Recently, over 900 or so Muslim scholars and theologians gathered at Kuala Lampur, the Malaysian capital, to ask a simple question: What is the role of Islam in the era of globalization?
This was a star-studded occasion with many prominent religious and political figures from over 70 Muslim countries across the globe. The participants heard 22 learned papers and sat through some 36 hours of debate spread over three days.
One theme ran through most of the papers and much of the debate: The Muslim world, ridden by internecine feuds and conflicts with the West, is in deep crisis. It was clear that most participants regarded the Muslim world as a victim of injustice, misunderstanding, and unfair propaganda. Many lashed out against the “Islamophobia” that is supposed to be growing in the West with tacit encouragement from powerful lobbies in Washington.
Each time it was necessary to take a clear position; for example on terrorism and suicide bombing, the confernciers weaseled out with the help of demagogic pirouettes.
Despite some attempts, notably by Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad, at focusing the debate on concrete issues, the conference drifted into the uncertain seas of obfuscation where conspiracy theories make waves and dead souls assume the captaincy of phantom vessels.
The central question posed by the conference is both valid and in need of urgent treatment. The so-called “global world” is a Western, mainly American construct, in the shaping of which Muslims have played no part.
In practice, the “global” idea could go in many different directions. It could degenerate into a new version of the positivist creed as spelled out by Saint Simon and August Comte, which would mean embarking on a universal wild-goose chase. Or it could become an instrument for providing the economically and militarily weaker societies with the means they need not only to survive but also to strengthen their identity in the context of a pluralist world. Islam should look into its historic, cultural, and intellectual resources to find, and use, energies needed either to offer an alternative model or to become an active participant in developing the one proposed by the West. The choice is not between being an object of globalization or its enemy.
The mere verbal rejection of globalization, while accepting all its imperatives in practice, is a sign only of intellectual laziness. To try to challenge it by violent action, without competing with it in the field of ideas, amounts to decadent formalism, of which we saw an example in the attacks launched by the al Qaeda gang against the United States on September 11, 2001.
There we had action presented as a substitute for thought in the manner of Voltaire’s bug. (That bug, annoyed by the tick-tock of the clock, committed suicide by jumping at it, stopping the “infernal machine” for a fraction of a second.)
Any serious debate on where Islam is today and where it needs to be tomorrow must start with an end to the demagogic blame game. Some speakers put the blame on the usual suspects of modern Islamic mythology: the Crusaders, the Orientalists, the Imperialists, the Zionists, the Communists, the liberals, the secularists, and so on. They did not realize that by identifying any of those usual suspects as author of the Islamic predicament they were absolving generations of Muslim intellectual and political leaders of their share of responsibility. They were not prepared even to discuss the tragic failure of such supposedly “Islamic” systems as we have witnessed in Iran, the Sudan and Afghanistan (under the Taliban) in the past three decades.
Others, including Prime Minister Mahatir, introduced a new whipping boy: the ulema (theologians). But they ignored the fact that the ulema have been as much the victims of despotism in Muslim countries as any other social stratum. Saddam Hussein’s system was not created by the ulema. The Iraqi dictator killed thousands of clerics and virtually destroyed the theological centers of learning in Iraq. The Taliban were semi-literate peasants who slaughtered the traditional ulema of Afghanistan. Even in Iran, the ulema have suffered more than any other social group. Today, there are more mullahs and students of theology in prison in Iran than any other social group. As for the Sudan, the ruling military junta has never allowed the ulema any share in power. A case could be argued that the tragedies that the Muslim world has suffered in the past 150 years were a result not of any action by the ulema but of despotism in which the military, the self-styled peddlers of Western ideologies, such as nationalism and Communism, and sections of the urban middle classes, were in the driving seat. The ulema may come up with any number of ideas and concepts that one might find wrong, weird or even dangerous. But the way to counter them is in the marketplace of ideas.
Once we have set aside the blame game we should acknowledge the existence of politics, economics, and ethics as domains distinct from that of theology. This does not mean atheism, or even secularism, as some self-styled defenders of Islam claim. Nor does it mean that theology cannot, or should not, make its own intellectual contribution to those domains. What it means is that political, economic, and ethical issues cannot be defined, analyzed, understood, and answered in purely theological terms.
The denial of those distinct domains has enabled despots and demagogues of various ideological shades to invent a theopolitical discourse that prevents any rational discussion of the problems the Muslims face today.
Once we have set aside the theopolitical discourse we could acknowledge the distinction between Islam as a faith, and Islam as an existential reality. This would enable us to subject Islam, as an existential reality, that is to say the way it is practiced and lived, to rational and systematic criticism aimed at discovering its weaknesses and suggesting ways to correct them. In that way any critique of the way we live as Muslims can no longer be condemned as a critique of Islam as a faith and thus presented as a religious dividing line.
The tragic irony is that classical Islam did recognize the existence of domains distinct from theology. It was that recognition that enabled several generations of Muslim scholars to dig into the Greek, Persian, and Indian philosophical and cultural heritage in order to enrich Islamic thought.
The theopolitical discourse that is designed to limit freedom of thought and expression in the Muslim world is a new phenomenon developed by a small number of militant thinkers influenced by Western totalitarian ideologies, especially Communism and Fascism.
In that sense, the challenge that most Muslim peoples face today is a political, rather than religious, one. It is perfectly possible for Muslims to develop a modern and democratic society in the era of globalization. But to do that they have to understand that religion is part of life, not the other way around as the theopolitical discourse suggests.
The confernciers of Kuala Lumpur, probably afraid of incurring the wrath of demagogues, missed an opportunity to lead the debate in that direction.
— Amir Taheri, an NRO contributor, is an Iranian journalist and author of ten books on the Middle East and Islam. Taheri is reachable through www.benadorassociates.com. A shorter version of this piece appeared in the Thursday New York Post.