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Muslim Nation Essay

Muslim nations face a crisis of leadership, which affects both them and their relationship with other countries. In Muslim society the leader embodies both political and moral authority. Yet even the best-known thinkers who comment on Islam, like Professor Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama, have failed to identify the importance of Muslim leadership. On the surface there is a bewildering range of leadership: kings, military dictators, mullahs, democrats, and, as in the Taliban in Afghanistan, young and inexperienced tribal men running a country.

Overshadowing all these, we are witnessing new Muslim movements and a new kind of populist, aggressive and literalist Muslim leadership struggling to emerge. The Taliban and their guest from Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden, who is accused of masterminding the bombing of the American embassies in Africa in 1998, best symbolizes this trend. In other countries such as Algeria, Egypt and Pakistan, similar Muslim leaders actively challenge the established rulers.

For these warriors of Islam, the injustices of their rulers and the fact that some enjoy support in the West, all the cultural invasion of western media images, as well as the stereotypes of Islam in the Western media such as the 1998 Hollywood film The Siege, in which Muslims are shown as terrorists and fanatics, highlight the serious cultural and political problems that Muslims face. These coupled with the indifference of the West to them, combine to create a focus on the West as the enemy.

From this perception to actively opposing the West as a form of jihad or religious war, is one short step. While the often Westernized nationalist leaders of the post-independence period sought to hold on to the state and consolidate it; the new leaders hope to destroy it as a legacy of the West and then re-create it in an Islamic mold. The former sought survival in a transitional world; the latter demand purity in an impure one. Although many Muslim kings and military dictators will see in the new century, their numbers will dwindle.

With the passing of old rulers their ranks are thinned further. Neither really has sanction in Islam itself, and the populist leaders ceaselessly challenge them from inside society. What then is going on? What factors are encouraging the dramatic changes in leadership, and how will they impact on the rest of the world? Perhaps Ibn Khaldun, the medieval Muslim scholar, can give us a hint. Ibn Khaldun spoke of asabiyah or social cohesion, as binding groups together through a common language, culture, and code of behavior.

Asabiyah is what traditional societies possess, but which is broken down in urbanized society over a period of time. Ibn Khaldun famously suggested that rural and tribal peoples come down from the mountains to urban areas and three generations on, as they absorb the manners and values of urban life, they lose their special quality of social cohesion and become effete and therefore vulnerable to new invasions from the hills. This cyclical, if over-simplified, pattern held for centuries up to the advent of European colonialism.

Even the disruptive force of European imperialism over the last two centuries did not break the cycle. It was only after independence from the European colonial powers after the Second World War, that Ibn Khaldun’s cycle was seriously affected. It is now drying up at source. Urbanization, demographic changes, a population explosion, migrations abroad and, perhaps most significantly, new and often alien ideas and images, at once seductive and repellent, and all instantly communicated from the West, are contributing to the breakdown.

The recent dramatic growth in population has favored populist Muslim leadership with its power base in the tribal and rural areas, and strengthened it against the cities with their ideas of liberalism, modernity and secularism. This is partly because the modern state simply fails to provide even the most basic amenities, and people become susceptible to radical ideas. Reports of the corruption and mismanagement of the rulers further alienate ordinary people.

To cope with these bewildering changes, ordinary folk fall back on traditional thinking. Madrassahs or religious schools have become popular again, and after a post-independence period when the emphasis was on Westernized schools, they began to flourish from the 1960s. The typical madrassah reflects the political agenda of Hamas in Palestine and the Taliban in Afghanistan: Islam as a vehicle for all encompassing changes; Islam as a challenge not only to the corrupt local elite, but also to the whole world order.

These madrassahs laid the foundations for the populist and militant Islamic leadership that emerged in the 1990s. Mostly from lower middle-class backgrounds, speaking the local language, traditionally dressed, and, significantly, growing beards, the students of the religious schools were the Taliban warriors who went on to conquer Afghanistan. With all their zeal for Islam, and their burning desire to impose their vision on society, the Taliban violated two basic tenets of Islam in a manner calculated to cause offence to many in and outside the country.

