Ferment in Muslim thinking

Published : Apr 25, 2003 00:00 IST

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. - ATTA KENARE/AFP

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. - ATTA KENARE/AFP

THE proceedings of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit in Kuala Lumpur provided a glimpse of the hurt and dismay in the Muslim psyche at Western perception of Muslims as terrorists. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed said on February 23 that the world was in a state of terror, allowing fear of Muslims to affect international policy. He warned that "the attack against Iraq will simply anger more Muslims who see this as being anti-Muslim rather than anti-terror". An Indian correspondent reported that day that the draft "NAM statement on terrorism, largely authored by India, was stalled... with most of the two score Muslim member-nations viewing it as one that targets them and their religion."

Mahathir Mohammed is second to none in fighting terrorism. Terrorism is condemnable; but it is morally and intellectually impermissible to view terrorism used to promote nationalist causes as one inspired by religion because the nationalists falsely invoke religion. The most extremist of Palestinian nationalists, George Habash, was a Christian. Osama bin Laden was an U.S. ally who found the presence of U.S. troops on the soil of his country, Saudi Arabia, revolting.

Interestingly, while in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Centre (WTC) on 9/11 U.S. commentators called for reflection on the deeper causes of terrorism, they soon adopted arrogantly self-righteous postures and attributed terrorist attacks to hurt pride and envy of U.S.' riches.

However, as William Pfaff remarked: "Washington remorselessly expands its military presence in the Islamic world in order to fight the anti-American terrorism that its presence causes. No one in the government seems to see a contradiction in this."

Prof. John L. Esposito's pioneering work The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? has run into three editions since it was published a decade ago. Unfortunately, intellectual ferment among Muslims the world over gets drowned in the noise and din generated by fundamentalists. Nowhere is this ferment more prominent and of far-reaching consequence than in Iran, which U.S. President George W. Bush included in his "axis of evil". This collection of books reflects both the trends - intellectual creativity and despair which drives people to terrorism.

John L. Esposito and John O. Voll's study of nine "Muslim Activist Intellectuals" provide only a glimpse of the ferment. Their introductory essay on the place of such intellectuals in Islam's history, and, indeed, in societies the world over since the days of Socrates, is incisive. "Dissent is at the heart of the definition of an intellectual, and qualitative dissent, the presentation of new ideas and perspectives or the fundamental rearrangement of old ones, is the `raison d'etre of intellectuals'. Edward Said, himself a prominent public intellectual, notes that the `intellectual is an individual endowed with the faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message... and this role has an edge to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma'."

By this test, the group they have formed is an uninspiring one. Ismail Ragi al-Faruqi rendered high service in assiduously promoting Islamic studies in the U.S.; but, he combined, as they note, "the spirit of the Islamic modernists... with the revivalist outlook of earlier leaders such as" - ibn Abd al-Wahab, the founder of Wahabism in Saudi Arabia. Khurshid Ahmad is no intellectual at all. He translated into English some writings of the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Abul-ala Mawdudi and sought to propound "Islamic economics". He did well for himself in Pakistan's politics. Maryam Jameelah, "a voice of conservative Islam", is a tragic case. Born in New York, she embraced Islam, settled down in Pakistan as the second wife of a Jamaat activist and denounced "all reformers (secular and Islamic modernists) together".

What, then, is the editors'criteria for selection in this odd group? Those whose ideas influenced people or ones whose scholarship was deep and made an impact on the elite? Contrast it with Kenneth Cragg's selection in his Ian Douglas Memorial Lectures entitled The Pen and the Faith. He included Maulana Azad, Ali Shariati, Fazlur Rehman as well as Sayid Qutb of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

To be fair to the editors, they have included essays on creative thinkers as well. There is the remarkable contribution of Hasan Hanafi who left Cairo for Paris at a formative stage in his life and returned a decade later to articulate the new philosophical trends of the day. "At the beginning of his life as an intellectual, he was an activist in the Islamic movement that challenged the more secular political authorities and the Communist opposition. By the late 1990s, he was an intellectual attacked by Islamists in the conservative establishment of al-Azhar University, and he received at least some support from other, more secularist intellectuals who had also been subject to attack, as well as receiving some protection from a relatively Islamically oriented state. This precarious balancing reflects the difficulties of maintaining the position Hanafi represents: bringing together Islamic and Leftist traditions of reform and revolution and doing this within the mainstream rather than at the violent fringes of political society."

