Individual liberty or societal damnation – a simple choice

By Javed Hassan

Muslims are rightly proud of great thinkers who emerged from the Islamic milieu of the so called Islamic Golden Age. Avicenna, Omar Khayyám , Averroes, Razi, and many more not only carried forward the Greek tradition of rational enquiry but also innovated and brought about new discoveries. We should rejoice the greatness that was once there, and the potential that we might still have to achieve such heights again.

 However, before that happens we need to ask ourselves the question that Dawkins posed to all of us, ‘why are there only ten Muslim Nobel laureates compared to thirty from Trinity College Cambridge/”. It’s worth noting that there are some two hundred plus Jewish recipients of the prize. Why has there been virtually no major scientific contribution from Muslims since the thirteenth century? Why in the sixteenth century, just as Taqi al-Din’s observatory was being demolished on the recommendation of the Ottoman’s Chief Mufti, the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe was opening his technically equivalent masterpiece “to observe a vast new development of astronomical science”?

 Could it be possible that those very forces that have stifled individual liberty and free speech in Islamic societies, have also restricted the blossoming of ideas generally, and science in particular?  The Muslim world has not been unique in this experiment of imposing rigid orthodoxy. The once great Hindu and Chinese followed a similar path with equally disastrous consequences.  In the fifteenth century Ming China was possibly the world’s most powerful country. The Emperor decided that China needed or wanted nothing from the outside, “barbaric and uncivilized” world; and thus banned all external trade and contact. This isolation not only ensured sustained decline of the civilization but in due course humiliating capitulation to western powers in the nineteenth century. The culmination of this was the opiate induced slumber of an entire nation.

 While China and India are once again resurgent and increasingly westernized, the sustained decline Islamic world continues. The moral decay of the Islamic world that started in the thirteenth century, well before the encroachment of European colonialism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, seems inexorable. The surrender to occidental powers of Islamic empires might have been inevitable given the trajectory of internal intellectual development within each. The west rejuvenated by free speech and individual liberty was ascendant with an insatiable appetite for intellectual and material glory; and the Islamic east at this moment was accelerating it drift into a malaise of mental rigidity and civilization hollowness.

 In this continuum of Islamic world’s decline we are today faced with the explosion of violence – yet another reflection of the overall intellectual and cultural bankruptcy of the Ummah. The motivating force for the primitive impulses are very often economic and political factors, but the ground conditions for these are often laid by the over zealous devotion to a overweening belief system, and singular disregard to individual liberty and free speech. Freedom in every sphere of human activity leads to creativity, and if constrained due archaic interpretation of religious codes, the society as a whole implodes on itself. Thus has been the fate of the once mighty Islamic world following the rise of Al-Ghazali’s orthodoxy from the twelfth century onwards. The adherence to strictures of faith overriding all other aspirations may still doom the Islamic world to languish in the shallows and in miseries for the foreseeable future.

 Economic and political issues drive anything anyone does anywhere, but that does not mean people do not use the faith to motivate and justify the violence accompanying political objectives. There is considerable material within the great near-eastern monotheistic scriptures that can motivate the believer to act violently for heavenly rewards, even if in reality he is being manipulated to achieve cynical political objectives. That is an issue, which ‘Liberal Muslims’ refuse to acknowledge. The question that should be vexing Muslims is not that why are the peace loving majority tainted for the sins of the very few, but rather how can religion be stopped being used to motivate violence and excuse oppression of individual liberty.

 Those who think suicide bombings have no connection with the belief system might also claim that the kamikaze pilots had little to do with the Zen Buddhism religion and its use in promoting Japanese nationalism. Much like the Kamikaze pilot thought that ‘it was an honor to die for Japan and the Emperor’, today’s Muslim suicide bomber feels he is acting nobly and will thus be eternally rewarded.

 Throughout history it is not the majority but rather the small highly motivated minority who cause the greatest mischief. Very often it is this minority that set the agenda and doom the fate of many for generations to come. Paraphrasing the poet one might say, “The majority lack all conviction, while the terrible few are full of passionate intensity”.

 We would do well to appreciate the best traditions of free speech and individual liberty in the western world, and do all to emulate in Islamic societies. These are fundamental tenants that have been achieved through great sacrifice of many brave people in the western world, which we should be advocating among peace loving Muslims to ensure that the ignominy of the past eight hundred years is not perpetuated much longer.

 Muslims should spend some time asking unpleasant questions about our own, rather than chest thumping the Islamic World’s peace loving credentials, and brow beating the western world. If we fail to do so we shall remain a petty and backward people, mired in mediocrity and misery. A specter haunts much of the Islamic world today and there is little time to save it.

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