By Mirza Yawar Baig
Headlines scream out at you: “Lal Masjid threatens to give the call for jihad.” “Clash with security forces leaves 16 students dead.” And all this accompanied by pictures of women in burqas wielding lathis longer than themselves. Talk of women power!! Another one: “Flaming jeep drives into Glasgow airport.” (No, it was not Lucifer trying to catch a flight either). “Doctor from Bangalore was the driver.”
What’s the common thread in these and many other such headlines? The names of the actors are all Muslim. And the pressure mounts on all of us – normal, harmless, garden-variety of Muslims – to explain what is going on in the name of Islam. I remember a conversation with a friend, a senior police officer in India to whom I complained about the way the media and all who report such incidents malign Islam in their reporting. She said something that was rather shocking. “Isn’t it the organizations and people who perpetrate these things who claim to be doing them in the name of Islam, first? So what else do you expect anyone else to do? They are only repeating what the originators have said in the first place.”
In the strange world we live in, we Muslims and our Islam seems to be designed either by the strident discordant cries of people like the Imaam of Lal Masjid or the despicable lies spewed out by the likes of Salman Rushdie, Tasleema Nasreen, Irshad Mani and Hirsi Ali. Both these groups seek to foist their version of Islam on the rest of us. I believe the time has come for us, people who are practicing Muslims, proud of our great religion and culture, obedient to Allah, conscious of our accountability to him, with no intention of changing Islam or its Shari’ah in any way whatsoever; to stand up and say, “Do what you want but leave Islam out of it. You don’t represent us. You are not our leaders.”
We Muslims ourselves are in a state of denial. The usual standard answer that we get when we mention the different acts of violence allegedly perpetrated by Muslims is that actually these have been done by or orchestrated by agencies of the enemies of Islam. We have become used to blaming the West, so-called ‘International Agencies’ or who-have-you for whatever happens that involves Muslims. What helps the proponents of this stance is the fact that there have been incidents in the past where it has been proved that one or more of these agencies have in fact had a hand in either staging an act of violence and laying it at the door of Muslims who had nothing to do with it; or of aiding and abetting Muslims in committing hara-kiri of one kind or other.
However the uncomfortable fact remains that there are many incidents that have happened and continue to happen that are entirely the effort of Muslims themselves. Call them misguided. Call them ignorant. Call them extremist. Call them what you will. The fact remains that what they did was of their own volition, with no encouragement from anyone else. The Lal Masjid fiasco is a classic case in point. So are the Shia-Sunni killings in Iraq. So are the Shia-Sunni killings in Pakistan. So are the various fatawa that are given for all kinds of things by obscure clerics with limited knowledge of the religion and even less of the issue of public image. Yet they have no hesitation in making the most outrageous statements, all in the name of Allah and His Messenger. And the media goes to town on them. Ask Muslims why all this is happening and the standard answer you get is that it is not happening. Now that is amazing because it denies blatantly visible facts. But that seems to be the major issue. Like the US, the Muslim Ummah seems to be in a stage of massive denial. We don’t seem to want to admit that we have some serious problems within ourselves, which are the cause of our global suffering.
We don’t seem to want to admit that we need to bring about some major changes in our education system, our cultural moorings, our behavior with others, our social fabric and our very thinking and mindset if we want our image to change. For example, it is true that the US intervention in Iraq has caused some major upheavals in the social order in that wretched land and that the Americans are killing Iraqis like flies, but it is equally true that it is not the Americans who are killing anyone in the Shia–Sunni murders in Iraq. These are of the Iraqis, by the Iraqis, for the Iraqis, thank you very much. The Iraqis seem quite self sufficient in terms of sending each other off to the happy hunting grounds in large numbers. Yet, Muslims blame everyone except themselves for what is happening. We hear long stories of the Western policy of divide and rule and how it is being applied once again. We don’t however hear reasons why after more than 300 years of colonial domination of one kind or another, we still have not learnt that unless a group is willing to be divided, nobody can divide them. What does that say about the intelligence of our leadership and so-called intelligentsia?
The British divided and ruled India because that is what Indians wanted them to do. That is why so many Indians (Sikhs, Maratha and Rajput Rajas, Baniyas of Delhi and Afghans) supported the British with information, money and soldiers while their own compatriots died before British cannon on the walls of Delhi in 1857. And when the War of Independence was lost, they stood in line for Knighthoods, Rai Bahadur-hoods and other sundry ‘honors’ from their colonial masters, for having been good collaborators. And to this day, these worthies are not roundly cursed for being the traitors that they were. Instead we blame the British. My question is that when we know that it is the job of the enemy to divide and rule, why blame him for doing it? It was our job on the other hand, to remain united and not allow anyone to divide us, which we did not do. So whose fault is it if we are divided and then finished off piecemeal? But try telling that to our dear ones!!!
