The Muslim Face and the Image of Islam

Two articles have prompted me to write this post. One by Kenan Malik titled “Is there something about Islam?” and the other by Mehdi Hasan titled “What the Jihadists Who Bought ‘Islam For Dummies’ on Amazon Tell Us About Radicalisation”. Both deal with certain crucial questions that are almost always missing in current discourses on Islam, Islamism, and Islamic Terrorism. These questions are especially necessary when the world has to deal with the current crisis of the Islamic State in the Arabic world.

To what extent does Islam Influence the actions of Muslims, especially actions that are violent?

I understand that many here would have problems with me quoting Hasan, and for valid reasons, but his article is an interesting read if anybody is interested in understanding how or why the head-choppers of ISIS are behaving the way they do. He doesn’t answer them, but does present us with an approach in which non-Muslims can deal with these issues. The first question that needs to be answered is what is the relationship between the scriptures and the actions of Muslim terrorists. Hasan gives us the example of two self-proclaimed Jihadists, Yususf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, who pleaded guilty of terrorism in Syria and who have also recently (after returning from Syria) reported to have bought a book titled Islam for Dummies. Hasan tries to argue that religious literacy has little to do with acts of violence by believers, in the name of their belief.

I for one, do see the point in his argument. Take for instance, the self-proclaimed Caliphate of ISIS and compare that with the historical Sunni institution of the Caliphate. The first Rashiddun Caliphate that was established after the death of Mohammed was structured according to the Islamic nation built by the prophet in Medina. This Islamic polity was based on the Constitution of Medina, a charter signed by the leaders or representatives of various warring tribes in the region which is today known as Hejaz. One of the responsibilities of the Caliph was also to extend protection of life, trade, property and personal faith of non-Muslims who pay taxes, in accordance with Islamic conjectures, and who owe their allegiance to the Caliphate as its subjects. Apart from that the first four Caliphs were also elected by a constellation of leaders (and also some elected representatives) of all tribes that follow the Muslim faith and accept the Caliphate (this primitive system of representational/oligarchic democracy is also believed to have its roots from the then defunct Roman Republic). All this is very much unlike the murderous gun-trotting butchers that call themselves the Islamic State.

Malik too raises this argument in his article regarding violence committed by Muslims, and the portrayal and treatment of such violence.

The relationship between religion, interpretation, identity and politics can be complex. We can see this if we look at Myanmar and Sri Lanka where Buddhists – whom many people, not least humanists and atheists, take to be symbols of peace and harmony – are organizing vicious pogroms against Muslims, pogroms led by monks who justify the violence using religious texts. Few would insist that there is something inherent in Buddhism that has led to the violence. Rather, most people would recognize that the anti-Muslim violence has its roots in the political struggles that have engulfed the two nations. The importance of Buddhism in the conflicts in Myanmar and Sri Lanka is not that the tenets of faith are responsible for the pogroms, but that those bent on confrontation have adopted the garb of religion as a means of gaining a constituency and justifying their actions. The “Buddhist fundamentalism” of groups such as the 969 movement, or of monks such as Wirathu, who calls himself the “Burmese bin Laden”, says less about Buddhism than about the fractured and fraught politics of Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

And yet, few apply the same reasoning to conflicts involving Islam. When it comes to Islam, and to the barbaric actions of groups such as ISIS or the Taliban, there is a widespread perception that the problem, unlike with Buddhism, lies in the faith itself. …

Before we continue, it has to be noted that neither Hasan nor Malik (or even me for that matter) declare that the radicals or fundamentalist never justify their actions or opinions on the religion that they follow. The point here is that the assumption that everything that Muslims do wrong is primarily because of whatever is written in their scriptures is not only lop-sided but also extremely problematic. Most of the time, the role of the religion is usually a cover for power struggle or for a very heinous practice. Take for instance, the practice of female genital mutilation among certain group of Muslims, and Sati that was practiced in India. In both case the proponent or the apologists argue(d) for it as a part of their religion, while neither is in any manner or interpretation prescribed in either religion. While the media has been reporting brutal murder of Shias, Christians, and Yazidis by the ISIS militants, not many are reporting the fact that it is the Sunni Muslim Kurdish militias in northern Iraq and eastern Syria that are putting up a brave fight against the ISIS. Even the part where the same Kurdish militias created a humanitarian route for both aid and supply, and an escape to a safe region for their Yazidi counterparts was heavily under-reported by major international news media, including Al Jazeera (see here and here). Another thing that did not come up in the news was how the world’s largest Sunni Muslim nation, Indonesia, dealt with advocates of ISIS, by instituting an outright ban of and a threat of revocation citizenship (see here and here). Both these examples are to give a context of the perceptions and narratives.

