. I wish to engage the author of those thoughts, as well as those thoughts themselves by saying that talking about Islam is problematic today, given the alacrity with which the epithet ‘Islamist’ or ‘jihadist’ is thrown at anyone who dares answer, or initiate a conversation on charges levelled against a religion that is under attack and being ridiculed by those who are either ignorant of facts or, secondly, have themselves committed and continue to commit the worst crimes against humanity in our time. If debate continues to deteriorate at the pace at which it currently is, calling anyone professing support for or faith in Islam an ‘Islamist’ or ‘jihadist’ is going to become an acceptable and welcome norm. In full appreciation for the editor’s point of view, I also believe the ‘Islamist versus Islamophobe’ dynamic, or a ‘with us or against us’ type of argument is unlikely to reach fruition any time soon. That will not happen on its own accord because it does need to be dispelled. This can only happen through dialogue, engagement and a willingness to understand the issues, on all sides.

While the correct meaning of ‘jihad’ is debated ad infinitum and arguments flow and counter flow in support or against a particular interpretation, no one gives a thought to the meaning of ‘wasatiah’, so central to the Qur’an and the very core of the spirit of Islam. From the Arabic ‘wasat’, wasatiah or the middle path, moderation, balance, denotes centrism. In the Qur’an, it goes further to imply ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’. Yet we hear no critic of Islam ever discuss this concept, which is a commandment for Muslims, decreed by God.

Thus We have appointed you a middle nation…’ —Surah Al- Baqarah (2:143).

There is no radical or liberal, progressive or retrograde form of Islam. All of it is based on the concept of wasatiah or moderation. What is required is education and the dissemination of the knowledge which comes from that—the breaking down of obscurantism and stereotypes, the ability to modernise, without compromising faith. Thus, people with knowledge—scholars, writers, students, anyone with access to ideas and the power of thought—must apply the force of their knowledge to endeavours aimed at understanding and creating understanding.

In 1999, I had an opportunity to meet Imam Mustafa Ceric, grand mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina, in London. He was on a tour of the United Kingdom to highlight the problems that his country, ravaged by conflict, faced. Speaking at the London School of Economics, he said: “Islam is easy to analyse, criticise, dissect, etcetera. Muslims are not easy to attack as individuals if they plead Islam as their defence. They must stand up as individuals and plead their own defence. I do not accept an Islamic critique of the West if it is based on egoism. I accept it if it is based on attacking jahilia (ignorance) and the same applies to any Western critique of Islam…”

Today, Muslims are caught between the criminal culpability of religious extremism and dogma on the one hand, and the mutilated, moral and intellectual weakness of those voices which say ‘Islam is evil’ on the other.

Just last week, the world witnessed relentless and serial attacks against predominantly Muslim countries, resulting in the loss of hundreds of lives. Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad and finally, Medina— Islam’s second holiest site—have all been at the receiving end of terror attacks which many label ‘Islamist’. Strange, that; this urge by Islamists to attack Islam from within. The fact is a simple and tragic one: Islam has been at war with terrorism long before its critics became victims of the same terror. In this crossfire of mutual hatreds, Muslims have a duty to represent Islam and speak out against whatever seeks to defame it. This is also necessary because despite the loud vitriol, there are many others across the divide who do not possess the access or means to know where Muslims actually stand. They must be engaged, and a similar engagement must occur with counterparts in the Muslim world. The tools of modern communication allow individuals to bypass the censure of the state, the dialectic of prevailing ideologies, and the mouth-to-ear regurgitation of the corporate media. This ‘disintermediation’ allows ideas to connect people, lets us share knowledge and tools and confront the terror of bigotry, no matter where and in whatever form it exists. A massive bulwark of positive thought and intent is needed to check the tide of hysterical hate that pits humanity against itself.

There are only two avenues for the future of global society.

1. Reconciliation sought on terms of mutual respect and understanding between the West/non-Muslim World and the Islamic World.