He was a champion of "the Islamic Left", a blend of Islam and Nasserism which "mobilises its powers to face the main problems of the age, at the head of which are: imperialism, Zionism, and capitalism which undermine us from without, and poverty, oppression and under development which undermine us from within."

Tunisian activist Rachid Ghannoushi, doubtless, deserves to be included, "an intellectual trained in Western philosophy and self-consciously rooted in Islamic thought, he draws on many sources in formulating his own distinctive perception of the world and of Islam. In the life and thought of Ghannoushi, Islam emerges as both a reaffirmation of faith in the absolute unity of God (tawhid) and a source of liberation. The Islamic movement is a reform movement that targets the individual and society, it seeks to rebuild, to revitalise, to re-Islamise Muslim societies. At the same time, it is a movement of liberation from cultural alienation/Westernisation, economic exploitation, and moral corruption, based on Islamic principles of equality, equity and social justice. Ghannoushi's paradigm is a dynamic process of change informed both by the logic of a long tradition of Islamic revivalism and the realities of the modern world."

Valla Vakil's essay on Abdolkarim Soroush is by far the best in the volume. "In recent years - particularly since the 1997 election of President Mohammed Khatami in Iran - Soroush's position within the critical field has changed. The election dramatically rewrote the boundaries of public political debate in Iran, ushering in a host of powerful, critical concepts: for example, pluralism, democracy, popular will, rule of law and civil society. President Khatami's vigorous advancement of many of these terms granted them a legitimacy in public discourse on which reformist forces quickly drew. A number of newly inaugurated newspapers and periodicals helped spread this new discourse, positioning it in opposition to a ruling dogma identified as monopolist, authoritarian, anti-democratic, arbitrary and violent. Soroush's role within this new discursive space proves quite different from his previous position within tighter borders of critical discourse."

To Soroush, a religious ideology promoted by the state threatens pursuit of knowledge as well as governance of society. A truly religious society should resist the rise of an ideological regime. "Soroush maintains that a government in a religious society may claim legitimacy either on the basis of an interpretation of Islam or through representation of the popular will. The first leads to the reduction of Islam to an ideology; the second bypasses this problem and leads to democracy. If a government in a religious society reflects public opinion, then it necessarily will be a religious government. Citizens in such a society are concerned that their government not violate or offend their religious sentiments. A democratically elected government in a religious society cannot be an irreligious government, for irreligious sentiments do not characterise this society. For a government to be both religious and democratic, according to Soroush, it must protect the sanctity of religion and the rights of human beings."

The English translation of his essays by Mahmoud Sadri and Ahmed Sadri bear the imprimatur of Soroush's approval. He began his career as a prominent ideologue of the Islamic Republic of Iran and ended up as its enfant terrible who questioned the theological and political underpinnings of the republic. He was barred from teaching. "Yet, Soroush's defiance is not regarded as particularly heroic in Iran", which has a fine tradition of dissent.

The volume deserves wide readership. The remarks, which Soroush made in a discussion with the translators, reveal his intellectual insights and moral courage. "I fear that Moslems, in their confrontation with Western civilisation, wish to turn to Islam as an identity. And this is encouraged by certain Moslem and non-Moslem thinkers alike. I recently reviewed Mr. Huntington's thesis and noticed that he has invoked a number of civilisations, including Islamic civilisation. His notion of a crisis of identity in the Islamic world made me even more confident about the veracity of my own judgment. I think one of the greatest theoretical plagues of the Islamic world, in general, is that people are gradually coming to understand Islam as an identity rather than a truth. It is true that Moslems did have an Islamic identity and civilisation, but they have not adopted Islam for the sake of identity or civilisation...

"I believe that the Islam of identity should yield to the Islam of truth. The latter can coexist with other truths; the former; however, is by very nature, belligerent and bellicose. It is the Islam of war, not the Islam of peace. Two identities would fight each other, while two truths would cooperate".

