Here is a reflection, and an exchange that ensued the publication of my article, Islam and Human Rights: Guide for a Perplexed Muslim (available on this site as well as on: http://islam21.org). Given the significance of the issues debated, and the paradigmatic nature of the argument expressed, it is reproduced here for the benefit of wider readership.
Everyone can easily see that the writer (TEEN) is all rage and no reason - and it is impossible to argue with rage. Only reason can be - and is - the common bond among men/women, even among men/woman of faith with claims to unimpeachable piety and infallible knowledge. Thus, even though the substance and tone of this letter renders futile any further conversation, a response is nonetheless called for, if only for the reason that others may guard themselves against the fatal charm of this suicidal rage and unholy despair.
Unfortunately, this letter is far too typical an exemplar of the morbid fanaticism that is the sole consolation of our deprived and marginalized youth, especially in the West. The sad, and scary thing is that this mindless, heartless and soulless brand of literalism and fundamentalism is first presumed to be the essence of the din of Islam and then propagated with impunity and terror! To me it epitomises nothing but a failure of intelligence, imagination and humanity; a bankruptcy of religious imagination, a collapse of moral reason and a betrayal of trust to our fellow man/woman. For all the claims of Islamic reason and conscience, moral, intellectual and scriptural, thus, I repudiate this unreasoning ‘faith’. I dismiss the entire ideational structure, the very metaphysical ground of this ‘fundamentalist’ doctrine. For when stretched to its logical limits, it advances the following claims:
Upon closer inspection, these false tenets seem to insinuate that the living faith of the countless number of Muslims is defective and flawed, that almost throughout their entire history, Muslim existence has been sub-Islamic, if not totally un-Islamic. The piety and prayer, fasting and charity, ibadat and mu’amalat of individual Muslims, nay of the entire community, are of no avail as long as there is no totalitarian and all-powerful Islamic state. All Muslim achievements are thus weighed in the scale of political existence, all Islamic values determined by the measure of worldly success. If this is not secularism, the devouring of the Akhira by the Dunya, then what is it?
Another pernicious upshot of this spurious doctrine is that it accords far too great a role to the coercive institution of the state. The state, according to this view, is always more powerful than society and is able to discipline it with the scourge of punitive agencies. That the fundamentalist vision is obsessed with power is, of course, no secret. But the intellectual and moral poverty of this vision may be judged by the striking fact that this power is conceived entirely as potestas (Quwwa), the force that compels and coerces, and never as potentia (Qudra), the faculty that conceives and constitutes. Or, employing our own terminology, power is hukm without hikma, rule without reason, ordinances and stipulations that need neither persuade nor convince! Given this highly tendentious reading of the human situation as the Hobbesian war of all against all, it is not fortuitous that fundamentalist politics, as exemplified by the inflammatory rhetoric of the present letter, inhabits a Manichean world of pure good and pure evil. Everyone in the modern world, not only the institutions of political, economic and military domination, but also the representatives of humanitarian conscience, the United Nations and its Human Rights agencies, are pure evil. However, far more villainous than these foreign masters are the indigenous lackeys, the incumbent Muslim regimes who have betrayed the Umma by joining the confederacy of nation-states. Is it any wonder that such thinking leads to the pitiless wasteland of despair and authorizes a politics of terror and xenophobia?
True enough, no one can deny that for the last few centuries, Muslims have been steadily loosing the historical race. The torch of civilization and humanity has been passed on to other nations and other peoples. Nor is there any dispute about the fact that Muslims are not the principal beneficiaries of the modern world, which is not their creation. Such is the fate of the losers. One need not haggle over the claim either that the issues of global justice and inter-state morality must be squarely addressed if the current world-order is to retain a modicum of legitimacy and ensure its survival as a community of nations. Similarly, one cannot be lax in underscoring the urgency and immensity of the task ahead for Muslims if they intend to become the movers of history again. Any future revival of Islam as faith and civilisation would certainly require an abundance of will, sacrifice and devotion. But it would as indisputably be contingent upon all the resources of intellect and imagination. And it cannot do without a resolute commitment to our common humanity and universal morality. To indulge in a politics of despair and advocate the creation of an alternate world-system, something for which Muslims neither have the will nor the means, is madness, sheer suicidal madness. It is tantamount to legitimating, nay sacralizing, the politics of ethnic-cleansing and replacing the parochiality of the territorial state-system with the universality of the apartheid of faith and confession!
