June 7, 2007
The Wisdom Fund

Tyranny of the Few

by Mirza Yawar Baig

Headlines scream out at you: "Lal Masjid threatens to give the call for jihad." "Clash with security forces leaves 16 students dead." And all this accompanied by pictures of women in burqas wielding lathis longer than themselves. Talk of women power!!

Another one: "Flaming jeep drives into Glasgow airport." (No, it was not Lucifer trying to catch a flight either). "Doctor from Bangalore was the driver." "Bangalore doctor arrested in Australia."

What's the common thread in these and many other such headlines? The names of the actors are all Muslim. And the pressure mounts on all of us - normal, harmless, garden-variety Muslims - to explain what is going on in the name of Islam.

I remember a conversation with a friend, a senior police officer in India to whom I complained about the way the media and all who report such incidents malign Islam in their reporting. She said something that was rather shocking. "Isn't it the organizations and people who perpetrate these things who claim to be doing them in the name of Islam, first? So what else do you expect anyone else to do? They are only repeating what the originators have said in the first place."

I know I am treading on very unsafe ground when I am writing this. I have no illusions about the possible threat to my own popularity and esteem, in which I am held for no fault of mine. However, I believe that the time has come for me and people like myself to take a stand and speak out. The question we have to ask is, "Are we going to allow people like the head of Lal Masjid and others like him to define what Islam and the Muslims are? Or are we, as people who are practicing Muslims, proud of our great religion and culture, obedient to Allah, conscious of our accountability to him, with no intention of changing Islam or its Shari'ah in any way whatsoever; prepared to stand up and say, "Do what you want but leave Islam out of it."

The usual standard answer that we get when we mention the different acts of violence apparently perpetrated by Muslims is that actually these have been done by or orchestrated by agencies of the enemies of Islam and the Muslims. We have become used to blaming the West, so-called 'International Agencies' or who-have-you for whatever happens that involves Muslims. What helps the proponents of this stance is the fact that there have been incidents in the past where it has been proved that one or more of these agencies have had a hand in either staging an act of violence and laying it at the door of Muslims who had nothing to do with it; or of aiding and abetting Muslims in committing hara-kiri of one kind or other. However the uncomfortable fact remains that there are many incidents that have happened and continue to happen that are entirely the effort of Muslims themselves. Call them misguided. Call them ignorant. Call them extremist. Call them what you will.

The fact remains that what they did was of their own volition, with no encouragement from anyone else. The Lal Masjid fiasco is a classic case in point. So are the Shia-Sunni killings in Iraq. So are the Shia-Sunni killings in Pakistan. So are the various fatawa that are given for all kinds of things by obscure clerics with limited knowledge of the religion and even less of the issue of public image. Yet they have no hesitation in making the most outrageous statements, all in the name of Allah and His Messenger . And the media goes to town on them.

Ask Muslims why all this is happening and the standard answer you get is that it is not happening. Now that is amazing because it denies blatantly visible facts. But that seems to be the major issue. Like the US, the Muslim Ummah seems to be in a stage of massive denial. We don't seem to want to admit that we have some serious problems within ourselves, which are the cause of our global suffering. We don't seem to want to admit that we need to bring about some major changes in our education system, our cultural moorings, our behavior with others, our social fabric and our very thinking and mindset if we want our image to change.

For example, it is true that the US intervention in Iraq has caused some major upheavals in the social order in that wretched land and that the Americans are killing Iraqis like flies, but it is equally true that it is not the Americans who are killing anyone in the Shia-Sunni murders in Iraq. These are of the Iraqis, by the Iraqis, for the Iraqis, thank you very much. The Iraqis seem quite self sufficient in terms of sending each other off to the happy hunting grounds in large numbers. Yet, Muslims blame anyone except themselves for what is happening.

We hear long stories of the Western policy of divide and rule and how it is being applied once again. We don't however hear reasons why after more than 300 years of colonial domination of one kind or another, we still have not learnt that unless a group is willing to be divided, nobody can divide them. What does that say about the intelligence of our leadership and so-called intelligentsia?

