From the Editor Akhtar Mahmud Faruqi
November 14, 2003

Breaking the Siege

Islam Under Siege is the fitting title of Dr Akbar S. Ahmed’s fascinating study of the contemporary Muslim world. As he mirrors the plight of the Muslims, Dr Ahmed - an anthropologist, a civil servant, a bright light among Muslim scholars, and “probably the best known scholar on contemporary Islam” according to the BBC - furnishes a fresh proof of his erudition and rich insight. He deals with specifics, not generalities.


A prediction of the Prophet embellishing the first paragraph of the book’s introduction says it all: “ ‘There will be a time when your religion will be like a hot piece of coal in the palm of your hand; you will not be able to hold it.’ The Prophet of Islam was gazing into the future while he talked to his followers early in the 7th century in Arabia. ‘Would this mean there would be very few Muslims?’ someone asked later. ‘No,’ replied the Prophet. ‘They will be large in numbers, more than ever before, but powerless like the foam on the ocean waves.’“

Powerless like the foam on the ocean waves! Tragically, this has come to be the lot of the 1.3 billion Muslims today. Adherents of a faith that teaches tolerance and peace, Muslims are summarily dismissed as wayward philistines treading a messy course. Islam, a religion considered too progressive at the time of its inception - forcing conservative Europe to shy away from it - is painted as a retrogressive faith. The disparagement is wanton, the distortion deliberate, the misperceptions absolute.

Bill O’Reilly unabashedly equates the Holy Qur’an with Mein Kempf, the reverend Jerry Vines describes Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as a “demon-possessed paedophile,” and the Reverend Jerry Falwell calls Islam “a very wicked and evil religion.” Pat Robertson makes equally offending comments. “The debate on Islam that is in full cry in the West since September 11 is too often little more than a parading of deep-rooted prejudices,” says Dr Ahmed. True. The present time thus is a time of challenge, not despair. Muslims have to break the siege - through conciliation, not confrontation; through dialogue, not clash - and this theme is precisely the one that Dr Ahmed explores in his illuminating book with characteristic perspicacity.

“As an anthropologist I will try to make sense of a changing, complicated and dangerous world. I will attempt to explain what is going wrong in the Muslim world; why it is going wrong, and how we, because my explanation involves Muslims, and non-Muslims, are to move ahead if we wish for global stability and even harmony in the future,” says Dr Ahmed in the introduction. The book spotlights the what, why and how of the contemporary Muslim scene.

The ‘way forward’ is by way of initiating a dialogue between the two civilizations - the West and the Muslim world. Conciliation not confrontation would yield tangible results. The West is also obliged to build ‘bridges of understanding’ with the Muslim world. It must evolve a long-term strategy to interact with the Ummah, a strategy that should not be driven by interests of the corporate world or the multinationals, trading empires in their own right.

“The West needs to respond to the Muslim world firstly by listening to what Muslims are saying and secondly by trying to understand Islam. With some patience and understanding the general desire to assist the Muslim world will take shape….The West must send serious signals to the ordinary Muslim people - via the media, through seminars, conferences, meetings - that it does not consider Islam to be the enemy, however much it may disagree with certain aspects of Muslim behavior,” says Dr Akber. Above all, the western media must dispel its ignorance and shed its long-lingering prejudices.

Dr Ahmed’s prescription for the Muslims is simple: practice a ‘working democracy,’ promote education, upgrade madrassahs, demonstrate tolerance, show respect for adl, ihsan and ilm, and be mindful of the social and demographic trends. In short, they need to “rebuild an idea of Islam which includes justice, integrity, tolerance, and the quest for knowledge - the classic Islamic civilization - not just the insistence on the rituals; not just the five pillars of Islam but also the entire building.”

Islam Under Siege answers many of the questions Americans are asking after September 11: Why do they hate us? Does the Qur’an preach violence? Do Muslims hate Jews and Christians? Are we at the start of a final crusade between Islam and the West? Dr Ahmed responds to common criticisms: that Islam is a violent religion and it encourages the subjugation of women. He also explores how the war against terrorism is perceived in other countries. For many developing nations, Dr Ahmed writes, the war against terrorism is seen as a violent expression of threatening Imperial America.

The book is a work of scholarship. In the words of Professor Stanley Wolpert, it “should be required reading for all Members of Congress and our Nation’s Cabinet, as well as for most of the Pentagon’s top brass.” And, according to Professor Tamara Sonn, President of the American Council for the Study of Islamic Societies, &#x201CThis is the most important book to date on life in the post 9/11 period.”

In the post-September 11 period, a few individuals stand out who have stoutly and effectively defended Islam and its followers and who have raised their voice of moderation to bring the West and the Muslims together. Dr Ahmed is one of them. He has appeared on television shows, including Oprah thrice last year and his C-Span covered debates have been repeatedly televised on demand. Suave and blend, he makes a convincing case for a much-needed dialogue of civilizations.

In one of the chapters Dr Ahmed mentions several discussions with Professor Sonn before September 11 “in which she spoke of the United States as a new Andalusia - a tolerant society in which the great faiths live in harmony and contribute to a rich, mutually beneficial culture. She was right. But after September, the freest, most welcoming country in the world for Muslims turned threatening to and suspicious of Muslim belief and practice.”

Would a dialogue suggested by Dr Ahmed reverse the present trend? Would the United States be a new Andalusia again? Muslim America seems to provide a glimmer of hope, however imperceptible though.

Most Muslims in the United States are highly educated and have made their mark in various fields. They belong to important professional groups and have studied at prestigious Ivy universities. They have the insight and erudition to bring about the much needed change in the US and their own countries of origin. A forward surge. Sustained academic strivings. Whole-hog commitment to foster education and science. Research and Development breakthroughs. An articulate and vocal media.

Education and science can provide the Muslim world the opportunity to enjoy life in all its wondrous aspects as well as impart a feeling of pride in intellectual achievements to the Ummah. Endeavors of Muslim Americans in this respect could set off a chain reaction and precipitate a speedy diffusion of knowledge and higher technical skills in the Muslim world. In the United States, Muslim Americans could serve as a bridge of understanding between Muslims, Jews and Christians and help in mending fences and removing many misperceptions that mar inter-faith relations. Each one could be a public relations individual in his own right dispelling misgivings about the United States in the Muslim world and removing misperceptions about Islam in the US. They have the dash and the erudition to furnish proof that Islam and the West have a common cause and the two are by no means on a collision course. It is for them to seize the opportunity and pave the way for a dialogue of civilization to facilitate the eventual rehabilitation of the Muslim world.

One only wishes that there were more than one Dr Akbar Ahmed to explain the peaceful content of the message of Islam in the West. The dialogue of civilizations must be sustained - with renewed momentum. -