Who is a true Muslim? And who represents Muslims?

Malik also raises the question of the what, or rather who, is representative of Islam and Muslims in general.

The Danish MP Naser Khader once told me of a conversation with Toger Seidenfaden, editor of Politiken, a left-wing Danish newspaper that was highly critical of the Danish cartoons. “He said to me that cartoons insulted all Muslims”, Khader recalled. “I said I was not insulted. And he said, ‘But you’re not a real Muslim’.”

“You’re not a real Muslim.” Why? Because to be proper Muslim is, from such a perspective, to be reactionary, to find the Danish cartoons offensive. Anyone who isn’t reactionary or offended is by definition not a proper Muslim. Here leftwing “anti-racism” meets rightwing anti-Muslim bigotry. For many leftwing anti-racists, opposing bigotry means accepting reactionary ideas as authentically Muslim. For many rightwing bigots (and, indeed, for many leftwing bigots, too), there is something about Islam that makes it irredeemably violent, even evil, and that makes all Muslims potentially dangerous.

Here also, liberal so-called anti-racism becomes a vehicle for buttressing the most reactionary, conservative voices in Muslim communities and for marginalizing the progressive. It becomes a means of closing down debate, censoring criticism, and giving power and legitimacy to “community leaders’ spouting the most backward of views. “The controversy over the cartoons”, as Naser Khader observed, “was not about Muhammad. It was about who should represent Muslims. What I find really offensive is that journalists and politicians see the fundamentalists as the real Muslims.” Which is why many Muslims, ironically, often have more liberal views on free speech than many so-called liberal non-believers.

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… The problem is also the attitudes of non-Muslim commentators, policymakers and activists, both liberals and bigots, as to what constitutes an authentic Muslim, the failure to see beyond the conservative or the reactionary as the true Muslim, the inability to distinguish between the faith of ordinary believers and the politicised use of faith for reactionary ends by power-grabbing, control-seeking individuals and organizations. The problem is also government policy, particularly in the West. Policy makers have all too often treated minority communities as if each was a distinct, homogeneous whole, each composed of people all speaking with a single voice, each defined primarily by a singular view of culture and faith. They have ignored the diversity within those communities and taken the most conservative, reactionary figures to be the authentic voices.

We need to seriously deal with popular image of Muslims, among non-Muslims. Take for instance, the Shah Bano case and the Indian National Congress’s bending over backwards for reactionary and regressive Muslims. This case is very much apt to describe what Malik is trying to say. Despite the support and advocacy by several major Muslim and ex-Muslim personalities, politicians, organisations, NGOs, academics for the Supreme Court judgement, the ruling INC misused the overwhelming majority it had in the Parliament to overturn the judgement putting Muslim women at the mercy of the regressive elements within the community. Let’s also take the fact that many a times when a non-Muslim politician belonging to centrist or centre-left political party has to reach out to the Muslim electorate they would usually pay visit to some very questionable and controversial ulemas and community leaders for their campaigns, whose influence and social capital within the community itself would be very limited.

To conclude, a nuanced treatment of the subject is the need of the hour. Divorcing Islam from Islamism and Islamic terrorism is not the way to go about, but neither is looking at the phenomena of Hamas, Hezbollah, and even ISIS purely from a anti-religious and anti-theistic stand. While fighting against Islamic radicalism and fundamentalism without apology is extremely necessary, it is equally necessary to recognise and promote the efforts from within the community against the regressive elements, by recognising the diversity within the Muslim world. Doing that is neither fence-sitting nor apologism.

Growing Up Saudi

Saudi Arabia would easily top the list of countries most hostile to a freethinker. I can’t imagine living in a country that has a ban on theatres. Many expats justify living in Saudi, saying it is a good place to work for a few years and save money. After all, there are not many distractions. It’s pretty much Eat, Work, Sleep. But the damages on a person’s self-development are, in my opinion, not worth it. It is not a good place for children to experience life. In the ten years I lived there I never made any Saudi friends. There was very little interaction between the expats and Saudis. In a country like India where children are exposed to a variety of life changing experiences, Saudi Arabia offered very little. For instance, as my father once pointed out, in the time I lived there, I had never seen a death. Never seen a family grieve. This might seem like a small matter, but I feel experiences such as these are important. Reading about death is one thing, but seeing a dead body at a funeral is something else. It puts somethings in perspective and makes you aware of death as very real, rather than an idea.

Now I may not be the best person to write about life in today’s Saudi Arabia. I left Saudi in 2001 and I can only give you my version of the Saudi life until that point.

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