We are witnessing history unfold before our very eyes, and in its unfolding history repeats itself as always. Baghdad is under siege, and soon enough it will fall under the sword of its latest invaders. Once more the fabled and once-glorious city of Islam is under attack; once more the Muslim world is forced to bear witness to its own impotence and paralysis; once more the opportunity for the Muslim world to make its voice heard has been squandered.

Baghdad, the city of the famous blue mosques and venerable universities; the renown capital of the great Caliph Harun al-Rashid; the cosmopolitan metropolis whose streets were once lit while the capitals of Europe lay in darkness, is again under attack. In our anguish and despair, the Muslim world seeks solace and comfort in the past. Nostalgia tugs at our sleeves and tempts us to escape into a collective memory which is our final asylum in a world gone mad.

We have seen this before, though I am not referring to the bombardment of Baghdad that took place during the first Gulf War of 1990-91, but rather the rape of Baghdad that took place centuries ago, when the Mongols broke through the frontiers of Dar’ul Islam and wrought havoc and mayhem in one of the greatest cities of the Muslim world.

It was in 1258 that the Mongol army numbering 200,000 soldiers led by Hulagu Khan conquered Baghdad and brought down the Abbasid Caliphate. The Abbasid ruler Caliph Mustasim and his sons were sewn into carpets and trampled to death by Mongol horsemen. Once the walls of the city had been breached, the victorious barbarians showed no mercy and gave no quarter: Men, women and children were slaughtered by the thousands and the butchery did not stop till the murderers’ thirst for blood and rapine was sated and their swords blunt.

The Mongol invasion of the mid-13th century led to carnage and destruction on a truly epic scale: The famous universities and libraries of Baghdad were razed to the ground, and with them hundreds of books on science, philosophy, law and the arts went up in flames. Thousands of poets, philosophers, scientists, scribes, mystics and artisans were killed or captured. The loss of Baghdad meant that one of the brightest stars in the Muslim constellation had been put out. So deep was the sense of loss and trauma that even the poets could not put it into words. Only the muted cries of a thousand mothers could be heard. The Muslim world hung its head in shame, carrying the guilt for not being able to defend one of its greatest cities, home to some of its grandest and most sublime achievements. In the gloom that followed, the Muslim world slipped into its own dark age.

From this all-consuming darkness was born a fear and contempt for the Other, and sure enough this anger and frustration soon found itself expressed in words that were persuasive and beguiling. Not long after, one of the greatest thinkers of Islamic history – The Hanbalite scholar Taqial-din ibn Taymiyya (b.1263- d.1328) – formulated his own understanding of Islamic law and philosophy with a decidedly defensive and confrontational approach to it. Forever on the defensive against enemies and external threats – both real and imagined – Ibn Taymiyya’s own philosophy was one that sought to defend the integrity and purity of Islam and normative Muslim life at all costs. Despite his considerable intellectual achievements, ibn Taymiyya could never shake off his fear and loathing of alterity and otherness: the trauma of invasion and defeat was so great that it haunted him and his generation forever.

Ghosts of the past

Till today, the ghost of ibn Taymiyya lives with us still. His ideas and concerns were later reflected by scores of Muslim thinkers, intellectuals and activists who developed a persecution psycho-pathology that made them fearful of the outside world. Cognisant of the fact that the Muslim ummah was surrounded by enemies, they developed a philosophy and approach to Islam that was reactionary and defensive. From the incarceration psycho-pathology of Sayyid Qutb (born in the grimy prisons of post-Nasserite Egypt) to the xenophobic and narrow normative Islam of the Taliban, we have been forced to live in this state of mental and intellectual siege. The collective mental
homeland of the Muslim consciousness has suffered a blockade of fresh ideas and innovations for so long that we have fallen behind in the race for development and progress.

What is worse, our fear of the Other has become so deeply internalised today that we turn against ourselves, slaughtering each other in the name of Islam and in order to protect the faith from its detractors. It is bad enough that Muslims are being murdered on a daily basis all over the world - from Chechnya to Kashmir, Afghanistan to Mindanao – now Muslims are killing each other as well, in their fervour to eliminate the ‘enemies within’ thanks to the practice of takfir (accusing other Muslims of being kafirs) that has
become the norm in so many Muslim societies. Fearful of enemies within and without, we have become our worst enemies.

To compound the situation even more, normative Islam today has been arrested by political elites – many of whom are really nothing more than cronies to their paymasters in Washington – who have likewise adapted and utilised this conservative interpretation of Islam to suit their own ends. In most cases, the conservative mindset that we have not been able to rid ourselves of has been used by Muslim states that have proven to be the greatest threat to the peace, security and livelihood of Muslims themselves. Arab-Muslim governments (rightly) condemn the killing of Palestinians by the Israeli Zionist regime, but let us not forget that thousands of Arab Muslims have also been murdered by their own governments in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere. We live in the dark ages indeed. What can be done under such circumstances? Can the Muslim world ever rise again, or will we be plunged deeper in a bottomless abyss of darkness and despair?

