Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Muslims must choose between modernity and medievalism

 Mizan Rahman

 It is heartening to see that President Obama has all but declared an all-out war against the evil forces of ISIS that are threatening to take us all back to the middle ages, primarily by decapitating every human being on earth except those they call the believing Muslims, and also by removing all modern areas of learning (social sciences and theory of evolution, for instance) from the school curricula. The question is: is there a chance he will win the war? Or, even if he does, is it going to be as hollow a ‘victory’ as his predecessor George W. Bush’s victory of Baghdad on April 9 of 2003? For one might argue that the apparent ‘victory’ in Iraq, hailed by everyone in the Bush administration at that time as “Mission Accomplished”, set in motion a chain of events that led almost directly to the ultimate calamity in the Iraq-Syrian region that we are witnessing today. One might also point out that the Western powers, in particular, the US, have never shied away from patronizing  the most radical elements of Islam (remember the Operation Cyclone of 1979 in Afghanistan?) including the continued support of the epicenter of Islamic extremism, Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, despite their avowed aim of “democratizing” the entire Middle East, they have managed, perhaps inadvertently, to subvert the few democratic institutions that ever dared raise their heads, such as in Iraq under the ruthless dictator Saddam Hussain, and Libya under the enigmatic madman Colonel Gaddafi.
Leaving aside those vexatious political issues the recent threat to humankind from the hilly tracts of Iraq and Syria cannot be taken lightly by anyone.  Starting as a group of relatively small disgruntled Sunni jihadists, the ISIS has now grown into a global behemoth aiming to annihilate everything that is generally associated with modern civilization. One of its leaders, Abu Muhammad Al-Adnani, said in a  recently released 45-minute video: “If you can kill a disbelieving American, or European----especially the spiteful and filthy French----or an Australian, or a Canadian,…..kill him in any manner or way.” That’s a chilling death sentence on a fair chunk of the human race! And a very ironic one when you consider the fact that a great number of Mr. Al-Adnani’s fellow “believers” have sought and found safe refuge in the very countries he has vowed to destroy.
 The most alarming part of the ISIS (or, more accurately, ISIL, which stands for Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, Levant being a group of separate countries that includes Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Cyprus and part of Southern Turkey) is not their apparent goal of re-enacting the crusades of the middle ages, only this time determined to win it all back, but the strange fascination this has created for the young, very young, Muslim boys and girls all over the world. Almost every day we keep hearing of teenagers in the Arab countries, in Pakistan, in Malaysia, in Bangladesh and India, lining up to enlist themselves as jihadists alongside their brothers in Iraq and Syria, hoping to restore the lost glories of Islamic Empire. Amazingly, the list also includes not too few young men, born and brought up in the affluent West and having gone through an entire system of secular and liberal education in good western schools, who are volunteering to give up everything---- their comfortable life, their career, their friends and family---- just for the thrill of joining the jihad that may mean beheading a few of the same people they grew up with. It must be a real challenge for anyone trying to look into the root causes of this strange phenomenon. It is tempting to surmise that the ideological vacuum created by the fall of the Soviet Empire in 1989 is now being filled, at least for these young men, by the fatal attraction for a violent movement that aims to engulf the entire globe. The role played by Marxism-Leninism in the fifties and sixties is being played by Islamic Radicalism----except that one was directed at social justice, while the other to a distorted sense of historical justice. Strange as it may seem, it would not be entirely unthinkable to have some sympathy for these young people, had it not been for the murderous way they are trying to achieve their goals. Everything that is despicable in human nature seems to have become their modus operandi-----beheading the infidels and all who dare to oppose them, in full view of the public, using the young girls captured in raids on enemy territories as sex objects, selling them in the slave markets, raising an army of child soldiers, raising money and supplies from rich  shaikhs  and landlords who share their view of a grand revival of the glory days of Islamic power, and generally creating a reign of terror wherever they go. Whether or not they can be stopped by anybody is a good question: the united campaign of air-raids by the western powers is not likely to subdue this diabolical monster. What we are facing is a very large group of die-hard fanatics who honestly believe that dying for the sake of Islam will guarantee them a secure place in heavens, even if that dying happens to be after having killed a number of innocent human beings. They cannot be defeated by dropping a few scraps from the sky. At the very least one needs to face them on the ground, and hope to outlast them in a long protracted battle right on their own territory. The question is: who is going to do that? The US? I hardly think so. The combined forces of UK, France, Netherlands, Canada and Australia? It will be a combined display of total impotence, in my opinion.
 No, this feeble, safe-from-a-distance approach of the West isn't the answer to this serious problem. I think the most effective way of stopping this menace is if the Muslims themselves decide to stand up to them as a combined force. Particularly the ones who have chosen to escape to a western country and raise their families in a secure, free and secular environment. Especially those who have permanent residence in the US, UK and France, since the militancy of the Muslim youths in these countries seems to be the highest, and also because the social pressure on their respective governments to curtail the Muslim immigration seems to be the strongest there. Muslims, at the moment, are not among the most popular bunch of immigrants in the West, and, contrary to what many community leaders tend to believe, not all of it is due to real or imagined prejudice against the religion of Islam itself. For once we should take a look at our own attitude instead of automatically pointing fingers at others for everything that has gone wrong with our community. For once we should learn how to take responsibility. Above all, we must make a clear choice between western modernity and oriental medievalism.
