Today's date:
Spring 2008

Beyond the Blame Game

Munawar Ahmad Anees is the founding editor of Islamica Periodica.

New York -- The rhetoric of moderation by Muslims has done little to stem the spread of intolerance, extremism, militancy, and violence among themselves and beyond. In Pakistan, for instance, the so-called "Enlightened moderation" has been obscured by the specter of suicide terrorism -- something unknown in that land even during the Soviet-Afghan war that was won by the CIA-financed Taliban, then known as Mujahedeen.

Elsewhere in the Muslim world bigotry and prejudice thrive as never before. Under Muslim rule today religious minorities live a life of fear and suspicion. In Malaysia, for example, demolition of Hindu temples and shrines; the ban on the use of the word Allah by Christians in the Malay-language Bible; interdictions on proselytization; and the forced "rehabilitation" of apostates are among some of the sweeping norms of the Muslim fervor.

The Arab world fares no better. While sharing many of the above traits with their co-religionists, Jordan and Egypt actively prosecute converts from Islam as is the case with the revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran. Some recent reports indicate that the prevailing atmosphere of extremism in the Arab world is forcing Christians to emigrate in large numbers from their Arab motherland. Not to mention the fact that "Muslim anti-Semitism" -- an oxymoron in its own historical context (because Arabs are Semites) is touching new heights.

On the other side of the fence -- as if the last sigh of the Moor -- the edifice of multiculturalism is crumbling under the burden of bigotry. Newspapers and electronic media, particularly the blogosphere, are replete with distortions and a degenerated discourse on Islam. One cannot fail to miss the surge in Islamophobia. Not limited to America, it is fast spreading to Europe under the coinage of "Eurabia," a euphemism for the invasion of Europe by Saracens leading to white slavery under the sharia laws.

In other theaters, the birth of several Islamophobes, whether of con or neo-con lineage, is reinforcing the view that Muslim bashing is synonymous with career advancement. The anti-Muslim lobby prides in its permanent members as well as glorified ex-Muslims. For the latter, opting for "apostasy" is not without tangible rewards. A bonus awaits those like Ayaan Hirsi Ali who are media savvy, compared to the poor ones who are lynched by mobs, flogged, stoned to death or imprisoned.

The events and ideas shaping these two worlds do not necessarily support Samuel Huntington's thesis of a clash of civilizations. A closer look reveals a parallel idea: The claim to moral "superiority" under the authority of modernity fails to make an impact. Whereas Muslims are alleged to be engaging in medieval practices in the 21st century, the West too is not shy of invoking medieval symbolism in the contemporary discourse. On that count, it becomes a level playing field.

The presidential parleys on the Crusades and "Islamic fascism" aside, what is missing in this war of ideas is self-criticism, introspection, and the courage to laugh at ourselves. The absence of these crucial ingredients is what is fanning the flames of this war, sometimes touted as the Fourth World War. Beyond the blamable rhetoric, both Muslims and non-Muslims need to transcend the pious historicity and examine their affairs in an ontological setting. That is a small opening into the wider world of self-criticism that so badly awaits the Muslim discourse.

Muslims, for most of their acts, have invariably sought refuge in blaming the West for all their ills. Any Western criticism of practices such as wife beating, honor killing, rape, and other afflictions brings up an apoplectic response, often laced with violence. Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses and the Danish cartoons offer classic examples of typical Muslim reaction. Little noticed is the fact that while the perpetrators of the blasphemies are unharmed, Muslims themselves bear self-inflicted loss of life and property. Muslim social ills are then relegated to cultural deviations rather than things theologically inspired.

As an act of intellectual subservience, Muslim media show a reactionary streak in hoisting the virtuous flag of self-criticism. Why, for instance, should the genesis of self-criticism owe a debt to 9/11? Why must the wholesale apologia be made just suited to the aftermath of terror attacks? And by what token of reciprocity do the Western media owe them a debt? While Muslims in the West are not only the beneficiaries but ardent claimants to the fruits of a civic and democratic society, Muslim media have rarely told the plight of non-Muslims in Muslim lands.

If history is any guide, the medieval period in the life of these two worlds was not all that hostile. There was Convivencia. It was a period of free flowering of intellect where the three Abrahamic faiths coexisted in a mutually beneficial manner. Above self-criticism, the courage to accept and offer constructive criticism was the hallmark of that society. It was a powerful transition in the history of human ideas that spanned nearly five centuries in medieval Spain, only to be ruined by Reconquista.

Contrary to the fears expressed, Kosovo's status as the world's newest largely Muslim nation in the heart of Europe will have far-reaching implications for the world. In the words of Ilmi Krasniqi, the Imam at one of the mosques in the town of Gnjilane: "Our Islam is ‘lite' -- like Coke Lite or Marlboro Light." Are the tolerant voices coming out of independent Kosovo a precursor to a new Convivencia? And positive notes too are being played on the Western front: In Britain, officials now prefer to replace "Islamic terrorism" with the term "violent extremism," while the European Organization for Security and Cooperation has admitted that the failure to agree on a shared terminology in the wake of the September 11 attacks was "a major mistake on our part."

Isn't it time for Muslims to rise above self-pity and self-piety and pave the way for mutual engagement on some substantive issues? Perhaps the first step on the path to Convivencia is to recognize the pivotal role of self-criticism and a commitment to make it a public-square event. Outshining the mundane press releases on assorted condemnation of violence in the name of Islam is the fertile land of introspection. Will Muslims have the courage to meet this moral challenge?