Recently more than 900 or so Muslim scholars and theologians gathered in Kuala Lumpur, 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 more than 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 with 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 “Islamophobia,” which is supposedly growing in the West with tacit encouragement from powerful “lobbies” in Washington.
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Each time it was necessary to take a clear position, for example on terrorism and suicide bombing, the conferees weaseled out with the help of demagogic pirouettes.
Despite some attempts, notably by Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, at focusing 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.
The “global” idea could become an instrument for providing the economically and militarily weaker societies with the means not only to survive but also to strengthen their identity in a pluralist world. Islam should look into its historic, cultural and intellectual resources to find 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 against the United States on 9/11.
There we had action presented as a substitute for thought in the manner of Voltaire’s bug. (That bug, annoyed by the ticktock 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 the 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 in Iran, the Sudan and Afghanistan (under the Taliban) in the past three decades.
Others, including the Malaysian Prime Minister, 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. A case could be argued that the tragedies 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 and sections of the urban middle classes were in the driving seat.
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. What this 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 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 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 round as the theopolitical discourse suggests.
The conferees of Kuala Lumpur, probably afraid of incurring the wrath of demagogues, missed an opportunity to lead the debate in that direction.
Amir Taheri is an Iranian journalist and author of 10 books on the Middle East and Islam.