So what is the reason for this terrible situation that we find ourselves in? I believe that this sad situation that we find ourselves in is the result of the effective division of Muslim society into discrete, mutually exclusive groups who have little or nothing in common with one another. What I am writing below is with specific reference to the Indian sub-continent, home to more than 350 million Muslims in 4 countries. However I have no doubt that many issues herein will be common to Muslims in other places as well.
4, mutually exclusive groups
1. The Ulama by and large are a group unto themselves with a distinct education system. On the one hand they need to be applauded for providing free education to a staggering 4 million children most of whom come from families living below the poverty index. These Ulama raise funds by asking for donations from Muslims (the poorest community in India) and feed, house and educate these children but strangely, instead of being admired and thanked they are looked upon by disdain by their own people and maligned by others (who call them fundamentalists and worse). If only one would take the trouble to look, the reality is very different. One can only do what is in one’s power. So since the Ulama themselves are mostly not knowledgeable about modern subjects and don’t have the money to hire professional teachers, most Madrassa students are not taught anything at all of modern subjects or the English language and so their knowledge of the world and the ability to understand current events is almost non-existent.
2. Then there is the group of so-called Danishwaraan-e-millat (the Wise People of the Community). Let us not ask about the nature of this wisdom or of what it has yielded in the last 200 years. These are the business people, professionals, scholars of modern subjects in universities and general well-to-do Muslims.
This group, by and large speaks a different language from the Ulama, does not understand the language the Ulama speak, sees them as necessary only for leading the salah, delivering the Juma Khutba and performing the funeral prayer. All things that the normal Muslim male is supposed to be able to do, but is never taught how to. A ‘priestly class’ has therefore come into being in a religion that expressly bans all priests. This person alleviates his own guilt by throwing some money from time to time at the local Madrassa or masjid. He has no idea what is taught in the Madarassa, has probably never seen the inside of the Madrassa even in his own town and generally treats the Ulama with a mixture of wary respect, suspicion and disdain. The fact that Ulama come from time to time to ask for donations makes it easy for these people to hold them in disdain as being supplicants rather than people with any respectable power. Seems rather complex, but believe me, we manage to do this quite well.
3. Then there are our political leaders. By and large they are corrupt, prey on Muslim society directly and indirectly through their henchmen, win elections by fanning the flames of hatred or fear of the ‘Other’ and showing themselves as the saviors. Ask them what they did during the Gujarat genocide or thereafter to bring the murderers to book and you will see the exact value of these ‘saviors’. Thankfully for them, we have the periodic communal riots and the mentally retarded rantings of the likes of Bal Thackaray, Narender Modi, Ashok Singhal, Uma Bharati, L.K.Advani and other leading lights of the Sangh Parivar, which are an undisguised blessing to keep the flames alive. Also they have enough deaf, blind and dumb constituents to ensure that they are repeatedly elected to office. In short these political leaders are for sale and will do anything that is required to remain in power and have the minimum possible interest in their constituents.
4. Then there is the vast multitude of the so-called ordinary Muslims. People, who live their daily lives, go to the masjid on Fridays, observe Ramadan, celebrate the festivals – the wear sherwani and eat biryani variety. These have no voice of any kind and their only time in the limelight is when they get killed in police firing somewhere (notice that the political leaders who incite them never do the dying) or when they are seen in processions, shouting slogans for one obscure cause or another. In this they are regularly used by all political parties and thrown aside when their function is over like so much waste paper.
All these groups have almost no contact with each other, no way to influence each other, no shared knowledge or experience and no mutual understanding. Instead there is a very high degree of mutual suspicion, aided and abetted by clever propaganda and lies manufactured by one group against another which widens the divide. The result is that there is no common authority or voice, either at a country level or at a global level. Every Muslim is therefore a ‘Khalifa’ unto himself and there’s no central authority. Consequently no Muslim is answerable to anyone else. And so does what he or she feels like doing or what makes ‘sense’ to them in their frame of reference. No matter that this frame of reference may be neither logical nor reasonable, much less theologically correct.
It is true that Muslims worldwide have genuine grievances about the way they are treated, especially by the West. They have grievances about the slavery they find themselves in, enforced in most cases by the puppet regimes that have been placed on their heads by Western powers, making them prisoners in their own lands. They have on the one hand to live under totalitarian regimes who are vicious and brutal and who will not hesitate to commit mayhem on a massive scale to put down any popular uprising.
