S Iftikhar Murshed has a column in The News that is bound to upset some people, and for this reason I think it’s well worth discussing further. The author poses the question whether the Ummah is a myth. Obviously, there is a large and vibrant community of Muslims in the world, so what does this mean when Iftikhar Murshed calls the Islamic community a ‘myth’?
Actually, I had a similar reaction when I started reading the Wikileaks documents and noticed how many leaders from Islamic countries were saying one thing in public and then behind closed doors working with Western governments. We hear about this a lot, I think, from fundos who say that these leaders are munafiqs. But that’s nonsense, and I’ll explain why.
Here’s what S Iftikhar Murshed says, though you should really read the whole article.
One aspect of the Wikileaks disclosures that has not been extensively examined by the print and electronic media in Pakistan is the documentary confirmation that the existence of an Islamic Ummah is a myth. Muslim countries refer to each other as “brothers” but this fraternity is one that resembles the relationship between Cain and Abel. Thus Saudi Arabia and the oil-rich midget states of the Gulf region are on the same page as Israel in urging the destruction of Iran’s nuclear facilities. The latter, for its part, is certainly no innocent victim of an international conspiracy. On the contrary it has sought to export the extremist ideology of the 1979 Ayatollah-led revolution to neighbouring Islamic countries even if that should entail the destabilisation of their governments.
Furthermore, the Wikileaks revelations have administered a crippling blow to Samuel P Huntington’s fanciful clash of civilisations theory in which it was envisaged that the “fault-lines between civilisations” would replace “the political and ideological boundaries of the Cold War as the flashpoints for future crisis and bloodshed.” More specifically, he quoted M J Akbar of India who believed: “The West’s next confrontation is definitely going to come from the Islamic world. It is the sweep of Islamic nations from the Maghreb to Pakistan that the struggle for the new world order will begin.” However, such a conflict was never likely because there is no such entity as an Islamic bloc. The Muslim world was never a unified monolith. Closer to the truth is that it is a house divided against itself.
I think his last sentence is closer to correct than the idea that Ummah itself is a myth. The Islamic community, like any community, is not homogeneous. Most of us watched in horror as the world trade center fell on 9/11, just as we watch in horror when we see footage of tanks rolling over the homes of innocents in Palestine. We don’t want violence or evil in the world. We want to leave in peace with our families, and we want to visit our relatives in Western countries without being harassed, just as we want our Western friends to visit us in Karachi and Dhaka and Tehran without feeling threatened.
We want to live our lives in a way that pleases Allah, but we don’t really agree even on what that means ourselves, do we? Is the authoritarianism of the Shia Ayatollahs in Iran or the Talibs in Afghanistan the correct way? Because those are both Muslims who disagree so much they only count each other as part of the Ummah when it is politically expedient, such as when they are raising everyone’s blood pressure against the West.
And similarly, what is ‘the West’ that we are all supposed to hate so much? My uncle owns a small store in America, and he told me that after the 9/11 attack he was scared for his family and his business. He wears a beard and is very religious, though he is also very accepting of those who do not believe the same as him. He told me that after the attacks he went to open the shop and could not believe it – people from the neighborhood who came in told him that he should not worry, and that if anyone gave him any trouble, he should tell them and they will make sure it never happens again. These were not Muslims that defended my uncle, and yet perhaps I have more in common with them than with Mullah Omar and his band of merry bombers.
The fact is, tyrants are using religion to manipulate people’s sentiments in order to control them. This is no lal topi-style conspiracy of secret mind-control machines or even a pseudo-intellectual theory of hegemonic practise. Actually, it’s quite simply the same sort of emotional manipulation that a mother will use when her son goes away to school and doesn’t visit enough. On the other end of the telephone she will simply sigh in disappointment, “It’s okay, I’m used to suffering”. She pulls at our heart’s strings until we are standing at the bus station willing to spend our last paisha if only to get home and relieve the suffering of our dear mother.
Similarly, these tyrants will tell us that we Muslims have to stick together. That it is the Ummah against the devious and decadent West. They tell us that they are building ‘a bomb for the Ummah’, a protection against Western invasion and influence that will only be used in the very last case of self-defense. Despite our doubts, we feel compelled to stand by our brothers – surely they would not lie to their fellow Muslims – only to wake up to suicide bombings targeting peace jirgas, to the senseless destruction of schools, and to the constant strain of not knowing if today will be the last day you walk down the street thanks to another jihadi ‘martyr’.
The Ummah is a house divided in many ways. We are Arab Muslims, Asian Muslims, African Muslims, European Muslims, American Muslims. We are capitalist Muslims, socialist Muslims, even Anarchist Muslims. We are Shia Muslims, Sufi Muslims, Sunni Muslims…even Ahmedi Muslims (not in Pakistan, though!). We are bearded and clean shaven. We wear kurtas, business suits, and blue jeans. We listen to ghazals, bhangra, rock and roll, and rap. Our religion makes us the members of the Islamic community, but it also makes us members of the world community – the community of human beings put on this Earth by Allah – and we should not forget that, too.
Why the Saudis don’t want the Iranians to have nuclear weapons has nothing to do with religion. It is only about politics. Justice for Palestine or Kashmir will not be achieved with more indiscriminate killing. So, please, don’t let these tyrants continue to manipulate your emotions by telling you that religion compels us to side with Iran over America, or Saudi Arabia over China, or some Mullah claiming to speak for the Ummah when we know in our hearts that what he preaches is not right. We should be siding with the principles of truth, justice, and tolerance – the same we saw practised by Prophet Muhammed (PBUH), not today’s YouTube impostors and wanna-be Kalipha.
It us, the vast majority of tolerant, peace-loving Muslims in the world who are the real Ummah, and it is the jihadis who don’t blink an eye when they strap bombs to a 15-year-old boy who are the real munafiqs. It’s time we take the word Ummah back. It belongs to us.
But if you don’t believe me, I understand – I’m used to suffering.