EditorJuly August 2005

An Islamic Future?

Future Islam

A post-democratic era is fast descending on us. Long cherished human ideals like liberty, human dignity and the idea of a free-society, are on a perpetual wane. Intellectual freedom, the very basis of any future-oriented civilised society, is under serious threat today throughout the globe, more so, in the western world – the traditional bastion of modern democracy.

The 9/11 has intensified not what is mistakenly dubbed as the ‘clash of civilizations’ but a real battle between liberty and fascism, between freedom and fanaticism. Long before 9/11, more particularly after the dismantlement of the Soviet Union, the western world was moving from liberal pluralism to evangelical democracy, from Plutocracy to post-democracy, a situation that has yet to be properly defined. Though old cliché like keeping human rights on guard or propagating democratic ideals were still the bane of American foreign policy, the policy makers in Washington D.C., it appeared to many of us, no longer believed in the sovereignty of other functional democracies. While democratic ideals demanded from us that we respect the sovereignty of nation states, those championing the cause of evangelical democracy were hell-bent on exporting American way of living to other parts of the globe. The war for democracy then attained the pitch of an imperial war, a mad rush for the coca-colization of the entire planet.

Democracy can mean many things in different parts of the world depending on the socio-religious makeup of the society. Any attempt to define democracy in monolithic terms will result in the negation of the very spirit of democracy itself. If the democratic conscience of America can allow capital punishment within its territory, there is no moral justification for objecting to the French decision of banning head-scarves or other religious symbols from its state-run schools, or condemning the Muslim societies for not accepting lesbians and gays as constitutional minority. In their naivety to envision and export a monolithic democracy by hook and crook, policy makers in western capitals have greatly wounded liberal democracy. Democracy, the mode of relatively peaceful political change that mankind had invented in centuries long journey, is unfortunately a finished phenomenon. Now, democracy has become a choice between the lesser and greater evils, as in the recent elections in the US and the UK people had no other choice but to choose from stale and sick options; between Carey and Bush, Labour and Tory. The absence of any effective democratic voice in the traditional bastions of liberal democracy has resulted in growing numbers of detention camps across the globe where fellow humans are dehumanised. The days of Gulag Archipelago and the horrors of Auschwitz are back again. And this time at a much greater scale.

Can democracy triumph again? In post-democratic era it is becoming increasingly difficult for an individual to wage an all-out popular struggle for the restoration of human dignity. What characterizes a post-democratic situation is the ambiguity about where lie its sources of power. It is not that easy to say pin-pointedly who controls the state apparatus. Apparently, it alludes that the American empire through its detention ‘facilities’ scattered around the world controls the globe. But within the Empire and outside it there are many not so visible and uncontrollable power centres; the empire like MNCs, the trans-national NGOs, the ultra-rich foundations and trusts, financial institutions controlling the destiny of ‘independent’ nations and the media channels controlled and owned by a few rich individuals. In this post-democratic chaos we do not know how to push for a reform or how even a humble beginning can be made in the right direction. Not the western democracy alone has come to a dead-end; it has brought the individual to an ideological vacuum.

The fear of post-democracy is much more frightening than the vague notions of the ‘End of History’. For the upholders of ‘endism’ may believe that history might restart again while the post-democratic vacuum brings us to a desperate feeling that there remains nothing ideologically sustainable to bank upon, that history has gone completely out of gear and now we are heading towards an unknown destination. Having been afraid of what future holds for them, many of us are desperate to get off of the globe but feel it is already too late. The complete control over the world system of mega-corporations and their capitalist sister concerns have made political leadership impotent as agents of any future revolution. It is simply ridiculous to believe that any state, howsoever powerful it might appear, can reign in the ruthless, cruel capitalist devils. Worse still, the mega-corporations control the world media; General Electric (NBC, CNBC, MSNBC), Time Warner (CNN), Disney (ABC) and Viacom (CBS). They show us only what they want us to see, keeping us constantly unaware of the real situation lest it may generate a powerful movement against their plundering and colonization of the globe.

The situation is very gloomy. Apparently there is no one to rescue this planet and its inhabitants from this chaos and disorder. As for peace or green movements or international human rights organizations that voice their concern from time to time, they too are, in a way, an extension of the same ruthless capitalist system as they depend much on their financial grants and endowments. Capitalism will allow them as long as they are containable or pose no serious threat to their ever growing greed. We will be mistaken if we believe that peace movements or anti-war coalitions can bring any radical change in the foreseeable future. There are instances when these groups were cut to size whenever an opportunity arose or when they really became loud enough to contain. In October 2000 some fifty American NGOs — including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch — had called on the UN “to hold the United States accountable for the intractable and persistence problem of discrimination”. And at a UN conference against racism, held in Durban a few days before 9/11, some NGOs almost rebelled against the status quo endorsing a resolution that said that the free-market economy was “fundamentally flawed system”. But such voices of reason had to be quieted down in the backdrop of ‘war on terror’ and especially after the promulgation of draconian anti-terrorism laws that encroached upon basic human rights.

