Lost Its Way
By Pervez Amir Ali Hoodbhoy
Sunday, December 30, 2001;
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- If the world is to be spared what future historians may
call the "century of terror," we will have to chart a perilous course between
the Scylla of American imperial arrogance and the Charybdis of Islamic religious
fanaticism. Through these waters, we must steer by a distant star toward a
careful, reasoned, democratic, humanistic and secular future. Otherwise,
shipwreck is certain.
For nearly four months now, leaders of the Muslim community in the United
States, and even President Bush, have routinely asserted that Islam is a
religion of peace that was hijacked by fanatics on Sept. 11.
These two assertions are simply untrue.
First, Islam -- like Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism or any other religion --
is not about peace. Nor is it about war. Every religion is about absolute belief
in its own superiority and the divine right to impose its version of truth upon
others. In medieval times, both the
Crusades and the Jihads were soaked in blood. Today, there are Christian
fundamentalists who attack abortion clinics in the United States and kill
doctors; Muslim fundamentalists who wage their sectarian wars against each
other; Jewish settlers who, holding the Old Testament in one hand and Uzis in
the other, burn olive orchards and drive Palestinians off their ancestral land;
and Hindus in India who demolish ancient mosques and burn down churches.
The second assertion is even further off the mark. Even if Islam had, in some
metaphorical sense, been hijacked, that event did not occur three months ago. It
was well over seven centuries ago that Islam suffered a serious trauma, the
effects of which refuse to go away.
Where do Muslims stand today? Note that I do not ask about Islam; Islam is an
abstraction. Maulana Abdus Sattar Edhi, Pakistan's preeminent social worker,
and the Taliban's Mohammad Omar are both followers of Islam, but the former is
overdue for a Nobel Peace Prize while the latter is an ignorant, psychotic
fiend. Palestinian writer
Edward Said, among others, has insistently pointed out that Islam holds very
different meaning for different people. Within my own family, hugely different
kinds of Islam are practiced. The religion is as heterogeneous as those who
believe and follow it. There is no "true Islam."
Today, Muslims number 1 billion. Of the 48 countries with a full or near
Muslim majority, none has yet evolved a stable democratic political system. In
fact, all Muslim countries are dominated by self-serving corrupt elites who
cynically advance their personal interests and steal resources from their
people. None of these countries has a viable educational system or a university
of international stature.
Reason, too, has been waylaid.
You will seldom see a Muslim name as you flip through scientific journals, and
if you do, the chances are that this person lives in the West. There are a few
exceptions: Pakistani Abdus Salam, together with Americans Steven Weinberg and
Sheldon Glashow, won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979. I got to know Salam
reasonably well; we even wrote a book preface together. He was a remarkable man,
terribly in love with
his country and his religion. And yet he died deeply unhappy, scorned by
Pakistan, declared a non-Muslim by an act of the Pakistani parliament in 1974.
Today the Ahmadi sect, to which Salam belonged, is considered heretical and
harshly persecuted. (My next-door neighbor, an Ahmadi physicist, was shot in the
neck and heart and died in my car
as I drove him to the hospital seven years ago. His only fault was to have been
born into the wrong sect.)
Though genuine scientific achievement is rare in the contemporary Muslim world,
pseudo-science is in generous supply. A former chairman of my department has
calculated the speed of heaven: He maintains it is receding from Earth at one
centimeter per second less than the speed of light. His ingenious method relies
upon a verse in the Islamic holy book, which says that worship on the night on
which the book was revealed is worth a thousand nights of ordinary worship. He
states that this amounts to a time-dilation factor of 1,000, which he puts
into a formula of Einstein's theory of special relativity.
A more public example: One of two Pakistani nuclear engineers recently
arrested on suspicion of passing nuclear secrets to the Taliban had earlier
proposed to solve Pakistan's energy problems by harnessing the power of genies.
He relied on the Islamic belief that God created man from clay, and angels and
genies from fire; so this highly placed engineer proposed to capture the genies
and extract their energy.
Today's sorry situation contrasts starkly with the Islam of yesterday. Between
the 9th and 13th centuries -- the Golden Age of Islam -- the only people doing
decent work in science, philosophy or medicine were Muslims. Muslims not only
preserved ancient learning, they also made substantial innovations. The loss of
this tradition has proven tragic for Muslim peoples.
Science flourished in the Golden Age of Islam because of a strong rationalist
and liberal tradition, carried on by a group of Muslim thinkers known as the
But in the 12th century, Muslim orthodoxy reawakened, spearheaded by the Arab
cleric Imam Al-Ghazali. Al-Ghazali championed revelation over reason,
predestination over free will. He damned mathematics as being against Islam, an
intoxicant of the mind that weakened faith.
