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Symposium 2013

Proposal - Islam and the Future of the Arab World

The Challenge

In December 2010, as its outset, the Arab Spring was non-ideological and leaderless. In many respects, it seemed to be the product of a “generational revolution”: 100 million young Arabs were risi ...

In December 2010, as its outset, the Arab Spring was non-ideological and leaderless. In many respects, it seemed to be the product of a “generational revolution”: 100 million young Arabs were rising against stifling economic and political structures that had stripped them of their freedoms while giving them in return one of the poorest education systems in the world, the highest unemployment rate together with a yawning income gap. Both Tunisia and Egypt demonstrated that rapid economic growth does not buy political stability unless political institutions and public governance are allowed to mature equally rapidly.

It is not reliable to measure the depth of the sea at low tide.

IN many Western societies, Islam is seen as the greatest threat to democracy, freedom and development. Questions are raised whether the Arab world (and by association Islam) is compatible with democracy, rule of law and modernity? Is the Muslim world lagging behind in education, science and technology due to the influence of Islam? Does Islam permit or prohibit terrorism? Is Islam a hindrance to economic development? Are Muslim societies incapable of improving the position of women?

Let me comment on the above questions by conceding that the prejudices against Islam and Muslims are given credence by the involvement of some Muslims in acts of terrorism and the widespread inability of a few Muslim nations to achieve good governance and economic development.

Sleight of hand

Nevertheless it needs to be pointed out that it is not reliable to measure the depth of the sea at low tide. Likewise it is not fair to evaluate civilizations and cultures at a low point in their history. Further, it must be observed that there is much sleight of hand in Western commentary on Islam.

First, in dealing with Muslims there is a willing confusion between the faith and the faithful. The wrongs of Muslims are attributed to their religion. But the same is not done, and rightly so, when Americans and Europeans commit brutality against Africans, Asians and Latin Americans.

Second, Islam is not a homogenous or monolithic religion. On any issue - whether terrorism, polygamy or dialogue with the West - the Muslim response is rich in diversity. But only the fanatical, obscurantist or sensational Muslim views are given media coverage in the West.

Third, the West evaluates Islam exclusively by reference to nations in the Middle East and Northern Africa. But there is more to Islam than its Arab adherents. The most populous Muslim societies are in Asia and have a right to be regarded as important torch bearers of Islam.

Fourth, the countries chosen as Islam’s paradigm are almost always those where Western installed or Western backed repressive regimes are in control as in Egypt, Kuwait, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The fact that a groundswell of democratic sentiment is sweeping most Muslim societies is not given sufficient positive coverage in the West.

Fifth, the pernicious role of the West in obstructing the growth of representative institutions in Muslim societies is blotted out. Algeria, Turkey, Palestine and Egypt are good examples. If electoral results produce a government not subservient to Washington, it must be overthrown. Democracy is desirable but only to the extent it produces governments beholden to the West!

Sixth, Islam is judged by reference to its worst-run, turmoil prone and unstable societies. For the Christian civilization, the affluent, liberal democracies of post World War II are regarded as standard bearers. A fairer analysis will reveal that in the United Nation’s 48 millennium indicators of well-being, some of the most horrific tales of poverty, starvation, corruption and disease come from states in Latin America and Africa with Christian majorities.

Seventh, the fact that many Muslim societies are infested with terrorist groups is not unique to Islam. The West has it’s problems with separatist, racist groups that resort to perfidies. Further, the grotesquely atrocious acts of state terrorism by countries like Israel, the USA, Soviet Russia, China and India are not given equal condemnation.

Eighth, in comparing civilizations, it is not fair to match the lofty ideals of one civilization with the ground realities of another. If theory is compared with theory and practice with practice, it will be seen that the cultural distance between Islam and the West is narrower than is assumed.

From a large number of issues let me highlight just a few.

