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The Muslim Malaise

Aug. 20, 2006. 07:03 AM



He who wrongs a Jew or a Christian will have me as his accuser on the Day of Judgment.

— Prophet Muhammad


Contrary to the popular belief that the West is under siege from Muslim terrorists, it is Muslims who have become the biggest victims of the attacks of September 11, 2001, as inconceivable as that would have seemed in the aftermath of the murder of 2,900 Americans. Since then, between 34,000 and 100,000 Iraqis have been killed by the Americans or the insurgents. Nobody knows how many have been killed in Afghanistan. In the spots hit by terrorists — from London and Madrid to Amman, Istanbul, Riyadh and Jeddah, through Karachi to Bali and Jakarta — more Muslims have been killed and injured than non-Muslims.


None of this is to say that Muslims do not have problems that they must address. They do. But the problems are not quite what many in the West make them out to be.

One of the strangest aspects of the post-9/11 world is that, despite all the talk about Muslim terrorism, there is hardly any exploration of the complex causes of Muslim rage. Muslims are in a state of crisis, but their most daunting problems are not religious. They are geopolitical, economic and social — problems that have caused widespread Muslim despair and, in some cases, militancy, both of which are expressed in the religious terminology that Muslim masses relate to.

Most Muslims live in the developing world, much of it colonized by Western powers as recently as 50 years ago. Not all Muslim shortcomings emanate from colonialism and neo-imperialism, but several do.

As part of the spoils of the First World War, Britain and France helped themselves to much of the Ottoman Empire, including Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and what is now Israel, Jordan and the Palestine Authority. In later years, they and other European colonial powers created artificial states such as Kuwait and Nigeria. Or they divided peoples and nations along sectarian lines, such as bifurcating India in 1947 into Muslim Pakistan and largely Hindu India. In more recent years, the United States has maintained repressive proxy regimes in the Middle East to stifle public anti-Israeli sentiments, keep control of oil and maintain a captive market for armaments.

While the past casts a long shadow over Muslims, it is the present that haunts them. Hundreds of millions live in zones of conflict, precisely in the areas of European and American meddling, past and present — U.S.-occupied Iraq, U.S.-controlled Afghanistan, the Israeli Occupied Territories, and Kashmir, the disputed Muslim state on the border of India and Pakistan in the foothills of the Himalayas. Only the Russian war on Muslim Chechnya is not related to the history of Western machinations, but even that has had the tacit support of the Bush administration. These conflicts, along with the economic sanctions on Iraq, have killed an estimated 1.3 million Muslims in the last 15 years alone. Why are we surprised that Muslims are up in arms?

In addition, nearly 400 million Muslims live under authoritarian despots, many of them Western puppets, whose corruption and incompetence have left their people in economic and social shambles.

It is against this backdrop that one must look at the current malaise of Muslims and their increasing emotional reliance on their faith.

Economic Woes

The total GDP of the 56 members of the Islamic Conference, representing more than a quarter of the world's population, is less than 5 per cent of the world's economy. Their trade represents 7 per cent of global trade, even though more than two-thirds of the world's oil and gas lie under Muslim lands.

The standard of living in Muslim nations is abysmal even in the oil-rich regions, because of unconscionable gaps between the rulers and the ruled. A quarter of impoverished Pakistan's budget goes to the military. Most of the $2 billion a year of American aid given to Egypt as a reward for peace with Israel goes to the Egyptian military.

The most undemocratic Muslim states, which also happen to be the closest allies of the U.S., are the most economically backward.

The Arab nations, with a combined population of 280 million, muster a total GDP less than that of Spain. The rate of illiteracy among Arabs is 43 per cent, worse than that of much poorer nations. Half of Arab women are illiterate, representing two-thirds of the 65 million Arabs who cannot read or write. About 10 million Arab children are not in school. The most-educated Arabs live abroad, their talents untapped, unlike those of the Chinese and Indian diasporas, who have played significant roles in jump-starting the economies of their native lands.

A disproportionate percentage of the world's youth are Muslim. Half of Saudi Arabia's and a third of Iran's populations are younger than 20. There are few jobs for them. "Young and unemployed" is a phenomenon common to many Muslim nations.

A majority of the world's 12 million to 15 million refugees are Muslims, fleeing poverty and oppression. Europe's 20 million Muslims suffer high unemployment and poverty, especially in Germany and France. It was inevitable that many Muslims would find comfort in Islam.


Islamic Resurgence

Fundamentalism has been on the rise, and not just in Islam. There has been a parallel rise in Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism, with its inevitable political fallout — in the Israeli settler movement in the Occupied Territories, the politicization of the American conservative right (culminating in the election and re-election of George W. Bush), the rise to power of the Hindu nationalists in India, the Sikh separatist movement in the Punjab in India, and the aggressive nationalism of the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka.

That many Muslims have become "fundamentalist" does not mean that they are all fanatic and militant. Nor is the Muslim condition fully explained by the use of petro-dollars. First, Arab financial support for Islamic institutions around the world is still no match for the resources available for Christian global missionary or Zionist political work. Second, and more to the point, the rise of Islam is not confined to areas of Arab financial influence; it is a worldwide phenomenon.

