The Troubled Ummah 


For the Muslim Ummah, which comprises a fifth of humanity, these are troubling times. The Sunni-Shia schism has widened because of the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. The murderous campaign launched by Islamic State (IS) has intensified the friction between Muslims and non-Muslims. In addition, the ingredients to build just societies, such as consultation, consensus, and objectivity are hard to find.

The allure of a unified Ummah is turning out to be a mirage. Some dreams, although unattainable, never seem to die. The dream of Islamic unity is one. The meaningless statements of solidarity after every Islamic summit cover a deeper malaise in Islam.

The scenes witnessed during the recent Islamic summit in Saudi Arabia weren’t encouraging. The summit was intended to shore up support for peace in the region in the face of the potentially deadly US-Iran standoff. It heard a harangue from Saudi Arabia directed at Iran instead. King Salman accused Tehran of backing terrorist militias committing subversive acts endangering regional security. Iran responded by charging Saudi Arabia with gaining political mileage from the summit in the Holy Month of Ramadan in the Holy city of Mecca.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Gulf States (excluding Qatar) are focused on the Iranian and Islamist threats. Iran’s Ayatollahs, afraid of losing internal control, aren’t backing down in the face of US threats and intimidation. Turkey remains miffed with Saudi Arabia over the heinous murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s on its soil. Islamic causes like Palestine, Kashmir, and Islamophobia can hardly make headway in these adverse conditions.

Pakistani premier Imran Khan, who doesn’t miss an opportunity to put his Islamic credentials on show at every fruitless OIC gathering despite alarming economic and social problems at home, should take note!

Only domestic repression and an aversion to democracy bind Muslim majority countries at the moment. According to a Freedom House report on political rights and civil liberties, of the 36 countries with 80 percent or more Muslim population, just two (6 percent) are ranked as free and 56 percent are considered not free. In contrast, of the 132 countries with 20 percent or less Muslim population, 62 percent are considered free and only 14 percent are deemed not free. Independent thinking is a dangerous business.
As a result, young Muslims are growing up in closed societies without experiencing decent, civilized, open government. There is also ample evidence that most Muslim countries and leaders are prone to brutal clampdowns on free debate and criticism. It is a fact that corrupt tyrants and ruthless dictatorships dot the Islamic landscape.
And the torture and prison systems, particularly in the Arab world, are a breeding ground for future jihadis. In Egypt, both Islamists like late ex-President Morsi and secular democrats have long suffered grievous abuse at the hand of state authorities. The West has been fully complicit, supporting despots and dictatorships, aggressively selling billions of dollars in weapon systems but turning a blind eye to human rights abuses.

Religious literalism has gained centrality over reason in the Islamic worldview. Many Muslims view the ‘western’ concepts of humanism, secularism, and liberalism as threats to their culture. They insist that the decree of God and divine values must prevail in society, emphasizing the difference of Islamic culture from Western atheistic culture. Secularism is an abhorrent word on Islamic streets, connoting Godlessness and promiscuity. Propagating secularism is seen as an attempt to remove God and religion from the life of man and society.

The positive experience of a majority of Muslims, who have adjusted and prospered in secular countries, is seldom discussed. Privately, many Muslims admire the west as the latter went from strength to strength, drawing on the invigorating changes that swept aside the dark European past: advances in technology, the transformation of public institutions, the rise of individual freedom and responsibility, as the path to modernity.

Perhaps the biggest threat to progress in the Muslim world is the fusion of state and religion. Leaders and clerics never miss an opportunity to fan the flames of bigotry, intolerance, and hatred mostly directed at vulnerable minorities and women. Clerics are powerful and take on themselves interpreting God’s word for their followers. And the faithful must give blind obedience to the cleric’s religious rulings.

As the effort to create more effective democratic structures continues apace throughout the world, the challenge is to unite Islam and democracy. There is an absolute need for a separation of state and religion in the Muslim world for the long, evolutionary and often painful process towards democracy to begin. The aim must be to embed secularism and religious neutrality as a core value of all state institutions.

Despite the challenges, liberal democracy is the way forward for Muslims. Muslims must be encouraged to join the mainstream of the global democracy movement. A functioning democratic system arguably is the best bulwark against extremism, sectarianism, and anarchy.


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