Bangladesh and the Muslim world

Mohammed Mohsin

The global scenario of violence and extremism, taking place in various parts of the world, has affected adversely the image of the people of the Islamic faith everywhere in many ways.

Since the 1990s, in the aftermath of the two successive Gulf Wars involving Iraq, the Bosnian massacres, the invasion of Afghanistan as well as the two violent attacks on the New York World Trade Centre that came to be known as the 9/11 events, the devastating Madrid train bombings and again the recent suicide bombings of London's transport system, now known as the 7/7 and 21/7, the Muslims have been feeling rather dismayed watching the fast deterioration of their image in the eyes of the World, as if all the Muslims are terrorists.

Global Scenario An Overview
In the wake of 9/11, practically the entire Muslim world had not only condemned this cowardly attack by 19 misguided hijackers (all of whom were Arabs), but also pledged full cooperation to the West in the war against terror. However, this consensus seemed to have quickly evaporated when, instead of fighting the menace of international terrorism, the United States invaded Iraq and that too without any UN mandate. As it is, the Muslim World had no love lost for Iraqi President Saddam Hossein because of his ill-conceived and unprovoked attacks on two Muslim neighbours, namely Iran and Kuwait, because these had in fact significantly tarnished the image and credibility of the Islamic World.

On the other hand, due to last year's publication of some horrible photographs showing unimaginable torture on Iraqi prisoners and desecration of the Holy Quran in some Guantanamo Bay prisons by the US soldiers, the prestige and credibility of the West appeared to have indeed touched the lowest point ever in the eyes of the Muslim world. In many countries, this sense of frustration vis-à-vis the West did unfortunately become so strong that it could perhaps be described as hatred and anger.

To recall, ever since President Truman had endorsed a blue print in 1948 to establish a State of Israel (some call it Zionist Settlement Project) on the Palestinian land, perhaps no other single issue has created more bitterness and more animosity towards the United States than the issue of Palestine.

Whatever Israel is today, it is entirely due to the United States. Israel is no longer a simple homeland for the oppressed European Jews, as envisioned by Theodore Herzl in his epoch making book “The Jewish State (1896)”. In fact, with American generosity and also unfortunate questionable standards in the conduct of the US foreign policy, Israel today is the most important military power in the Middle East, reportedly possessing nuclear and other Weapons of Mass Destruction and having already occupied almost 78 percent of the Palestinian land, including forceful occupation of the entire City of Jerusalem a holy place for all.

Since then, this process of deterioration of the Western image in the eyes of the Muslims as well as the Muslim image in the West has rather been going on and now it seems to have reached a dangerous level.

In 2004, even two groups of some prominent former American and British Ambassadors, addressing their respective Heads of Government, not only publicly criticised their governments' Middle-East policies but also warned them of the dire consequences of their untenable and dangerous policies in the region, specially in Iraq.

Others have it to say that in the foreseeable future a well-touted American blue print called “Greater Middle East Democracy Initiative” might prove to be “a kiss of death”, according to the weekly magazine 'Economist'. It is universally true that democracy cannot be imposed from outside but can only be inspired over time. Furthermore, as we know from history, these Arab societies have had inherited legacies of their own brand of democratic values from the ancient times, just like the Greek, Mesopotamian, Assyrian, Indus Civilisations, etc.

Contemporary Challenges
Against this backdrop, currently there seems to be an alarming rise of “Islam phobia” in the Western societies, as though it is a homogeneous unit. The fact of the matter is that there is nothing like that. It is well known that there are different strands of thoughts among the 1.5 billion Muslims living in different parts of the world some conservative, some liberal and yet others with radical tendencies.

Bangladesh is no exception in getting affected in multi-dimensional ways by these events. Since the advent of Islam in the early 9th Century AD in this land, an overwhelming majority of the local population had embraced the Islamic Faith on their own and spread further gradually. Thus, Bangladesh today is perhaps the third country in the world with overwhelming Muslim majority, only after Indonesia and Pakistan.

