Ideas & Philosophy Issue 01 — 21 September 2004
Dear Gandhi

“If he were alive today, how might Mahatma Gandhi, the greatest apostle of non-violence, challenge Osama Bin Laden’s worldview?”

Lord Bhikhu Parekh’s imaginary dialogue between them in April’s edition of Prospect magazine explores their arguments and motivations. Differing with them both, non-violent political and intellectual struggles in the Muslim world have been caught in their cross-fire, marred by underlying assumptions of Islam and the Muslim world. How would these struggles answer Lord Parekh’s ‘Gandhi’?

Dear Gandhi,

I read with great interest your exchange with Usamah; it revealed openness in understanding attitudes that seek to influence our world, an approach commendable for its honesty. I noted, particularly, that when advising Usamah as to the fruitlessness of terrorist activities in removing American influence from the Muslim world, you call on him to fight ‘ideas with ideas’. In so stating, you summarise the very essence of a struggle that many in the Muslim world are actively engaged in; a struggle overshadowed by campaigns of violence that render it marginal attention.

I would like to question, however, assertions I believe you have formulated from your dialogue with Usamah. Some make questionable assumptions. Others do not reflect the real motives or causes, behind efforts Muslims are now undertaking to create a real, lasting change in their lands.

Primarily, I think it is necessary to make clear from the onset that Muslims are not motivated to pursue such far reaching changes because of anger or hatred of the US. Nor are they motivated from resentment of the vast riches that western powers have accumulated, partly through effective colonial endeavours as well as creative wealth strategies, whether those of the nineteenth, twentieth or indeed twenty-first century. Neither is it because they seek to rival the US for its own sake; to match its imperial successes. In so stating, you assert that it is an equal greed and desire for imperial power that motivates the call for change in the Muslim world; to rival the Americans through continually matching our circumstances against theirs. Following this logic, one would conclude that the US is the cause of Muslim efforts and that if it did not exist, Muslims would sit idle.

It is not jealousy at the advance of others that has created a need for change. The many crises which plague the Muslim world, whether the squander of resources or failing political structures ranging from sham democracy in Pakistan to brutal dictatorships in Central Asia; the witnessed corrupt judicial processes and lawlessness, are hard to dismiss. Although the interference of the US has acted to obstruct progress somewhat, it would be dishonest to hold her responsible for all our problems.

Indeed, if one seeks to apportion blame, then it rest with Muslims. Failing to take control of their own affairs, despite having the ability, and the means to do so, the Muslim world must shoulder its responsibility and share the blame for not doing so. Islam, their belief and value system, is capable of resolving dire problems in the Muslim world, a point with which you may contend but to which I shall return later. Its application is capable of producing a stable, just and progressed society, for both Muslims and non-Muslims, as history demonstrates. Leaderships in the Muslim world however, have failed to apply its solutions choosing instead a cocktail of ideologies. It is this realisation that a hitherto dormant solution exists in our midst that has encouraged many to pursue a return to Islamic rule.

You assert however, that the desire to revive Islamic rule is an imperialistic pursuit. This could not be further from the truth. Imperialism is a form of subjugation which maintains disparity between the imperial power and its subjects. Western colonial endeavours provide a perfect example of this, India being an example with which you are all too familiar. Installing an administration that maintains a distinction between the occupier and the occupied, denying the indigenous population basic rights, assuming ownership of their resources, making them subject to the whim of the imperial rulers, their interests and administration, all are hallmarks of imperial power.

Islam, on the other hand, makes no distinction between Arab and non-Arab and grants neither superiority over the other. A point misplaced you may feel, but it is entirely appropriate when discussing Imperialism. Islam did not create a distinction between the initial carriers of Islam, the Arabs, and its recipients. Some of the greatest Islamic scholars and thinkers were neither Arabs nor the first to receive Islam from the Prophet of Islam (pbuh); they were later recipients of the Islamic message and drove some of the greatest advancements in Islamic legal, political, social and economic thought, as well as in language, science, medicine and technology. They contributed to key pillars of the Islamic civilisation, hailing from the far reaches of Spain, Central Asia and the Far-East. Neither did Islam maintain a hierarchy permitting only Arabs to rule, this right being extended to all races, nationalities and colours: the Ottoman State was a legitimate Islamic rule, regardless of its rulers being of non-Arab descent. This explains the vast array of peoples across the world who have embraced the Islamic ideology over history and who still maintain a firm and resilient association with it. Compare this to the former European colonies that fought for independence from their colonial masters and celebrated the day their lands were liberated of their presence. Islam is not the preserve of the Arabs: it is truly universal. It certainly does not seek to maintain a disparity nor a difference based upon an imperial class and its subjects.

