TIME TO THINK: WHAT THE ISLAMIC WORLD NEEDS
following article is part of a chapter in a book entitled The Muslim
Renaissance: The Birth of a New Era, which was launched at the 2nd
World Islamic Economic Forum organized by the Asian Strategic and Leadership
Institute (ASLI) in Islamabad, Pakistan, from 5 to 7 November 2006.
TIME TO THINK: WHAT THE ISLAMIC WORLD NEEDS TO DO
THANG D. NGUYEN
Columnist (www.thangthecolumnist.blogspot.com), Jakarta, Indonesia
This book and the 2nd World Islamic Economic Forum organized by the Asian
Strategic and Leadership Institute in Islamabad, Pakistan, from 5 to 7 November
could not have been timelier.
During a lecture at the University of Regensburg in Germany, where he was
previously a professor of theology, Pope Benedict XVI quoted the 14th-century
Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, who said:
“Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things
only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he
This quote has caused anger across the world, particularly among Muslim
communities. From the Middle East to Asia, Muslims put out protests, burned
churches, and attacked Christians in reaction to the Pope’s usage of the quote
in his lecture, which was interpreted as a condemnation of, or an insult to,
On 1 October, Indonesia—the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation— commemorated
the 2nd anniversary of the 2nd Bali bombing. Along with the first Bali bombing
in 2002 and other terrorist attacks in Jakarta, the 2nd Bali bombing was the
work of the al-Qaida-linked Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), an Indonesian radical Islamic
network with links and operations across Southeast Asia.
And amid the Iraq War and the Palestine-Israel conflict, Israel attacked Lebanon
in August this year. The attack, which took place under a vacuous pretext that
Israel needed to rescue two of its soldiers whom the Hezbollah had captured,
killed thousands of civilians and destroyed several cities in Lebanon. It must
be noted that the international community, except for the US and UK, condemned
this attack, but Israel forged ahead with its plan and only stopped it when too
much blood was shed in Lebanon.
Altogether, these wars, attacks, and conflicts raise several questions. Why do
they happen to, or in, Muslim countries? Is terrorism the way for them to fight
back? Or is there a smarter way to do it? But most importantly, how do Islamic
nations—at one point in history an advanced civilization—rise against the rest
of the world in today’s competitive environment?
This essay is a humble attempt to answer these questions. The first section lays
out key challenges that the Islamic world faces. The second part shows why the
Islamic World has been unable to overcome them. The third part suggests what the
Islamic nations need to do to deal with its challenges and gain power in today’s
competitive world. Finally, the article will conclude that the challenges facing
the Islamic world are formidable, but they are not impossible to deal with;
however, overcoming them will require some self-critical thinking and pragmatic
DENIAL IS THE ISLAMIC WORLD’S BIGGEST PROBLEM
If we take a good look at the Islamic world today and ask ourselves which
countries that are peaceful, prosperous, and progressed, we can only name a few:
Brunei, Malaysia, Qatar, and the United Emirates. As for the rest, some are
either at war with a foreign country or in a civil war, e.g. Iraq, while others
face the threat of terrorism that is masterminded and launched by homegrown
radical Islamic groups, e.g. Indonesia.
Ironically, this is the Islamic world that is 1.3 billion strong and has the
biggest oil reserve in the world, among a wealth of other natural resources.
And, to be sure, this is the same Islamic world that was the most powerful,
advanced, and enlightened civilization at one point in history. For this reason,
many Muslims and scholars of Islam have started to question what has happened to
The Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis phrased this question as follows.
What went wrong? For a long time people in the Islamic world, especially but
not exclusively in the Middle East, have been asking this question...There is
indeed good reason for questioning and concern, even for anger. For many
centuries the world of Islam was in the forefront of human civilization and
achievement...In the Muslims’ own perception, Islam itself was indeed
coterminous with civilization, and beyond its borders there were only barbarians
The answer to this question, according to Lewis and some Muslims themselves, is
the rise of the West, first on the battlefield and later in science and the
marketplace. Along with technology, modernity, and economic growth that enabled
the rising power of the West, particularly the US, came the concept of
democracy, secularism and other values.
