Fragile Islamic moderation

Published: June 19, 2011
The writer is professor of environmental planning and Asian Studies at the University of Vermont, US. He can be followed on Twitter: saleem_ali

The writer is professor of environmental planning and Asian Studies at the University of Vermont, US. He can be followed on Twitter: saleem_ali

I am writing this article after attending the World Economic Forum’s East Asia summit in Jakarta and a field visit to Sabah, Malaysia. Most middle-class Pakistanis associate Malaysia and Indonesia with good family vacations where you can enjoy the beach and still eat halal burgers. The archipelago and peninsulas that constitute this far eastern frontier of Islam has kept an appealing balance between modernity and faithful tradition. It was here that Islam spread through the good deeds of traders and mystics rather than any draconian imposition of sharia. Other cultures coexisted with the Muslim majority for centuries and formed a pluralistic model that many ‘moderate’ Muslims aspire to emulate elsewhere.

Yet this ostensible moderation is eroding with the stealthy seduction of absolutist ideologies from Arabia that claim authenticity and exclude all dissent with their austere view of a joyless ephemeral world. Last year, Indonesia had an appalling spate of violence against Ahmadis and Christians, reminiscent of Pakistan. During my visit to Indonesia, the leader of one of the Islamic schools in Java refused to allow his students to sing the Indonesian national anthem or respect the flag, branding the practice un-Islamic. It appears that the tropical ‘paradise’ of these lands is being eclipsed by the seductive absolutist shortcut to heaven offered by many clerics.

A group of fanatical women in Malaysia influenced, inter alia, by individuals such as Pakistan’s evangelical lady of middle-class piety, Dr Farhat Hashmi, have set up an ‘Obedient Wives Club’. Their motto, according to one of the founders, Rohayah Mohamed, also a medical doctor, is to “obey, serve and entertain”. No mention is made by these good doctors of how such a servile inculcation among women has set them up for abuse in so many societies by dominant men. Why can’t these well-intentioned ladies suggest good family values of mutual respect rather than asymmetric empowerment that has proven to lead to exploitation?

BBC correspondent Mishal Husain asked the Indonesian foreign minister, at an interview after the World Economic Forum, if Indonesia was afraid of being ‘Pakistanised’. That fear is very real and palpable for moderate Muslims in the region. The saving grace for Indonesia is that they have moderate Islamic political movements with a large membership base (around 30 million in the case of Nahdlatul Ulama). The government of Indonesia is also bold enough to take radical clerics to task through the judicial process, as exemplified by the recent cleric Abu Bakr Bashir, for inciting violence. Such a trial would be impossible in Pakistan for any of our firebrand clerics.

A static interpretation of Islam that freezes time in the sixth century as a golden age must change. The essential values may be timeless but their manifestations will inexorably change. Muslims need to accept that human societies develop and that adaptation to changing times is a mark of resilience of a faith and not its weakness. Wrestling with boundaries of human behaviour and accepted norms through democratic, educational and faith-based processes leads to a consensus in societies that is more sustainable than the draconian imposition of a particular edict that may be erroneously deemed to lead to salvation.

Unfortunately, in Pakistan even the term ‘moderation’ has acquired an abusive cadence because it was used by erstwhile president General Pervez Musharraf. I don’t care what you call it — miyana ravi, moderation, balance, tolerance — just understand that we need a society where people can disagree with each other in a civilised fashion. A society where the Quranic edict for “no compulsion in religion” is understood in its most expansive interpretation and not just the narrow pre-conversion context that most mainstream clerics in Pakistan consider.

Indonesia and Malaysia are pluralistic Islamic societies which must strive to keep their balance and not go down the path of absolutism. Recent trends suggest that moderation is reversible and fragile. Pakistan has much to learn from these societies and very little to teach them in turn.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 20th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (32)

  • ArifQ
    Jun 19, 2011 - 10:55PM

    Very well said Saleem, excellent article.Recommend

  • indian hindu
    Jun 19, 2011 - 11:02PM

    why so much stress on islamic????
    why not pak try to become a good secular society?????may be like India.Recommend

  • Raj
    Jun 19, 2011 - 11:12PM

    “A static interpretation of Islam that freezes time in the sixth century as a golden age must change. The essential values may be timeless but their manifestations will inexorably change. Muslims need to accept that human societies develop and that adaptation to changing times is a mark of resilience of a faith and not its weakness.”