2. Steady annihilation until one completely eradicates the other(s).

For Muslims, the choice is an easy one to make, and it is no different to the commandment Christ (peace be upon him) ordained. It is related in Mark 12 (vv. 28-30):

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”’

The Qur’an only adds to this very position. In Surah Ankabuut (29:46-47), it states:

And argue not with the People of the Scripture unless it be in a way that is better, save with such of them as do wrong. And say: We believe in that which hath been revealed unto us and revealed unto you; our God and your God is One, and unto Him we surrender...’

There is no radical or liberal, progressive or retrograde form of Islam. All of it is based on the concept of wasatiah or moderation

Take the term ‘Islamist’, for instance. At first sight, it is reasonable to suppose that an Islamist would mean an adherent of Islam—just as an evangelist, capitalist, socialist or any other ‘ist’ is an adherent of its respective ‘ism’. Nevertheless, an ‘Islamist’, in the corporate media, and the social lexicon that is invariably informed by it, is not an adherent of a particular religion at all. An Islamist is in fact a homicidal maniac with a crazed determination to strap explosive items to various parts of his anatomy and blow whosoever comes in his way sky high. Alternatively, an Islamist is a dogmatic, chauvinistic, strangely-clad anachronist, with an in-built hatred for any opinion but his own, who is out to convert the world to his private, misguided moral vision for it.

Dozens of newsreaders, writers, ‘experts’ and followers of their respective national version of neo-conservatism will cry until they go hoarse that an Islamist is best defined by the image of a Daesh bomber or Al-Qaeda. Of course—and this is their clincher—an Islamist has nothing to do with Islam which is a religion of peace, the term ‘Islam-ist’ only happens to include Islam as its prefix. Yet, the connection has already been established well enough to make it extremely difficult for anyone to disentangle violence, Afghanistan, purdah, terrorism, Islamist, ISIS, Iraq, bombing and Islam from this massive juxtapositioning and entanglement of parallels and cross-wiring. Ergo, it is acceptable to believe that Islam and violence are inseparable, and therefore adherents of Islam (that is the final subliminal created belief being marketed) are followers of a violent creed. We must not allow a similar trend in labelling the terror of the Sangh Parivar ‘saffron terror’, because it grants that organisation the legitimacy of an association—through nomenclature—with a larger fraternity or ummah. The Sadhvi Pragyas of this world, as well as their louder partners in various parishads and shakhas are not representative of the Hindu community and must not be given the respect of being associated with the Hindu faith.

Like other Abrahamic faiths from which it has evolved, Islam does not preach unilateral pacifism, and like them, nor does it sanction bloodlust. Many wordsmiths out there, in India and in the West have built full-time careers from denigrating and debasing the Qur’an and its teachings. There is no gain and much loss of time in addressing them directly. However, their poisoned fancies do need the antidote of reality.

Fighting is prescribed in all scriptures of the Abrahamic religions, not just the Qur’an, but for specific causes; and the causes for which it is sanctioned are consistent with each other in the teachings of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (and even Hindu scriptures, for that matter). The only difference between the prescriptions lies in the semantics that convey them. Observe the notion of just retribution that Jews of the Old Testament are directed to take:

The Lord said to Moses, “Take vengeance on the Midianites for the Israelites”… So Moses said to the people, “Arm some of your men to go to war against the Midianites and to carry out the Lord’s vengeance on them”… They fought against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every man…The Israelites captured the Midianite women and children and took all the Midianite herds, flocks and goods as plunder. They burned all the towns where the Midianites had settled, as well as their camps.’—Numbers 31 v. 1-10

The same theme of retribution or a deserving revenge is subsequently enunciated in the Gospel:

Then I heard the angel in charge of the waters say:

“You are just in these judgements,

You who are and who were, the Holy One,

because you have so judged;

for they have shed the blood of your saints and prophets,

and you give them blood to drink as they deserve.”’
—Revelation 16: 5-6

Finally, the Qur’an instructs its followers to avenge persecution and injustice:

Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! Allah loveth not aggressors. And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter…’—Surah Al- Baqarah (2: 190-191)

Furthermore, the Qur’an clarifies that war in the way of God (that is, Just War) is ordained for every righteous community. It is not ordained for only the believers of the Qur’an, but for the followers of the scripture before it, as they themselves also attest:

Lo! Allah hath bought from the believers their lives and their wealth because the Garden will be theirs: they shall fight in the way of Allah and shall slay and be slain. It is a promise which is binding on Him in the Torah and the Gospel and the Qur’an…’ —Surah Maa-iidah (9: 107-110)

Last week, the world witnessed attacks against predominantly Muslim countries, resulting in the loss of hundreds of lives

Nor is sanction for war against persecution and injustice confined to what conventional theocratic perspectives—within Islam—recognise as ‘People of the Book’. Hinduism places great stress on the necessity of righteous war. In his treatise to the Kshatriya hero Arjun in the Mahabharata, Krishna, an avatar of the Hindu God Vishnu, says:

Slain, you will gain heaven; victorious you will enjoy the earth. Therefore rouse up O’ Son of Kunti, resolved to fight.”—Krishna to Arjun in the Samkhya Yoga 37 of the Bhagavad Gita

How is that any different to the oft misquoted and much highlighted verse from Surah An-Nisa (4:74)?

Who so fighteth in the way of Allah, be he slain or be he victorious, on him we shall bestow a vast reward.’

If the scriptures of a majority of humanity sanction war in certain circumstances, how can we deny that conflict is an inherent part of the human experience and part of our historical burden, for humans as a whole and not merely the invention of a particular creed? Simultaneously, does this not endorse a certain universality in religious thought? All these scriptures assert strict preconditions for war and lay tremendous emphasis on peace. Acts of aggression are condemned by all, something purely political ideas do not necessarily do.

The problem that opponents of the Qur’an (and thus of Muslims) really have with Islam is that its adherents continue to put their belief and faith in something which originated (and believe was revealed by God to his Messenger) 1,400 years ago. Christians as nations or political entities perhaps do not do this anymore. Thus, a vacuum of vulnerability is ready and waiting to be exploited by anyone wishing to derail inter-faith dialogue and understanding. Critics of the Qur’an do so by questioning the very legitimacy of the revelation, their intention being to misinform an already bellicose non-Muslim opinion of Islam’s essential Godlessness and the eternal restlessness of Muslims. Alternatively, their thought processes cannot conceive a bipolar world in which more than one point of view (their own) can exist. Their mirror images in the Muslim world also take advantage of such aggression and misinform Muslim opinion about it. To them, American foreign policy, for example, of the kind professed by a ‘Donald Trump type’ epitomises Christian values, and by extension, the argument takes a downward spiral and degenerates into a Christianity versus Islam template. Thus, Christianity is painted as an infidel state which is bent upon the destruction of Islam, whereas the idea of either Judaism or Christianity as infidel faiths is completely contradictory of Islamic belief. Consequently, some half-educated Muslim clerics, indoctrinated as much by home-spun theological beliefs as they are by their personal and selective preference for agenda-driven moral values, lean towards universal denunciations more readily than Adam leant towards the Forbidden Tree. The rest of the world is then given an option of the crude ‘if you are not with us you are against us’ variety.

Medina—Islam’s second holiest site—has been at the receiving end of terror attacks which many label ‘Islamist’