Veteran Indian diplomat and scholar K. Natwar Singh, The former India's External Affairs Minister, in a Memorial Lecture delivered on “India and Islam” in New Delhi early in 2005, quoting noted writer Aziz Ahmad, said that (in the Sub-continent) “Over several centuries, Indian Sufis and Bhakts lived and preached side by side, at times differing from each other, but generally over time, moving on to coexistence, and finally in tolerance and understanding.”

Thus it may be said that the Muslims of Bangladesh historically have been moderate, tolerant and lived peacefully side by side with fellow citizens of the other faiths of the land mainly Hinduism, Buddhism etc. from the ancient times. Even today it is so. In fact, the US officials, who are currently quite sensitive about the Muslims, have more than once remarked, “Bangladesh is a moderate Muslim democratic country and the tolerance here is an example for many countries of the world”.

Yet at times, Bangladesh has also had the taste of some small groups of hard-line Islamists urging the people of this pre-dominantly Muslim populated country to move closer to their brand of Islam. Perhaps they do so by capitalising on the prevailing public disillusionment with the country's political scenario. But the response to their calls has been rather peripheral or at best localised. In addition, the major Islamist political groups of the country are also known to believe in non-violent democratic process, according to their declarations.

On the other hand, the average Bangladeshi Muslims are traditionally careful of the emotive label of “fundamentalism”. They seem to be able to delineate it from the more subtle interpretation, and thus choosing to take the practice of their faith more devoutly, while being moderate in their daily life.

An eminent former Chief Justice of Egypt, Sai'd Al-Ashmawy, in an article in Reader's Digest magazine (Dec'95), observed, “Present day (Muslim) militants look back nostalgically to an ideal “Islamic state” they think existed in the earliest years of the Islamic era. But back then there was no government as we think of it today. Prophet Muhammad (SA) never formed a cabinet of ministers, or put together a budget or established a police force. The Koran lays down no rules for a specific system of government.”

Possible Response
In the aftermath of the 9/11 and 7/7 tragedies, in which several men and women of Bangladeshi origin have lost their lives, the Muslims of Bangladesh and other countries find themselves in a void and total disarray. It is therefore essential for their leaders and intellectuals to recommend practical measures for developing a vision for future directions of Muslim cooperation.

On the other hand, the only way the West, especially the US, can improve its image in the Muslim world is, first of all, help in creating a viable Palestinian State without delay; abandon its vision of imposing its own model of democracy, and allow the United Nations system to do its job in an effective manner in Iraq, Afghanistan and everywhere else.

At the same time, the opinion forming Western media leaders and academic intellectuals, especially in the US, like Thomas Friedman of the New York Times as well as Professors Bernard Lewis, Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, must be persuaded to stop ridiculing and demonising the Muslims any more in the interest of the West. By doing so, they are simply helping to radicalise a number of educated Muslim youths in the West and even turning some of them into suicide bombers. Simultaneously, in the context of the events of 9/11 and 7/7, the Muslim leaderships need to be cautious in what they say, so that the minority Muslim communities in the West and elsewhere do not become a suspect in their own countries. In the longer term, they also need to be jointly committed to the urgent demand for moral reconstruction and realise that the central issues confronting the entire Muslim world go beyond individual and regional considerations or material welfare.

It is observed that generally the Muslims seem to have in recent years developed some sort of a mind-set, which is perhaps intellectually and morally unacceptable. On the one hand, they have become accustomed to blaming for everything on their colonial legacy and the West. On the other, they also do not seem to have any qualms to condone naked aggression of one Muslim country against another.

Islamic efforts for solidarity today face other formidable impediments from within, because they are ideologically dismembered. Sectarian impulse and narrow interpretation of Islam have today resulted in their exclusion from the rest of the world. Frankly, they stand divided on peripheral issues.

Now let us consider the pitiable socio-economic landscape of some 42 Muslim majority countries, members of the OIC, which also belong to the so-called group of poor developing countries. One cannot ignore the abject poverty and deprivation under which the Muslim masses are forced to live even today.