    Awesome comment that sums it all. Recommend

  • Mir Agha
    Jun 19, 2011 - 11:33PM

    Or that the ‘moderate muslims’ are just looking for ways to shirk their responsibilities as practitioners of the Islamic faith. Disregard for basic foundations of the faith amongst the ‘liberal’ lala landers will lead to their ultimate demise as they keep trying to fit into definitions non-muslims have for them. Tweet, network, and write all you want.Recommend

  • Asad
    Jun 20, 2011 - 12:15AM

    “If Indonesia was afraid of Pakistanised”….God where have we reached.. it is similar to the slur of Paki….I want to cryRecommend

  • Mawali
    Jun 20, 2011 - 12:36AM

    Indeed! Our homeland continues to be referenced and further humiliated because of the errors of the few and the curse of illiteracy and destitution. The evil kingdom has great designs in Pakistan and around the World. I would categorically say that the biggest threat mankind faces today emantes straight out of the self proclaimed defenders of Wahabi Islam. Pakistan’s biggest foe’s are illiteracy and econimic stagnation to the point of non-existance. Pakistan with the help of its fuedal based politico; remains an easy target and a breeding ground for misguided Wahabi ideology, and misadventures of military actions. The fact is that most Pakistani’s starved and confused are basically decent folks save for the half baked self proclaimed, entitlement spolied upper middle class, fake designer labels totting no goods!Recommend

  • faraz
    Jun 20, 2011 - 12:51AM

    The entire myth of golden era of Islam is based on the 30 years period of the Four Righteous caliphs, which also included two major wars. Recommend

  • Moiz
    Jun 20, 2011 - 1:20AM

    @Mir Agha or is it that the fundamentalist Muslims make it a practice to shout everything out so loud so that nobody investigates them? case in focus: they found porn in bin laden’s hideoutRecommend

  • Jun 20, 2011 - 1:40AM

    excellent post!!!Recommend

  • Jun 20, 2011 - 2:17AM

    A time will come in Pakistan when the words “moderation”, “liberal” and the mother of all, “secular” will invite wanton fatwas. Recommend

  • Jahanzaib Malik
    Jun 20, 2011 - 3:38AM

    If you say India is a secular country then brutal incidents of Gujrat, Babri mosque deny it…Pakistan has a total different scenario.Unfortunately Pakistan is in the neighbourhood of Afghanistan.Yes the poverty and lack of education are also flaring up the problem but the talk of Pakistan being moderate, secular emerged after Afghan war back in 80s.The former NWFP and now KPK and Baluchistan are little Afghanistans.The fundamentalists from both sides of the border have emerged as a terrible pressure group and they bonded with Jihadis, fundamentalists and the poor/uneducated people in Pakistan, used their blind sympathy for their own missions until 9/11, which made the whole situation even worse.There were merely any serious debates of Pakistan being secular before all that.The future of Pakistan as I see, can’t be secular as long as you are influenced by Afghanistan’s insurgency.Fundamentalists have the fear of being extinct from the Global scenario and they won’t let it go that easy.So the feasible solution of this problem is not talking about making Pakistan a secular country or even moderate country but solution is ending insurgency in Afghanistan, making Pakistan’s socio-economic scenarion strong.Spending a large part of budget on strengthening its economy instead of buying weapons, industrialization, making the standard of life better and most of all educating the people of Pakistan sincerely. Pakistan can’t be made moderate by any revolution or debates.Its gonna take a long while my friends!!Because the future of Pakistan is not secular or even moderate if we kept on going like we are now heading.Recommend

  • R
    Jun 20, 2011 - 4:32AM

    A few years ago I was at an Eid party thrown by a Pakistani family for neighbors and friends – muslim and non alike, in England. The conversation shifted – like it always does, in our gatherings of people from the subcontinent, to politics. Someone asked how did Islam spread through Iran and to India. Two Pakistani maulanas responded that it was with pure love and enlightenment and of course the people had to be rescued from the ‘qatil Hindu bania faith’.

