The state of the Muslim world

Pakistan is the sixth largest country in terms of its population, is strategically located and is a nuclear power

Talat Masood April 10, 2024
The writer is a retired lieutenant general of the Pakistan Army and a former federal secretary. He has also served as chairman of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories Board


While the end of the holy month of Ramazan and the celebration of Eid-ul-Fitr is a festive occasion for Muslims, it is also the time to reflect and assess the state of Muslims the world over — the hardships and tribulations they are experiencing in different countries; the standing of Muslim countries in the global economic ladder; the political maturity of their leaders and strategic clout that they as individual countries or collectively command; and the measures that are needed to correct course, in order to improve their state and restore the dignity and the position they deserve.

Muslim leaders have been generally casual in promoting education. Pakistan is the sixth largest country in terms of its population, is strategically located and is a nuclear power. But 23% of its population is illiterate, its economy is heavily dependent on foreign assistance, be it from the IMF, the World Bank or oil-rich countries. Apart from Turkey, there is hardly any Muslim country whose universities come up to international standards. For higher education, students of Muslim countries generally go to Europe or the US. A few years back Saudi Arabia in association with major US and Western universities tried to set up their satellite colleges but the project did not make much headway.

Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are major producers of oil and gas but are heavily dependent on the West for exploration and exploitation of the natural resources. The refineries have been set up mostly by Western countries and Japan or South Korea. So is the case with the UAE and other Middle East countries. In recent years efforts have been made by these countries to train and equip local talent to develop a sound technological and managerial capability. There is progress but it would take time and consistent effort to acquire autonomy in exploration and exploitation of oil and gas reserves. Through OPEC and at the individual level major oil producers, especially Saudi Arabia, play a significant role in influencing oil prices. The energy market is heavily influenced and dominated by the US and major Western countries who are also major consumers of its products. The likelihood of alternative sources of energy such as solar, wind, etc making any significant headway is unlikely in the near future. Apart from a strong lobby for oil production the differential in the price of alternate sources is another factor that discourages replacement.

Dissentions within Muslim oil producing countries have been a major impediment in reducing their collective clout and hamper their progress. Political differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia and with other Middle Eastern countries undermine their political and economic influence. Recent attempts however to improve relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran despite opposition from certain Western countries is encouraging. Their opposition to countries having any deals on importing oil products or gas from Russia and Iran invites sanctions. Following US guidelines in any case is becoming difficult. India’s recent big energy deal with Russia was however, overlooked by the US.

The lack of focus on higher education and failure to promote science and technology have made the Muslim countries dependent on foreign education that only the privileged can avail. There are no visible signs that Muslim leaders are prioritising higher education. There is not enough realisation of the urgency of focusing on education, whereas it is the primary vehicle for changing the destiny of nations.

Providing equal opportunities to girls in the field of education and job opportunities is also a key factor in the development and progress of nations. The worst example is Afghanistan where the Taliban leadership as a matter of state policy is denying this basic right. It is a reflection of how they fear that educated women will pose a challenge to their policies of suppressing their freedom and independent thinking. Equally worrisome is that the world seems to be so indifferent to their plight. Muslim countries neither collectively nor individually have raised any serious concern at this gross human rights violation.

There are very few Muslim countries that prioritise education and especially of girls. Despite these inherent drawbacks, Muslim women have excelled in several areas especially in the field of education, health and arts and gained prominence and position in politics and governance. Education of girls is also critical as an educated mother will prioritise and ensure education of children and more so her influence on the family and society will be more encompassing.

A different mindset which is in tune with the contemporary challenges and opportunities is needed to set the Muslim nations on the right course. First, there has to be greater awareness and commitment on the part of leaders toward promoting education. The focus has to be on good governance and pursuing domestic and foreign policy that are meant to improve the lot of people. Pakistan at present faces a hostile neighborhood with Indian leadership that refuses to engage and the situation is unlikely to change until the next national elections in India. The treatment of Muslims in India by the BJP government is harsh and steeped in prejudice.

On the western border the Taliban government continues to tighten its hold with freedom and basic rights of the people being trampled. Women in particular are being subjected to harsh and unfair treatment. Real equality remains a taboo in Afghanistan and the Taliban are unwilling to change or mellow their policies. The country is isolated and under severe sanctions. China and Pakistan are the only countries that have initiated and maintain contact.

There are however a large number of Muslim majority countries that are secular. This is an obvious outcome as Muslim world came in contact with secular ideas, many societies responded by becoming secular. Azerbaijan became the first secular republic in the Muslim world in 1918 before it was incorporated into the Soviet Union. Turkey has been governed as a secular state since the reforms of Mustafa Kemal Pasha. Although lately, since the Erdogan has been in power there has been a significant shift towards pursuing Islamic law and customs. The 1979 Iranian revolution replaced a monarchial secular regime with an Islamic republic led by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In Pakistan Islam is the official religion and the legal code is a mix of religious and secular codes.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 10th, 2024.

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