IRAQ: Why Are We Silent?

Farish A. Noor

Posted Feb 11, 2003      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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By now, most of us should realize that the war on Iraq is a fait accompli and that the real question is not how, but rather when, the attack will take place. What is amazing, however, is the fact that Malaysian society has been so silent of late and that there has hardly been a squeak of protest coming from these shores. The cynic among us might say: ?What difference would it make? The Americans will simply disregard our protests anyway.? But that does not address the fundamental moral dilemma faced by those who are confronted with the choice of acting or doing nothing at all. Granted, we do not live in an ideal world, and protests can also be exploited by those with the vested interests to do so. But to say nothing before the advent of an injustice so great and obvious makes us all complicit in the crime itself.

In moral and ethical terms, one can describe this as a case of negative responsibility: Like not calling out to a blind person crossing the street and warning him that he is about to be hit by a speeding car. Even if we did not kill the person in question, we failed him by doing nothing and letting him meet his death on the road.

What is even more depressing and embarrassing is that Malaysia ? which claims to be an ?Islamic state? and which happens to be a Muslim-majority country ? has not been able to articulate its own position clearly. This has been the fault of both the powers-that-be as well as Malaysian society itself.

Elsewhere in the world, we have seen non-Arabs and non-Muslims speaking out on behalf of the innocent people of Iraq. Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa has been a vocal critic of American ambitions in the Arab world and he has openly condemned the bellicose rhetoric of the Bush administration.

American and French citizens? delegations have already left for Iraq, to serve as human shields between the Iraqi people and the massive arsenal of the war-mongering U.S. Protests have erupted all over the capitals of Europe and major cities in the USA. But in the Muslim world, all we have seen are cowardly and craven Arab leaders with their tails between their legs and their begging caps in hand, crawling to the U.S. for aid as always.

Worse still, the Muslims themselves have no one else to blame if the plight of fellow Muslims seem an irrelevant concern to others. If the world doesn?t give a damn about the killing of Muslim civilians in countries like Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan, whose fault is it? It is high time that Islamic leaders and intellectuals look at themselves a little closer and ask some pressing questions about the state of Islamist political discourse and how it has failed to serve Muslims themselves.

From universalism to exclusivism.

It is one of the most painful ironies of history that the message of Islam ? which was meant to be a universal message addressed to humanity as a whole ? has been reduced to a specific and particular message exclusive to the Muslim community only. This was thanks to the narrow and chauvinist politics of many Islamist movements, which saw Islam as a convenient and effective means to mobilize the Muslim masses behind the banner of Islam. We have seen a host of disasters the world over: Pakistan, which was set up in the name of Muslim identity and the protection of Muslim concerns, turned itself from a thriving developing economy to a hotbed of Islamic militancy and radicalism and became the breeding ground for a host of crackpot extremist movements whose primary achievement has been killing other Muslims and giving Islam a bad name. Sudan and Iran, whose Islamist experiment was hijacked by a crew of intolerant Mullahs and self-proclaimed defenders of the faith, have not been able to deal with the questions of pluralism and democracy, and have been guilty of the persecution of non-Muslim minorities.

Afghanistan, at the hands of the Taliban, went on the rampage of destroying its pre-Islamic past and even toyed with the idea of forcing non-Muslims to wear identification tags so that they could be identified in public. (To those Islamist hardliners who supported such moves, one would like to ask this question: How would Muslims feel if they were forced to wear badges and armbands, like the Jews in Nazi Germany, to identify themselves as Muslims? Would they be so inclined to support the Taliban?s policies then, if the same was the case for them?)

Political Islam ? or Islamism ? could have been an alternative and contender against the corrupt and destructive ideology of global capitalism. The tauhidic (unitary) worldview of Islam offers an alternative vision of society which sees humanity as a holistic unity and accepts no divisions of race, ethnicity, gender, language, culture or class.

A whole generation of progressive Islamist intellectuals and activists, ranging from Ali Shariati of Iran, Fazlur Rahman of Pakistan, Rached Ghanouchi of Tunisia and even Dr. Burhanuddin al-Helmy of Malaysia, were engaged in the complicated task of re-interpreting and re-presenting Islam as a theology of liberation and social emancipation that would uplift the lot of humanity as a whole and not just Muslims. For them, the ?Victory of Islam? was not about raising the flags and banners of Muslims over the
capitals of Europe and North America. They did not see Islam as an ideology of war and they did not think of Muslim concerns as being exclusive or superior to the concerns of others. Instead, they saw in Islam a system of values and beliefs that could be used to mobilize ordinary people against the patent injustices of their time: Uneven development, exploitation by the rich, the domination of the Western imperial and neo-colonial powers, etc. Some, like Shariati, even argued that the victory of Islam would not be complete without the total emancipation and liberation of Muslim women, so
that they could stand on par with Muslim men.

