December 2001 News

Islam & Modernity-I: The contradictions of holy wars

6 December 2001
The Statesman
Swami Agnivesh and Valson Thampu

New Delhi: General Pervez Musharraf is carving out for himself a place in the sun. Future historians of Islam could profile him as a gambler in Islam’s transition from a negative to a positive engagement with the challenge of modernity. The truth about the suffering of Muslims around the world is that they hurt themselves by beating back the waves of reform that leaders like the Shah of Iran and Nasser of Egypt tried to usher in. The fact that bigots like Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran and Mulla Omar in Afghanistan prevailed over their progressive rivals is a commentary on the mindset shaped over decades. Shutting one’s mind on the currents of the times is no proof of intellectual or spiritual vitality. Rather, the contrary. The religious elite in every religion and age has enjoyed the exclusive right to define and direct the religiosity of their people. As is to be expected, this is done necessarily with a view to reinforcing their own class interests. It is an irresistible temptation for the power-wielders of the world to turn their supporters into unthinking and ardent devotees, the substance of whose devotion can be directed at will. Intruders Seen from this perspective, the spread of rationality, free thinking, and intellectual objectivity are unwelcome intruders. The manipulators of all religious communities have abhorred the spread of light in various ways. They have had enviable success in persuading their followers into believing that this light is nothing but a deceptive form of darkness. It is this that delays the engagement between Islam and the rational forces of modernity to a greater extent than has been the case with most other religions. This is not to argue that everything about modernity is rational or desirable. Modernity itself was turned into a religion of sorts: the religion of the materialistic world, with all the aberrations that necessarily go with it. It is an interplay of light and darkness, making it easy for those who wish to demonise it by focusing only on its hedonistic and narcissistic faces. This enabled the likes of Khomeni and Mullah Omar to evoke an atavistic fear of modernity in their followers. The interesting thing, though, is that the engagement between Islam and modernity is under way already. The material tools and weapons of Islamic fundamentalism are borrowed entirely from technology, which is the faceless god of modernity. The terrorists flying commercial aircraft into the trade towers in New York bristles with this symbolic irony. Hypocrisy Only the proverbial fundamentalist hypocrisy can live at peace with the glaring self-contradiction of fighting holy wars using the weapons developed by the infidels, the spread of whose demonic culture is assumed to spell doom to one’s God and religion. The irony is this: it is perfectly legitimate for Islam, in its fundamentalist caricature, to welcome the means and tools of violence afforded by modernity, whereas it is sinful to accept what is positive in it. The self-appointed, bigoted leaders are allergic to modernity’s insistence on human rights and dignity, free thinking and free movements, progress, equality and human welfare. They are quite comfortable, though, in putting up with mounting human suffering, poverty, violation of human rights, illiteracy, injustice and backwardness. It is time that this hypocrisy is seen for what it is. Look at the oil-rich sheikdoms in the Middle East who compete among themselves in displaying their zeal for Islam. The Sheik of Abu Dhabi in UAE, for example, began to build a mosque recently that would have surpassed its rival in Mecca. This was opposed by his Saudi counterpart, whose will has prevailed in the matter, causing enormous confusion and loss of money. For all the religious fervour, what one sees in the Middle Eastern cities is not Islamic austerity but western consumerism at its zenith. But for the innumerable mosques that dot these cityscapes, everything about them is awash with the culture of the infidels. Watershed Afghanistan could prove a watershed in the historical evolution of Islam by compelling a re-examination of the strategy, so far, of unthinking negativity to whatever is modern. Events since 11 September has exposed the deep fissures on the façade of Pan-Islamic solidarity upon which Osama bin Laden, like Saddam a decade ago, staked his life. The fast-developing scenario in Afghanistan proves that the challenge of modernity cannot be met with a medievalist mindset, even if you have the destructive weapons of modernity. The standoff in Afghanistan is not between Christianity and Islam, but between the progressive and the regressive mindsets. It is irreligious to lend the legitimacy of religion to a retrograde project that drags the people back to medievalism. The religious task is not to put the clock back. It is, instead, to engage every society and every age from a pro-active outlook so as to infuse it with the values that are necessary to safeguard its health and to maximise the welfare of its people. A religion that seeks to anchor a people in the past and cripple their capacity to live effectively in the present condemns itself to irrelevance. Assumptions One of the perennial traits of the religious outlook, when it is uninformed by spirituality, is the lack of objectivity. The custodians of religion tend to take everyone else on their own terms. The Sangh Parivar’s arbitrary assumptions about Ayodhya are a case in point. So also, Musharraf’s insistence that there should be no bombing in Afghanistan during the holy month of Ramzan. Does he want the bombing to stop because, war being unholy, it is unwelcome in the holy month? If war is unholy, how can any war be holy for those who are outside of one’s own religious fold? If some wars can be holy, and every group has the right to decide arbitrarily what is holy and what is not, what is there to prevent the Americans from claiming that they too are waging a holy war: the war of “enduring justice” diplomatically re-christened “war on terrorism”? In this globalising world no group can continue to impose its own exclusive norms and priorities on others. The call to call off bombing in the holy month is not made any more credible by shooting Christian worshippers on Sunday, their holy day. Apparently, those who burst into the church on that fateful Sunday morning and massacred the innocents there were also pious Muslims: pious at least according to the bin Laden version of Islam. The incapacity for objectivity evident in this case is also reflected in the bloody rhetoric in Palestine that sets the right of the Palestinians to exist as a separate and viable state in opposition to that of the Jews.


Return to the Archives 2001 Index Page

Return to Home Page