Simultaneously and ironically on the other hand they have to suffer being called non-democratic, unwilling to rise up against their rulers and dictators and generally apathetic. The fact that these very rulers have been put in place and are supported and kept in place by Western military strength is not mentioned in the breath that it takes to condemn those who are suffering under such rule. Be that as it may, the fact remains that bursting bombs in airports, night clubs and malls is not going to change any of this. Instead, what it will do is to strengthen the hands of the oppressors and give them even more power to arm themselves and their allies, create a more closed society, bring in more draconian laws and generally perpetrate more crimes in the name of maintaining security.
So what is the solution? In my view the solution lies in the amazingly fortunate situation the Muslim Ummah finds itself of being in the eye of the world, provided that we can get our act together and act proactively in a coherent, sensible, creative and positive manner. Potentially Muslims today have access to the world media, any channel, and any country, free of cost. Anything that has an Islamic bent attracts the cameras and the world watches. Whose fault is it that almost all of it is negative? If our people drive flaming jeeps into airports; that is what will be shown. If they hole up inside a masjid or madrassa keeping women and children hostage, that is what will be shown.
If they claim responsibility for some act of violence perpetrated on innocent people, that is what will be reported. Propaganda is created and propagandists thrive in a situation where their victims readily provide them with real data and events to twist and report. And that is what we continue to do.
Key: Non-violent struggle for truth: Satyagrah
The key is to do what Gandhiji did during the Indian Freedom Struggle; create media events that show you in a good light while shaking the foundations of power. The Gandhian method of Satyagrah (non-violent civil disobedience) is a wonderful method that works very well in a situation where the establishment is law abiding. Today this is more or less true of all the places where Muslims live. And bright lights and cameras will do the rest to ensure that the first action is not the last. So if we have issues that we want the world to see and take action on, then we need to create the equivalent of a Salt Satyagrah which very simply, challenged the authority of the British Government to make laws in its Empire. And all that Gandhiji did was to walk to the beach and make some salt.
Today, the real battle is for mindshare. And it is on the television screen. That is where governments of the developed world are made or unmade. Popularity is the god that the West worships. Because popularity translates into money and power. That is what we have to do; become popular. Setting off fireworks is not the way to do this. No matter what the provocation.
Think Tanks & Team work
I believe that the first step in this direction is to get the minds of the Ummah together. I propose that Think Tanks be created at a local level in every place where Muslims live. These must comprise of a cross-section of all the segments that I mentioned above. People who participate in them must learn how to collaborate, dialogue, differ and deal with conflict. They must learn to disagree without being disagreeable. They must learn to focus on issues of common concern while agreeing to live with the differences. They must learn to put the interest of Islam and the Muslim Ummah above their own narrow partisan concerns. And they must learn to obey an Ameer. These individual local groups must network and come together at a country level and in time at a global level. There are many secular and other religious organizations today who follow this model, very successfully. All it needs is sincerity and dedication. The methods are all known, Islamic in origin and easy to follow, but only for those who genuinely want to follow them.
These Think Tanks must identify important emerging issues, deliberate on them, take expert advice and then create solutions for them from an Islamic perspective. These solutions must be innovative, attractive and powerful and with great media savvy, must be made public. Believe me, if we do the right thing, world media will be only too glad to give us air time free of cost. After all the Nobel Peace Prize went to Mohammad Younus of Grameen Bank fame with a battery of appearances on all the major media channels, with his Islamic identity clearly visible in every appearance.
A Dundee Salt March with a Gandhi leading it will make all the headlines and primetime shows in the world, even today. And it will be free for the Gandhi and his followers. That is what we need. If you become news worthy, you become news. I believe that it is time for the thinking ones to wake up and start thinking so that they don’t allow the mindless to hijack their image and thereby draw suffering on their heads for no fault of their own.
Lethargy in today’s world is a crime. Especially lethargy in a situation where our very existence is threatened. Let us remember that as long as we are seen as people who are addicted to violence neither we nor our religion are likely to be seen in a positive light. Whether this image is fact or not is immaterial. It is the dominant image today. And it is an image that must be debunked. Nobody likes to be with or to support murderers of innocent people. We don’t either. But it is now time to come out of our drawing rooms and not only say so loudly and clearly but to create systems where an alternate voice is heard at least equally clearly. A time will come, insha’Allah if we do this, that the world will turn to us for solutions to its problems. For it will see Muslim society free from such evils. That is the differentiator which will set us up clearly as the leaders of the world. But when the world sees Muslim society also like itself, in the clutches of ignorance, violence, barbaric customs and mindless traditions of social exploitation, do you blame it, if it sees no difference?
After all sheep are sheep, no matter how many. And sheep can never be shepherds.
Mirza Yawar Baig
Member, Muslim Consultative Council
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