Contrary to your view about discriminatory treatment of non-Muslims under Islamic rule, I would like to point out that Jews, Christians and any non-Muslim citizens of the Islamic state have guaranteed rights protected by the state, such as their life, honour and property. They are allowed to prosper through trade and are allowed to worship according to their own beliefs. In fact, Islamic rule does not discriminate people on the basis of their religion, but treats them as citizens of the state. Islamic rule is therefore for both Muslim and non-Muslim and so to depict it as a discriminating religious rule is wholly inaccurate, as it makes no distinction between faiths when it comes to the governance of society.

There are a number of examples of this, and quoting select examples from the Indian experience does not do justice to history. Jewish citizens of the Islamic State in Spain were provided sanctuary in Constantinople during the Spanish inquisition and as T. W. Arnold writes in his book ‘The Preaching of Islam’, concerning the Ottoman State: “…though the Greeks were numerically superior to the Turks in all the European provinces of the empire, the religious toleration thus granted them, and the protection of life and property they enjoyed, soon reconciled them to prefer the domination of the Sultan to that of any Christian power”. There are examples throughout history that demonstrate how significant non-Muslim populations reside, to this day, in regions previously ruled by Islam – India included. One must not ignore mistakes made by individuals during Islam’s thirteen hundred year rule in order to prevent their re-occurrence, but it is important to note however, that measuring Islam is not through the practice of a few individuals, but according to the ideals its sources articulate. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) prohibited, unequivocally, the ill treatment of non-Muslim citizens of the Islamic State (dhimmi’een) when he said “He who harms a dhimmi, it is as if he harms me”.

You advocate the reform of Islam as opposed to its imposition – are these the only options we have? I find it strange that ruling a society by Islam is necessarily associated with imposition while the aggressive military and cultural campaigns led by liberal secular states, as they force countries to sign-up to their model of society, are termed ‘liberation’. More to the point, every society needs regulation and its legislative process provides a framework which society believes is best placed to do this; an associated judicial process is key to maintaining ‘the rule of law’. This principle is true for Britain, the United States, Islamic rule and any other society for that matter that seeks progress – each has its own source of law, judicial process and associated punishments, which are designed to regulate society. The establishment of Islamic rule does not entail the conversion of its citizens to Islam – they are citizens whose rights are protected by the state. Thus, why should the implementation of Islam over society be termed as an imposition on society, any different to the British, French or the US implementation of western secularism? Your reference to imposition is therefore misplaced – the real discussion is not the fact that society needs regulation according to an implemented law, but according to which standard it should be regulated.

You do not find Islamic rule at all appealing as, you argue, it combines the institutions of modernity with religious principles. Implicit in your disfavour is the assumption that in Islam the two are distinct, if not mutually exclusive. It assumes also that Islam is essentially a personal, ritual belief whose guidance, rules and principles are confined to one’s personal matters. I agree that if this were the case, Islamic rule would need to borrow its economic and political institutions from elsewhere, possibly even from the West. This would lead to the incoherent enterprise of which you speak – the logic of different, indeed contradictory, elements that lead to eventual confrontation, not progress. Islam articulates a social, political and economic order built, not borrowed, on its own sources. It has both rituals and a political value system, the character of which was demonstrated by the life and message of its Prophet (pbuh). Islam maintains its applicability and ability to tackle new and complex problems, those unfamiliar to its past, through ijtihad – a mechanism that analogises between old and new situations of similar issue to reach a position on the new. It is why Islam has the ability to formulate views on the free market and international trade, genetics and cloning technology, international law and social justice, amongst others. Islam too articulates a societal order and thus challenges any who claim the West holds an exclusive monopoly on the institutions of modernity or of a progressed society.

A consequence of this is that Islam cannot be secularised, as separating Islam from politics is a fundamental alteration of this belief.

You assert that all religions contain errors and need to adapt to modern life. Naturally, any system needing to update itself admits some error in its origins: if it is in need of fundamental reform, it has failed to achieve its purpose according to its original principles, rules and beliefs. Were Islam unable to deal with the complexities of the present age then reform, at the least, would be needed. Islam however, claims to offer a universal and timeless system of life built on Islamic sources, and so reform would undermine, if not invalidate, this claim rendering it imperfect as you say.

Society has indeed changed over the course of human history, but it is important to identify its nature before discussing how to respond. That response may not require reform or adaptation. Indeed, the reality of man’s nature has not fundamentally altered. The principle problems experienced thousands of years ago, such as the need to fulfil our basic survival and instinctive needs, and the need to regulate our relationships, individually and in society, have not changed. It is the complexity of things, the materials and technology around us, which have primarily changed through scientific progress over many centuries. New thoughts on understanding the world continually evolve through the accumulation of human experiences over time, but they do not reflect a change in our fundamental nature, intellect or our needs.

