By Zubeida Mustafa
IN his thought-provoking speech before the UN General Assembly, President Pervez Musharraf said that many Muslims believed that their religion was being demonized. At the same time the West perceived the Islamic world as volatile and the Muslims as fanatics and extremists. He called for “reflection, introspection and action” and proposed a strategy of “enlightened moderation”.
As he strove to refute the infamous theory of clash of civilizations, the president advised the Muslim states to assume their responsibility for introducing internal reform. He asked them to “eschew extremism and confrontation” and “embrace the march of civilization”.
No sensible person would disagree with these observations. If one were to scan the world media on any given day one would not fail to notice the extremely negative light in which Islam and the Muslims are portrayed. Even if we concede the fact that the world media is far from being unbiased and fair in its coverage of events, especially in the Third World, we cannot refute the veracity of some of the happenings that are reported. If some of these reports give the impression of being sensationalized and anti-Islamic, we are ourselves to be blamed.
Take the instance of the Nigerian woman, Amina Lawal, who was sentenced to death by stoning for alleged adultery. Mercifully, this sentence has been set aside by the higher court. But all along for two years, the prosecution in Nigeria made out the case to be one which was being tried under the Shariat law. The penalty of stoning to death — which anyone who is even slightly enlightened would find abhorrent — reinforces the impression in the West that “Islam’s vision is trapped in any one period of history” (quite the contrary of what the president had to say). While the case created an uproar and evoked a lot of sympathy for Ms Lawal — the email was extensively used to mobilize support for the condemned woman — in the process it gave bad publicity to Islam.
Another case in point is the Hudood law in Pakistan. This has already given the country quite a bad name. The report of the Justice Nasir Aslam Zahid Commission on women, which was released in August 1997, gave extensive details of how this law imposed by a military dictator in the name of Islam had created room for the abuse of women’s rights. When the National Commission on the Status of Women recently recommended that the law be repealed and a new one be drafted in its place, there was a hue and cry from the religious parties. They even sent their women out on the streets to demonstrate against any change in the Hudood Ordinances. Since they based their case on the claim that the ordinances were a part of Islamic law, it again brought negative publicity to religion.
Take yet another case of the Norwegian journalist, Asne Seierstad’s book The Bookseller of Kabul which has caused such a furore. The “bookseller” on whose life it is based has reacted strongly to what Ms Seierstad has written after she stayed with his family for several months under an agreed arrangement. Mr Mohammad Shah Rais, the subject of the book in which he is called Sultan Khan, has said that the book is “defamation of me, my family and my nation”. He has now travelled to Norway to seek a restoration of his “honour”.
He has done us all a good service by not dragging in religion too as the object of defamation. He is angry because the book describes his family life which is characterized by his crass maltreatment of the women in his life. What the book describes could well have been written about many families in this country. All this is naturally not earning the Muslim world a good name.
This is in addition to the terrorism unleashed by Al Qaeda and the numerous religious groups operating under different names, which incidentally constitute a small minority of the over one billion Muslims living the world over. But why have these groups indulging in acts of violence come to be perceived as the representatives of the Islamic world? It has been pointed out by many analysts that the lack of education, high incidence of poverty and the extreme injustice inflicted on some regions such as Palestine have won these groups the tacit support of the masses.
But Karen Armstrong, the reputed author of The History of God, has another explanation. This phenomenon has been common to all major religions be they Christianity, Judaism, or Hinduism, she writes in an article in The Guardian. According to her, history tells us that people have resisted colonial domination and oppression by developing millennial visions which amounted to a systematic renunciation of the mainstream culture.
“These millennial groups usually developed after a crisis or disaster had destroyed in some sense the world they had known. Inspired by a corrosive sense of political helplessness they fought for a new world order in which the first should be last and the last first,” Armstrong writes.
What is disturbing — and which has not been so clearly recognized — is that these extremist groups regard the secular society as destructive and alien to their vision. Hence it is not just the militant Islamic groups which should be a cause of concern. The religious fanatics in Israel, India and America are equally a threat to world peace. In the Muslim world such groups have been fed on the frustration and hopelessness of the people. Since this appears to be greater in the Muslim world the millennial groups have gained in strength. Hence the need for the introspection as suggested by President Musharraf.
The Muslim states cut a sorry figure in terms of social and human development and political freedoms. Although many of them with abundant resources and small populations have provided basic civic amenities to their citizens, the larger ones have performed poorly in this respect. In terms of political freedoms and democracy nearly all of them have had a bad track record. When it comes to the status of women, none of them can be considered as being exemplary. Add to all this the injustices imposed on them from outside — the savage war inflicted on Afghanistan in October 2001, the cruel bombing of Iraq earlier this year and the brutalities experienced by the Palestinians — and you have the perfect conditions for the growth of the fundamentalist movements and damaging the image of the Muslims.
Viewed in this backdrop, the mainstream society in the Islamic world faces the challenge of preventing the millennial groups from creating more space for themselves in public life and bringing about the clash of civilizations they fervently believe in. For President Musharraf this could prove to be the biggest challenge to his government.