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Published in the 1-15 Jan 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Extremism and the use of religion in power politics: myth and reality - ii

By Karamatullah K. Ghori

The Milli Gazette Online

The use of religion for political ends and for invasion and occupation of lands abroad didn't end with the Crusades. It became an accepted religious norm with European Christianity. The cross went, in lock- step, with the sword wherever lust for land and greed for wealth goaded the European adventurers and fortune seekers to go. An arch imperialist like Rudyard Kipling glorified it as 'the white man's burden.' He lent a cloak of religious sanction to bounty hunters and privateers to go and enslave the 'heathens' and the 'infidels' in order to bring them the 'enlightenment' he thought only the Christian west possessed under the will of God.

South and Central America was denuded of its ruling Indian dynasties by the blood thirsty Conquistadors because they had the cross planted firmly by their side in what was, in modern jargon, wanton genocide. But the cross blessed and consecrated their awesome blood letting with great abandon. The church itself amassed a lot of gold and wealth in the process.

The so- called Pilgrims, the early European settlers, to North America didn't behave differently, vis--vis the Red Indians. Although they were said to be refugees fleeing Europe to escape religious persecution and oppression, the Pilgrims put millions of the Indians to the sword because the church sanctioned the spilling of their blood. The sermon from the pulpit to the settlers of North America was that it was God's commandment that the heathens be cleansed from the land in order to open it up for the followers of Christ. Could it be described any differently from ethnic cleansing?

And what is the story in Israel, the state gifted to the Jews of Europe in order to compensate them for the atrocities committed against them over the centuries in Christian Europe?

The Jews had been victimized and treated as pariahs by the Christian church and state for centuries, and most recently by the Nazis in Germany. The bloody phase of Inquisitions is a dark spot on European and western history when, after the extinction of the last Muslim dynasty from Andalusia , in Spain, Muslims and Jews were burned at the stake with great religious festivity.

But after World War II, a state was carved out for the Jews of Europe, persecuted and tortured by Hitler, in the heart of the Arab world, in Palestine. It was history's most unusual act of charity where an aggrieved party was compensated by taking away a land from those who have had no role at all in its persecution. Every known canon of justice was flouted with relish by the 'generous' west to drive the Palestinians from the lands they had lived on for millennia to make room for the new 'pilgrims'. 

Apart from the obvious travesty of history and known standards of justice in this greatest bungling of the 20th century, the question is how has Israel been behaving as a sovereign state? The so-called victims of the Holocaust have made life hell for the natives of the land of Palestine and have oppressed and terrorized them with impunity because their western patrons have given them a blank cheque for this purpose. The Palestinians are being treated with contempt, just as the Indians in South America and the Red Indians in North America were in the earlier centuries.

That this legacy survives in modern times-not only in neo-imperialism but also in global corporate adventurism and exploitation-is the cause of so much frustration, restiveness and despondency in the countries not blessed with military muscles. The Muslim world, counting 57 sovereign states in its ranks, happens to be in a phase of history where it is without the kind of military muscle that would make it a match to the sophisticated armies of the Christian west.

So the use of force, or the threat to use of force, continues to hold sway in our age. State terrorism, implicit in the threat or actual use of force, has been a potent weapon in the hands of the powerful to dictate their policies and have their way with the weak.

In living memory, the only time Muslims used their political muscle to make a bold political statement, with a hint of dictation, was in 1973 when OPEC imposed its oil embargo-the very first in the history of oil exporting states-against Europe and U.S.

Even that was more of a reaction to the openly partisan policy of Washington in favour of Israel, and hostility to the Arabs, during the Arab-Israeli war. The Nixon administration left nobody in any doubt about its pro-Israeli proclivity when it established an 'air bridge to Israel to beef up its war machine. An incensed King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, spearheaded the oil embargo.

Henry Kissinger, an arch exponent of power diplomacy and use of force by the powerful to impose its will on the weak, was then Secretary of State and went on record to openly advocate the use of force if the embargo-a blackmail in his terminology-was not lifted. He espoused the physical occupation of the oil fields of Arabia if, as he put it, the jugular of western economies, was threatened by the prolongation of the oil embargo.

Recently declassified U.S. and British archives attest to it that the two allies had, actually, drawn up the blueprints of a joint military expedition to land their forces in Saudi Arabia and occupy its oil fields.

The then threatened physical occupation of Saudi Arabia became a virtual reality after the Gulf War that, in turn, led to the rise of Osama bin Laden's brand of militancy and extremism in the Arab and Muslim camp. What followed that cataclysmic development is history of our times so well known to all and sundry. 

The moral of history is that the use of religion, or military power, or the threat or actual use of force, is neither an invention of Islam or Muslims nor has the Ummah patented a right over these tools of state terrorism and imperialist expansionism. In historical fact, Muslims, more than any other religious community in history, have been subjected to ruthless terror and made to suffer at the hands of those hostile to their interests, ad nauseam.

In modern times, the news media, has donned the mantle that belonged in the bygone age to the church. It is now assisting the state apparatus with utmost devotion to lend moral justification to unbridled use of force to ram down an imperialist agenda down the throats of the targeted peoples and countries. The role being played by the U.S. news media since 9/11 is a case in point. In the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the American media gurus and spin doctors have been standing four squares behind the establishment and abetting its charge with a fervour reminiscent of the role of the church in the heyday of western colonialism. 