The British divided and ruled India because that is what Indians wanted them to do. That is why many Indians (Sikhs, Maratha and Rajput Rajas, Baniyas of Delhi and Afghans) supported the British with information, money and soldiers while their own compatriots died before British cannon on the walls of Delhi in 1857. And when the War of Independence was lost, they stood in line for Knighthoods, Rai Bahadur-hoods and other sundry 'honors' from their colonial masters, for having been good collaborators. And to this day, these worthies are not roundly cursed for being the traitors that they were. Instead we blame the British. My question is that when we know that it is the job of the enemy to divide and rule, why blame him for doing it? It was our job on the other hand, to remain united and not allow anyone to divide us, which we have not done. So whose fault is it if we are divided and then finished off piecemeal? But try telling that to our dear ones!!!

So what is the reason for this terrible situation that we find ourselves in? I believe that this sad situation that we find ourselves in, is the result of the effective division of Muslim society into discrete, mutually exclusive groups who have little or nothing in common with one another.

What I am writing below is with specific reference to the Indian sub-continent, home to more than 500 million Muslims in 4 countries. However I have no doubt that many issues herein will be common to Muslims in other places as well.

Mutually exclusive groups

1. The Ulama by and large are a group unto themselves with a distinct education system that at least in the Indian subcontinent (including Pakistan & Bangladesh) has remained almost unchanged for more than 500 years. This is something that they are actually proud of and are successful in raising funds on this basis from those who have no idea about what is actually taught. The fact that the syllabus they teach (Dars-e-Nizami) has its roots in medieval Lucknow (created by Mulla Nizamuddin, who was more a philosopher than an Islamic scholar, a bias that is reflected in his syllabus) and really has lost all touch with current reality is known only to them. The most symbolic fact is that the two languages that are totally neglected and hardly taught are Arabic (the language of Islam) and English (the language of the world today).

This leads to the fact that those who graduate from these schools are not only out of touch with and incapable of influencing present society, but are weak even in the Islamic sciences, which is supposed to be the core of their study. Very few of them can stand with confidence beside Ulama from international Islamic universities in the Arab world, much less with confidence before a non-Muslim audience anywhere in the world. Since they are not taught anything at all of modern subjects of education, their knowledge of the world and the ability to understand current events is almost non-existent. Test: Go to any major Muslim Madrassa and ask any of the staff (let's leave the poor students out of it) the main elements of the WTO and how it affects developing countries and their people. Or ask to see the latest papers and books published and see how many have to do with a study of modern government, society, economics, environment or politics and provide Islam's solution to these issues. This absence of touch with the world would be fine if we were talking about some monastery with monks who have secluded themselves from regular life. But when we say in the same breath that Islam is a way of life for all humanity and good for mankind until the end of time and that the Ulama are the ones who are supposed to teach it, then it makes no sense at all.

Add to this their ideological belief of running their establishments on donations (chanda) which is really reminiscent of Hindu Brahmin thinking (the way of life for a Brahmin priest is to live by begging) and not of the confidence to rule the world that the Companions of the Prophet showed. This results in a natural loss of self esteem for the Ulama and the inability to speak the truth especially when it is likely to hurt their own financing.

2. Then there is the group of so-called Danishwaraan-e-millat (the Wise People of the Community). Let us not ask about the nature of this wisdom or of what it has yielded in the last 200 years. These are the business people, professionals, scholars of secular subjects in universities and general well-to-do Muslims. This group, by and large speaks a different language from the Ulama, does not understand the language the Ulama speak, sees them as necessary only for leading the salah, delivering the Juma Khutba and performing the funeral prayer. All things that the normal Muslim male is supposed to be able to do, but is never taught how to. A 'priestly class' has therefore come into being in a religion that expressly bans all priests. This person alleviates his own guilt by throwing some money from time to time at the local Madrassa or masjid. He has no idea what is taught in the Madarassa, has probably never seen the inside of the Madrassa even in his own town and generally treats the Ulama with a mixture of wary respect, suspicion and disdain. Seems rather complex, but believe me, we manage to do this quite well.

