The huge middle ground is occupied by the rest of Muslims, the vast majority who love to sing, dance and make merry, whose homes are adorned with pictures of people and places, and who mind their own business while practicing Islamic rites and rituals.
(Daily Times, 12 June 2013)
No, dear reader, this is not about the pronoun “I” as in “self” and certainly not about me. You might say it is about more than one billion people, over a millennium of history and one of the world’s great religions. Yes, it is about Islam and Muslims. More accurately, it is about what a large part of the rest of the world now thinks of them.
In response to one of my recent articles “Terror in Timbuktu” (Daily Times, February 13), one Tony has written: “Hi Razi, astonishing, an article which purports to discuss the events in Mali with hardly a mention of the ‘I’ word.”
Tony goes on to say: “The poison of Islamic intransigence pollutes all of North Africa and is the source of the recent invasion of Timbuktu. . . . Islamic societies throughout North Africa and the Middle East are riddled with conflict, intolerance and terrorism. . . . the fact that all around the borders of the Islamic world there is conflict with non-Muslims. Mali was not an ‘African problem’. It was not a ‘third world’ problem. It was a problem with the Islamic fundamentalists.”
Now, in my article, “Islamists” were mentioned three times and “Salafism” twice but, in his rush to run away with his central thesis – that Islam is a source of evil – my critic failed to notice. Speaking of North Africa, he should know that the recent popular upsurge in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, which overthrew corrupt despots and dictators, was spearheaded by secular forces and had nothing to do with “Islam” or “Islamic intransigence”. He should also know that not all Muslims are Islamist or Salafist.
At one end of the spectrum is a very tiny minority of Salafists, who ban all music, dance, pictorial depictions and worldly pleasures. At the other end of the spectrum are atheistic, agnostic and cultural “Muslims”, who are presumed to be Muslims. The huge middle ground is occupied by the rest of Muslims, the vast majority who love to sing, dance and make merry, whose homes are adorned with pictures of people and places, and who mind their own business while practicing Islamic rites and rituals to a greater or lesser extent. They mean no harm to anyone and, in fact, are known throughout the world for their warmth, hospitality and generosity towards both neighbours and strangers.
The Malian people on all sides of the current conflict are Muslims. And how many sides there are? Two according to Tony, namely, “Islam” or “Islamic intransigence” versus the people of Mali. And three according to me: the black-dominated Malian state, the secular National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which seeks autonomy for the Berber-Tuareg people of northern Mali, and the assortment of Islamist/Salafist Ansar Dine and the like, flush with arms from Libya and military experience from Afghanistan. They who welcomed the sharia-enforcers were Muslims just like those who greeted the Christian French troops who pushed back the sharia-enforcers!
Tony’s comments on my article are astonishing for their factual inaccuracies and historical ignorance, astonishing for the malicious view of Islam and Muslims, and even more astonishing for the fact that they come from a very decent, well-read and intelligent Westerner who does not care two hoots about any religion. What it shows is the very poor state in which Islam and Muslims are now perceived in much of the rest of the world. It has to be conceded that much – not all – of the blame for this poor image lies with Muslims themselves.
Tony rather casually employs terms and phrases like “Islamic intransigence”, “Islamic societies”, “problem with Islamic fundamentalists”, etc. But he is not alone. In today’s world, these terms and expressions are bandied around with abandon. Tony again: “Islamic societies throughout North Africa and the Middle East are riddled with conflict, intolerance and terrorism. . . . the fact that all around the borders of the Islamic world there is conflict with non-Muslims.”
Let us tentatively list the “non-Islamic societies” which are (or were, until recently) “riddled with conflict, intolerance and terrorism”: Rwanda, Uganda, Congo, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Mozambique, South Africa (apartheid), Colombia, Bolivia, Honduras, El Salvador, Fiji, Solomon Islands, Spain (Basque-ETA), Northern Ireland, Myanmar (Kachin, Shan), Cambodia (Khmer Rouge), China (Tibet), Sri Lanka (Tamil vs Sinhalese), Nepal (Naxalite), India (north-eastern states and the Naxalite insurgency), Georgia (South Ossetia, Abkhazia), Yugoslavia (Serb vs Croat), etc.
The Islamic Republic of Pakistan has always had unfriendly, even hostile, relations with its Muslim neighbour Afghanistan but extremely good relations with Communist China, Communist North Korea, Nepal (Hindu), Sri Lanka (Buddhist) and Iran (Shia Muslim). Turkey, until very recently, had very good relations with Israel and poor or lukewarm relations with almost all Arab Muslim countries.
The principles of international relations and human relationships, as well as alienation, discontent and revolt, operate universally irrespective of religion. They have in the past and they do so now.
Finally, there is the fundamental error of equating Muslim and Islam with Arab. Many readers will be surprised to learn that only one in five Muslims (20%) is an Arab. The world’s largest Muslim country, Indonesia, is as far removed from Arab culture and mindset as New Zealand is from Northern Ireland.
An Egyptian diplomat, Tahseen Bashir, once said: “Egypt is the only nation-state in the Arab world, the rest are just tribes with flags.” One might view all the countries of Central Asia in the same light, with the exception of Iran, but definitely including Afghanistan and north-western Pakistan.
And that, in part, may explain the current events in North Africa, Middle East and Central Asia, from Yemen to Pakistan and from Algeria to Syria. Nevertheless, to view the recent acts of “terrorism” by Muslims against the West in isolation from other events is to go down a blind alley. I am referring to the festering wound on the Muslim psyche caused by the Israeli occupation of Palestine with US support, the illegal and catastrophic US invasion of Iraq and the continued havoc caused by the Western intervention in Afghanistan and its spill-over into Pakistan.
By Razi Azmi