InsightNovember December 2004

Democratic Change in Muslim Community?

Abdulaziz Sachedina

After the atrocities of September 11, many of us who are Muslim intellectuals living and working in North America made a discovery that deepened the horrors of that terrible day. We learned, to our intense dismay, that some of the Muslim organizations around us were getting their notions about Islam from imported Middle Eastern or South Asian preachers who pushed a deeply illiberal, “us against them” worldview and reviled the proposition that Muslims should learn the basic civic virtues and responsibilities of life in a free, democratic, and pluralist society. Claiming to care only about safeguarding the “purity” of Islam, these preachers of intolerance continue to promote seclusion and mistrust and to slander those of us Muslims who disagree with them as “enemies of Islam.”

Seclusion and mistrust lead nowhere, and least of all to the promotion of Islam. The truth is that Muslims today—wherever they live—can only benefit from hearing more, not less, about the opportunities connected with democratic civil society, the inspiriting demands that flow from civic responsibility, and the ideas that undergird government by consent and ordered liberty. Muslim intellectuals who can help their brothers and sisters critically rethink their political heritage and find their way to a free and faithful future have never been more urgently needed—or more threatened with irrelevance—than they are today.

Worse yet, this irrelevance is at least partly self-inflicted. If the voices of those who could stir discussion of freedom and democracy are silent or unintelligible, the preachers of intolerance will win by default. This must not be. We cannot allow it to happen.

Too many of us—occupying comfortable, even privileged positions in the academy or the professions, enjoying the freedoms of life in democratic societies—have been “absent without leave” from what should be the fight of our lives: the struggle for liberty of Muslim peoples. This must not continue: Our absence must end, and our silence must stop.

Democracy means, among other things, that people can demand an accounting from their leaders, whether political, religious, or cultural. Have our safe jobs in the ivory tower made us forget our moral responsibility to the community? Can we not see that our indifference to the political and intellectual empowerment of average people—whether on the streets of Cairo and Karachi or around the corner at our local mosque—has allowed the most backward elements among the traditional religious leadership, the ulama, to come far too close to setting themselves up as the sole custodians of political and social education? Their ideas might be foolish, benighted, and far from authentically Islamic, but they know how to speak the language of the people, and they are gaining an alarming amount of traction in the Muslim street.

Given that staggering fact, can we afford to wrap our own message in an arcane academic argot that the average Muslim, intelligent but not a specialist, finds impenetrable? The reactionaries among the ulama all too often use populist-sounding rhetoric to prop up retrograde and conformist attitudes toward existing unfree governments. Muslim autocrats need their court preachers to lend a veneer of Islamic legitimacy to dictatorship, and the ulama (at least in the Sunni world) need the rulers to keep the money flowing to the religious establishment.

The preachers may not have the people’s best interests at heart, but they know how to talk the people’s talk. It is this sociological fact that needs our undivided attention today. The answer to the question “Why Democracy, and why now?” must be sought in the moral numbness and political indifference to injustice that prevail today across far too large a swath of the Muslim world.

Let me be clear: Fostering a positive understanding of democratic ideals within an Islamic framework will take the best efforts that a host of intellectual specialists can muster. For this is not a matter of superficial “Islamizing” verbiage, but rather of a deep and comprehensive effort to show both the learned and the lay in Muslim societies that democratic ideas can and must be thought from within the authentic ethical culture of Islam and its teachings about the awesome accountability of human beings in this world and the next.

We need to learn how to guide ourselves and our community back to the sources, to the living heart of Islamic belief, and to take seriously the emphasis that we find there on building nurturing, constructive relationships of justice and charity at all levels of human existence. By taking Islam seriously in this way, I believe, we will come to see perhaps more clearly than ever that the kinds of relationships our faith enjoins us to build cannot exist without respect for the equal dignity of all human persons and a broad appreciation for the God-given liberty of the human conscience.

I also believe that we will find ulama—and here I am thinking especially of the rising generation among them—who are willing to make this journey with us, who are not pathologically distrustful of intellectuals or hopelessly compromised by too close a proximity to power, and who will agree about much of that which constitutes the common good. Their help will be crucial in dismantling political and religious authoritarianism and building democratic institutions.

One need not be a secularist in order to seek a practical consensus on the basis of which peoples of diverse backgrounds and religious opinions can relate fairly with one another. To engage the more tractable elements among the ulama in fruitful ways, and to outargue the extremists, we need to do a better job of learning about and discussing classical Islamic traditions so that we can meet religious interlocutors and opponents on their own ground, and not allow anyone to dismiss us as “outsiders” to our own religion. It’s fine for us to produce critical scholarship in sociology and anthropology that wins plaudits from our colleagues in the Western universities where we teach. Yet we must also learn to challenge and persuade a Muslim community at large—and this includes many Muslims living in the West—that still mistakes the rantings of Sayyid Qutb and Maulana Maududi (neither of whom was much of an Islamic scholar and both of whom came from secular educational backgrounds, by the way) for the last word in “authentically Islamic” thought about the modern world.

We also need to care about what is being taught in Muslim seminaries and theological faculties, and we need to study—carefully and in detail—how these teachings affect the political thinking of Muslim peoples. On subjects such as the rights of women or non-Muslim minorities, too many ulama and too many seminaries are disseminating illiberal, antidemocratic attitudes and attacking anything that smacks of rationality and tolerance.

In 2002, I spent eight months in Iran. During my stay, I had intense conversations with scholars at Islamic seminaries and Iranian universities alike. I came away convinced that we Muslim intellectuals living in the West absolutely must end our irrelevance and take up the crucial role that only we—or more precisely, our ideas—can play in renewing the way Muslims think about politics and society. Unless and until our critical scholarship is translated and disseminated to the seminaries and theological faculties of the Muslim world—and to Islamic institutions right here in our own backyards—it is impossible for me to see how the reformist renewal that we all hope and pray for can take off and change the future.

It is in light of all this that we should appreciate the work that is being done by some dissident scholars in Iran and Egypt. They are writing in Persian and Arabic, and speaking directly to people who long to understand how their religion is relevant to modern times, and who are desperate to hear a word of hope as they labor under the burden of oppression. Autocrats can and do make the lives of these brave scholars very hard. But even one article by one of them—a critique, perhaps, of the spuriously “Islamic” arguments that the local religious establishment uses to justify its absolutism and obscurantism—does the work of thousands of books that we produce here: That’s how much evidence there is to show that Muslim dissident scholarship in Western languages has not reached the people who can rethink Islamic theology and Islamic juridical traditions by applying modern findings about the study of religion.

As Muslim scholars who wish to assist the culture of tolerance in the Muslim world and to help our fellows in their search for truth, we require not only cultural legitimacy in order to reach intelligent Muslim audiences, but also the means to transmit our research in languages that can carry our ideas to a wide public outside the West.

Speaking of matters closer to home, I believe that there are a number of scholars here in the United States whose work could foster better interfaith and inter-communal relations and lead to badly needed change in our own local Muslim communities. We’ve seen narrow-mindedness propagated here and abroad for a quarter-century, and we know that buckets of petrodollars still grease the way for extremist individuals and organizations that traduce Islam while claiming to promote it. Overcoming their false appeals and winning acceptance for “dissident” thought will be a long-term project, but that is all the more reason to get started now.

I have no illusions that any of this will be easy. Backwardness and extremism have powerful backers with deep pockets—just look at who gets invited to speak at so many Muslim gatherings in the West. But that is our challenge, and more, our sacred duty.

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