“Verily God does not change the condition of a people unless they change what is in themselves.” Koran (13:11)
I hear you, but I am not quite sure if you hear me. You are hypnotized with the sound and fury of our era. The cacophony of the here and now drowns anyone seeking to speak, write and contemplate on what is eternal.
There are presently more than a billion Muslims in the world. There are twice as many people who are Christians. There are probably over 900 million Hindus, over 370 million Buddhists, and the Jews number around 15 million. These numbers can be read in many different ways. But surely it cannot be said that people belonging to different faith-traditions share a monolithic view of their faith. There exists greater variety of thinking and practice within each faith than is often acknowledged. Africans belonging to the Anglican Church, for instance, increasingly view American Episcopalians with suspicion if not derision.
You mention, derisively, that I belong to a miniscule and inconsequential minority among Muslims. You assume this on the basis of what I have shared with you. You also dismiss the notion of “moderate” Muslims, and insist without much reflection that Muslims are incapable of reform since their belief is false. In other words, you indicate the prerequisite of reform for Muslims is repudiating Islam.
In this letter I will confine myself to the issue of reform and your dismissal of “moderate” Muslims. You assume that I am part of a miniscule minority. All I can say to you is that I am not alone among Muslims that believe that in worshipping God – the One, Alone and Incomparable in His Majesty and Compassion – lies true freedom; the freedom of becoming and of being free from all false belief and ideology. It is this freedom, derived as God’s blessings, that provides not only peace and tranquility, but the detachment be in the world without being ensnared by its charms or repelled by its faults.
The Koran teaches that reform is an inward journey of change, transformation and transcendence in an individual. The outward reality for an individual is the community with which he is attached by circumstances or by choice. Rarely (perhaps never) is the inner reality of an individual in harmony with the outer circumstances of his life. Jesus was enmeshed in the politics of his time, as were Moses and Muhammad. Politics is without exception messy. It is the space where many interests collide.
Religion in the form given to it by humans is a human construction. We shape the vessel that holds our water. Form without faith is an empty vessel, and faith as life-giving water needs a vessel in which to be contained.
Reform is the capacity of individuals to receive and hold the water of faith, and grow. An incapacity for receiving, retaining and increasing the volume of water makes the shell hard, eventually barren. The absence of faith makes individuals into cynics.
A turning towards God is the first step in reform, and moving towards Him is the process of reform. Only a bigot will insist the first step and the process can only occur within the exclusive framework of a single religion; that God denies those who seek Him except if they come in am “approved” form.
In faith all men stand alone when contemplating, seeking and worshipping God. The quality of man’s faith is found not in his catechism but his conduct. The Koran declares that those who are dearest to God are those with the best conduct. In return God provides “for serenity in the hearts of believers so that their faith may increase with belief.”
In the realm of politics human beings confront each other individually and in groups with respect or with anger, or with all the other emotions in between that define us. Our politics is of our making — even when we fight over the meaning of God. When we quarrel over religion and maim and kill each other as a result, we are merely quarreling over the shape of the vessel.
God is not neutral in the struggle between belief and unbelief, or between freedom and tyranny. God has clearly indicated, for those with ears to hear, whose side He favours in this struggle. God has sent prophets and nurtured saints to guide us through our confusion and remind us of our responsibility. At times these prophets have succeeded in taming the passions and the evil in the hearts of men. At other times they have failed or fallen victim to the hands of unbelievers. Moses never entered the Promised Land. Jesus was crucified. Muhammad’s family massacred. Such is the nature of the struggle, and evil has often prevailed until good has paid in sacrifice to triumph over evil.
History records our successes and our failures. Civilizations have risen and then fallen. Mighty earthly powers have defied or denied God, repressed people of belief, scorned the idea of freedom and built temples to tyranny. For a little while these powers have appeared indestructible, but as we take a walk through history we see their empty, barren ruins. The water still flows.
You ask where are the “moderate” Muslims and why they have not done “enough” to defeat those jihadi Muslims dedicated to violence and bigotry? Since they have not done enough – however you measure what is enough – you conclude there cannot be “moderate” Muslims.
I confess that at times I to feel that Muslims have not taken sufficient responsibility for themselves to defeat the jihadi Muslims who have defiled Islam. The nature of any such engagement is, however, in the realm of politics, and all you need to do is pause and consider what is really taking place in the greater Middle East and beyond where Muslims constitute a majority population within a country.