For provocateurs on all sides, current geo-political conditions offer a unique opportunity through propaganda and violence— as much as through ‘fantasies and fluff’—to damage the others’ collective standing in the world while enhancing their own power base. They cover a vast social spectrum, from random dropouts to global polymaths, and they imagine a long-term game scenario for the propulsion of their divisive agenda. For some, an imagined cause can build a life, a career around or alternatively gain uber-fame and quick popularity by attaching their opinion to an already burgeoning bandwagon of whatever issue is in season. These are agents ‘willing to fight to the last drop of other people’s blood’ and in times like these, everyone is a potential convert to their own revitalised religion of hate, a religion without scripture, without cause and without any history except a well-established chronology of opportunism and causing disturbance. The appearance this opposition has (though it may not be so) is almost one of loathing for a creed that refuses to let go of its roots. They deny the existence of the prophets (peace be upon them) and they envy (or sometimes exploit) the moral hold that religions possess, at least over millions of their respective followers. No one is forcing these people to accept Islam (or even a belief in God). They are free not to accept even the prophet-hood of Muhammad (peace be upon him). After all, Islam began with only one man and today is approaching two billion followers worldwide, but everyone is entitled to their opinions and live by the laws of their own country, culture and tradition. What is unacceptable is the public denigration of Islamic figureheads, tenets and beliefs that is being carried out while opponents of this trend are dismissed with terms such as ‘jihadist’. This double blow, a dismissal and then the distortion of key theological terms which turn a tenet into an expletive, stems from an intent of hostility, and arrogance. It is the superpower syndrome that the writer John le Carre says leads Americans to ‘believe very charmingly that everybody wants to be American and wants the American way of life, it truly isn’t so.’ That kind of motive is still harmless in its delinquent aspirations. More serious are the constructions of state policies that seek to build bridges of hate upon which the forces of a ‘New World Order’ can charge into the imagined citadels of Islam. One such link is the constant search for temporary allies. Just like the Mujahideen in Afghanistan who punctured the great Iron Curtain and ended the menace of Communist USSR in the early 1990s served their purpose, so too do the various other enmities skulking around the globe today. They all rely on references to the external threat and the enemy within and on the alienation of anybody who stands in the way. The writer Pankaj Mishra sees this construction happening at home as well. In ‘Why Silence over Kashmir Speaks Volumes’, which appeared in The Guardian on 14 August 2010, he writes: ‘However, intellectuals preoccupied by transcendent, nearly mystical, battles between civilization and barbarism tend to assume that “democratic” India, a natural ally of the “liberal” west, must be doing the right thing in Kashmir, i.e. fighting “Islamofascism”. Thus Christopher Hitchens could call upon the Bush administration to establish a military alliance with “the other great multi-ethnic democracy under attack from Muslim fascism” even as an elected Hindu nationalist government stood accused of organising a pogrom that killed more than 2,000 Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat.’

Recently, I listened to an acquaintance suggest that India should do in Kashmir what Israel does in Gaza. It was a crushing reference, which ignores the unique nature and formation of Indian democracy. It also denigrates the possibility that India alone possesses the potential to give democracy the respectability it appears to have lost in the United States and elsewhere. As a Muslim and as a citizen of India, one can only hope that Islam is not the anvil upon which the hammer of Indian politics must fall to forge the sword of democracy. The multiple tragedies of Kashmir may or may not be manipulated to create a reaction among Muslims against the Indian State, but the use of Israel-style tactics of subversion, persecution and murder accompanying enforcement would certainly do so. From that tragedy could be created another tragic fallout, that of democratic deficit and a dividend of further hate.

As a Muslim and citizen of India, one can only hope Islam is not the anvil upon which the hammer of politics must fall to forge the sword of democracy

Those who theorise about the humiliations of Islam beginning with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 have no grasp or concept of what constitutes the Islamic world or its ideas. Napoleon himself was already in negotiations with the embassy of the Muslim ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan. In a report in February 1798, none less than the French diplomat Talleyrand observed: ‘Having occupied and fortified Egypt, we shall send a force of 15,000 men from Suez to India, to join the forces of Tipu-Sahib and drive away the English.’

This faraway illustration is used to show that the spirit of both conflict and compromise was dictated then (as it is now) by the realpolitik games of kings and emperors. Muslim arms led the Arab Revolt at the time of the Great War and delivered the Ottoman Empire its final blow. In gratitude, the Balfour Declaration of 1919 called for the creation of what became Israel in 1948.

Can people really expect to bully a generation of Muslims who have withstood, in the span of 30 years, the one-sided and brutal attacks on their lands, beliefs and way of life? The continued subjugation of Palestine and Lebanon, the wars in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Iraq, the threat of armed conflict in Iran, the infamous atrocities of Bosnia, Kosovo and Chechnya, not to mention the myriad manufactured conflicts of a lesser degree but enormous potential in other parts of the world? The catastrophe of Gaza continues, and who can calculate the daily loss of trust that this has generated?

It is no longer meaningful to repeat the casualty figures among children and women in Iraq because our sense of morality to that is already numbed. What Le Carre calls ‘the humiliation of limbo’ prolongs itself until the victim decides to exercise the power of hatred and resentment which humiliation has created. Violence begets violence and persecution leads to a response. Yet the vast majority of the Islamic world is still enthusiastic about the West and about dialogue with the West and with the many Christian democracies that the West encompasses. This possibility of peace is the danger that ideological unilateralists want to disturb.