As the West became more dominant, Muslims started to retreat. What’s more, they
started to perceive the West as a force that is incompatible with—if not
antithetical to—Islam. This is part of what Harvard political science professor
Samuel Huntington called The Clash of Civilizations:
Indeed, it is hard to find statements by any Muslims, whether politicians,
officials, academics, businesspersons, or journalists, praising Western values
and institutions. They instead stress the differences between their civilization
and Western civilization, the superiority of their culture, and the need to
maintain the integrity of that culture against Western onslaught. Muslims fear
and resent Western power and the threat [that] this poses to their society and
beliefs. They see Western culture as materialistic, corrupt, decadent, and
immoral. They also see it as seductive, and hence stress all the more the need
to resist its impact on their way of life. Increasingly, Muslims attack the West
not for adhering to an imperfect, erroneous religion, which is nonetheless a
“religion of the book,” but for not adhering to any religion at all. In Muslim
eyes Western secularism, irreligiosity [sic], and hence immorality are worse
evils than the Western Christianity that produced them.
In other words, the biggest problem that the Islamic world is facing today is
that it is still living in the past in which it was once one the most superior
civilization; it fails to realize that it is so far behind the West in every
sphere; and, it is in denial of such issues as poverty, backwardness, and
terrorism as their problems.
Thus, the Islamic world can only conclude that the West causes all their
problems and, as such, the West is their enemy. As long as Muslims throughout
the world keep thinking like this, they will never be able to solve their
problems and rise again to be a leading civilization that they once were. Like
the treatment of a patient of alcoholism, the first step for the Islamic World
is to admit its problems—political, social, economic, or otherwise. Only then
can they start to change the Islamic world for the better.
JIHAD IS NOT THE SOLUTION
In addition to the dominance of the West in the world today, the overwhelming
support of Israel from the US, and the UK, has worsened the anti-Western
mentality and resentment among Muslim communities across the globe.
As a matter of fact, Muslims see the killings of Palestinians and the blatant US
support of Israel as a direct attack against the Islamic world as a whole. The
al-Qaida leader Osama bin Ladin, for instance, has cited the Palestinian
struggle as one of the reasons why his organization has launched the 911 attacks
in the US and the London bombing in July 2005.
To be sure, US foreign policy under the Bush Administration has fueled more
anger from the Muslim world than any other previous one. Examples are plenty.
For one thing, the US bypassed the United Nations and invaded Iraq under the
false pretext that Baghdad had weapons of mass destruction (WMD). What is more,
while the Bush Administration supported India’s development of nuclear programs,
it opposes Iran’s. Why, Muslims worldwide ask. Is because Iran is a Muslim
nation and India is not?
Thus, Muslims across the world have increasingly joined the Islamic struggle
against the US and its allies, including Australia, India and the UK. In Asia,
for instance, terrorist attacks continue to happen in Pakistan and India as of
this writing, following the two bombings in the Indonesian island of Bali in
2002 and 2005 as well as those of the Marriott Hotel and the Australian Embassy
in Jakarta in 2003 and 2004, respectively.
In what they see as their defense against the rise of the West and its
anti-Islamic values and the unilateral US foreign policy, leaders of Muslim
organizations have found no other way other than resigning themselves to
terrorism. For them, this is a battle for Islam, or a jihad, which is often
interpreted as a holy war. The religion expert Karen Armstrong wrote in The
Battle for God:
Jihad (“struggle”) [in Arabic] was not a holy war to convert the infidel, as
Westerners believed, nor was it purely a means of self-defense, as Abdu had
argued. Mawdudi de.ned jihad as a revolutionary struggle to seize power for the
good of all humanity...Mawdudi, who developed this idea in 1939, shared the same
perspective as such militant ideologies as Marxism. Just as the Prophet had
fought the jahiliyyah, the ignorance and barbarism of the pre-Islamic period, so
all Muslims must use all means at their disposal to resist the modern jahiliyyah
of the West. The jihad could take many forms. Some people would write
articles, others make speeches, but in the last resort, they must be prepared
for armed struggle.