3. Then there are our political leaders. By and large they are corrupt, prey on Muslim society directly and indirectly through their henchmen, win elections by fanning the flames of hatred or fear of the Other and showing themselves as the saviors. Thankfully for them, we have the periodic communal riots and the mentally retarded rantings of the likes of Bal Thackaray, Narender Modi, Ashok Singhal, Uma Bharati, L.K.Advani and other leading lights of the Sangh Parivar, which are an undisguised blessing to keep the flames alive. Also they have enough deaf, blind and dumb constituents to ensure that they are repeatedly elected to office. In short these political leaders are for sale and will do anything that is required to remain in power and have the minimum possible interest in their constituents.

4. Then there is the vast multitude of the so-called ordinary Muslims. People who live their daily lives, go to the masjid on Fridays, observe Ramadan, celebrate the festivals - the wear sherwani and eat biryani variety. These have no voice of any kind and their only time in the limelight is when they get killed in police firing somewhere (notice that the political leaders who incite them never do the dying) or when they are seen in processions, shouting slogans for one obscure cause or another.

All these groups have almost no contact with each other, no way to influence each other, no shared knowledge or experience and no mutual understanding. Instead there is a very high degree of mutual suspicion, aided and abetted by clever propaganda and lies manufactured by one group against another which widens the divide. The result is that there is no common authority or voice, either at a country level or at a global level.

The Jamiat-ul-Ulama-e-Hind is owned and run by one single family. The Muslim Personal Law Board has been divided and re-divided until it has lost almost all significance. The Tablighi Jamat and Jamat-e-Islami are both non-inclusive of others and have a voice only among their own membership. The various Mashayakh (so-called Sufis) associated with the different Dargahs (shrines) are only interested in business. They encourage people to worship the graves of their long dead ancestors and donate money in the hope of a miracle. No matter that this is against Islam.

They have created a whole new Muslim Mythology based on unverifiable claims of miracles allegedly perpetrated by some so-called saint (there are no saints in Islam) who conveniently died several centuries ago. As long as their followers render their deposits regularly these successors of the saint are not concerned with anything else in their disciple's lives. And this seems to be the only verifiable miracle that keeps a steady flow of ill-gotten gains into their coffers which serves to keep them in the style to which they have grown accustomed.

Every Muslim is a 'Khalifa' and there's no central authority

Consequently no Muslim is answerable to anyone else. And so does what he or she feels like doing or what makes sense to them in their frame of reference. No matter that this frame of reference may be neither logical nor reasonable, much less theologically correct.

It is true that Muslims worldwide have genuine grievances about the way they are treated, especially by the West. They have grievances about the slavery they find themselves in, enforced in most cases by the puppet regimes that have been placed on their heads by Western powers, making them prisoners in their own lands. They have on the one hand to live under totalitarian regimes who are vicious and brutal and who will not hesitate to commit mayhem on a massive scale to put down any popular uprising. On the other hand they have to suffer the reputation of being non-democratic, unwilling to rise up against their rulers and dictators and generally apathetic. The fact that these very rulers have been put in place and are supported and kept in place by Western military strength is not mentioned in the breath that it takes to condemn those who are suffering under such rule. Be that as it may, the fact remains that bursting bombs in airports, night clubs and malls is not going to change any of this. Instead, what it will do is to strengthen the hands of the oppressors and give them even more power to arm themselves and their allies, create a more closed society, bring in more draconian laws and generally perpetrate more crimes in the name of maintaining security.

The case of Palestine is one in point where 60 years of armed struggle only seems to have resulted in a stronger, more heavily armed, richer and more barbaric Israel which has all the more support of the rest of the world. And it is not only the support of America that I am talking about. One can well ask, 'So what has been achieved?'

So what is the solution? In my view the solution lies in the amazingly fortunate situation the Muslim Ummah finds itself of being in the eye of the world, provided that we can get our act together and act proactively in a coherent, sensible, creative and positive manner. Potentially Muslims today have access to the world media, any channel, and any country, free of cost. Anything that has an Islamic bent attracts the cameras and the world watches. Whose fault is it that almost all of it is negative? If our people drive flaming jeeps into airports, that is what will be shown. If they hole up inside a masjid or madrassa keeping women and children hostage, that is what will be shown. If they claim responsibility for some act of violence perpetrated on innocent people, that is what will be reported. Propaganda is created and propagandists thrive in a situation where their victims readily provide them with real data and events to twist and report. And that is what we continue to do.