Given the perversity and depravity of this totalitarian vision that discards the modern world as well as Muslim history and tradition in its entirety, a conscientious Muslim has no choice but to repudiate in its totality. A Muslims has to reject it because Islam as revealed faith is based on the acceptance of the ultimately transcendent nature of truth and reality. A Muslim may not accept any view of ‘Islam’ that equates it with the existential, temporal and historical, in a word secular, reality of the Muslims. Islam is always greater than the sum total of the living Muslims, the empirical collectivity of the now extant historical community. And certainly, the primary mission of Islam is not to resolve the current political impasse in the Middle East.
Finally, I would like to end this response by pre-empting any fruitless and puerile debate which might ensue and which might lead to either of the two assertions; one, all power is coercive and inasmuch as power regulates any human relationship, it is always morally reprehensible (the Christian squeamishness); two, because of the ubiquity and even inevitability of power/coercion in human affairs, everything human is subject to its arbitration (the Machiavellian and Fundamentalist fallacy). No, power does not inevitably corrupt morality, nor does powerlessness necessarily promote it. This may also foreclose any foreign-polemical or indigenous-apologetic claim that would construe the Prophetic theo-polity as coercive temporal order. That the Prophet (S) exercised ‘political’ authority is beyond any dispute. But to view the Prophetic regime as coercive order is patently false and erroneous. The Prophetic regime was a contractual theo-polity; one entered the faith of Islam through a voluntary contract of obedience to the Prophet. Hence, there is no sense to the statement that the Prophet exercised coercive force on the Muslims, his followers. It is both illogical and a contradiction in terms. However, this unique authority of the Prophet cannot be inherited by any other regime. Unfortunately, the modern – secularist - theory of ‘the Islamic state’ confers this personal authority of the Prophet to a trans-personal entity and turns the moral and spiritual heritage of our faith upon its head.
Here is the exchange. Quotations from PM’s article that are criticised by TEEN have been emphasised.
Posted by Teen on 01-Mar-00 at 07:41 AM (EST)
PM: ‘We need to start from the reality of the secular system of territorial states to which all Muslim regimes have given their full allegiance.’
TEEN: No we don't. These regimes (secular tyrannies, slavish to western, neo-imperialist nations) signed on the dotted line without the consultation of the people (nor the Qur'an or sunnah). This is a FACT.
PM: I do not ask that these regimes be given unconditional allegiance or that full Islamic legitimacy be conferred upon all these nation-states that were created during imperialism. No, I am merely suggesting that we have ‘to start from this reality’. Whatever transformations we may have in our minds, must come gradually through consensus building and public debate (Not unlike the unfolding of the immensely instructive and fascinating project of the gradual realisation of the European Union.) Why must our politics be always devoid of argument, debate and consensus?
PM: ‘Muslim states are also signatories to the United Nations’ ‘Charter of the Fundamental and Universal Human Rights’ and as such morally and legally bound to honour and implement its provisions.’
TEEN: Does that mean that we must honour people's right to stand up in the Central
Square and burn the Qur'an? This is, after all, free speech and is mentioned in the UN charter. Does it also mean that people have the right to practice zina and homosexuality? These are, after all, "human rights" as understood in the secular context and are being currently considered by the UN.
PM: Please calm down a little bit. You probably have not read the whole of my article. I am not without my own criticism of HR. I do not consider them as a substitute for universal morality or transcendent faith. Nevertheless, I do support them conditionally. And there’s no mistaking that the promotion of HR could lead to a more humane political culture in Muslim lands. Muslim politics need not be brutal, totalitarian and pitiless. Like what happened in Malaysia, ‘the model Muslim democracy’ of our times, to the former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and his friend Munawwar Anees!
As for the fear that certain practices that we Muslims cannot accept become permissible under the Charter of HR, my response is that as Muslims we need not approve, or indeed accept, those practices. There is nothing in the provisions of HR that compels us to adopt these practices. HR is basically a code of conduct for the state, a matter of procedure and method regarding the proper treatment of citizens; or, to proceed to a touchy subject, whether the state should involve itself, or not, in matters of ‘personal morality’. (Of course, there is a good deal of intellectual confusion and moral duplicity here. But all this is part of the current debate and the Muslim position must be duly articulated in these forums.) As Muslims we can mobilize all our resources, through debate, publications, broadcasting, and all the other means of communications. We have all the rights of influencing ‘public opinion’ and thus putting an end to these practices. What the provisions of HR would stipulate, and the ethics of HR demand, is that, in opposing these expressions of different beliefs and morally reprehensible behaviour, we do not ‘use violence’. I do not think that it is such a reprehensible restriction!