Critics of Islam favour comparisons with Communism and Fascism. With the collapse of Global Communism, the Red threat is now a Green beacon. The ideological counterweight, to replace the war against Communism, is now a dehumanisation of Islam long after it is ‘Mission Accomplished’ in the ‘War against Terror’. Yet the similarities between Communism and Islam are highlighted as though they were a doctoral thesis. This pedestrian argument is as uncouth as saying that colonisation and imperialism were Christian movements because they were propelled by Christian fervour. Furthermore, this argument completely ignores the distinction between primordial human constellations such as faith and passing phenomenon of human experience, for example a particular ideology, such as the filth propounded and carried out by Daesh. It is a certain arrogance of a particular streak of human nature to believe that its own way of life can and must enslave all potential competition to ensure its own material longevity. In the United States, this arrogance annihilated the culture of Native Indians in the 19th century and since has found a new champion in Donald Trump. It has also found ready allies in ideas which may bear no resemblance to the ‘The Great American Dream’, except in their disdain for the idea of justice.

ON A STATE VISIT to Morocco last month, Vice- President Hamid Ansari challenged the idea of Islam as a homogenous entity. In the context of this piece, his (very candid) speech deserves to be quoted in some detail. He said: “In current discussions in many places, the terms ‘Arab’ and ‘Islam’ are used together or interchangeably. But are the two synonymous? Is Arab thought synonymous with Islamic thought? Is all Arab thought Islamic or vice versa? Above all, can all Islamic thinking be attributed to Arabs? I raise these questions because for a variety of reasons and motivations the contemporary world, particularly the West, tends to create this impression of ‘a powerful, irrational force that, from Morocco to Indonesia, moves whole societies into cultural assertiveness, political intransigence and economic influence’. The underlying basis for this, as [the writer] Aziz Al-Azmeh put it, are ‘presumptions of Muslim cultural homogeneity and continuity that do not correspond to social reality…’ Islam is a global faith, and its adherents are in all parts of the world. The history of Islam as a faith, and of Muslims as its adherents, is rich and diversified. In different ages and in different regions the Muslim contribution to civilisation has been noteworthy. In cultural terms, the history of Islam ‘is the history of a dialogue between the realm of religious symbols and the world of everyday reality, a history of the interaction between Islamic values and the historical experiences of Muslim people that has shaped the formation of a number of different but interrelated Muslim societies.’”

Islam is not the 19th century doctrine of Communism formulated by a man in a library that could not sustain itself for more than a century. Nor is it the 20th century product of crazed nationalism, parading its fascism in the streets of Europe, a political method that was blown away in the course of a single war. Islam has been a force of civilisation globally because it recognised and imbibed local and regional cultures, folk tradition and heritage; relevant because of its universalism; and not constrained by dogma. The libraries of Cordoba, Damascus and Agra held acres of learning. There is little need to reiterate in detail here the fabulous wealth of Islamic civilisation and its advances which provided the tools for Europe’s Renaissance.

‘The extinction of race consciousness as between Muslims is one of the outstanding achievements of Islam, and in the contemporary world there is, as it happens, a crying need for the propagation of this Islamic virtue,’ wrote Professor Arnold Toynbee, and not without reason. Today Muslims must live and operate in multiple paradigms, but ones that are more complex. Each of those contexts presents enormous challenges and requires diverse coping strategies. Professor Khaled Abou el Fadl, of UCLA, states, ‘The very notion of a universal or an international religion puts a very serious burden upon Muslim intellectuals to find means of transcending political divides...’

An exchange of ideas need not be confined to theology. All we need is a voice that does not search for the approval of an ideology to seek approval for itself. A voice that is willing to speak truth into the face of power. We need to hear a voice that shouts down the bigots who claim to speak on its behalf and one that is not silenced by the ruckus of manufactured consent. As adherents of a faith, as citizens of a state, and, above all, as humans who have a sense of right and wrong, we need to hear our own voice—for, no man’s God has need to play politics among his creation.