    Embrassed, a fellow muslim asked if their view was well researched and supported by facts. The answer was along the lines of – if you are a good muslim tnen you need to believe in the faith and not in anything written by people in foreign countries! Another muslim friend persisted and pleaded that we either change the subject or discuss it with respect, since we had Hindu friends present. The answer by the angry religious class: well they should not be invited to auspicious gatherings like the Eid since it was a purely muslim affair!!!

    The word ‘Pakistanised’ is part of the vocabulary now. It is is a confirmation of what society has become – intolerant, self-righteous and bigoted. Recommend

  • Rehmat
    Jun 20, 2011 - 4:50AM

    If you want to see moderate Muslims, why not look at people that once shared your culture? The Muslims of India and Bangladesh?Recommend

  • kashif manzoor
    Jun 20, 2011 - 4:59AM

    what an awful article, the writer was seduced by his whims and ignored the socio-cultural norms of islamic societies which cannot allow the secularism and liberalism. anyway “dil k behlanay ko ghalib yeh khayal acha hy”. these seculars are far away from the reality and live in utopia that they can bring alien ideology to muslim societies.Recommend

  • T Khan
    Jun 20, 2011 - 6:21AM

    I have been living in Malaysia for the last three months, and during my short experience, I have been really impressed with the kind of pluralistic social environment prevalent in this country. People from difference ethnicities and religions are getting along very well. Whatever the issues at the government level, the day to day ‘lived experience’ of Malaysians shows remarkable tolerance and accomodation for all. So much so that ‘hijab’ clad Malays rub shoulders with women of other ethnicities clad in Western style dresses. Women run small businesses, till late night! There is no ogling or ever-teasing by men (atleast I did not notice in my three months here). Most remarkably, ‘non halal’ food containing pork and alcohol is being sold and served in shops, side by side with other shops selling halal food (of course clear signs show people whether the food is halal).

    I think one clear reason for this, a reason mentioned by Malaysian as well, is that non-Muslims are in significant numbers. In some states, they are almost equal to the number of Muslims (in some localities I could clearly see non-Muslims in majority). In this situation, it would be difficult to impose absolutist dogma.

    I am still studying Malaysian culture to further uncover the social dynamics of this wonderfull society. Pakistanis, especially the ‘establishment’, please visit Malaysia not just for tourism but also to observe the social structures and learn from them!

    T.Khan Recommend

  • Kolsat
    Jun 20, 2011 - 6:29AM

    I totally agree with the article. Far too often people think that moderation in religion means abandonong it and go down an immoral path. Pakistanis must realize that all mullahs are not honest who put thoughts of control the populace through fear out of their minds. These mullahs are able to carry out their evil acts because the populace is illiterate, has not read and studied the Koran. Does anyone feel safe in Pakistan because it is a staunchly Islamic state? What does any Pakistani feel when they read or hear that a woman was asked to walk naked in the street for the action of her relative? This is a place where they say we respect our women. Wake up and beware of the days of wanton fatwas.Recommend

  • Leila Rage
    Jun 20, 2011 - 6:47AM

    @Mir Agha:
    The term “liberal” is so mis-used and misunderstood. Liberal does not mean secular or irreligious. “Liberal” means some one with a liberal, or more open, interpretation of faith. However, since many party-goers and drinkers call themselves “liberals” the term has acquired negative connotations for most people.

    Religion and Politics as we have seen do not mix well. Pakistan should definitely attempt to become a moderate secular state so that we can break free from the power of the clergy tahnks to which people who voice views contrary to their’s are killed off, and our country is becoming increasingly repressive. Recommend

  • Amit
    Jun 20, 2011 - 6:49AM

    Looks like along with ‘Paki’, ‘Pakistanized’ may soon enter the lexicon as well. For comparison, it took 5000 years for Indian to get to that point. It’s the universal allure of a bad boy. Recommend

  • Noor Nabi
    Jun 20, 2011 - 7:16AM

    There is nothing wrong in being Islamic; there is everything wrong in being Islamo-fascist. Recommend

  • Arindom
    Jun 20, 2011 - 7:57AM

    BBC inventing the word – “Pakistanised” ? WoW.

    I guess it was only to be expected – soon this will spawn all sorts of variation just like ‘Talibanised’ did.