Since September 11, 2001 the general population in the West, in America in particular, has awakened to varying degrees to the war raging within Islam that has spilled over beyond the borders of the Arab-Muslim world. The war within Islam is as old as the history of Islam itself, a war brought about by those wielding the sword for worldly power by appropriating Islam to serve their ends and to subjugate Muslims and non-Muslims alike to their whims. In recent history this war has been fought between countries with Muslim majority population. It has been fought within these countries across sectarian or ethnic divisions as is now being fought in Iraq.
The war within Islam is not unique. Christian Europe was involved in similar warfare spread across centuries, as recently as the two world wars that left Europe in ruins. The wars among Christians spread and endangered the wider world and which then became involved, took sides, and eventually prevailed over those forces most bigoted and hostile to the general peace of the world.
As with these wars, the wider world must now agree that to achieve peace and freedom the most bigoted elements within the Muslim world – the jihadi Muslims and their allies – need to be irrevocably defeated.
Unless the wider world unites against jihadi Muslims to crush them, they will continue to seek to take advantage of the cracks and divisions among non-Muslims to consolidate their own power. They will wage their war in as many ways they can, openly and by deceit, and ruthlessly repress any dissent among Muslims and non-Muslims wherever they prevail. This the world must realize.
In the midst of the current turmoil, as in past wars, “moderate” Muslims seek space for their faith and surcease from the demands of politics. Muslims, as the Koran instructs, are required to be a temperate people, a people of the middle eschewing extremes, a people who seek and work for what is just. It is in moderation an individual and a community can create harmony between the realms of faith and of politics.
People of moderation are not responsible for making wars. When wars begin such people seek distance, and when this is denied they have often taken side of lesser evil and paid the price.
“Moderate” Muslims within the Muslim world remain discreet given the nature of power-holders in their society. But they constitute the vital element of the population, by inclination and by numbers, if segments of the Muslim world and in particular areas within the greater Middle East are to make the transition from tyranny to democracy.
If “moderate” Muslims are not to be found, or do not exist, there can be then no expectation of such a transition. The West logically will be required then to re-colonize the Muslim world as the measure needed for preventing wars within Islam that endanger peace and security elsewhere. Because of this fact, those who revile Islam and scorn “moderate” Muslims need to answer how they intend to wage an endless war of occupation within the Muslim world.
By the same token, the “Moderate” Muslims who make their home in the open, free and democratic societies of the West, in particular the United States, bear great responsibility in defending the freedom they enjoy. They need to be more forthcoming in the effort needed to defeat jihadi Muslims.
But the obverse of insufficient effort of “moderate” Muslims in the West against jihadi Muslims is the extent of confusion and denial present among non-Muslims.
The degree to which the West is internally divided about the perils of jihadi Muslims and their allies, and confused about the nature of the war that the West (or more narrowly the United States) finds itself locked into since September 11, 2001, inevitably influences the role of “moderate” Muslims. Greater unity and decisiveness in the West in this war will bring “moderate” Muslims to do the right thing, as Islam itself demands of them, by aiding the forces of freedom and moderation against the extremism of jihadi Muslims.
Through the long decades of the Cold War “moderate” Muslims were on the side of freedom and opposed to Communism. It is too readily forgotten that during this time the West embraced tyrannical regimes of the Muslim world in the war against Soviet communism.The price of this anti-communist Cold War alliance was paid by “moderate” Muslims.
How the Muslim world will engage in reform and advance the process of transition from varying degrees of authoritarian rule to democracy remains an open question. The process of such change across the Muslim world will not be uniform. But the process itself will be still-born if “moderate” Muslims are non-existent or Islam is, according to those non-Muslims spewing their own bigotry, false, unchanging and monolithic in form and expression.
“Moderate” Muslims are the key for the eventual success of democratic reforms of Muslim societies and for world peace. They are also the key allies for the West in defeating jihadi Muslims. The success in making and sustaining this alliance will be the measure of statesmanship for political leaders in the West.
Those in the West for reasons of their own indulge in bigotry by reviling Islam are the inverted image of jihadi Muslims, and equally reprehensible as enemies of freedom.
Salim Mansur is a professor of political science at the University of Western Ontario and a syndicated columnist in Canada and the United Kingdom. A Muslim native to Calcutta, India, and a noted Islamic scholar, Prof. Mansur has written extensively on Islamic extremism and the challenges facing contemporary Islam.