Principles of Government

  • Denial of state sovereignty is a cardinal principle in Islam long before the writings of Locke and Rousseau.
  • The governmnet is a trustee of the people.
  • The duty of citizens to obey the law is conditional.
  • There is a concept of human rights that encompasses not only civil and political rights but also the second generation socio-economic, positive rights.
  • The government’s duty is to rule by consultation. (3:159)
  • In the criminal process there is a presumption of innocence.
  • Religious tolerance is required and cultural pluralism is permitted. “Unto you, your religion, unto me mine” (109:1-6)
  • Modern principles of administrative law like natural justice and proportionality have their counterpart in Islamic public law.
  • The ombudsman principle, usually attibuted to the genius of Scandinavians, was known to Islam in the system of Hisba, the office of the Muhtasib and the existence of the Mazalim courts.
  • Islam’s de-emphasis on national or racial factors and its concept of the universal ummah (universal Muslim community) are in line with the process of globalization.

lslam and knowledge

There is collective arnnesia in Europe and America about the West's debt to the Islamic heritage. For the sake of the record it must be noted that cultural and scientific renaissance flourished in Islam long before the European renaissance. Arab Muslims were central to the making of medieval Europe.

The citadels of learning in Islamic societies attracted many Europeans from the 8th to the 13th centuries. A large number of texts written in Arabic were translated into Latin. Libraries flourished in the Muslim world. Many European scholars translated Arabic works in medicine, mathematics and astronomy without acknowledging the sources. The names of hundreds of Islamic scholars and scientists were "Latinized" or changed in order to obscure their identity and origin. Thus Ibnu Sina became Avicenna; al-Ghazali was changed to AIgazel, Ibn Rushd was modified to become Averroes and al-Razi was changed to Rhazes.

lslam and Economic Development

There is a common misperception that Islam is the cause of under¬development in Asian and Arab societies. Many Muslims hold this view. For example, the Arab Human Development Report 2002 released in Cairo on July 2, 2002 paints a bleak picture of economic and intellectual stagnation in Arab societies. A similar UN Report indicates that out of 47 low income countries, 25 are Muslim majority countries.

It is submitted however that much depends on how one gathers the data; what benchmarks are set up; which region is compared with which region; whether the best of one civilization is compared with the worst of another. Contrasting data is available. For example, on World Food Day, Oct. 16, 2003, the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation issued a list of 37 countries that require "exceptional external assistance” because they are unable to feed themselves. Twenty-six of the thirty-seven countries were non-Muslim countries. Of the seven most needy countries only two were Muslim. Sudan and Uganda came at number 3 and 6 respectively.

On the UN's 48 millennium indicators of well-being, some of the most impoverished and mal-administered societies on earth with tribal warfare, genocide, famines and civil wars are in Africa and Latin America. Many have Christian majorities.

lt is clear, therefore, that there may be a casual but no causal connection between religion and poverty and religion and under-development. Specifically there is no evidence that Islam has failed or that it is Islam that is a stumbling block to progress. Jordan, Dubai, Kuwait, Oman, the Emirates, Libya (before Western intervention), Iran, Malaysia, Turkey, Syria, (before the Western fuelled civil war) Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Brunei are all Muslim states doing quite well economicaIly as compared with many non¬-Muslim societies in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Much depends on who does the choosing and which countries are singled out for purpose of comparison.

Violence & Terrorism

Muslim societies do generate a great deal of political violence but Western culture produces more street violence. As to terrorism, Muslims have no monopoly over it especially if we view this abomination in all it’s manifestations including wars, threats to use nuclear weapons, targetted killings, drone attacks, and economic strangulation. According to MIT Professor Noam Chomsky, the US is the world’s greatest terrorist nation. “September 11 was the first time in history that the West received the kind of attack that it carries out routinely in the rest of the world”.

There is very little doubt that the killing of innocents is contrary to all Islamic principles. The Qur’an repeatedly emphasizes that war to be legitimate must be defensive (2:190-191). Use of force should be a matter of last resort (2:192). War is hateful (2:216). It is a blessing to transform fear into a sense of safety (24:55). Even in times of war, Allah forbids extremism. Many centuries before modern humanitarian law, Islamic international law had worked out a set of principles for the treatment of enemies, non-combatants, prisoners, children, women, old persons and monks in the monasteries.


