Muslims in the modern world

Rasul Bakhsh Rais June 07, 2010

The rise of extremist and violent ideas in Muslim-dominated regions of the world, including Pakistan, has been a subject of intense debate in the global academy and think tanks, which have strong bearings on perceptions of Muslim states, societies and policies toward them. All foreign, as well as national narratives, of what is wrong with the Muslim states and societies rest on a notion of failure. What this means is that compared to all other societies and states with different cultural and religious traditions, the Muslim endowment of progress in the modern world is very meagre.

There are many ways to define and determine what the progress is. If we take a universalistic idea of progress, it means advancement in science, technology, culture, and human sciences. Human and industrial development is an essential part of progress that is also associated with positive change, evolution of society and improvement in human conditions.

There is another thesis that competes with the failure proposition; Islam, the religion itself and its culture are not in harmony with the universal ideas of modernity. This is at the base of much of the intellectual stuff of orientalists and their uncritical followers in the Muslims societies. They argue that unless Islam has gone through re-interpretation, reform and revision on fundamental modern day issues of politics, economy and social attitudes, the Muslim societies will continue to face a duel within.

From this point of view, the roots of trouble of the Muslims societies are within. What are these troubles? They can be summed up as follows: dictatorial regimes, corrupt governments, plundering elites acting like criminal gangs, weak states and institutions and serious issues of injustice, inequality and poverty. No outside assistance can help much until some social revolution and reforms happen from within.

There is also an Islamist critique of the Muslim societies and states. Their narratives are also woven around failure, but they look for causes outside. They argue colonialism disrupted natural flow of cultural and societal progress and subverted institutional heritage. The Islamists take on the modern world order is that it is hegemonic, imperialistic and protects some states occupying Muslim lands and national predatory ruling elites because they advance the “imperialistic” interests.

There is no doubt that slow progress, underdevelopment, and unequal distribution of rewards have spanned extremist ideas and movements. And a weak tradition of critical self-refection and a conspiratorial worldview has deflected our attention from real reasons of ‘failure’, both domestic as well as external.

First of all let us disabuse ourselves of some prevalent false notions in this debate. Not all Muslim states and societies have failed; and even in failing states like Pakistan, not everything has failed. Turkey and Malaysia are two excellent examples of success. Several sectors of Pakistani state and society at different periods in history have recorded greater success than other sectors and at other times.

Second, the idea that Islam and modernity are incompatible is rooted in certain cultural prejudice and philosophical ambiguity about the relationship between religion, politics and society at large. There is also a partial reading of Muslim history and who represents the Muslim societies. The tiny radical minority in the Muslim societies and its violent politics equally represent a partial view.

This angle diverts our attention from the real culprits: the greedy, illegitimate and immoral ruling elites that have been getting away with every wrong and crime they have committed against their own peoples and societies.

The Muslim societies, including Pakistan have had modernist vision—representative institutions, constitutionalism and modern ideas of justices and social equality. The challenge is how to defeat political rhetoric of corrupt elites and found politics on true principles of modernity—neutrality of state among diverse religious communities and constitutionalism.

Published in the Express Tribune, June 7th, 2010.


Riaz | 14 years ago | Reply I totally agree with the author and Mr Ziad that mere the counry with the label of Islam is mocking of the Universal religion. Being a pakistani we all should ponder over it that what is the real issue and where the problem lies but the answer is simple that the solution is within ourselves. In the country like pakistan where each and every body is completely in-toletated and have no logic and rationale, open debat of religion and other issues alike can create gratest catastrophe never ending. Lets take the issue of Ideology of Pakistan, sicne the inception it has been voiced in many factions of society that the partition was the conspiracy of the imperialists (UK and US. but talking about it is banned and heavy penalties have been imposed to bar public to discuss this issue. The same is with The History of Islam which some time said to be the religion of attrociteis, repression and tyrany, now who will justify this great blame on the religion of peace and harmony. The Mullahs? No The Inteligenstia? NO then who?
Saboor Syed | 14 years ago | Reply Messages and comments like “Islam is a religion of peace” and “Islam is not being practiced as per its true message” sound hollow to the world when the empirical evidence to support is short. What is the true message; can one tell where it exists for everyone to see in practice? Don’t Qur’an, as we clearly don’t agree to what it even means to us, let alone outsiders. Humans are pre-disposed to believing things when they see. Muslims can’t assume they can live in an isolated world, believing in their version of truth and ignoring those who masquerade as Muslims and peddle/deliver hate unto others and their own alike. One can understand that the followers of a religion can have bias towards the merits of their religion; however, they must also develop keen ability to grasp others’ points of view – a la putting yourself in others’ shoes … Politicizing religion has never worked for the societies, regardless of the religion to speak of. It is abused time and again by different vested interests, including clerics of all stripes, until it’s rendered devoid of all its moisture – oblivious of the tremendous cost to general public in lives/generations lost. Pakistan of today has become a text book case of this phenomenon. We have to keep religious and political discourse completely separate to save the country and indeed the religion itself. Pakistani opinion leaders need to force discussion on any and every subject, put everything to question – no bars. Religion should be open too, people should talk about how different interpretations collide and compel a social outcome downstream. We need to understand how Maududi is linked to Hasan Banna and the like and what the consequences of pan-Islamist world view are. Media (Internet and blogs included) needs to attend to informing public on true Islamic history, not just what gets sanctioned from Islamabad or GHQ, to see how these issues were debated earlier in Muslim history. Public can then develop informed opinion of things that matter for their future. Anything short of this will be window dressing at best and criminal unwillingness to acknowledge the reality at worst.
Replying to X

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

For more information, please see our Comments FAQ