Expert Comment

Islam must reform from within

All major religions have their ups and downs — Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and of course, Islam. After the November 13 terror attacks in Paris, the focus is currently on Islam. Indeed, during the past decade and a half following the destruction of the World Trade Centre’s twin towers in New York and the carnage in Mumbai seven years ago, Islam has been demonised as never before. Islamophobia has enveloped much of the world.

The Taliban, Al Qaeda, and now the Islamic State (IS) aka Daesh, have become dreaded outfits, each successively more barbaric than the other. Because of Daesh atrocities, Islam is seen by the non-Islamic world as a religion that promotes violence, disregards human rights, and is contemptuous of democracy.

All but forgotten is the revolutionary and liberating essence of Islam, how it originated in the early 7th century in the barren Arabian peninsula, united the scattered tribes of the region and within a century of its founder, Prophet Mohammed’s death, controlled a vast empire which reached — and included — Spain. The Turks extended Muslim rule from the Danube to the tip of the Red Sea. Islam then dominated the civilized world. 

Admittedly, much of this great empire was won through force of arms. But Islam’s doctrine of equality and good governance also attracted many to the faith. In the golden age of Islam, under enlightened rulers like Suleiman the Magnificent, Islamic countries were in the forefront of science and the arts, when much of Christendom was steeped in feudalism. Civilisation was then synonymous with Islam, not the western world. 

Turning to the present, the main breeding ground of IS militants is the chaotic and bloody situation in Iraq, Syria and Libya. And for this situation, the ham-fisted interventions of western powers, primarily the USA, is responsible. The American-led invasion of Iraq began it all. The stated intention was to remove an evil dictatorship which threatened the security of the world with its “weapons of mass destruction”. When it became clear those weapons didn’t exist, the real aim was exposed: control of Iraq’s abundant crude oil reserves. When that was ensured, the Americans withdrew, leaving the Iraqis to their own devices, democracy be damned.

In much the same manner, the justification for intervention in Syria and Libya was removal of dictators and, to use a much-abused phrase, to make “the world safe for democracy”. Instead anarchic civil wars broke out in these countries. In Syria, an estimated 300,000 people have been killed and 5 million reduced to homeless refugees now flooding into Europe. But let’s leave the blame-game aside and look at what can be done to counter the threat posed by IS and other Islamic terrorist organisations.

The immediate and short-term answer may be the use of greater force, which effectively means more bombing missions against IS strongholds in Iraq and Syria to reduce the territory it controls. But in the long-term, the answer must come from within Islam. Criticism and opposition from outside is never as effective as reform from within the community. In Christianity, Martin Luther challenged the supremacy of the Pope in the early 16th century. John Calvin followed. As a result, various breakaway Protestant sects were formed. Ignatius Loyola formed the order of Jesuits, who became great educationists and missionaries, venturing overseas. That was the Christian Reformation — reform from within.

Oppressive Hinduism was challenged by Gautam Buddha and Mahavira in the 6th century BC who attacked the caste system. Similarly, Ram Mohan Roy, Swami Vivekananda and Dayanand Saraswati challenged practices like sati and untouchability while promoting education.

Islam, too, has had its reform movements. There’s the gentle cult of Sufism. However, the most radical reformer was Turkey’s leader, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. He transformed his nation from a decadent Islamic state to a modern westernised society, rejecting 7th century ideas of a divine government being the ultimate authority in matters of administration and law. Perhaps he went too far, even changing dress habits. In Tunisia, its first President, Habib Bourgiba, had the courage to ban polygamy by law, the only Islamic country to do so.

Contemporary Islam needs men like Ataturk and Bourgiba to counter the perversities of extremist organisations such as IS. The good news is that some Muslim organisations are now speaking up boldly against IS. Days before the bloodbath in Paris, the United Nations forwarded the “biggest fatwa” against this terror outfit, signed by over 1,000 Indian imams and muftis to the UN Alliance of Civilisation (UNAOC), a body which promotes inclusive societies. The fatwa condemns IS as “un-Islamic and inhuman”.

More such public pronouncements need to be made by prominent, moderate Muslims. The non-Islamic world also needs to acknowledge that blood-thirsty outfits like IS are aberrations of a rational religion that once transformed the world and promoted equality and peace.

(Rahul Singh is the former editor of Reader’s Digest, Indian Express and Khaleej Times, Dubai)