Islamic Perspectives

Muslims in Eastern Societies

Islam has a very long history in almost all Eastern countries. It had reached major countries like India and China within the first century after its advent and almost everywhere within the next few centuries. We may say that with the exception of Japan, Australia and New Zealand, Islam has a history of over a thousand years in all parts of Asia.

Though some countries were initially invaded by Muslim armies in early Islam but Islam spread slowly and peacefully at the hands of traders, scholars and sufis and not at the hands of rulers or soldiers. Two of the largest Muslim countries, Indonesia and Malaysia, exist in this region and no Muslim army ever showed up at their borders.

Minority status is nothing new to Islam and Muslims. Muslims at Makkah, Abyssinia and even at Madinah afterhijrah during the early years before the Conquest of Mecca, lived as minorities. Later, Muslims lived as minorities in Sicily, Andalusia, many parts of Russia, China and India. There is a long history of how native Muslims had helped China and how Muslim Tatars helped Russia.

It is now a forgone conclusion that Muslims should live in non-Muslim societies and that there is no question ofhijrah (emigration) from such societies unless and until a Muslim is persecuted in his/her religion to the extent of denial to perform obligations like Salah and Saum etc (see my book, Hijrah in Islam, Delhi, 1997). Rather, we may claim, that today it is an obligation on the part of Muslims to live in non-Muslim societies in order to explain the tenets of Islam, remove misunderstandings, benefit from avenues thrust open by the irrevocable process of globalisation and work as ambassadors of goodwill. The world is so small and globalised today that the old borders and limits are blurred now and we can ignore any part of the world only at our peril. Indeed, the whole world is an abode of Islam today because of peace, security, supremacy of law and respect of human rights all over the world with very few exceptions like Arakan in Mayanmar (Burma) since 1962 when military took over.

Today, apart from large countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia, this region of the East hosts large Muslim minorities according to 2008 figures, like India (220.72 million), China (130 million) and Hong Kong (0.0966 million), Sri Lanka (1.379 million), Thailand (6.5 million), Cambodia (0.931 million), Nepal (2.032 million), Singapore (0.543 million), Japan (0.183 million), Russia (25 million), Armenia (0.12 million), Georgia (0.9 million),  East Timor (0.036 million), Cyprus (0.23), Laos (0.59 million), Bhutan (0.05 million), Myanmar (7.575 million), Philippines (8.48 million), Vietnam (0.833 million), South Korea (0.4347 million), Mongolia (0.16 million), and Taiwan (0.05673 million). Similar figures are available for Africa and Eastern Europe where significant Muslim minorities live in addition to Muslim majority countries.

As a matter of norm in all these countries, Muslims have lived peacefully side by side their compatriots, sharing their joys and grief, progress and turmoil. An overwhelming majority of these Muslim populations are natives who found the egalitarian teachings of Islam attractive and embraced it wholeheartedly. Even where conquests were involved like north India, there was no tension and friction between the Muslims and others all these past centuries before the advent of the colonial era.

It is a fact that the history of communal tension does not go beyond the colonial era. In India, for instance, there was no tension between Muslims and Hindus before 1857 when they both fought together against the foreign colonial power which, after that fateful event, devised a policy of divide-and-rule whose effects survive to this day in the Subcontinent and plague the Indian polity even today.

The current tensions in some countries where Muslims live as minorities like the Philippines and Thailand are a result of thoughtless “Jihadi” movements fought by very small groups without realising the effects of their futile actions on local, regional and international conditions.

The best way for our minorities should have been to reach an accommodation with the majority communities in their countries and to concentrate on their own well-being, welfare and growth through empowerment via education, economic activity and political participation which, in turn, would have ensured them the social and political space they looked for.

The Muslim minorities should clearly realise that their homelands are permanent, that they have nowhere else to go. In the modern world, no wholesale migration or transfer of population is possible. National borders are sacrosanct today and no country is ready to accept large-scale migration from any other country, howsoever friendly. We should be ready to accept and adopt local cultures and languages to all possible extent where it does not clearly clash with the core values of Islam. It is our duty to enrich our societies, become engines of change for the good and act as good ambassadors of our societies abroad.

We must learn to adhere to democracy in both national and community life. We must take part in the democratic processes of our societies so that we are heard and our interests are taken care of. Our own institutions must be run democratically and we must learn how to respect the opinions of others, especially those who oppose us and we must seek change peacefully and democratically, not through force and violence.

Muslim minorities should take part in the political and social life of their countries and should act as champions of morality and uprightness. Our failure to offer an exceptional and useful presence and leadership in our societies will be detrimental to our own long-term well-being, progress and survival. This can be seen in the current reverses Muslims are facing in Western Europe where leaders of UK, France and Germany have very recently declared the death of multiculturalism. In effect, Western Europe will now be less tolerant to its Muslim minorities.