As justified as it is in the eyes of Muslim jihadists, terrorism cannot and will
not help them win their battle against the US and its allies. To be sure, the
911 attacks have changed the world in many ways, but they have not defeated the
US—still the world’s superpower – or stopped its support of Israel or foreign
policy towards Muslim countries. Quite the contrary: The US is as aggressive and
powerful as ever. The proof is its invasion of Iraq and its silent backing of
Israel in the recent attack on Lebanon, not too long after its retaliation in
Afghanistan to “wipe and smoke” the al-Qaida out of its caves.
Moreover, Islamic militant and terrorist attacks don’t help Muslims win their
battle against the US or the West; in fact, they are costly – in financial terms
and otherwise. But most importantly, as Muslims spend more financial and other
resources on jihad, they forgo the same resources that can be used to improve
their economies, which in turn will translate into peace, prosperity, and power.
The former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad, capture the
problems facing the Islamic world very clearly in his speech at the Organization
of the Islamic Conference in Putrajaya, Malaysia, on October 16, 2003:
None of our countries are truly independent. We are under pressure to conform
to our oppressors’ wishes about how we should behave, how we should govern our
lands, how we should think even.
Today if they want to raid our country, kill our people, destroy our villages
and towns, there is nothing substantial that we can do. Is it Islam which has
caused all these? Or is it that we have failed to do our duty according to our
Our only reaction is to become more and more angry. Angry people cannot think
properly. And so we .nd some of our people reacting irrationally. They launch
their own attacks, killing just about anybody including fellow Muslims to vent
their anger and frustration. Their Governments can do nothing to stop
them. The enemy retaliates and puts more pressure on the Governments. And the
Governments have no choice but to give in, to accept the directions of the
enemy, literally to give up their independence of action.
There is a feeling of hopelessness among the Muslim countries and their people.
They feel that they can do nothing right. They believe that things can only get
worse... They will forever be poor, backward and weak. Some believe, this is the
Will of Allah, that the proper state of the Muslims is to be poor and oppressed
in this world.
But is it true that we should do and can do nothing for ourselves? Is it true
that 1.3 billion people can exert no power to save themselves from the
humiliation and oppression inflicted upon them by a much smaller enemy? Can they
only lash back blindly in anger? Is there no other way than to ask our young
people to blow themselves up and kill people and invite the massacre of more of
our own people?
There is a way – there must be – for the Islamic world to deal with its many
formidable challenges. But it is only possible if the world’s Muslim community
starts to think instead of reacting in a state of anger.
UNITY, KNOWLEDGE, AND ECONOMIC GROWTH ARE KEY WEAPONS
As shown in the previous section of this essay, fundamentalism – as expressed by
Muslims in the various forms of jihad, including terrorism – is not the way for
the world’s Islamic community to solve its problems. As a matter of fact, it is
Thus, instead of fundamentalism, Muslims need to come together as one united
community to assess their strengths and weaknesses, make good use of their
wealth of oil and other resources, and think of strategies that will improve
their economies and, thereby, enhance their national defense and power.
As they control 57 out of the 180 countries in the world, Muslims are a
considerable group. Unfortunately, their voice in the international community is
weak, however. For one thing, it is because most of them do not have the
economic power that can make them be heard. But, more importantly, they are not
united as a community. Thus, Muslim nations need a collective coordinating body
to ensure that all members act in concert and, thereby, wield strength among
them for the improvement of the Islamic world.
Working closely with such organizations as the League of Arab Nations, the World
Islamic Economic Forum (WIEF) can be used for that purpose. In addition to
addressing challenges that the Islamic world faces, the WIEF is a place where
delegates can share knowledge and skills, build networks of valuable contacts,
and seize business opportunities worldwide.
But creating and participating in such forums as the WIEF is not enough to
improve the knowledge or enhance the skills that Muslims need to compete in
today’s global economy. If we take a close and honest look at the curriculum at
schools across Muslim countries, we can see that it still focuses a little too
much on the teachings of the Koran and not enough on computer science, math and
natural sciences, writing and the English language, which enable students to be
find jobs easily upon graduation and more competent at the workplace.
