Weekly SectionMarker

Pakistan's Internet Magazine



XIBERCOM CowasjeeAyazReviewDawn MagazineYoung WorldImages

DAWN - the Internet Edition

15 December 2001 Saturday 29 Ramazan 1422

Irfan Husain

Illusion of Muslim unity

By Irfan Husain

Recently, General Musharraf was quoted as having said that the present weakness in the Muslim world was due to disunity, and that once Muslims were united, they would become strong again.

How wrong he is. The mantra of Muslim unity has been a rallying cry for generations of pan-Islamists over the centuries that have witnessed the growing power of the West and the simultaneous decline of the Islamic world. Many thinkers and politicians have urged the Ummah or nation of Islam to join together and confront the perceived enemy. For them, the lost glories of resurgent Islam would be restored if only Muslims would unite. It is one thing for ignorant mullahs to preach this sermon after Friday prayers; quite another for responsible leaders to take it seriously.

Charismatic leaders like Nasser and Qadhafi have attempted to forge mergers with neighbouring countries time and again, only to have their dreams of Muslim unity dashed on the reefs of reality. I may be mistaken, but I think it was Suharwardy who famously dismissed one of these attempts at the time of the Suez crisis in the mid-fifties by proclaiming: "Zero plus zero plus zero is equal to zero". This blunt formulation may not have won him many friends in the Middle East, but it did reflect the stark truth.

There is a feeble-minded, romantic notion that if the Muslim world was to pool its resources and its talents, it would become a significant power. Let us look at the facts: we are net importers of technology, and we will continue to buy the products of western minds for the foreseeable future. There is no research worth the name going on in any of the forty plus countries with Muslim majorities. So even if we could miraculously form an economic union, our economies would not benefit much from a union as they are not complementary. Basically, we only export primary products and low-tech goods. In brief, there has been very little value-addition in the realm of ideas.

Then there is the notion that closer ties among Muslim countries would result in greater political strength. Closer scrutiny does nothing to support this thesis. For instance, the tin-pot dictators and monarchs who blight the Islamic landscape are so focused on preserving their unpopular rule that they have little interest in rocking the boat by espousing causes like Palestine. While they will pay lip-service to keep their streets quiet, they will certainly not use up their political capital for anything other than self-preservation. We have the examples of Bosnia and Chechnya before us: these were nations that suffered terribly without Muslim leaders lifting a finger. It was the United States that finally ended the genocide in Bosnia while the killings in Chechnya continue.

If General Musharraf is really interested in the subject, he should analyze the real causes of weakness and decadence in the Muslim world. He could begin at home where, until the mid-seventies, Pakistan seemed to have all the ingredients for economic take-off: a solid agricultural base; reasonably good infrastructure for a developing country; a hard-working workforce; and a relatively effective bureaucracy. So what went wrong?

People often lay the entire onus of our painful decline at Bhutto's door. It is true that his disastrous nationalization of key industries and educational institutions set us back by years. But the qualitative change in our approach to progress and development took place under Zia when faith, earlier a largely personal aspect of life, was elevated to a public expression of belief. For instance, two columns were introduced in the annual performance evaluation report for civil servants that required a reporting officer to comment on his subordinate's "attitude towards Islam" and "knowledge of Islam". These columns still exist, by the way, and negative entries have ruined careers.

This example should serve to illustrate the extent to which religion was pushed into every aspect of our lives under Zia. Schoolchildren are required to learn Arabic in addition to compulsory courses in Islamiat. This obviously cuts into the time they have for other subjects. And this emphasis on religiosity continues well into the university. The whole country comes to a grinding halt in Ramazan. Indeed, the public exhibition and expression of religious belief is now virtually mandatory.

This sea change has altered our political and economic landscape beyond recognition, and perhaps beyond salvation. Our bankrupt Afghan policy is just one result of a single-point agenda. The face of the Taliban is our face too. The dangerous sectarian militias that are determined to drag us back to the medieval era are Zia's political offspring. Who else is responsible for declaring interest rates un-Islamic, thus driving away whatever little foreign investment that might otherwise come to Pakistan?

While most of these problems are peculiar to Pakistan, the fact is that world-wide, there is a conflict between the perceived dictates of our faith and the demands of modernization and rationality. For centuries, Muslim rulers have been unwilling to provide the space and freedom needed for free thought to flourish, exercising tight control over intellectuals and teachers. This is why there is such little creative activity in the Muslim world. We have stifled ourselves with rigid rules about what is prohibited: instead of leaving it to the Maker to deal with transgressions in the next world, our leaders and mullahs insist on doing His job in this world according to their narrow, joyless interpretation of the faith.

One logical outcome of this system is that it has marginalized half the population of the Muslim world. Despite liberal scholars who insist that Islam does not require women to be locked up, the reality is that in most Muslim countries, the role of women in public life is very limited. The enrolment figures for school-age girls are low, and job opportunities for women are generally limited as compared to those available for men. Low literacy figures among women are eventually reflected in poorly educated children, lack of hygiene, high population growth and a backward society.

There was a recent survey of university graduates among different communities in Britain. Interestingly, over 20% of all Indians are graduates whereas the figure for both Pakistanis and Bangladeshis is 11%. Another study looked at family income levels in various ethnic groups, and it was found that the figure for Indians was much higher than for Pakistani families because in the former, both husbands and wives worked while among Pakistanis, the wives tended to stay at home. With a higher disposable income, Indian parents can afford to give their children a better education and a better start.

Although many of these facts and arguments have been taken at random, they would make a good starting point for General Musharraf if he really wants to study the reasons for the weakness he sees in the Muslims world today.

Click to learn more...
Please Visit our Sponsor (Ads open in separate window)


Click Here!
The DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2001