Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Muslim century lies in the hands of Muslims

IN a throwback to Franz Kafka's The Trial, Professor Ali Al'Amin Mazrui was detained at Miami airport not long after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks for no reason he could think of than perhaps that he was a Muslim.

Like Kafka's protagonist "K", held for a crime that is never specified, the Kenyan-born academic, long tenured in the United States, was treated politely but nevertheless as an undefined felon who had to be watched constantly and escorted to the lavatory.

He was asked about the meaning of jihad and what mazhab or denomination he belonged to. "When I said Sunni, they said why not Shia?"

After four hours the mistake was discovered and he was apologetically released. He was booked for an onward flight to replace the one he missed, put up at a hotel and given US$5 (RM16) in case he got hungry waiting for the next plane out.

At the prime minister's inaugural Perdana Premier Lecture in Putrajaya last Tuesday, the 77-year-old Mazrui recalled the incident with a chuckle. It was just one among a trove of anecdotes collected by the raconteur over the span of a distinguished career that took him to some of the world's top universities.

Yet the scholar's high calling was not enough to exempt the Albert Schweitzer professor of humanities at New York State University, Binghampton, and Andrew D. White professor in African studies at Cornell from the masses of Muslims who can justifiably claim to have been victimised through no fault of their own.

"In the last three years, at least a million Muslims have been killed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kashmir, Palestine, Chechnya."

He said a million more could be added since the 1992 Gulf War from the killing fields of the Balkans, the West Bank and Gaza, and the United Nations sanctions on Iraq.

"Counting the number of dead in the world as a whole since 1990, Muslims are a people more sinned against than sinning."

Mazrui's peroration, however, was no litany of woe. In a broad sweep of the lands of Islam from the 1950s to an imagined 2050s, he sought instead exemplars and role models, finding the promise of redemption in the religion's refined morality.

"The Quran does not recommend turning the other cheek but it does say that the legitimacy of forgiveness and compensation lies higher in the eyes of God than whether there is justified revenge," he said.

Like many of Islam's liberal lights engaged in post-9/11 introspection, Mazrui thought Muslims should take some responsibility for the spread of terrorism in their midst. "On the other hand, it is not enough to look at what the Muslims have done. You have to ask why we are in a situation where some people are so angry that they are prepared to wear bombs and kill themselves.

"And that is not done. In the US, there is very little discussion on, for example, the anger that is generated by the arrogance of Israel. We must look at the causes of terrorism more carefully."

Borrowing from T.E. Lawrence, Mazrui evoked the "seven pillars of wisdom" to take the Muslim world to the second half of its hundred-year pilgrim's progress to modernity: tolerance, economic well-being, social justice, gender equality, environmentalism, interfaith harmony and the pursuit of knowledge.

As he surveyed the fifth of humanity that professes Islam for degrees of uniqueness, he saw Southeast Asia as a melting pot of karmic significance.

"The management of diverse pluralism has been the major challenge of the Malay people, not only in Malaysia and Indonesia but the Malay archipelago as a whole," he said.

"It is part of God's grand design that the history of the Malay people has included in the past a naturalist phase, a Hindu phase, a Buddhist phase and finally a Muslim phase. Was this not a religious evolution intended to be a preparation for future multicultural leadership?"

In partial answer to the question, he was wry but careful not to upset his host country:

"In India, Muslims fight Hindus over the territory of Kashmir. In the Middle East, Muslims fight Jews over the territory of Palestine.

"In Nigeria, Muslims fight Christians over distribution of power. Only in Malaysia do Muslims and non-Muslims fight over each other's religious beliefs, including what name God should bear.

"I don't think we should be fighting each other. Let's find solutions in the coming days."

Mazrui's problem-solving, unifying ethos imbued the start in Kuala Lumpur the next day of the sixth World Islamic Economic Forum, one of the 57-nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference's rare successes.

Befitting a 2,500-strong gathering of entrepreneurs motivated equally by profit and principle, there was little beating of chests or bleeding of hearts over the sorry state of more than half the OIC membership.

Datuk Seri Najib Razak was clear in his opening speech on what Muslim countries should knuckle down to in the wake of global economic recession: to "build strong, sustainable eco-nomies and fair and just societies".

The failures and epic lamentation of the Muslims can be reduced to the loss of just a few basic things from their apotheosis in Islam's Golden Age. "What the Muslim world needs now, indeed what the world needs now, is more effective government," Najib said.

"We must begin even with small steps," he said. "If we get it right, these small steps will snowball into an economic revolution that can ultimately achieve a remarkable change in our countries and throughout the Muslim world."

Mazrui did not have to go over the old ground of what drives many, especially young Muslims into self-defeating radicalism, into drawing inspiration from the cave-dwelling ideologues of Northwest Pakistan, or into the despondency of Kafka's anti-heroes.

If the Muslims can choose more of their champions from among the WIEF's attendees, the expectation of Mazrui's lecture, entitled "A Muslim century: myth or reality", will surely veer towards the latter.

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