Mosques are full. The use of the hijab (headscarf ) is on the rise. Madrassahs (religious schools) are packed. Zakat (Islamic charity) is at record levels, especially where governments have failed to provide essential services. In Egypt, much of the health care, emergency care and education are provided by the Muslim Brotherhood, in the Occupied Territories by Hamas, in Pakistan and elsewhere by groups that may be far less political but are no less Islamic.

With state institutions riddled with corruption and nepotism, some of the most talented Muslims, both rich and poor, have abandoned the official arena and retreated into the non-governmental domain of Islamic civil society.

The empty public sphere has been filled with firebrands — ill-tutored and ill-informed clergy or populist politicians who rally the masses with calls for jihad (struggle) for sundry causes. The greater the injustices in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Israeli Occupied Territories, Chechnya or elsewhere, the greater the public support for those calling for jihad. Jihad has also proven to be good business for many a mullah (Muslim priest) who has become rich or influential, or both, preaching it. Meanwhile, unelected governments lack the legitimacy and confidence to challenge the militant clerics, and fluctuate between ruthlessly repressing them and trying to out-Islamize them.

To divert domestic anger abroad, many governments also allow and sometimes encourage the radicals to rant at the U.S. and rave at Israel, or just at Jews. Sometimes even the elected leaders join in, as has Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinijad, denying the Holocaust and calling for Israel to be "wiped off the map."

In reality, most Muslim states are powerless to address the international crises that their publics want addressed. They have neither the military nor the economic and political clout to matter much to the U.S., the only power that counts these days. Or, as in the case of Egypt, Jordan, and the oil-rich Arab oligarchies, they are themselves dependent on Washington for their own survival.


Feeling abandoned, the Muslim masses find comfort in religion. The Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation was a secular struggle before it became "Islamic." The same was true of the Lebanese resistance to the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, and also of the Chechen resistance to Russian repression.

Similarly, domestic critics of authoritarian regimes have found a hospitable home in the mosque. Islam being their last zone of comfort, most Muslims react strongly — sometimes irrationally and violently — when their faith or their Prophet is mocked or criticized, as the world witnessed during the Danish cartoon crisis. They react the way the angry disenfranchised do — hurling themselves into the streets, shouting themselves hoarse and destroying property, without much concern for the consequences, and engendering even more hostility in the West toward Muslims and Islam. But, as the American civil rights leader Martin Luther King famously said, riots are the voice of the voiceless.

Muslims have developed a "siege mentality, which is what the screaming, dogmatic and atavistic clerics" appeal to, says Chandra Muzaffar, Malaysian Muslim human rights activist. As he was telling me this in Kuala Lumpur in 2005, Sharifa Zuriah, a founder of Sisters in Islam, an advocacy group for Malaysian Muslim women, intervened: "Muslims have developed a complex. They think they won't be heard if they don't shout. Every statement is like a war."

Then there is real war, the war of terrorism.

Terrorism's Fallout

"That a majority of Al Qaeda are Muslims is not to say that a majority of Muslims are Al Qaeda, or subscribe to its tenets," Stephen Schulhofer, professor of law at New York University, told me in 2003. But it is also true that most terrorists these days are Muslims. That may only be a function of the times we live in — yesterday's terrorists came from other religions and tomorrow's may hail from some other. Still, terrorism has forced a debate among Muslims, who are divided into two camps. One side says that Muslims should no more have to apologize for their extremists than Christians, Jews or Hindus or anybody else, and that doing so only confirms the collective guilt being placed on Muslims. The other side believes that as long as some Muslims are blowing up civilians in suicide bombings, slitting the throats of hostages and committing other grisly acts, it is the duty of all Muslims to speak out and challenge the murderers' warped theology.

The latter view has prevailed. Terrorism — suicide bombings in particular— has been widely condemned. Just because an overwhelming majority of Muslims condemn Osama bin Laden and other extremists, however, does not mean that they feel any less for Muslims in Iraq or Palestine. Or that the internal debate that he has forced on Muslims is new. Throughout their 1,400-year history, Muslims have argued and quarreled over various interpretations of the Qur'an and religious traditions.

But it is a sign of the times that the most extreme interpretation of the Qur'an appeals to Muslim masses these days, and that far too many clerics are attacking Christians and Jews and delivering fire-and-brimstone sermons full of the imagery of war and martyrdom. This is contrary to the message of the Qur'an — Do not argue with the followers of earlier revelation other than in the most kindly manner (29:46) — and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad: "Do not consider me better than Moses," and, "I am closest of all people to Jesus, son of Mary."

For all the emphasis that today's clerics put on the Prophet's war record, he spent a total of less than a week in actual battle in the 23 years of his Prophethood. He advised his followers to "be moderate in religious matters, for excess caused the destruction of earlier communities." A moderate himself, he smiled often, spoke softly and delivered brief sermons. "The Prophet disliked ranting and raving," wrote Imam Bukhari, the ninth-century Islamic scholar of the Prophet's sayings. Ayesha, the Prophet's wife, reported that "he spoke so few words that you could count them." His most famous speech, during the Hajj pilgrimage in AD 632, which laid down an entire covenant, was less than 2,800 words.