To be sure, students who read more than one book and study more than one
discipline must be more knowledgeable and well-rounded than those who read only
one book or study only theology. Upon graduation, the former will be able to
contribute better and more to their jobs, organizations, families, communities,
and societies than the latter. This is the reason why in the US there are many
liberal arts colleges where students are required to take courses in all
disciplines, aside from their majors or concentration.
In addition to education, the Muslim world needs to focus more on other
requirements of economic development. A progressive educational system will
produce a good labor force for their economies, but that, alone, is not enough
for economic growth. For one thing, Muslim countries need to spend more on
research and development (R&D) because it is where new ideas, inventions, and
advancements come about. If we look at the US, it is a young nation compared
with the Islamic world. But it is the strongest economy. How
is that possible? One of the reasons is, in addition to its first-rate
educational system, it has a lot of think tanks, such as the Rand Corporation,
where smart graduates get paid to think and come up with new ideas that are
applied in business and daily life.
Furthermore, economic growth requires good infrastructures. These include roads,
telecommunication systems, ports, and so on. Like bones and vessels in a human
body, infrastructures facilitate business transactions and other economic
activities. To be sure, a country with poor infrastructures cannot
have a strong economy, and it takes more time and costs more to do business in
such an uncompetitive environment.
Finally, and most importantly, economic growth requires a country that is
politically stable. If a Muslim nation does not like the idea of democracy as a
form of government and would rather stick to a monarchy or sultanate system,
that is a choice that others – especially the US – should respect. Nevertheless,
if such a country is constantly bombarded with terrorist attacks or conflicts
caused by home-grown militant, radical Islamic groups, then it cannot blame
investors, domestic and foreign alike, to close their businesses and move them
somewhere else safer. So, if governments of Muslim nations want to enhance their
economic growth by increasing the level of investment in their economies, they
should work hard to provide security in their countries.
As for Muslim nations that are fighting wars that the US has started or
supports, namely Iraq and Palestine, peace is still a dream. But there are
things other than telling young Muslims to commit suicide attacks that their
leaders can do to help stop the violence that has been shedding too much Muslim
blood already. For one thing, as Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad suggested, they should
work more closely with other Muslim nations and non-Muslim nations that
sympathize with them to gain more support in the international community for
their causes. What’s more, use their own media – not Fox News, of course – to
show the world the killings and sufferings of innocent civilian Muslims and that
it is as wrong to kill a Muslim as it is to kill a Jew or anyone else, for that
matter. Until the world sees and acknowledges this, more Muslim blood will be
As shown in this essay, the Islamic community has moved from being, for
centuries, a most powerful civilization in the world to being one that is far
behind the West. Today, the Islamic world is confronted with poverty,
backwardness, and oppression, and that is sad – if not ironic – for a 1.3
billion community with
the largest oil reserve and a wealth of other national resources. This has made
Muslims and Islam scholars question what has happened to, or gone wrong with,
Islam. Some have pointed to the rise of the West and modernity as the causes of
Islam’s turmoil, while others go back to Islamic fundamentalism, or jihad, as a
To be sure, some Muslim nations are fighting wars that the US has started or
supports, but the US and its allies cannot be blamed entirely for what has
happened to the Islamic world. And terrorism, which is committed in the name of
Islam, is not the way for Muslims to .ght these wars. Nor is it the way for the
Islamic world to rise against the West and be the powerful civilization that it
Rather, as suggested in this essay, the Islamic community needs to think
collectively of how to deal with its challenges. While the challenges facing the
Islamic world are formidable, they are not impossible to overcome. What the
Muslim world needs to deal with its challenges effectively are unity, knowledge,
and economic growth. Only when these requirements are met can the Islamic
community gain peace, prosperity, and power and rise again in the world.
Thang D. Nguyen is a writer, editor, and
communications consultant. He pens frequently on Indonesian and Asian affairs
for international and major Asian newspapers. His publications include three
Indonesia Matters, The Malaysian Journey, and The Indonesian Dream. Prior to
moving to Indonesia in 2003, Thang was a manager for Asian affairs at the World
Economic Forum (WEF) in Geneva, Switzerland.
Among his other credentials, he holds degrees from the Johns Hopkins School of
Advanced International Studies (SAIS); Hobart College; and Springfield Technical
Community College (STCC), USA.