Islam on A Collision Course

March 21, 2003

By Akbar Ahmed
Chair of Islamic Studies at American University
Washington DC

"There will be a time when your religion will be like a hot piece of coal in the palm of your hand; you will not be able to hold it". The Prophet of Islam was gazing into the future while he talked to his followers early in the 7th century in Arabia. "Would this mean there would be very few Muslims?" someone asked. "No," replied the Prophet, "They will be large in numbers, more than ever before, but powerless like the foam on the ocean waves."

After September 11, 2001, the prediction of the Prophet seems to be coming true. Islam has become as hot as a piece of coal for its followers. Let me give you an example of what has happened in my own family. One of my relatives was in the second tower of the World Trade Centre on September 11th. When the first plane struck its target, he rang his father in New Jersey immediately, to say that something terrible had happened and he was coming home. He put the phone down, and we never heard from him again. Can you imagine the horror of my cousin's father? Like hundreds of Muslim families he suffered the loss of someone in the terrorist attacks. Like hundreds of thousands of Muslims he felt shocked and disgusted by the carnage. But Muslims like my relative suffer twice-over, because this carnage was committed in the name of our religion.

Yet many Muslims now feel themselves in the dock, accused of belonging to a so-called "terrorist" and "extremist" religion. The "war on terrorism" President George Bush declared after September 11th threatens to stretch into the century. But, as a result of incessant attacks by well-known figures on the Koran, the Prophet, and the customs and traditions of our religion, for many Muslims it appears to be a war against Islam. For many of us therefore, on both a global and personal level, this is a time of challenge and despair.

For better or for worse the 21st century will be the century of Islam. The events of September 11 saw to that. The hijackers of the four American planes killed not only thousands of innocent people. Their terrible act also created one of the greatest paradoxes of the 21st century: Islam, which sees itself as a religion of peace, is now associated with murder and mayhem.
Consider Islam today: There are about 1.3 billion Muslims living in 55 states, and the Muslim population is growing fast. About 25 million Muslims live in the West - in fact, a third of all Muslims live in non-Muslim states. But Islam is the one world religion which appears to be on a collision course with its neighbours.

We know that for the first time in history, due to a unique geopolitical conjunction of factors, Islam is in confrontation with all of the major world religions: Judaism in the Middle East; Christianity in the Balkans, Chechnya, Nigeria, Sudan and sporadically in the Philippines and Indonesia; Hinduism in South Asia; and, after the Taliban blew up the statues in Bamiyan, Buddhism. The Chinese, whose culture represents an amalgam of the philosophy of Confucius, Tao and Communist ideology, are also on a collision course with Islam in China's western province.

Why is it that Islam now appears to be clashing with so many neighbouring civilisations? Perhaps because we are entering into what I call a "post-honour" world. I think that the dangerously ambiguous notion of honour - and the even more dangerous idea of the loss of honour - propels men to violence. Simply put, global developments have robbed many people of honour. Rapid global changes are shaking the structures of traditional societies. Groups are forced to dislocate, or live nearby other groups. In the process of dislocation they have little patience with the problems of others. They develop intolerance and express it through anger. And this is not a problem unique to Islamic countries. No society is immune. Even those states that economists call "developed" fall back to the notions of honour and revenge in times of crisis. President Bush himself spoke using the rhetoric of honour after September 11th. Like a sheriff whose town had been hit by bad guys, he spoke of a great nation that had been attacked, and the "fitting reply" that he would mete out. He used words like "dead or alive". He called the enemy "a slithering snake". Bush did not speak in terms of geopolitics, but in the simple terms of honour and revenge.

Besides, the traditional Muslim division of the world has collapsed: What Muslims once saw as the distinction between dar al-harb- the house of war, land of anarchy and disbelief - and dar al-Islam - the house of peace or Islam in which they could practice their faith and flourish - is no longer valid. In the last decades of the 20th century the division has become largely irrelevant. Muslims can freely practice their faith and flourish in the United States and elsewhere; meanwhile they have been persecuted in Iraq. After September 2001, the distinction disappeared altogether. Muslims everywhere felt under siege. The entire world had become dar al-harb.

The events of September 11th appeared to push the world toward the idea of the clash of civilizations, but they also conveyed the urgency of the call for dialogue. We may not like words such as "post-modernism" and "globalization", but only with the compassionate understanding of other civilizations, through the development of the scholarship of inclusion, can we resolve some of the deleterious consequences of globalization. We need to address the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, and the growing sense of despair, especially in the latter. The tragic confrontation among the great faiths taking place in the Balkans, the Middle East, and South Asia, the mindless cycle of violence, must be checked in this century through the dialogue of civilization. Long-term work needs to be started to build the confidence of communities. Serious and urgent rethinking is required by policy-planners and policy-makers in the corridors of power, not only in Washington, London, Moscow and Paris but also in Cairo, Islamabad, Kabul, and Tehran.

There has been dialogue in the past. A thousand years ago in Muslim Spain, Jews, Christians and Muslims lived and worked together to create a glorious civilization, where libraries, public debate and learning flourished - and this at a time when the rest of Europe was stuck in the Dark Ages. And five hundred years ago in India, Akbar the Great ruled over a territory that encompasses modern-day India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. A Muslim who was married to a Hindu princess, his reign ushered in a remarkable century of tolerance - each week he hosted meetings between leaders of all the faiths. I have even seen this wisdom in our own time, when last year the former Archbishop of Canterbury called together a similar meeting of religious leaders. Representatives from Christian, Jewish, and the Muslim faiths gathered together to discuss our common goals, and how we could create peace and harmony in our troubled times.

I suggest a formula for the new millennium: If justice and compassion flourish - and are seen to flourish - in the Muslim world, if its rulers are people of integrity, and if Muslims are allowed to practice their faith with honour, then Islam will be a good neighbour to non-Muslims living outside its borders. And it will provide a benevolent and compassionate environment to those living inside them. It will continue to resist attempts to subvert its identity or dignity. Because resistance can take the form of a Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan who believed in human rights and fought within the law, or resistance can take the form of an Osama bin Laden who fights outside of it.

I hope that one day we embrace this new formula, so that the whole world can become dar al-Islam - the house of peace.

About the Author
Professor Akbar Ahmed isprobably the world's best known scholar on contemporary Islam. He is the former High Commissioner of Pakistan to Great Britain, and has advised Prince Charles and met with President George W. Bush on Islam. He is now Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies and professor of International Relations at American University in Washington, DC. Dr. Ahmed is the author of many books on contemporary Islam, including Discovering Islam: Making Sense of Muslim History and Society, which was the basis of the BBC six-part TV series called Living Islam. His Postmodernism and Islam: Predicament and Promise was nominated for the Amalfi Award, and his "Jinnah Quartet," a four-part project on Pakistan's founding father, M.A. Jinnah, has won numerous international awards.

Professor Ahmed is about to publish "Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honour World" (Polity Press, May 2003)

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