The fanatics have failed us.

But the forces of progressive Islamism were checked by the rise of the fanatics and demagogues in the Muslim world. What helped them to rise even faster was the machinations of the Western powers during the Cold War, who cooperated with some of the most extreme hard-core fundamentalist groups and used them to eliminate the progressive forces in the South and developing world. In Iran, the Arab states and Indonesia for instance, the conservative Islamists received funding and military support from the U.S. in order to wipe out liberals, progressive Muslims, leftists and democrats. The massacres, pogroms and witch-hunts they conducted were often carried out in
the name of their religion and ostensibly to ?protect? Muslims from being ?misguided? by others.

But what was the net result? Radical and conservative Islamist movements and governments prospered during the height of the Cold War. The governments of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan (then under General Zia?ul Haq) became the closest allies to the U.S. and the Western bloc, and at the same time carried out Washington?s bidding to wipe out the democrats and progressives.

These conservative Islamists also helped to turn Islam into a communitarian ideology that was used to unite Muslims against all external communities, that were, in turn, seen as the enemies of Islam. At the hands of bigoted Mullahs and ill-educated Pharisees, the universal message of Islam was totally perverted and distorted into a hate machine geared towards perpetual jihad against its enemies. Whereas, in the past the Muslim world was led by generations of progressive and rationalist intellectuals and Ulama like Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rush, the new wave of radical Islamism that swept the world in the 1980s saw the popularization of conservative thinkers like Ibn Taymiyya and the half-baked ideas of self-made Islamologues like Maudoodi of Pakistan and Sayyid Qutb of Egypt. The ideas of these men, born and bred as they were within a narrow and restricted understanding of Islam and twisted by a prison psycho-pathology that valorized conflict, revolution and martyrdom as its goals, led to the creation of an Islamist ideology that was no longer universal, but particular and specific.

By the 1980s and 1990s, political Islam worldwide was synonymous with a closed and narrow understanding of the faith and a restricted view of its political ambitions. Islamist parties and opposition movements talked about freedom and democracy, but proved to be far from democratic themselves when they came to power. As in the case of what we have seen here in Malaysia, as soon as they come to power, most Islamist regimes seem more interested in banning bikinis on beaches, shutting down cinemas and preventing boys and girls holding hands in public (as if the country would collapse if that happened). What of the economic, social and political re-structuring that they had promised? What of the social reforms that were meant to lead to a more democratic future? What of the freedom of speech that they demanded for themselves (while denying to others)? In the end, Islamism, at the hands of these ideologues, became just another form of communitarian politics that was selective and exclusive. Its main victims were non-Muslims, women, youth and the underclasses.

Who will stand for us now?

In the light of these developments, can Muslims complain if and when nobody speaks up for them in the face of such injustices such as what we have witnessed in Palestine and what we are about to face in Iraq? Can we blame the rest of the world for fearing the rise of political Islam if we, in the Muslim world, can?t even get our act together and win back control of a discourse that has fallen into the hands of fanatics and extremists for so long?

The irony and blessing is that, despite the injustices that have been committed in the name of Islam by the fanatics among us, there are still millions of ordinary decent non-Muslims who have spoken up on our behalf and defended our concerns when we ourselves have proven wanting. The fact that a Christian Priest like Bishop Desmond Tutu can defend the people of Iraq speaks volumes about the humanity of the man. The same can be said for the ordinary Americans and Europeans who have risked their lives and careers to go to Iraq to tell the truth to the world ? when most Muslims I know can’t even get off their overfed backsides to do the same for fellow Muslims (much less non-Muslims).

Until Islamists realize and understand that the victory of Islam is not just for Muslims, but for humanity as a whole; and that the struggle of Islamism needs to be activist in orientation and geared towards the protection of human rights and fundamental liberty the world over, political Islam will be nothing more than an outdated wish-list made up of empty slogans and broken promises. We have to be thankful that there are still non-Muslims in the world who will speak up for us when we have been rendered voiceless and impotent. But let us ask ourselves this final question: If the situation was reversed, and a monumental injustice was about to be inflicted on a non-Muslim community elsewhere in the world, would Muslims have the moral courage and conviction to stand up for them too? Or would they simply turn a blind eye and say that it was just another ?kafir? problem and not their concern?