Muslim treatment of women has brought Islam much bad publicity. Actually, Islamic rules on modesty for both genders were meant to de-emphasize sexuality and exploitation. In Islamic culture, married women maintain their family names. For 1,434 years, Muslim women have enjoyed the right to property, trade and commerce and the right to divorce. The inequality of shares in inheritance was due to explicit duty on males to provide support for their parents and siblings. In any case, rules of unequal inheritance can be sidestepped by adopting the permissible techniques of gift or trust in one’s lifetime to or for one’s daughters. In many Muslim societies like Malaysia, 60 to 65% of students and 50% of employees are females. Women are ahead in empowerment though still behind in Western style liberation.


There is no denying that the world view of the West and of Islam has much in contrast.

One is based on secular materialsm and value relativism; the other on faith. One separates temporal and spiritual authority; the other unites them. One protects the values of all with equal indifference; the other provides positive guides for behaviour and rejects the view that everything can be relativised. One is consumption-oriented and stresses personal gratification and self-indulgence; the other resists Western style hedonism and adopts an ethos of self-restraint. One emphasises the material aspect of life; the other recognises that the spiritual dimension of life is as important as the material.

One calls for individual liberation; the other extols submission of the individual to the eternal values of God.

One has rejected belief and piety. Belief in nothing has often led to a belief in anything. The other has placed belief (aqidah) at the centre of its world view.

In social and moral matters, Islamic and Western civilizations show wide divergence. Post Christian societies are inspired by militant, secular materialism, obssessive individualism, personal autonomy and extremely licentious views on a whole range of moral issues. Muslims are generally troubled by such expressions of autonomy. Whether Muslim societies must be condemned for such “backwardness” or praised for resisting the onslaught of a sex laced media culture is a matter of opinion.

What can Islam contribute to the world?

At the beginning of the 21st Century, what can Islam contribute to the world? A great deal, in fact.

Islam’s notion of a balance between deen (religion) and dunia (the material world) is a worthy one. Islam reconciles faith with science and does not see them as opposites. Many issues like alcohol and drugs and breakdown of the family that Islam rejects are now haunting Western civilisation.

Islam can provide a corrective to the crass materialism that engulfs modern civilization. It has a message against the excesses of capitalism, the abuses of the futures market and the power of speculative capitalism. It promotes environmentalism, responsible consumerism and sustainability. The earth and all that’s in it is not owned by humans. Instead it is a trust to be used with a sense of responsibility. The ecology movement of the last few decades and the the idea of sustainability are in line with the Islamic ethos that more of everything is not necessarily a good thing.

Islam requires the state to provide the needy with a welfare net but it asks private individuals to share the task. The institutions of zakat, fitrah and baitulmal are privately generated.

Islam opposes moral anarchy and excessive individualism. As with other religions, it offers compassion, piety and sense of humility. It places knowledge at the highest level of human endeavour. The first revelation to Prophet Muhammad was to “Read! Read that which is revealed”.

Islam places a high premium on community and consensus. These are or ought to be important democratic values as well.

Islam is not incompatible with democracy, human rights and development. The rejection of state sovereignty and the requirement that government must be conducted through shura or consultation provides the foundation of a democratic state.

According to Zbigniew Brzezinski ”we must be careful not to adopt a position that Islam is automatically our enemy or that Islam is automatically against human rights as politically defined... A deeply religious society in which Islamic moral precepts are respected is ultimately a society that also respects the “humanness” of the person as a whole being, not just a political or economic subject”.

The challenge of the Muslim thinker and activist is to revive the pioneering, frontier spirit of Islam and to manage and channel creativity along Islamic paths. Muslim thinkers must unlock the doors of ijtihad (independent reasoning) to address new problems and challenges coming to the fore.

Muslims must build bridges with sympathisers from other civilisations. Through intellectual discourse with the West, they must confront stereotypes. They must search for unity in diversity within the ummah.

They must abjure violence to solve problems afflicting their societies.

History does not move in a linear fashion. There is every reason to believe that with new attitudes, Muslim societies can return to their golden age of rennaissance.

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