Thus, a system of life originating thousands of years ago may still be applicable today. This is on the proviso that its message is not specific to a particular age, but is timeless, universal in its appeal and has a mechanism to apply its principles on issues and developments that arise over time. Failing these will render it specific to an age, people and circumstance. Islam presented society a system of life to solve man’s problems, not as Muslims or non-Muslims but as human beings, over fourteen centuries ago. Addressing human beings as human beings, having not changed in their fundamental nature, makes its message timeless, indeed universal – not racial, tribal or nationalistic. Islam did not reject advances in science or technology: history demonstrates that Muslims occupied a pivotal role in the development of both. Islam’s mechanism of dealing with change, ijtihad, which I have touched on briefly, allows Muslims to take a view on modern issues. Islam is therefore perfectly valid today.

The issue for Islam is not therefore one of reform, but of applying Islam using the tool of ijtihad on modern problems. Liberal secularism also has its roots in principles and concepts that date far back, to the works of ancient Greece from where its notions of democracy, justice, the form of state and the principles of epistemology were born. Liberal secularists do not believe that time has weathered these thoughts nor rendered them outdated.

I have referred to the term Ijtihad and so allow me to clarify that it is not a process of ambiguous interpretation subject to personal preference as some have attempted to describe it. It is a defined method of deriving rules for new circumstances. It does so through referring the subject matter of a new problem with an event or issue articulating a similar subject matter in Islamic texts. Evaluating the similarity between the two, a verdict is derived based upon rules and principles in the similar Islamic text. This does not represent changing Islamic principles to suit a situation, but rather applying these principles to provide a view on such situations. The absence of this process in the Muslim world has contributed extensively to its stagnation, particularly over the past two centuries.

Your call for ‘creative adaptation’ and reform, including the need for a secular outlook, demonstrates the yardstick you use to judge Islam. It is through the filtered lenses of liberal secularism that you have made your criticisms as you suggest the Muslim world adopt some of its key tenets. You mention your gratitude of learning from the west, as you advocate the western ideology with a moral and spiritual veneer. Criticising from this standpoint does no more than identify the lack of liberal secular values in Islam and state that the two are different. Islam represents a fundamentally different paradigm of life to that of liberal secularism or capitalism. It is natural for those who subscribe to a particular paradigm to criticise on the basis of, and with respect to, their own beliefs, but this is a relative, not universal, basis of criticism and deriving truth.

In discussing Islamic rule and Islamic politics, let me return to the manner in which I started my letter to you, by wholeheartedly agreeing that an effective struggle is only one of ideas against ideas. It is this struggle that Muslims across the world seek to raise as they endure the brutality and injustice of their foreign sponsored rulers. In so commenting, I want to sever a potential link that I sense in the undertone of your dialogue with Usamah – the necessary association between a call for Islamic rule with terrorism. The call for Islamic rule is not one that necessarily employs the acts of terrorism or violence with which you have debated Usamah. It is an intellectual and political struggle advocating the need for change through the strength of thought, concept and argument. Appealing to the morals of brutal tyrants in advocating change is an ineffective strategy and one that does not go to the core of the failings in the Muslim world. The alternative, however, is not to resort to violence.

This call for change in the Muslim world is one that advocates a lasting change through the re-emergence of Islamic rule. It can only happen through a change in the ideas with which people view life, progress and success, and the basis upon which they decide good and bad, right and wrong. Thoughts and attitudes are not changed from the barrel of a gun or at the edge of a blade, but through demonstrating the strength of thought, the evidences that support it and the soundness of its rationale – the only means to establish sound conviction. Propelling these ideas into the political mediums of our societies is the only way they will come to be heard and considered; not through the spectacle of violence. It is then that people can realise that they are in need of change, and subsequently to undertake demands, protests and campaigns on the basis of these thoughts.

Although some in the Muslim world have reacted through violence, change through a change in thought is enshrined in the example of our noble Prophet (pbuh). He undertook a similar effort to correct the injustices, oppression and persecution of people in his society. Despite facing oppression, persecution and boycott, he engaged in an ideological and political struggle against the prevalent system and eventually created the transformation of Arabia and the world.

It is this peaceful approach, which threatens most the rulers of the Muslim world. An idea cannot be quashed through force – it requires a stronger, counter idea to repel it. This is too much of a challenge for the intellectually bankrupt rulers in the Muslim world whose opposition to such challenges leads them to brutally oppress, murder and counteract this message through the use of deception, misinformation and lies.
As I write, report after report is published attempting to blur the demarcation between the call for Islamic rule, which some term ‘political Islam’, and terrorism. By doing so, those who undertake such a call will soon appear on the radar of this supposed ‘war on terror’, if they have not already. Whilst Americans and Europeans celebrate the anniversaries of the violent and bloody revolutions that led to the formation of western nation states, Muslims advocate change through ideas and yet are associated with terrorism.

Yes, the real struggle is one of ideas; it pits the Islamic conception of life against that of liberal secularism and capitalism. It will not be won through violence, as people will always rebel against imposition – if not now, then later – but through the strength of argument. This is the struggle that is being played before us and it is our responsibility to ensure that the victor is nothing other then the strongest idea.


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