by Saad Hafiz
It is hard to dispute that there is a cancer of extremism within Islam today. Groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Taliban reinforce a particularly harsh description of Islam as terrorist-prone, modernity-proof, plagued by fanaticism and susceptible to the hellish clarion call of jihad. The frequent incidents of beheading, suicide bombing and lynching confirm that a section of Muslims celebrate violence and intolerance and harbour deeply reactionary attitudes toward women and minorities. Moreover, in many Muslim countries, all citizens are not equal before the law; women are of inferior status to men. Punishments are often barbarously violent. There is very little individual liberty and there is often no freedom of religion at all. Furthermore, representative democracy does not take well in the Muslim world as Islamic culture struggles to adapt and accept ideas of modernity and secular government. Islamic societies are less tolerant, less prosperous and less dynamic, and place less emphasis on respecting and preserving individual liberty than any of their western counterparts.
This is a sharp deviation from the early allure of Islam that was characterised by a spirit of democracy and unity. Islam offered better social and economic conditions than those that prevailed. Many non-Muslims admired Islam for both its pure monotheism and for its gospel of brotherhood. Men of various racial backgrounds and religious faiths were attracted to its ranks. Islam was a source of inspiration and transforming progress was made under its stimulation and direction. Energies that are wasted today in internecine warfare were turned into channels that led to prosperity and progress. A crude but practical justice, which later developed into Islamic law, was set up and administered. The judge was available to the lowliest citizen, as in fact even the caliph was at times. A taxation system, more equitable than that under Roman rule, helped to stabilise the economy. Education in Muslim Spain was almost universal, with the vast majority of men and women being able to read and write.
One of the strangest dramas of history is that at the very moment when Europe, prodded by contacts with Islamic culture in Sicily and Spain and by the Crusades, began to recover from its prolonged descent toward darkness, Islam entered a decline that was to carry it down into the very fog of obscurantism from which it had helped to rescue Europe. Islam appeared to stagnate while Europe moved into economic and political ‘take-off’, developing technologically and politically. Islam seemed to look backward, to the golden age of the Prophet (PBUH) and the Quran, rather than forward. Many Islamic clerics, then as now, seemed to think that the problem with Islam was that it was not sufficiently stuck where it was 1,400 years ago.
Part of the problem is that, in Islam, it is not the religious message that promotes the faith into the halls of political power as in Judaism and Christianity; it is an original state of political and military strength that promotes the religious message. This idea of a government without a religious vision of absolute truth is contrary to the Muslim community’s very conception of religious community. The development of the religious community outside the halls of political power gives both Judaism and Christianity the flexibility to adapt to the secular concept of the separation of church and state that came out of the Enlightenment, and to embrace ideas of modernity and secular civil society. Put simply, neither faith requires the existence of a theocratic state to function fully as a religion because both their origins and endpoints exist above and beyond concerns of statehood.
The process of secularisation that took place in Europe in the three centuries after the continent had been soaked in blood by a series of religious wars produced states based around the idea that, whatever God thinks about any given policy, it cannot be made the basis of political decisions on whether or not to implement it. Democracy requires the embrace of tolerance over truth, the relinquishment of any binding central religious belief or ideology in government.
By contrast, Islamic societies are, in aspiration at least, theocracies. They hope to follow God’s word, which is thought to be decisive on all political questions. A theocracy — what the Islamic clergy would like every Islamic society to be — cannot be a liberal democracy because the views of the people cannot be taken to be more important than the voice of God. Therefore, for the balance to change and for Islamic reformation to start to occur will require liberation from patriarchal, violence-preaching clerics. Muslim states must redouble their efforts to progress away from theocracy. Additionally, they must remove the barriers for non-Muslims to freely practice their faiths and ensure the protection of women and minorities. Unjust laws that promote persecution and violence ought to be repealed. The focus must return to the acquisition of knowledge through inquiry and reason and to the reform of society. The metamorphosis requires inspired leadership, the deliberate and forceful confinement of Islam to the mosque and the home and the continued vigilance of civil society.