But the church too is still robustly behind the state power, at least in U.S., in the guise of Christian evangelism that boasts tens of millions of followers in that land. Which other country in the world proudly boasts of its Bible Belt?

A most appalling victim of spin jointly crafted by the neo conservatives, evangelical priests and opinionated media gurus in U.S. is freedom movements of the oppressed in places like Kashmir, Chechnya, Iraq and, most tellingly, in the Israeli occupied West Bank and Gaza. It has become a tool of convenience in the hands of the neo cons and their cohorts and acolytes in the west and, of course, Israel to tar all freedom struggles of an oppressed people hankering for emancipation with the blighting epithet of 'terrorism.' So the Kashmiris have become terrorists, as much as the Palestinians and the Chechens et al. 

One can well understand and appreciate the plight of the freedom seekers in a world where the purveyors of vested interest are ganging up against them and closing all avenues of legitimate expression and redress of their grievances, ambitions and dreams. What alternatives do they have in a world closing in on them from all sides and where the rich and powerful are erecting all sorts of barriers and walls, in real and physical terms, to keep them out in the cold of frustration?

And what about the terrorism of the seculars-those who may have, theoretically, discarded or sidelined religion but have adopted secularism as their creed, dogma and faith? Hasn't secularism become as sacrosanct for some as religion? The ban in France, with such a bang, on the wearing of hijab by Muslim girls in school is a case in point.

But all this historical and current perspective to the debate on fundamentalism and terrorism should not be geared to justifying the use of force as a legitimate tool of making our point. Terrorism is un-Islamic and cannot be justified, even if the other party confronting the Muslim Ummah subscribes to the use of force as a legitimate weapon. A partisan of Islam cannot be a terrorist, and a terrorist is not a partisan of Muslims. 

The likes of Osma bin Laden cannot be our role models. The role models for us are the likes of Ghazali, Farabi, Ibne-Sina, Ibne-Khaldoon, Jinnah and Iqbal. We have to clean our act and get our priorities right. Fundamentalism of a closed mind has never been our identity through ages; terrorism is not, never was, the face of Islam.

It also goes without saying that in the face of the harsh reality, where anti-Muslim forces are marshalling all their resources to deal the Muslims a mortal blow, the Ummah has a huge challenge on its hands. But the intrinsic strength of pristine Islam is such that, if judiciously deployed, it can still provide us with all the answers we need to stand up to this massive challenge.
In order to get on top of an undoubtedly bad situation getting progressively worse, Muslims will have to do a lot of soul searching and take a real hard look at where they stand at this most sensitive stage in the life of the Ummah since the Crusades were imposed on the Muslim world, nine centuries ago.

A massive house cleaning should be the first order of priority for Muslims. In the centuries of their precipitous fall and decline, the Muslims have collected a lot of baggage of ignorance and prejudice about Islam itself that must be discard, with alacrity, in order to wipe the slate clean. A process of unlearning should precede fresh learning. It may be like washing the Augean Stables but washed they must.

Let it be frankly admitted that Muslims have done a grave injustice to a religion that came to honour and dignify the fundamental freedoms of mankind. It has been held hostage to the greed and lust for raw power by self-aggrandizement of kings and monarchs. Islam is the most democratic of all religions that accords centrality to the dignity of man and, on this fundamental premise, defines the perimeters of social and economic interaction between man and society.

The most glaring omission in most Muslim societies is the absence of fundamental human rights, democracy and civil liberties. This will have to be changed. Muslim societies will have to open up. They must dignify the spirit of human pride that God has so repeatedly exhorted in His book of guidance. Education is the only panacea to cure the ills of Muslim body politic and empower its men, women and children. Empowerment of the individual is the corner stone of a free and dignified society. It is also the bed- rock for the evolution of a just and democratic polity. A new Islamic renaissance must begin with this fundamental premise of salvation.

The freedom of speech and expression is a sine qua non for a progressive and open society. Anyone measuring the current performance of the Ummah, collectively, by this yard- stick quickly learns the dismal state of affairs on this score in practically every single sovereign Muslim state. The Muslim world is, regrettably, known more for its denial of this basic freedom than for it.

Implicit in the freedom of speech is a people's right to question their rulers and leaders, and hold them accountable for their deeds. Only a society that knows how to hold its rulers accountable can survive the test of history.

Adversity on so many fronts and open hostility from the other camp, all primed to jump on the Muslims and snuff them out as a people, has, unwittingly, brought the Muslim world at a crossroads where it can still chart a clear map for its emancipation and salvation. If they have any grain of wisdom and foresight the Muslims of this age must not squander this God-given chance. They can still make the best of a bad situation.

Once the Muslim world has been able to put its house in order, it may then move on to the next stage of what President Khatami of Iran has aptly described as 'a dialogue of the civilized.' The Muslim Ummah, standing on a firm footing of open and democratic societies composing it, could then engage the non-Islamic world, in both east and west, in a constructive dialogue to chart out a blueprint for co-existence and harmony between peoples of different faiths and beliefs. That would herald the dawn of a new era in international relations.

Part I:

Extremism and the use of religion in power politics: myth and reality - i

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