As David Menashri points out, Soroush argued that the rule of the clergy is "based on the logic of power, not the logic of liberty". Using religion as an ideology "makes it intolerant and authoritarian". Government and economics, for example, are the province of intellect and reason, not the domain of faith. The clergy, the Ulama, should be "freed" from the state of public financial support so that they are not forced to propagate official views. Religion is for the "lovers of faith"; not for "the dealers of the faith". In two decades of Islamic rule, Soroush said, except for censoring some pornographic scenes from movies and forcing dress codes on women, the clerics in power did not seem to have "anything of worth to say", and had not engaged in "any useful action" at all. Menashri wrote: "In his view, they even failed to comprehend the proper meaning of a modern revolution, which they confined to the creation of a society-based exclusively on religious laws as they understood them. In his words: `The religious intellectuals (equipped with modern education) have brought about a reconciliation between religion and revolution, and are now endeavouring to reconcile religion with democracy.' But the clerics, now wielding power in Iran, `have never reconciled religions and revolution in the modern sense of the term, but only made use of religion as a platform for their struggle against dictatorship'."

Soroush could not have thought and written thus except in the Iranian milieu. There is a distinct change in the intellectual climate there. Christopher de Bellaigue wrote in The New York Review (June 27, 2002): "When I was in Qom this spring, a friend there observed that it is hard to find a conservative cleric who hasn't changed his views on the legitimacy of the guardianship of the jurist. To one degree or another they all now felt the office should change so as to reflect a society that is seeking a less paternalistic sort of government. According to Sadeq Haqiqat, a reform-minded cleric, `as democratic thoughts gain ground, it's impossible' for the religious authorities to resist efforts to modify the principle of the guardianship of the jurist."

David Menashri of the Tel Aviv University traces carefully the developments since the Revolution in February 1979 till the end of 1999. It is a very able resume, interspersed with striking comment. Nor is foreign policy neglected. But the most instructive parts are the ones that describe and analyse the contest between reformers and conservatives as economic problems become acute affording the latter a weapon against President Khatami's group. "More than two decades after the revolution, the struggle over the future path of Iran is not yet over. Recently, domestic controversies have further deepened and turned increasingly harsher and more open. In sum, as was demonstrated in the 2000 Majlis election campaign, this is a struggle between the initial ideals of the 1979 revolution and the new spirit of President Khatami's movement. It is a struggle between conservatism and reformism, idealism and pragmatism, religion and state, isolationism and globalisation. It is equally a contest between the institutions of power and the emerging civil society; between the old guards and the new generation.

While growing demand - and support - for reform has been noticed, the conservative establishment is struggling to preserve loyalty to the revolutionary dogmas. With time, almost all taboos have been removed, and Iranians - more than others in the region - are now debating among themselves the fundamental questions facing their nation. It is a profound and comprehensive debate, on questions of religion and state, Islam and democracy, idealism versus national interests, and on attitudes towards the outside world."

Iran deserves empathy and support. The U.S. prefers confrontation, which only strengthens the conservatives. The intellectual debate raging inside the country compels admiration.

Malise Ruthven won respect for his book Islam in the world published in 1984, a work of insight and empathy. Admittedly, A Fury for God: The Islamist Attack on America was written in the "heat of the moment" between October 2001 and February 2002 and is an "interim report". His purpose is to explore the religious and political background behind 9/11. Was the doctrine of "jihad" responsible for it? There is no reference to Chiragh Ali's classic in this hurried work; a lot to Sayyid Qutb's interpretation of jihad. The quickie abounds in speculation with a hurried account of al Qaeda. Any one who quotes Yossef Bodansky invites scepticism.

Ruthven is opposed to fundamentalists of all religious hues and does not spare their traditions. He is opposed to a war on Iraq and stresses the need for an Arab-Israeli accord on Palestine. There are useful bits of information. On November 30, 2000, during the judicial proceedings, following the contested Florida vote, George W. Bush "circulated a petition to 162,000 evangelical pastors belonging to the `Jerry Falwell Support Circle' instructing them to send e-mails to the Vice-President (Al Gore) urging him to step down". The author's heart is in the right place. A less hurried book would have carried greater weight.

Makers of Contemporary Islam by John L. Esposito and John O. Voll; Oxford University Press; pages 257, Rs.275.

Reason, Freedom and Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of Abdol karim Soroush, translated, edited and with a critical introduction by Mahmoud Sadri and Ahmad Sadri; Oxford University Press; pages 236, $22.99.

Post Revolutionary Politics in Iran: Religion, Society and Power by David Menashri; Frank Cass; pages 356, 17.50

A Fury for God: The Islamist Attack on America by Malise Ruthven; Granta Books; pages 324, 15.

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