Firstly, their discrimination against women and the beatings that they administer, contrast with the gentleness and kindness of the Prophet of Islam towards women. His famous saying that ‘heaven is under the feet of the mother’ sums up the traditional attitude of Islam to women. Secondly, the harshness of the Taliban towards minority groups, the non-Pathans, is also against the spirit of Islam, which encourages tolerance. The minorities of Afghanistan are also Muslims, but many non-Pathans have been discriminated against and treated with violence.

This suggests an ethnic attitude rather than a religious one, although it may come under the guise of religion. Although the Taliban-style leadership is ‘new’ in the sense that it emerged in opposition to the more Westernized leaders in power after the Second World War, in fact the division in Muslim leadership goes back to the nineteenth century. In 1857, after the great uprisings in India against British rule, two rival models of leadership began to emerge.

Sir Sayyed Ahmed Khan, who created the Aligarh University on the model of Oxbridge, was a loyal servant of the Raj and wished to synthesize Islam with modernity; whereas the founders of the madrassah at Deoband near Delhi, fought the British during the uprisings, and their influential schools created networks throughout India and now influence groups like the Taliban. The schism in Muslim leadership is thus rooted in the indigenous response to modernity and the threatening presence of Western imperialism.

At the opposite end of the spectrum to Osama bin Laden stands Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, whom died in 1948. He believed in human rights, and the rights of women and minorities. As a lawyer he upheld constitutional rule. In Britain, Sheik Omar Bakri’s Khilafah, the journal of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir movement, which supports Osama, has attacked Jinnah as a kafir, or non-believer; to a Muslim, the greatest insult of all.

Jinnah was accused of being an enemy of Allah and the Prophet because he supported women, Christians, and Hindus, and advocated democracy. Osama, bearded, in his traditional Muslim clothes, and speaking in Arabic of jihad; and Jinnah, clean shaven, in his Savile Row suit, English accent, and Lincoln’s Inn legal education — here, neatly, we have the two poles of Islam in direct opposition. The question is, which model will prevail in the next century? One of these two models will provide leadership for the more than one billion Muslims into the millennium.

Ironically, through his seemingly senseless missile strikes on Sudan and Afghanistan, President Clinton has elevated Osama from one of the many obscure ‘freedom fighters’ — as Americans called these people in the 1980s during their battle with the Soviets — into an international figure. Osama may appear a sinister fanatic to the West, but to the Muslim world, in the favalas, bazaars and villages, he became an instant hero for taking on the ‘Great Satan’. Those who speak of dialogue and moderation are suddenly under immense pressure to keep quiet and lie low.

Rather than to Huntington or Fukuyama, we should perhaps look to Hobbes for a metaphor in the last days of the millennium. Life is indeed a short, nasty and brutish existence for many people in Africa and Asia and even in Europe. Millions live in poverty, and injustice and tyranny in places like Palestine, Kashmir and the Balkans feed Muslim resentment. State terrorism has destroyed the lives of large groups of Muslims: up to 100,000 killed in Kashmir, Chechnya and in Bosnia. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims have been displaced, bombed, uprooted and dispossessed in Palestine, Lebanon, and, most recently, in Kosovo.

Not all this violence had come from non-Muslims. Muslims themselves have been equally harsh to each other because of a leadership that has failed in compassion and vision. In Algeria over 50,000 have been killed during the 1990s in the most brutal manner possible; the dispossessed Kurds have been savagely persecuted by several Muslim states; Sunni Muslims have fought Shi’ites, and Iran and Iraq waged a bloody ten-year war that may have killed a million people. And from Karachi to Cairo, Muslim cities erupt into sectarian and ethnic violence at a moment’s notice. Foreign visitors are often targeted at random.

Now that the Muslim world, through Pakistan, has an ‘Islamic nuclear bomb’ Muslim leadership matters more than ever. There is every likelihood of other Muslim nations joining Pakistan in the near future. The world will become an even more dangerous and unstable place. Clinton and his Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, have predicted that the events of August 1998 were a foretaste of things to come; that this is the way that the wars of the future will be fought. They may be right. But the response of the Muslim world will depend on whether the Osama model prevails, or that of Jinnah.

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