Leading PostsMarch April 2006

Time to Install Circuit-Breakers in the System

Farish A. Noor

The furore over the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad continues at its overheated pace. Day by day we witness more spectacular outbursts of Muslim anger all over the world, targeted towards not against a single Danish newspaper whose cultural editor had the bad taste and poor sense to publish such inflammatory material, but towards an amorphous ‘West’ that grows ever broader, wider and indistinct. From South America – where demonstrations were seen in Venezuela – to Indonesia, the Muslim street is on the march and burning down every shop, poster, embassy that seems remotely linked to the West.

What is evident in this globally-orchestrated manifestation of public anger and violence is the synchronicity of it all: Proof, if any was needed, that there now exists a global network of like-minded Islamist parties, movements, NGOs and civil society organisations prepared and willing to mobilise Muslims against any offence meted out to them or the image of Islam, real or imagined. But there indeed lies the crux of the problem.

For what we have witnessed thus far is the global expression of anger that seems mainly directed towards the mediatic eye. This is a protest made for television, to be consumed by a couch-bound audience sitting at home eating their dinners on their laps. The orchestrated nature of the demonstrations lend them the distinct impression of being rehearsed, and opens them up to the accusation that what we have witnessed so far is a case of media manipulation at its most sophisticated. Gone are the crucial issues and questions of racism, media bias, uneven power differentials and the root problems that underlie Muslim frustration with the present global order. General slogans and blanket condemnations of the Other have become the norm instead.

One can easily see where this will all lead to: In future will we see more protests, more violent and spectacular, over every slight and injury meted out to Muslims, be they deliberate or even accidental? What would happen if someone were to misspell the name of the Prophet; misquote a religious text; or misrepresent (albeit accidentally) a historical fact of the Prophet’s life?

The danger is that with the globalisation of information and communications technology the reaction time between the offending event and the predictable result will grow shorter and shorter, while the impact of the reaction can only grow bigger, wider and bolder. Globalisation has integrated the Muslim world as never before, and it has indeed created a parallel form of globalisation that has created a Muslim world, a Muslim market and Muslim audience of its own.

But in all such integrated systems that rely on nodal points and axis of communication, there ought to be circuit-breakers installed as well. Why? For the simple reason that these circuit-breakers would be the sane and sensible voices that would step into the fray and warn the participants that they are in danger of upping the ante to a dangerous level. Yet the voices of reason and moderation here were silent, if not non-existent. No Muslim leader, scholar or intellectual stepped in to warn the leadership of Iran of the patent stupidity of sanctioning a cartoon competition to satirise the holocaust. No sensible voice stepped forward to warn the Islamist leaders of countries like Malaysia that vacuous slogans like ‘Crush Denmark’ and ‘Death to Denmark’ would do little to calm the nerves of everyone, and that not every Dane is a rabid Muslim-hater. No sensible voice stepped forth to remind the angry Muslims that the biggest demonstrations against the recent war in Iraq and the bombing of Baghdad took place in European cities like London, Paris and Berlin.

One of the reasons for this evident impasse of our own making is that too many Muslim intellectuals are not really plugged into the parallel Muslim global network. Muslim leaders, scholars and activists who are and have been part of the dialogue process between the Muslim world and the West have been too absorbed and integrated into the West-Islam dialogue process, and have allowed themselves to be marginalised and by-passed by conservative Islamist agents and actors instead. Muslim moderates may grab the headlines thanks to their public speeches in the capitals of the West, but are they really listened to in their own countries and by their own constituencies?

This is why the liminal Muslim intellectuals who make up the new voices of Islam today need to keep their feet in both worlds, and to retain the loyal following not only of their liberal-democratic Western counterparts but also the mainstream Muslims whom they purport to speak on behalf. This is indeed a difficult, thankless and often difficult task, and this is why they require the active institutional support of their own governments.

At a conference on inter-civilisational dialogue in Malaysia recently, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi spoke of the need for the dialogue between East and West to be on equal terms, and tempered by rational, critical discourse rather than bluster and pyrotechnics alone. Such sentiments are indeed laudable, but they can only get off the ground when the governments of countries like Malaysia take the task of developing a school of progressive Islamic thought seriously. It is not enough to commend the moderate voices of Islam when they speak out: They need to be supported through universities, research-centres, think-tanks, given media and financial support and to be protected politically. Moderate voices do not drop from the heavens, no matter how hard we pray for them. Muslim leaders need to realise that if they truly wish to see the emergence and development of moderate mainstream Muslim opinion, they will have to pay for it like any other long-term investment.

Failure to do so would mean that as the Muslim world grows increasingly globalised and integrated it risks the danger of becoming more homogeneous and conformist, with a worldview that grows ever narrower and constricted: fertile ground for the development and reproduction of reactive conservative thought. Those circuit-breakers are not merely accessories to the system: In the long run they may be the only guarantee that the globalised Muslim world that will emerge in the near future will remain an open, moderate and tolerant one.

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