I would willingly admit, however, that this commitment to treat certain issues as ‘off-limit’ to force, as ‘inviolable’, is arbitrary. It is merely symptomatic of the peculiar prejudices and revulsions of the modern man and does not solve the moral (universal) problem of coercion in human affairs, especially in a world of warring territorial states where each state is entitled to monopoly over means of violence! Nevertheless, there’s no denying that we Muslims must learn to argue and convince others, win their consciences, rather than simply state and assert our beliefs. If Islam is a divine message directed at the whole of mankind, it cannot shun debate and argument. It is our own lack of self-confidence, induced by centuries of intellectual slumber that makes us such cowards and bullies.
Of course, Muslim rulers did not consult either their people, or their ulema, before signing the UN’s charter of HR. However, the debate and criticism of HR is a Muslim societal responsibility – and it is not over yet. All I am asking is that we do not pre-judge the moral issues involved in this discourse and that we allow our learned to reflect properly and respond critically. You seem to have made up your mind and are merely thinking of those negative acts (above), which are abominable in your eyes. Yet, you do know, that Human Rights is more than these odd practices. Surely, to treat every human being with respect and dignity, to have a due process of law, and not to inflict torture on your fellow human beings, are goals worthy of pursuit for the Islamic conscience?
PM: ‘Moreover, with few exceptions, contemporary Muslim rule is alien, arbitrary and predatory.’
TEEN: Muslim rule? What Muslim rule? I don't know of any "Muslim" country practicing real Muslim rule. Hell, if these countries practice "Muslim rule", then I wonder what secular rule would be in your utopia.
PM: Oddly, despite your sneer and scorn, we may be in agreement. I use the word ‘Muslim’ for the empirical and the outwardly (zahiri). ‘Islamic’, for me, connotes the ideal and the normative. Yes, I do agree, that what, outwardly and nominally, goes as ‘Muslim rule’ need not be ‘Islamic’.
PM: ‘Hence, it must not be allowed to use ‘Islam’, or the medieval formulations of Muslim jurists, as the legitimising argument for its oppression and denial of the fundamental rights of their citizenry’.
TEEN: Give me an example of this oppression. Also, please define for me what you mean by "human rights." This is crucial if we are to have a meaningful dialogue (although I am a bit sceptical of this after reading some of your idiotic arguments).
PM: You cannot be that naïve and innocent. You know full well that all the Muslim regimes in the Middle East that bolster their authority and legitimacy by posing as ‘Islamic’ are the most repressive and inhumane – which is not to say that the secular ones are any better!
PM: ‘Cynicism against Human Rights is also cynicism against Islam.’
TEEN: No, being FOR "human rights" (in the secular context) is to be AGAINST Islam. Your reasoning illustrates perfectly contemporary Muslim thinking: INFERIORITY COMPLEX.
PM: I simply differ. For I do not believe that HR have been properly debated in Muslim societies, or have been thoroughly scrutinised by our ulema (Even if I have many question marks regarding the ability, and willingness, of our scholars to come to grips with the normative claims of secular morality which lie at the heart of the Charter of HR.) Further, contrary to what you may think, I am not awed by modern western thought: I’ve always expressed my misgivings and questioned its most cherished notions and myths. It is all on the record.
Finally, I do not consider myself a secularist. For, I do believe in a transcendent, trans-secular and trans-existential, order of reality. Further, I do not accept that the (political) state is ever ‘sovereign’, that it is the final arbiter of truth, that it is autonomous in its moral conduct, that its well-being is the only index of human bliss, that it is indispensable for human progress. I do not, in short, subscribe to the Hegelian dictum, oddly accepted by many Muslim ‘fundamentalists’ though for different reasons, that ‘the state is God’s march on earth’. (Or that the Khalifa/Imam is God’s shadow and representative on earth!). Those who do so are the real secularists!