Where shall we then turn to? The death of Democracy has left us with no choice but to explore other possible avenues for an alternative world system. At the moment there are no readymade options available. True, there exists the Book of God amongst us, but for centuries it has been kept wrapped up in safe places. Then, there are those amongst us whom Jesus called ‘salt of earth’ and ‘light on the hill’ and those who still look at themselves as God’s chosen people apart from varieties of religious seers who day in and day out call for global peace. But they all lack a viable plan that can rescue the planet from the present morass. God’s chosen people as they believe to be, the Jews have been mainly interested in salvation of their own folk alone. And Christianity in her enthusiasm to cater to the aspirations of every body has made so many compromises in course of history that now it appears no more a city on the hill. Nonetheless, there are nice, desperate souls among the Jews and Christians and also among other faith communities, but despite their realization that the problem we confront is global and needs a global effort, for centuries they have been trained to work in isolation. As each community is interested in her own domination and salvation, their communitarian project has no attraction for the other. The same is true with some enthusiastic proponents of Islam who envision future in terms of global Muslim domination or those who believe that the western civilization has lost its vigour and now it is time for the Chinese or Indian civilization to take over. Envisioning Islam or any global ideology for that matter, in cultural or civilizational construct has always had disastrous implications. Islam, the universal message of God, an invitation to all to submit to one Lord God alone, has yet to move out of the civilizational shadows cast on her during the Abbasid era, the so called golden age of Islam.

The world we live in today is an interwoven and interdependent world. Any ideology claiming to be capable of its redemption must acquire a universal look and appeal. Any attempt to revive Muslim civilization, as it is conceived by most of us, will not only be counter-productive but will also go against the Qur’anic intent. Those willing to rescue the world from present morass must look at their ideological make up first whether they really carry a message that has universal appeal of a prophetic magnitude.

Let me elaborate. Islam, as it is generally conceived today, is a mix of the Divine message and Muslim history. A lot of cultural and historical elements have gone into the making of what we call today the Muslim identity. The same is true of almost all religions and ideologies and that is why they have limited appeal. They cater to the needs and aspirations of specific people. This picture of Islam, of a religion originated and prospered in Arabia, or as a religion of the Middle-Eastern people is not its true picture. However, owing to some historical reasons and classical fiqhi debates about the world divided into darul-Islam and darul-kufr, our fuqaha believed that the essential colour of Islam was Arab. Today the emergence of Islam has become synonymous with the cultural and political invasion of the Muslim people. This picture of Islam must be replaced by the true message of God that nullifies all sorts of invasion, be it cultural, religious, political or otherwise. Creating a situation where all sorts of people, despite their diversity of colour, race or language can sing together in unison the glory of one Lord, is the summum bonum that Islam stands for. The stage is set for such a universal Islam to emerge on the scene.

The eternal message of God as the Qur’an is, it must be equally relevant for all time and for all places, for all geographical and linguistic groups, male or female. Its Arabicness cannot be overemphasised to give the Arab people an edge over non-Arabs. In the formative days of popular Islam when the mission of Islam got transformed into the Empire’s ideology and in course of our interpretative activities leading to canonization of Muslim creed, a sort of Muslimness — the emphasis on belonging to the mainstream and popular creed placing much emphasis on the outward manifestations – became part and parcel of the Islamic faith. Since then onward, owing to the fear of fitna, Muslim orthodoxy gradually established itself leaving little room for other possible projections. The door of Ijtihad was declared closed and the Ulema kept a heavy guard on the Book of God lest some one dares to open the Book for directly seeking guidance bypassing the guardians of orthodoxy. As long as the Muslim empire survived in various forms in Baghdad, Spain, Turkey and India, the Ulema, like the Catholic Church, made it a point that the right to interpret the Book of God should remain their sole prerogative. The situation however is changing fast not because of the waning hold of orthodoxy but due to the creation of some extra-space in cyber world where desperate souls the world over can engage with the Divine text on their own to formulate a commonly agreed charter for a new world. And internet is not the only space where orthodoxy has little control. Muslim societies having experienced many false dawns inspired and generated by revivalist movements are involved in serious soul-searching. Many a long-held cultural norms and religious beliefs are under intense investigation. The disparity between the Prophetic Islam and historical Islam has in fact caught our gaze.

A new beginning for the Prophetic Islam may usher in, what Fukuyama would call, ‘getting history started again’.

Rashid Shaz
New Delhi
01 July 2005

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