 Fortunately there are some encouraging signs, at least in the West. Quite a few of the Muslim clerics have come out openly to condemn the violent ways of their Muslim brothers in the Islamic State movement. Even some Islamic scholars in Egypt and Saudi Arabia are getting quite vocal in disclaiming the Islam championed by the ISIL to be the true Islam at all. In their view Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance, and not of hatred and violence (it would be nice, though, if the same opinion were held by a few non-Muslims). But how effective this disclaimer of a few Imams is going to be, while the lure of the jihad seems to have set fire in the hungry hearts of a lot of young Muslim lads all over the world, is a good question. I have no doubt that most educated (in the sense of modern, secular education) Muslims are as alarmed by the sudden rise of this diabolical monster in the East as everyone else, but how many of them are truly sincere in rejecting the idea of an Islamic state led by some madrasa-educated mullahs is debatable. Many of these so-called highly-educated Muslims living comfortably in the West, still believe in their hearts that 9/11 was not the work of the Muslims, rather a combined Jewish-CIA conspiracy. As far as I know a great number of Muslims, educated or not, are convinced that most, if not all, modern western science are already in the Holy Quran, which they strongly believe to be the source of all knowledge, past, present and future. At every opportunity they will cite the example of great Islamic scholars of the middle ages, and how the modern western knowledge has all been an extension of what the Muslims had discovered more than 500 years before.
 Yes, it is true that there were great a number of highly distinguished men of learning in the Islamic world over a period of about 800 years beginning the early 9th century, like Abu Nasr Al-Farabi (872-950), Al-Battami (858-929), Avecinna, or Ibn Sina (980-1037), Averroes, or Ibn Rushd (1126-1198), Jabir Ibn Haiyan (722-804), Ibn Al-Haytham (965-1040), Ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi (780-850), Ibn Ishaq Al-Kindi (801-873), and many others. However, as far as I know, none of these gentlemen ever claimed the Holy Book to be a source of their scientific knowledge-----it was all their own brilliant minds, their ingenuity, their curiosity and hard work,plus a general environment of free thought, scholarship and critical inquiry that prevailed in the Islamic societies in those times, which do not seem to exist these days anymore. People like Al-Farabi and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) raised some radical questions on the reading of the Holy Quran-----suggesting that the scholars and ordinary folks do not have to approach it in exactly the same way. In fact, it is widely acknowledged in the western world that the father of modern secularism was none other than our own Muslim philosopher-jurist-scientist Mr. Ibn Rushd (how ironic it is that today secularism should be thought as a purely western idea, and is inherently anti-Islamic). He is so highly regarded in Europe that he is the only non-white scholar who appears in the famous Renaissance painting by Raphael (1483-1520), The School of Athens (around 1510), among other giants like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
 It is true that the Muslims of those wonderful times were the leaders in almost every area of science, mathematics, astronomy and medicine, and that the West learned a lot from them, which they readily admit. In fact, I personally learned a great deal of Arab mathematics of the mediaeval times by reading books written by western writers and attending lectures by Jewish mathematicians. However, it is also true that the Muslim scholars had to rely on the knowledge acquired by their predecessors----the Greeks and Romans and Indians and Chinese, Jews and Christians,  just as the Greeks had to learn a great deal of what they knew, including Euclidean geometry, from the Egyptians, who in turn, learned from the Babylonians and Sumerians, and so on and so forth. No knowledge had ever emerged from a state of vacuum-----each civilization had to lean on its predecessors to see better into the future and build their own wealth of new ideas. Furthermore, Muslims as a modern cosmopolitan community, would do well paying heed to occasional comments by historians that are not entirely laudatory of their scientific achievements. For example the following comments by the eminent French philosopher and historian Ernest Renan (1823-1892): “Science and philosophy flourished on Muslim soil during the first half of the middle ages, but it was not by reason of Islam, it was in spite of Islam. Not a Muslim philosopher or scholar escaped persecution….. .To give Islam the credit of Averroes and so many other illustrious thinkers, who passed half their lives in prison, in forced hiding, in disgrace, whose books were burned and whose writings were suppressed by theological authority, is as if one were to ascribe to the Inquisition the discoveries of Galileo”. It would be a folly, in my opinion, to dismiss these negative remarks by non-Muslim scholars as ‘Islam-bashing’, as is our usual practice.
Nonetheless it is generally agreed that the medieval times belonged to the Muslims. Likewise it must be accepted that the modern times belong to the West. In fact the term modernity is defined in terms of western values and culture, science and technology. The Muslim world may begrudge this turn of fortune, but this is the way the wheels of time and history have always rolled, which includes the rise and fall of Islamic civilization of the bygone era. Now it is the heyday of the West, and the Muslims better try to learn from them whatever they can if they wish to build a better future for humankind in general, and not just for themselves. They can never regain the past glory, but endeavor to create a future one by building on their western knowledge, just as the west benefited from the Muslim knowledge in the middle ages. Above all, one must abandon the foolish idea that you can win it all back by guns and swords, and a crazy war-cry of some holy jihad. We live in a different time now, a time defined by western technology where average longevity is approaching the impossible mark of a hundred, and where creating a baby in the laboratory is no longer an absurd idea, but a real possibility. It’s a time where one can book a flight to the Moon, even buy a one-way ticket to the planet of Mars. In this time it is silly to think in terms of ‘infidels’ and ‘disbelievers’, and create all sorts of walls between one group of people and other. It is time to heed to the remark made by Isaac Newton: “Men build too many walls but not enough bridges.” It’s the age of bridges, not of walls.

Ottawa, Oct. 11, ‘14

Mizan Rahman :: মীজান রহমান 

No comments:

Post a Comment