Let it be admitted that the Islamic Ummah seems to have failed to address the central issues at the expense of emotional exploitation. As one noted Islamic scholar recently pointed out, the rampant corruption, hunger, chronic poverty, illiteracy, gender asymmetry, disregard for fundamental human rights, economic disparities, absence of basic freedom, tolerance of or even collusion with tyrannical systems, denial of educational and employment opportunities to women, degenerative educational facilities and a fractured socio-economic network are not only the symptoms but also the root causes of the decay of the Islamic societies.

The Islamic World

There is no point in further discussing this matter, unless the “extended Islamic family” and its leaderships are willing to show some collective “political will” to rise from the current distressing conditions and strive for a better political future. The prime manifestation of that political will need to be provided first by a commitment to change and establish its priorities.

In pragmatic terms, the Islamic societies everywhere should transcend to a more global concept of existence and cooperation. The basis for such cooperation among Muslims and other members of the world community should be a shared aspiration towards an equitable world order based on socio-economic justice. But this cannot be done by the Muslims alone.

The Muslim World and the OIC
The only institutional platform the Muslims have for discussions, both among themselves and with the outside world, is the OIC. From a geographic and demographic point of view, perhaps it is the second largest international organisation, next to the UN, currently with 57 member states spread over Africa, Asia and Europe. This forum, as it stands today, unfortunately does not represent the entire spectrum of the people of Islamic faith around the world. Because its membership is confined only to countries with “overwhelming Muslim population” and thus representing the voice of just about 70 per cent of the world's Muslims, while the rest 30 per cent live in about 100 odd non-OIC States around the world. For example, some of them with substantial Muslim population (as estimated) are Russian Federation (about 25 million), China (30 million), India (200 million), the Philippines (9 million), Thailand (8 million), Myanmar (6 million), European Union (20 million), USA (8 million), etc.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Gloria Arroyo of the Philippines attended the last OIC Summit held in Kuala Lumpur in late 2003, thus displaying their interest in developing cooperation with the OIC and its member states. Reportedly, Russia has since become an Observer State in the OIC.

It has to be recalled that the OIC was conceived by its founding fathers as a political forum for the global Muslim community and its Charter was modelled on the UN Charter for promoting, inter alia, the socio-political interests of the Muslims, global peace and, unlike the prevailing perceptions, not as a religious institution.

Unfortunately, the achievements of the OIC since its establishment in 1969 have been rather precious little and at best ineffective, mainly because of lack of the political will and disunity amongst its Members.

Therefore, at the last Summit meeting, it was decided to initiate urgent measures for reforming the OIC so as to make it effective. Let us hope, unlike the previous reform efforts, practical steps would be devised for equipping it to address effectively both the socio-economic problems of the Muslim world as well as prepare the Ummah for living in the inter-dependent society of the 21st century, with respect and honour.

For this purpose, it may also be necessary that the long forgotten and now defunct International Islamic News Agency (IINA), established way back in 1977, may be revived and made functional, so as to counter any future attacks on the Muslims as well as project their moderate image and aspirations.

Simultaneously, measures should be initiated for Inter-Faith Dialogues, both at the global and regional levels, between the Muslims and peoples of the other faiths. After all, extremism has no place in the Islamic teachings nor is it a monopoly of the Muslims, as it seems to be becoming rapidly common with some adherents of the other faiths as well, like Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.

Let us hope that, in the new millennium, the Islamic Faith would become part of the global society. Today South Asia is the home to nearly 500 million Muslims of common historical background, i.e., one-third of the Ummah. It is perhaps conveniently placed to take bold initiatives for addressing the various issues as well as help in projecting the correct image of the Islamic Faith to the world as that of “moderate and democratic enlightenment with a humane face” or as a “religion of the middle path”, whichever way one wishes to call it.

Again within the region, Bangladesh is well placed to play an important role, both within the OIC and the outside world. Perhaps Bangladesh has also a stake for doing so, if it has to preserve its moderate and liberal culture and heritage.

The author is former Foreign Secretary and Deputy Secretary General of the OIC.

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