There is a great activity of building mosques these days in our minority societies. No doubt, it is a duty of Muslims to build mosques but the current practice of building huge and grand structures and having multiple mosques in same areas is uncalled for and a misuse of our wealth. Instead, we should concentrate on building community institutions dedicated to community capacity building, education and media etc.

The fake “war on terror” during this past decade complicated issues and now Muslims, especially in minority communities, have been targeted in many societies under false assumptions and claims but certainly the atmosphere created by some so-called “Muslim” jihadi movements has facilitated to create the atmosphere where such persecution not only becomes possible but acceptable and tolerable for the majority communities in particular and the world community in general. Some regimes like the junta in Burma or the Philippines or China’s treatment of the Uighurs or India under BJP rule during 1999-2004 have used the international atmosphere created by the Bush administration to persecute Muslims in the name of fighting against terror.

Terrorist movements like Al-Qaida have heavily contributed to reinforce chauvinism and Islamophobia in non-Muslim societies. We must clearly disown Al-Qaida and similar self-appointed outfits which only harm our communities and provide our enemies a handle to persecute and marginalize us.

I should like to mention here that Buddhist societies across Asia had most cordial relations with Islam and Muslims for centuries until the thoughtless Taliban unnecessarily demolished in March 2001 the Bamiyan Buddha statues which had existed in Afghanistan for over a millennium of Muslim rule and in no way posed a hindrance or threat to the practice of Islam in Afghanistan.

We should be the first to face, expose and disown extremism and terrorism in our midst. This will earn us credibility and we will not be held as passive supporters of negative voices in our ranks.

Islam teaches us to seek adjustments with others. It enjoins us not to commit aggression or injustice to others unless they start it first. It also teaches us that our retaliation should not exceed the other party’s wrong-doing, otherwise it will be injustice and transgression for which Allah will punish us.

We have clear lessons and examples in the life of Prophet Muhammad and earlier prophets of Allah. Prophet Muhammad did not fight others unless and until others fought him and even in this situation, he did not wage a war unless there was a clear possibility of success. When Muslims at Makkah were persecuted, they did not fight  but migrated twice to Abyssinia and finally to Madinah and did not start fighting their enemies until the latter marched all the way to Madinah to fight Muslims. While at Abyssinia, Muslims lived as most law-abiding citizens and did not in any way interfere in local conflicts or break local laws.

Then there is the clear example of Prophet Yusuf who himself volunteered to help and rescue a country of non-believers which had persecuted him. Prophet Yusuf’s example shows that Muslims should serve their societies to the best of their abilities.

Muslims living as minority communities have an added responsibility: they must work hard to maintain peace and harmony in our societies as tensions and turmoil will affect us first. We must also positively work to serve our countries and demonstrate that we are not burdens but assets for our countries and societies. We should not only concentrate on our own welfare and well-being but must also learn to serve others including the needy and down-trodden non-Muslims. This will not only earn us goodwill but will also act as a means to convey the peaceful and merciful message of Islam to others and show it to them that Muslims are true and faithful servants of humanity, that they are givers and not beggars or seekers of charity. It is only through such a positive and proactive approach that we will earn the respect and goodwill of our countrymen and the world at large.

 It is also the responsibility of our leaders and elders of Muslim minorities to ensure that new generations receive good Islamic education at schools or in mosques and homes to know and practice their religion properly. At the same time they must provide quality modern education to their children to make them productive and beneficial in their societies.

There is a clash of cultures in all traditional societies today. We should be conscious that we must not lose our core moral and family values without which we will not be good human beings let alone good Muslims.

It is also the responsibility of Muslim majority societies to stand by their less fortunate brothers and sisters living as minorities across the globe. Every help and assistance is welcome but it should be limited to promote educational, social and economic activities and help in purely religious matters. There should be no help for destructive, divisive and violent activities of any kind.

Of particular importance is that Muslim minorities should have a voice and representation on formal Muslim forums like the Organisation of Islamic Conference. It makes no sense that “countries” with a few hundred thousands populations are members while Muslim minorities numbering hundreds and tens of millions have no representation on these bodies. Such recognition will raise the status of our minorities at home and abroad and will render them more responsible in their thoughts and actions. But we are not very hopeful. To give you the example of India, no Arab country protested officially while Muslims were being massacred in the Indian state of Gujarat in February and March 2002.

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah ibn Abdil Aziz has made a good beginning to bring peace and better relations with the world at large. It is the special duty of Muslims living as minorities to rise to the occasion and start a genuine friendly dialogue in our countries with all segments of society and to seriously revise and overhaul our complaining, weeping and begging attitude. The world respects those who stand tall on their own feet and serve others.

(Paper presented at the “2011 Dialogue: a common human bond” organised by the Muslim World League in cooperation with the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Chinese Muslim Association at Taipei, Taiwan, during 21-22 January, 2011)