A Battle for the Soul of Islam

With Osama bin Laden dead and al-Qaeda in disarray, moderate Muslims were set to reclaim political Islam from extremists. But 2 years later, the Islam projected by extremists is back with a vengeance.

Posted on 01/10/14
By Hasan Suroor | Via The Hindu
Egyptians at a pro-Arab Spring rally in London in January 2012. (Photo  by Saad Sarfraz Sheikh, Creative Commons License)
Egyptians at a pro-Arab Spring rally in London in January 2012. (Photo by Saad Sarfraz Sheikh, Creative Commons License)

One does not have to be a revolutionary poet like Faiz Ahmad Faiz to look at events in the Muslim world and lament at being deceived by the promise of a false dawn — as he memorably did at the time of Indian independence, “Yeh woh sehar to nahin jiski arzoo le kar, chale the yaar ke mil jayegee kabhi na kabhi” (meaning it is not the destination for which one had started the journey).


Barely two years ago around this time, the Arab Street appeared to be on the cusp of a historic democratic revolution that was supposed to define Islam in the 21st century. An Islam compatible and at ease with the democratic values of free speech and tolerance.


With Osama bin Laden dead and al-Qaeda in disarray, moderate Muslims were set to reclaim the much maligned political Islam from extremists. The sight of articulate young Muslims with their Blackberrys and iPhones yearning for change and pushing for a radical break with the past mesmerized the world. Even card-carrying Islamophobes were forced into rethinking their pet theories about Islam.


It was hailed as Islam’s belated Enlightenment moment — a heady time when even a minor street protest came to be celebrated as a sign of Muslim awakening. William Wordsworth’s paean to the French Revolution could well apply to the “Arab Spring,” “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!”


Its own making

Yet, all that seems so long ago now. The old terrifying face of Islam projected by extremists is back with a vengeance. The so-called jihadis have seized back the crucial edge in the battle for the soul of Islam. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that, unwittingly, moderate Muslims have thrown away the gains briefly achieved in those heady days in 2011.


It’s a proxy war with Shia Iran, Iraq and Syria in one camp, and the Saudis and their Sunni allies such as Qatar in the other
Few revolutions in modern history have turned out quite so badly, and been so greedily devoured by its own children. Today, much of the Muslim world is in worse shape than before — a seething cauldron of hate and bigotry, and torn by sectarian violence. Crucially, for once, the “Great Satan” has nothing to do with what is going on there. There is no George W. Bush, no Tony Blair. Indeed, America has gone to some lengths to keep out of it even at the risk of alienating some of its European allies.


Revival of hostility

Muslim_Distribution_mapThe mess is entirely of Muslims’ own making. It is the “Great Satan” within who is wreaking the damage. Islam is at war with itself, which is raging, simultaneously, at several levels — between moderates and extremists; between Shias and Sunnis; and between pro-West (Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies) and anti-West (Iran, Lebanon, Syria) Muslim powers.


Perhaps, for the first time since the emergence of political Islam in its present ugly form in the last century the target of hate is not the West. It is very much an intra-Muslim affair. The warriors as well as their targets are all indigenous. Mostly, it is Muslims fighting other Muslims with Christians often caught up in the crossfire.


One of the most disturbing aspects is the bloody resurgence of Shia-Sunni hostility. Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria all have been sucked into a cycle of Muslim-on-Muslim violence that makes the Catholic-Protestant troubles in Northern Ireland look like kids’ stuff.


In Iraq alone, more than 6,000 people were killed in Shia-Sunni violence in 2013 — “a death toll not seen since 2008,” according to the BBC. Across West Asia, a form of ethnic cleansing is going on with Shias being forced to flee Sunni-majority areas, and vice versa. The region is awash with refugees from both sects raising the specter of a Palestinian-style crisis of the stateless/homeless Muslims.


It is reckoned that more than a third of Syria’s population has been displaced, with a knock-on effect being felt throughout West Asia. In Lebanon, the presence of Sunni Muslim refugees has put pressure on its already fragile sectarian balance. Tensions are being fueled by the Shia militant group Hezbollah which is actively backing the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a fellow Shia from the Alawite sect. And all this is happening with the blessings of Shia/Sunni regimes aligned to rival sectarian interests.


It’s a proxy war with Shia Iran, Iraq and Syria in one camp, and the Saudis and their Sunni allies such as Qatar in the other. The ouster of the Mohammad Morsi government and the persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood have nothing to do with protecting Egypt from Islamist extremism or upholding secularism and democracy. It is Saudi Arabia flexing its Sunni muscles as it did when it helped crush a nascent uprising in Bahrain. (To avoid any perceptions of bias, let me declare that I am a Sunni.)


The leaderless Tahrir Square “revolutionaries” have been a casualty of a wider quasi-religious struggle among major Muslim powers for supremacy. Rather than setting the agenda for a “new” Egypt, they have ended up serving others’ agendas. First the army used them to get rid of Hosni Mubarak by portraying itself as the defender of the revolution, and then to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood which, as the only organized political force in the country, posed a threat to its influence.


There has been an alarming increase in anti-Christian violence with attacks on churches, Christian homes and businesses without any apparent provocation
The failed Arab Spring is an object lesson in how not to organize a revolution. Contrary to the romantic notion of a spontaneous revolution, it is actually a cold beast which needs credible leadership, a high level of organization, a coherent ideology and a clearly thought-out plan for afterwards. Instead, what we saw on the Arab street was only idealism and anger. No leadership, no organisation and no alternative script.


This allowed all sorts of elements with their own agendas — the army, dodgy dissidents at home and abroad, and extremists — to step in and hijack the show. The only exception is Tunisia where after initial chaos, Ennahda, a well-organized moderate Islamist party, has been able to provide a semblance of stable democratic alternative.


Insecurity of Christians

And what about Islam’s fabled respect towards other faiths?


There has been an alarming increase in anti-Christian violence with attacks on churches, Christian homes and businesses without any apparent provocation. In Egypt, the minority Coptic Christian community is living in fear after a series of attacks allegedly by Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Hundreds of churches and other properties belonging to Christians have been destroyed or looted apparently because the Coptic Pope Tawadros II spoke in support of military rulers. In Syria, Christians have been attacked by anti-Assad forces who accuse them of supporting his regime.


Christians all over West Asia feel insecure and there is a climate of fear. There are reports of large-scale “Christian flight” from the region with almost one-third of Christians having fled Syria alone, it is claimed. The Christians being targeted are not western expats; they do not represent western interests. Not that it would have made attacks on them any more legitimate. They are historically settled communities — as Arab as any Muslim Arab in terms of their historical roots in the region. Understandably, there is deep concern about the future of Christianity in the land of its birth.


Prince Charles, one of the few high-profile friends of Muslims in the West and who has done a lot of work to promote Muslim-Christian dialogue, has voiced his dismay. He told an interfaith audience in London recently that he had spent 20 years trying “to build bridges between Islam and Christianity to dispel ignorance and misunderstanding.” But these bridges were now “rapidly being deliberately destroyed by those with a vested interest in doing so.”


He urged Muslims, Jews and Christians to unite in “outrage” against the turn of events in the region.


Beyond the disappointments of the false Arab dawn, however, is the broader question of the existential crisis facing Islam in the land of its birth. Given its regressive trajectory, liberal Muslims, especially, will be right to worry about the shape in which Islam emerges from this crisis. It doesn’t look good.


This article first appeared in The Hindu, a leading newspaper of India. The writer can be reached at hasan.suroor@gmail.com

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