Dr Mohammad Manzoor Alam
I am returning to this column within a week. The usual periodicity of this is once every month or so. The reason for this is the wide response to the last column under this title. The enthusiastic response to the article shows that Muslims are bothered about the widespread disunity in their ranks and they want to know the issues that divide us. This is also a good sign as knowing a problem brings us half way to resolving it.
By the way, understanding an issue requires clarity, which does not come easy to many of us. An example of this was a mail from one of our readers who suggested that the destruction of Aleppo (and much of Syria) is the handiwork of the French. This is not the case. The destruction has been wrought by Bashar Assad with the help of Iran and Russia, not France.
He wrote, rather unintelligibly, “The French general put his foot on Saladin’s grave and proclaimed”. It seems as if the French general did it during the destruction of Aleppo earlier this week, and hence France was responsible for the humiliation of the Muslim hero (Salahuddin Ayubi) and France was behind the destruction of Syria during nearly half a century of the illegal rule of the Asads (Bashar and Hafez). This understanding of a major tragedy in the Muslim world is not correct.
What this writer is referring to is an incident that is now almost a century old (the end of World War-I). After defeating the Ottoman caliphate (under which much of the Arab world, including today’s Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria and Palestine came), the French general marched in pomp to the grave of Salahuddin (Saladin) and proclaimed, “Saladin, we are here”. What the French general in his hubris did was motivated by racial memory and historical animosity. Saladin had driven European crusaders out of most of the Kingdom of Jerusalem nearly seven and a half century before the end of the World War-I, and the French general’s impudent behavior. Racial memory and historical antagonism are part of human life, but this does not have to determine all of our actions. We cannot live in the past, and cannot attribute all of today’s developments to the past.
As we said earlier, what is happening in Syria and most of the Muslim world indicates our inability to deal with our own affairs in a politically appropriate way. Coming back to Syria again (even though there are several like it) we have to remember that it was a certain kind of political environment that fostered the growth of the Asads, who destroyed their country. Even without the Asads and their partners in their crimes (Russia and Iran now) there has been sufficient internal hostility between tribes, ethnicities, sects and sub-sects to tear the country apart. Islam alone has not always been able to keep them united, because here we are not having a generic, undifferentiated, unified Islam, but several versions of it, practised by different sects, sub-sects, ethnicities and tribal groups.
In many cases, it is not the unified Ummah that is visible, but a constant fragmentation that is at work. It would be desirable for different kinds of Muslim communities worldwide to agree on a loose Ummatic consensus that accepts that across races, climates, continents and countries, ethnicities and tribes, political ideologies and cultural preferences Prophet Muhammad’s community is united in its amazing diversity as Allah wishes and in the love of the Prophet (PBUH).
This is the ideal (what should be), but not the real (what is). The effort has to continue through local, regional, national and international fora. However, to avoid a complete civilisational breakdown (towards which we are headed), we must never insist on a single, one size fits all Islam and try to enforce it across all cultures and climes. Cultural, ethnic and sectarian forces have frequently overwhelmed Islam’s capability to keep the Ummah united throughout Muslim history. Elaboration of this might need more space than this column provides. Suffice it to say that we must never try to enforce uniformity across the Ummah. Only diversity can keep it together in a symbolic bond. We must learn to live together separately, allowing everybody his or her space. In its great wisdom the holy Qur’an declares: “No compulsion in faith”.
To elaborate it further, nobody has the moral or legal right to eliminate all difference. No black person’s skin can be peeled like a banana to make him look like a white man (Salman Rushdie’s Moor’s musing), nor can a white man or woman’s skin be painted black. Likewise, the difference within and without Islam cannot be eliminated without permanently destroying peace. If we cannot accept the diversity within Islam, how can we live in peace with Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and others?
We have examples from other religions, societies and countries where people have accepted difference willingly and have agreed to live together separately in peace. An example from Germany is worth citing here. In the 19th century some leaders of the Christian church met Jewish leaders and told them, “We think you are in error and you think we are in error”. Then the Christian leaders said something to the effect: “We are free to have our ideas of each other. But, now onwards, let us decide to live with each other in peace”. That understanding led to the German Jews’ rise as equal citizens and the end of ghettos and everything they stood for. That understanding was destroyed by Hitler’s rise in the 30s of the 20th century.
However, after the defeat of Nazis and end of World War II, many Jews returned to live as equal citizens in Germany as they were living before Hitler. This is not an unblemished happy-ending story, but it shows people can (and should) try to live happily with others despite differences of faith, sect, race and ethnicity.
A more enduring and successful story comes from the secularisation of Europe, which was more fissiparous and driven by hatred between different Christian sects. The violence of Londonderry and Belfast which we read about in newspapers in our college days paled in significance compared to the violence and madness of 19th century Europe. Incidentally, the last viceroy of India, Lord Louis Mountbatten, was assassinated by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) that was behind much of the violence of Londonderry and Belfast of those days. Even that violence has simmered down.
Much of Europe deflated religious antagonism and sectarian violence among Christians by delinking state from church. That means no sect had the patronage of the state and all citizens were equal as the state had no religion of its own. This arrangement has held strongly for more than a century. It is interesting to note that Europe was secularised not to protect Muslims, Jews or Buddhists, but to protect Christians from Christians. The same arrangement has held the United States together from the beginning. Right from the coming of Pilgrims (the first European settlers in America) Christian sects came to America because there was no religious preference there, and hence no persecution. Can we devise some innovative schemes like that to save Muslims from Muslims and accommodate our diversity happily?