Muhammad was respectful of Christians and Jews. Hearing the news that the king of Ethiopia had died, he told his followers, "A righteous man has died today; so stand up and pray for your brother." When a Christian delegation came to Medina, he invited them to conduct their service in the mosque, saying, "This is a place consecrated to God." When Saffiyah, one of his wives, complained that she was taunted for her Jewish origins, he told her, "Say unto them, `my father is Aaron, and my uncle is Moses.'"

Yet angry Muslims, not unlike African Americans not too long ago, pay little heed to voices of moderation. This is partly a reflection of the fact that there is no central religious authority in Islam. Only the minority Shiites have a religious hierarchy of ayatollahs, who instruct followers on religious and sometimes political matters. The majority Sunnis do not have the equivalent of the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury. A central tenet of their faith is that there is no intermediary between the believer and God. This makes for great democracy — everyone is free to issue a fatwa (religious ruling) and everyone else is free to ignore it. But the "fatwa chaos" does create confusion — among non-Muslims, who are spooked by the red-hot rhetoric, and also among Muslims, who are left wondering about the "right answers" to some of the most pressing issues of the day.

Muslim Apologetics

There are two kinds of Muslim apologetics. The first is denial: there's little or nothing wrong with Muslims, when there clearly is. The second, seen among some Muslims in the West, takes the form of self-flagellation, of apologizing for their faith or distancing themselves from it. To wit:

"Yes, the problem is Islam, and we must fix it." (Why is Islam any more of a problem than any other faith? And how are they going to fix it?)

"I am a Muslim but I am not a fundamentalist Muslim." (Do Christians say, "I am Christian but not an evangelical Christian?")

"I am a Muslim but ashamed to call myself one." (Do all Hindus have to apologize for those few who, in 1992, went on a mosque-ravaging rampage in India?)

Some of these sentiments may be genuinely held. More likely, they reflect the immigrant pathology of catering to majority mores, a new twist on the past practice of immigrants to North America anglicizing their names.

Such defensiveness aside, Muslims do suffer from deeper problems. Many are preoccupied with the minutiae of rituals (Should one wash the bare feet before prayers or do so symbolically over the socks?) at the expense of the centrality of the faith, which is fostering peace, justice and compassion, not just for Muslims but for everyone. Many Muslims are too judgmental of each other, whereas a central tenet of their faith is that it is up to God to judge — Your Lord knows best who goes astray (53:30) (also, 6:117, 16:125, 17:94, 28:56, 68:7).

Some Muslims have taken to a culture of conspiracy theories. Hence the notion that Princess Diana did not die in an accident but was killed because the British royal family did not want her to marry Dodi Al Fayed, a Muslim. Or the canard that Jews working at the World Trade Center had advance notice of 9/11.

There is too much of a literalist reading of the Qur'an (a trait, ironically, also adopted by anti-Islamists in the West). There is too little ijtehad (religious innovation) as called for by Islam to keep believers in tune with their times. Theological rigidity and narrow-mindedness have led, among other things, to Sunni hostility toward the minority Shiites, as seen in the sectarian killings in Pakistan.

Muslims complain about the West's double standards, yet they have their own. While they often criticize the United States and Europe for mistreating Muslims, they rarely speak up against the persecution of non-Muslims by Muslims. They also show a high tolerance for Muslims killing fellow Muslims. The Sudanese genocide of the non-Arab Muslims of Darfur drew mostly silence. The killing of Shiites by the Sunnis in Iraq was shrugged off as part of the anti-U.S. resistance. The overt and subtle racism of the oil-rich Arab states toward the millions of their guest workers goes unmourned.

Muslims do not have much to be proud of in the contemporary world. So they take comfort in their burgeoning numbers. At the turn of the millennium in 2000, there were many learned papers projecting the rise in Muslim population. But if Muslims have not achieved much at 1.3 billion, they are not likely to at 1.5 billion, either.

To escape the present, many Muslims hark back to their glorious past: how Islam was a reform movement; how Muslims led the world in knowledge, in astronomy, chemistry, mathematics, medicine, natural sciences, philosophy and physics; and how the Islamic empires were successful primarily because, with some egregious exceptions, they nurtured the local cultures and respected the religions of their non-Muslim majority populations. This is why Egypt and Syria remained non-Muslim under Muslim rule for 300 years and 600 years, respectively, and India always remained majority Hindu.

As true as all that history is, it is not very helpful today unless Muslims learn something from it — to value human life; accept each other's religious differences; respect other faiths; return to their historic culture of academic excellence, scientific inquiry and economic self-reliance; and learn to live with differences of opinion and the periodic rancorous debates that mark democracies.

It may be unfair to berate ordinary Muslims, given that too many are struggling to survive, that nearly half live under authoritarian regimes where they can speak up only on pain of being incarcerated, tortured or killed, and that they are helpless spectators to the sufferings of fellow Muslims in an unjust world order. Yet Muslims have no choice but to confront their challenges, for Allah never changes a people's state unless they change what's in themselves (13:11).

"Being Muslim" is scheduled to be released Sept. 15. For more information, visit




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