    The army ( being the most powerful institution ) needs to see the light of day and stop this deadly spiral. Recommend

  • Mirza
    Jun 20, 2011 - 9:26AM

    Nice article, my New England neighbor from Vermont! I have visited Sabah Malaysia but not Indonesia. If I have to choose a Muslim country as a second home I would make Kota Kinabalu as my first choice. It is just the right size city, so peaceful, environmentally and culturally rich. The variety of food, mixed cultures, the mutual respect of different types of people and religions is amazing. At one spot in a restaurant one can see women in hijab, mini skirt, and people drinking without bothering each other. In a short boat ride to Brunei from Kota K, I dropped my cell phone and a Youngman came running in and said “boss your phone”. I did not have a shred of fear anytime of the day or night.
    Thanks for reminding me of those memories of past several years. Even though the curse of Islamization may be spreading in that area but I don’t think that it is not in their culture to behead people mercilessly. In addition, they are not dependent on any other country like Saudi Arabia, or UAE. They are not the recipient of any foreign aid and do not have a dream to be a powerbroker in the neighborhood. Even Indonesia is finally free from the military dictatorship curse and making economic progress by leaps and bounds. Only if there is no economic progress and no hope, extremism takes over.
    Mirza, USARecommend

  • sars
    Jun 20, 2011 - 9:35AM

    Unfortumanately for the vast majority secular translates as “la deen” which noone will ever own up to being , despite their many actions to the contraryRecommend

  • Aftab
    Jun 20, 2011 - 11:22AM

    If Pakistan can not become Malaysia, then I will try my best to shift to Malaysia.Recommend

  • Udaya Bose
    Jun 20, 2011 - 2:33PM

    @T Khan:
    You have assessed the situation correctly. Wherever non-Muslims are in significant numbers, Muslims learn to adjust to a cosmopolitan society whilst being true to their own faith. They cease to be fanatical or parochial.Recommend

  • Badu jah
    Jun 20, 2011 - 2:39PM

    If a muslim is not moderate and liberal how can he be a good muslim?Recommend

  • Asad
    Jun 20, 2011 - 3:08PM

    I am surprised at this author. you have to decide…are you a muslim or not? If you are a muslim then you have to accept Islam wholeheartedly and completely.You cannot pick and choose. How can you use words like ‘draconian’ implementation of Sharia? Sharia or Islamic law is by no means draconian. It is the most fair/just law on the globe, because its divine. Sharia Law punishes the perpetrators and sides with the victims, unlike man made laws where the criminals have all human rights and the victims have none!! This author seems to have been blown away with the western propaganda against Islam and Sharia.

    Regarding Pakistan, our problems are not because of trying to implement Islam. Rather our problems are because those who claim to try to implement Islam have no knowledge of Islam in the least (like the Taliban and their supporters) and the current ruling class of Pakistan is corrupt to the core and horribly secular and anti Islam (their views are similar to those of this author).
    If the ruling class (and general masses also) in Pakistan were truly Islamic and implemented Islam as practiced in the time of holy Prophet (saw), then Pakistan would have been a very progressive country.Recommend

  • Radial
    Jun 20, 2011 - 3:42PM

    A fear of being “pakistanised” must be the most apt and simultaneously awful thing I have heard this week. Awful because it rings true.Recommend

  • Haq
    Jun 20, 2011 - 5:57PM

    There is no saving grace for Indonesia, it is only a matter of time.Recommend

  • Jun 20, 2011 - 9:30PM

    what’s the point you want to porve? really if the western think tanks and orgs will hire people as experts just becausse they stick to a point and look for the negative in it just becuase that some in those orgs might like it, i wonder where will they end up? But surely that’s not the case as those guys are pretty smart. Recommend

  • uH
    Jun 20, 2011 - 9:40PM

    While I.agree with the author, I feel it pertinent to point out that given the dismally low literacy level, not to mention decadence in the level ofsocietal morality and our national duty to consider anyone wanting to progress ahead of the 6th century as liable to be executed, we’d probably be better off following the Turkish model.Recommend

  • Jun 20, 2011 - 10:15PM

    what’s the point you want to porve? really if the western think tanks and orgs will hire people as experts just becausse they stick to a point and look for the negative in it just becuase that some in those orgs might like it, i wonder where will they end up? But surely that’s not the case as those guys are pretty smartRecommend

  • Malay
    Jun 22, 2011 - 6:17PM

    Education,education and educaton.Recommend

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