Caught in the viselike grip of orthodoxy, Islam choked. No longer would Muslim,
Christian and Jewish scholars gather and work together in the royal courts. It
was the end of tolerance, intellect and science in the Muslim world. The last
great Muslim thinker, Abd-al Rahman Ibn Khaldun, belonged to the 14th century.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world moved on. The Renaissance brought an explosion
of scientific inquiry in the West. This owed much to translations of Greek works
carried out by Arabs and other Muslim contributions, but they were to matter
little. Mercantile capitalism and technological progress drove Western
countries -- in ways that were often brutal and at times genocidal -- to rapidly
colonize the Muslim world from Indonesia to Morocco. It soon became clear, at
least to some of the Muslim elites, that they were paying a heavy price for not
possessing the analytical tools of modern science and the social and political
values of modern culture -- the real source of power of their colonizers.
Despite widespread resistance from the orthodox, the logic of modernity found
19th-century Muslim adherents. Some seized on the modern idea of the
nation-state. It is crucial to note that not a single Muslim nationalist leader
of the 20th century was a
However, Muslim and Arab nationalism, part of a larger anti-colonial
nationalist current across the Third World, included the desire to control and
use national resources for domestic benefit. The conflict with Western greed was
inevitable. The imperial interests of Britain, and later the United States,
feared independent nationalism. Anyone
willing to collaborate was preferred, even the ultraconservative Islamic regime
of Saudi Arabia. In 1953, Mohammed Mosaddeq of Iran was overthrown in a CIA
coup, replaced by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Britain targeted Egypt's Gamal
Abdel Nasser. Indonesia's Sukarno was replaced by Suharto after a bloody coup
that left hundreds of
Pressed from outside, corrupt and incompetent from within, secular Muslim
governments proved unable to defend national interests or deliver social
justice. They began to frustrate democracy to preserve their positions of power
and privilege. These failures left a vacuum that Islamic religious movements
grew to fill -- in Iran, Pakistan and Sudan, to name a few.
The lack of scruple and the pursuit of power by the United States combined
fatally with this tide in the Muslim world in 1979, when the Soviet Union
invaded Afghanistan. With Pakistan's Mohammed Zia ul-Haq as America's foremost
ally, the CIA openly recruited Islamic holy warriors from Egypt, Saudi Arabia,
Sudan and Algeria. Radical Islam went into overdrive as its superpower ally and
mentor funneled support to the Mujahideen; Ronald Reagan feted them on the White
The rest is by now familiar: After the Soviet Union collapsed, the United
States walked away from an Afghanistan in shambles. The Taliban emerged; Osama
bin Laden and his al Qaeda made Afghanistan their base.
What should thoughtful people infer from this whole narrative?
For Muslims, it is time to stop wallowing in self-pity: Muslims are not
helpless victims of conspiracies hatched by an all-powerful, malicious West. The
fact is that the decline of Islamic greatness took place long before the age of
mercantile imperialism. The causes were essentially internal. Therefore Muslims
must be introspective and ask what went wrong.
Muslims must recognize that their societies are far larger, more diverse and
complex than the small homogeneous tribal society in Arabia 1,400 years ago. It
is therefore time to renounce the idea that Islam can survive and prosper only
in an Islamic state run according to sharia, or Islamic law. Muslims need a
secular and democratic state that respects religious freedom and human dignity
and is founded on the principle that power belongs to the people. This means
confronting and rejecting the claim by orthodox Islamic scholars that, in an
Islamic state, sovereignty belongs to the vice-regents of Allah, or Islamic
jurists, not to the people.
Muslims must not look to the likes of bin Laden; such people have no real
answer and can offer no real positive alternative. To glorify their terrorism is
a hideous mistake: The unremitting slaughter of Shiites, Christians and Ahmadis
in their places of worship in
Pakistan, and of other minorities in other Muslim countries, is proof that all
terrorism is not about the revolt of the dispossessed.
The United States, too, must confront bitter truths. The messages of George W.
Bush and Tony Blair fall flat while those of bin Laden, whether he lives or
dies, resonate strongly across the Muslim world. Bin Laden's religious extremism
turns off many Muslims, but they find his political message easy to relate to:
The United States must stop helping Israel in dispossessing the Palestinians,
stop propping up corrupt and despotic regimes across the world just because they
serve U.S. interests.
Americans will also have to accept that their triumphalism and disdain for
international law are creating enemies everywhere, not just among Muslims.
Therefore they must become less arrogant and more like other peoples of this
Our collective survival lies in recognizing that religion is not the solution;
neither is nationalism. We have but one choice: the path of secular humanism,
based upon the principles of logic and reason. This alone offers the hope of
providing everybody on this globe with the right to life, liberty and the
pursuit of happiness.
Pervez Hoodbhoy is a professor of nuclear and high-energy physics at
Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.