West and Islam

Dr Niaz Murtaza

ISLAM does not belong in Europe, says the far right there. But such views consist only of rhetoric. Rational debates must review Islamic views on specific Western ideals, eg, democracy, to see whether it is more alien to Western ideals than other faiths.

Let’s begin with democracy, the finest Western ideal. As I wrote in Dawn (‘Democracy in Islam’) on Aug 2, 2016, Madina rule reflected pre-modern democracy. Rulers were chosen with people’s input and ruled accountably. One hardly finds such early examples in other faiths. In fact, many early rulers linked with religions were dynastic kings. Clearly, Madina rule existing 1,300 years ago differed much from today’s Western democracy. But so did Western rule a mere 150 years ago, with its colonialism, women’s non-suffrage and slavery.

The key issue is not if Madina rule met current ideals but that it gave democratic ideas when other major states had dynastic kingdoms. Most Muslim states today are autocratic. But this is due to local politics and great powers rivalry. Till recently, regions associated with other faiths too were autocratic, eg East Asia and Latin America, due to similar non-religious reasons.

Emphasis on human rights, including women’s, is another Western ideal. Islam improved both. Acts of burying girls alive were banned. Racial bias was discouraged. Armies were told to spare civilians. But as true for all faiths, many acts that seem negative today were not banned at that time. Slavery was curbed but not ended. Should one look at the filled or empty portion of the glass?

Poorer outcomes have less to do with religion than politics.

Much the same issue applies to even recent figures. Should one commend Lincoln for ending slavery or condemn him for not ending segregation? Like other faiths, early Islam improved human rights without ending every ill due to time and other constraints.

Secularism is also a Western ideal. Early Muslim rule was non-secular, like Judaism, another faith whose early figures ruled. Muslims today show multiple trends here. In brief jihadi ‘caliphates’, autocratic Saudi Arabia and hybrid Iran, clerics dictate detailed religious laws. States like Niger are secular. But in Muslim-majority, mostly democratic, states like Pakistan and Indonesia, clerics give at most advice. A few edicts become law there via the faith-inspired voting of legislators. But laws based on legislators’ faiths exist to a lesser extent in India, Catholic states, Christian Africa, the US etc. too.

Emphasis on education is a Western ideal too. One finds much focus on education in Islam and Muslims had their golden era of progress too. Muslim states do poorly here today, but not due to religion. Talk about 10 million Jews having many times more Nobel prizes than billion-plus Muslims suggests a religious link. But the near-billion Chinese, Indians, Hindus and Africans do no better here. These poorer outcomes have less to do with religion than politics.

Some say the Muslim faith stokes violence. But a recent US study shows that only 2.1pc of its sacred texts refer to violence compared with 2.8pc of the New Testament and 5.3pc of Old Testament text. The last (and the least in my opinion) Western ideal I review is capitalism and materialism. One finds no explicit ban on private property, wage labour, profit and other key facets of capitalism in Islam, unlike in Soviet communism. But Islam forbids over-materialism, which is the bane of Western culture today.

This quick review on key Western ideals hardly shows Islam more in conflict than other faiths. On early democratic rule, it even excels over faiths most linked to the West today: Christianity and Judaism. Why the anger against it then? Some of it is right-wing bias. Personal wears like hijab and long beard by a few Muslims lead to all Muslims being called alien. Most orthodox Jews and Amish buck Western ideals on key civic duties like voting, education, draft or taxes, often with the state’s nod, but are not ridiculed.

Islam supports democracy, rights and education. But Muslim states hog the bottom ranks in related global indices. Extremism is a bigger problem among Muslims. Literalism is more common among Muslims as is the odd idea that virtue lies in fashioning public life and state affairs exactly as their early leaders did centuries ago even if there is no evidence they desired this.

Conventional religion plays a very small role in my life. Still, I find many very useful spiritual and practical ideas in Islam and other faiths too. But my main identity is as a leftist activist. So, I also feel that while leftist secular morality has made much progress, Islam and other faiths have suffered centuries of intellectual stagnation in the hands of petty latter-day clerics. Their hold is stronger in Muslim states. Only by ending their hold can Islam’s progressive face emerge.

The writer is a political economist and a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley.


Published in Dawn December 20th, 2016

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