Key: Non-violent struggle for truth: Satyagrah

The key is to do what Gandhiji did during the Indian Freedom Struggle; create media events that show you in a good light and are interesting enough to draw attention. The Gandhian method of Satyagrah (non-violent civil disobedience) is a wonderful method that works very well in a situation where the establishment is law abiding. Apart from Israel, this is more or less true of all the places where Muslims live. So if we have issues that we want the world to see and take action on, then we need to create the equivalent of a Salt Satyagrah which very simply, challenged the authority of the British Government to make laws in its Empire. And all that Gandhiji did was to walk to the beach and make some salt.

Today, the real battle is for mindshare. And it is on the television screen. That is where governments of the developed world are made or unmade. Popularity is the god that the West worships. Because popularity translates into money and power. That is what we have to do; become popular. Setting off fireworks is not the way to do this. No matter what the provocation.

Think Tanks & Team work

I believe that the first step in this direction is to get the minds of the Ummah together. I propose that Think Tanks be created at a local level in every place where Muslims live. These must comprise of a cross-section of all the segments that I mentioned above. People who participate in them must learn how to collaborate, dialogue, differ and deal with conflict. They must learn to focus on issues of common concern while agreeing to live with the differences. They must learn to put the interest of Islam and the Muslim Ummah above their own narrow partisan concerns. And they must learn to obey an Ameer. These individual local groups must network and come together at a country level and in time at a global level. There are many secular and other religious organizations today who follow this model, very successfully. All it needs is sincerity and dedication. The methods are all known, Islamic in origin and easy to follow, but only for those who genuinely want to follow them.

These Think Tanks must identify important emerging issues, deliberate on them, take expert advice and then create solutions for them from an Islamic perspective. These solutions must be innovative, attractive and powerful and with great media savvy, must be made public. Believe me, if we do the right thing, world media will be only too glad to give us air time free of cost. After all the Nobel Peace Prize went to Mohammad Younus of Grameen Bank fame with a battery of appearances on all the major media channels, with his Islamic identity clearly visible in every appearance.

A Dundee Salt March with a Gandhi leading it will make all the headlines and primetime shows in the world, even today. And it will be free for the Gandhi and his followers. That is what we need. If you become news worthy, you become news.

I believe that it is time for the thinking ones to wake up and start thinking so that they don't allow the mindless to hijack their image and thereby draw suffering on their heads for no fault of their own. Lethargy in today's world is a crime. Especially lethargy in a situation where our very existence is threatened. Let us remember that as long as we are seen as people who are addicted to violence neither we nor our religion are likely to be seen in a positive light.

Nobody likes to be with or to support murderers of innocent people. We don't either. But it is now time to come out of our drawing rooms and not only say so loudly and clearly but to create systems where an alternate voice is heard at least equally clearly.

A time will come, insha'Allah if we do this, that the world will turn to us for solutions to its problems. For it will see Muslim society free from such evils. That is the differentiator which will set us up clearly as the leaders of the world.

But when the world sees Muslim society also like itself, in the clutches of ignorance, violence, barbaric customs and mindless traditions of social exploitation, do you blame it, if it sees no difference?

After all sheep are never seen as shepherds.

Mirza Yawar Baig is founder of Yawar Baig & Associates and Leadtrain based in Hyderabad, India.

Enver Masud, "Our Own Worst Enemy," The Wisdom Fund, June 20, 2001

M. Shahid Alam, "Is There an Islamic Problem?," The Wisdom Fund, January 4, 2002

Michael Neumann, "Has Islam Failed?," The Wisdom Fund, May 15, 2003

Mansoor Alam, "The Immutable Shariah," Alternate Voice, April/May 2006

Mirza Yawar Baig, "The Ummah is Hemorrhaging," The Wisdom Fund, January 26, 2007

Seumas Milne, "Denial of the Link With Iraq is Delusional and Dangerous," Guardian, July 5, 2007

back button