Yaumul Qiamah for the Muslim world

“On the (day of) Qiamah (mankind) will be confronted with the biggest imaginable earthquake, and will be powerless to control it… When possessed with power, man tends to become haughty and over-confident. But when the earth is so shaken that the mountains come tumbling down and it is engulfed by the mighty waves of the ocean, he will flee in utter bewilderment, leaving all his possessions behind him. To his horror, he will find that there is no escape route whatsoever.”
Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, ‘News of the Last Day’ (1991)

The devastation that has been unleashed on Iraq and its people is symbolic of the devastation of the entire Muslim ummah. This is, for many, the beginning of the end. But the end of what, and of whom?

Rather than slip further into a state of collective depression, anxiety and fear – which might lead us to withdraw deeper into ourselves and to seek refuge in the futile escapism – we can and should look at this disaster as our day of yaumul qiamah (day of resurrection) in the here-and-now. Indeed, one could argue that this moment has been long overdue, and there is some hikmah (wisdom) in the madness we see all around us.

The tragic fall of Baghdad in 1258 led to the collapse of the Abbasid dynasty and the end of the golden age of Islam. It also forced Muslims to retreat into collective isolation and self-exile from the rest of the world, putting them on the defensive and dampening their faith in their own culture and civilisational achievements. But let us not forget that it was also during the darkest hours of crisis that the Muslim ummah managed to rouse itself and put its brave face forward: the lesson of the battle of Badr, when the Muslims managed to defend themselves against opponents who outnumbered them comes to mind. For it is then, at the nadir of our existence, that the true mettle and spirit of Muslims must show itself.

The challenge that lies before the Muslim ummah and Islamist movements in particular now is how to rise up in the wake of this terrible calamity. This is our second rising, and we must rise up to the challenge that awaits us. Now, more than ever, we have to learn how to fight for peace, democracy and the rule of law – both domestic and international – in this Hobbesian universe where there is no longer ethics and morality in politics.

If Muslims have anything to offer to the world, it is the emancipatory and transformative message of Islam itself which we all carry in our hearts. Islam is a religion of peace but Islam is not a ‘passively pacifist’ religion: Peace does not come by itself, it has to be fought and struggled for.

The message of Islam is one of social transformation, emancipation and the harmonisation of human existence to higher universal laws that transcend the boundaries of race, gender, class and politics. It is a restorative project, which seeks to position human beings – as rational agents bearing the mark of their creator – as the primary force of change in the world. Islam seeks to unite rather than divide, and to bring harmony and balance where chaos reigns supreme.

Today the sphere of undecidability and contingency happens to be the international arena of global politics itself. The tragedy of Iraq is but a symptom of a world that has no higher governing force or capacity of self-regulation. The international financial system is in tatters and the developing economies of the world are held hostage by bandit-kings who run the financial houses and banks of the world. Humanity’s capacity for positive and productive development has been distorted by the proliferation of arms and the international arms trade. Human beings themselves have been reduced to the status of passive consumers rather than creative agents.

In the midst of this chaos that comes under the name of globalisation, the demonisation of Muslims and the attacks on Muslim states is but a blip on the radar screen. The question is not how the tragedy in Iraq could have happened, but rather why haven’t we seen more of the same?

Islamist organisations and movements must therefore rise to this challenge by mobilising people towards the transformative and restorative project of Islamism. Islam’s concerns for justice and equality needs to be translated into socially-realisable goals directed towards correcting the political, economic and ideological imbalances that exist in the world around us. Our understanding of victory and success (al-falah) has to be understood in concrete political, economic and social terms.

Unless and until we re-orient our struggle and make it a truly universal one that serves humanity as a whole, we will never be able to get out of this impasse of our own making. Centuries of self-isolation means that we have become a marginal constituency that is negligible and vulnerable. We need to locate ourselves once again at the centre of societal advancement and progress. But this can only happen if we reintegrate ourselves into the mainstream of global politics and social currents, and take full advantage of the technological, economic and educational advances we see all around
us. We need to use the tools of social science and modern technology so that the message of political Islam can be translated to a wider audience in a way that is inclusive and not divisive.

From now on, Muslims can no longer remain silent. On every single issue of global import – from the anti-globalisation campaign to the struggle for democracy, from the campaign against Western arms exports to the struggle against the manipulation of the IMF, World Bank and Western multinationals – we must be present and we must make our voice heard.

Let us not look upon Iraq with despair, hatred or misguided emotionalism. Nor should we slip back to a politics of isolationism or nostalgia. And let us not fall into the trap of simplistic binary oppositions that divide the world into ‘the West’ and ‘Islam’. If anything is clear by now, it is that the ‘West’ is not homogenous or uniform. We ought to be thankful to the millions of Europeans, Americans and others who stood up against the US aggression in Iraq and who defied their own governments in order to stand up for justice and common humanity. These are our real allies, our true friends, and we need to rebuild these bonds with other communities who stood by us during our weakest moment.

From this, a new global coalition for justice, democracy and the rule of law can emerge. Should such a project come into being, Muslims must ensure that they are not left out or their voices unheard. For that reason we need to stir ourselves from our paralysis and slumber, and once again take up our role as actors on the stage of global politics. This, in a sense, is our social obligation (fardhu kifayah) in the age we live in. And let us not
forget that the future of Islam rests on our shoulders today, and that we will be held accountable for our deeds, misdeeds and lack of doing soon enough:

`And every man’s deeds have We fastened around his neck, and the day of
Resurrection will We bring forth a book which shall be proffered to him wide
open: (It will be said to him) `Read your record: This day there need be
none but yourself to make out an account against you’.(Qur’an, 7:13-14)