UK: Road to Muslim dignity

South Asia Citizen's Wire
Only an internally generated intellectual revolution would provide Muslims a place of respect, by Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui.
Recently a friend's daughter was getting married, and our family was invited to attend one of the pre-nuptial ceremonies: the henna night, at which the palm of bride-to-be is stained with henna with much fanfare.
Whilst the men chatted in a separate room, the women listened to a talk on the responsibilities of women. They were told that heaven has seven gates and those women who look after their husbands properly would be entitled to enter heaven through whichever gate they chose. Muslim women are so used to listening to such garbage that they simply laugh, ignore it and move on.

When my daughter-in-law related the story to me, other episodes came to mind. An acquaintance of mine when asked how his daughter was getting on in her education responded by saying that she was staying at home to give company to her mother. When asked whether she were ill or disabled the reply was: the Prophet's daughter did not go to school. Then there was the recent telephone call to our office was from an 18-year-old girl asking for details of Muslim colleges as she has not been allowed to attend school since she was 14.

During a debate on the subject of hijab organised by the Oxford Student's Islamic Society a few months ago I made the point that the Quran stresses modesty of apparel for both men and women. Surprisingly, the audience was reluctant to accept this idea. More scary was the fact that these young people of above-average intelligence seemed more interested in securing a position in the afterlife than in improving their own and others' lot in this one.

A couple of weeks ago, following the High Court judgement on the Luton jilbab controversy, I was saddened to hear a number of Muslim girls say they would sooner leave school than abandon jilbab. Those who were supporting Shabina Begum's case were looking not for reconciliation (the Luton school allows for the religious and cultural preferences of its pupils) but confrontation in order to enhance their status amongst the youth. In that they were guilty also of double standards, for whilst opposing democracy and human rights as non-Islamic they wanted the school to accept Ms Begum's right to chose her form of dress.

Many young people seem unaware that the headscarf or hijab controversy only became an issue as a result of the Iranian revolution, when Iranian women had started to observe hijab as a protest against the culture of nakedness promoted under the Shah. Now by emphasising hijab as an obligation, not a choice, a faction is making the outward manifestation of dress, rather than modesty in one's heart, the measure of Muslimness. God says He knows what is in our hearts and that is what matters. But the new generation of Islamists are changing the goal posts. By making hijab or jilbab a criterion of Islamic identity our clerics are taking on the role of God by laying claim to infallibility. If Muslims are not careful they might find themselves conniving at the introduction of a moral police, which could entail rifts within the community based on degrees of observance. In my view, this shift of emphasis is a distraction from the real challenges the Muslim world faces, challenges we prefer not to confront because that would require changing ourselves radically.

If tomorrow all Muslim women don the jilbab and men grow beards, will the condition of Muslims improve? More likely they will still be despised and marginalised. Muslims must recognise that it is their closed mind-set that has put them on the slippery slope to insignificance. Sadly even the pro-hijab conference recently held in London, supported by Ken Livingstone, also miss the point.

Following the collapse of the Mughal Empire in India in the 19th century there was an intense debate over the causes of Muslim decline and defeat. One view was that whilst we were sleeping a new body of knowledge had emerged elsewhere which now guided the destiny of mankind and without excelling in it our future could not be secured. An alternative hypothesis held that we declined because we abandoned the 'pure' Islam and to reacquire former glory we should shun contact with the alien West and return to aslaf (the practices of the forebears). Sadly, the latter view prevailed and manifested itself in the form of opposition to learning English. One hundred fifty years later, the folly of this attitude has been repeatedly demonstrated. Muslim orthodoxy still believes this was the right course but it denied Muslims any influence they might have had in world affairs.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Islamic movements and clerics were manipulated by the CIA into allowing Islam to be used to pursue an American agenda (remember Reagan's alliance of 'God-fearing peoples' against godless Communism!). This gave rise to what is known as the Jihad in Afghanistan. Cold War Warriors became Holy Warriors. Using Muslims as cannon fodder, the CIA contrived to defeat the Soviet Union. Suddenly, a bipolar world had become unipolar. The subsequent developments made it possible for the neo-cons to set in motion their plan for domination of the world's resources.

If reluctance to learn English put Muslims on the road to intellectual irrelevance, the Afghan Jihad made their societies promoters of a culture of violence. We know that some of these Holy Warriors were trained in Scotland by the British Government during the Thatcher epoch. While referring to the war on terror, Tony Blair recently said he knew there were Jihadists living in Britain. He was of course right because Britain had been actively involved in the Afghan Jihad from the very beginning. Now as the US operation in Afghanistan falters, Britain is again involved in behind-the-scenes negotiations to find acceptable Taliban faces to incorporate in the Karzai Government. To pursue this goal, in March of this year, the spiritual father of the Taliban was invited to London as the guest of the Foreign Office. Governments never hesitate to use simple-minded groups and individuals to further their political ends. But an open debate within the community on the Jihad in Afghanistan and its unforeseen consequences might ensure that we begin our next love affair with the Taliban with our eyes open. The Islamists have destabilised the world and Muslims aught to know it.

Muslims have to do a lot of soul searching. They shall have to begin by challenging the forces of obscurantism. They must recognise that these forces have brought them nothing but defeat, humiliation and misery. Unless they emerge as champions of the empowerment of humankind, they shall neither have nor merit any place of respect in the world. The secular man who presently dominates world affairs will accord them grudging respect only if they beat him at his own game, which is to say, becoming as creative as he is. It is this change that can shift the balance of power in their favour, bringing them the dignity and acceptability they so desperately crave.

Muslims need an internally generated intellectual revolution. Small pockets of intellectuals already exist everywhere. What they need is a voice and a forum for their growth and recognition. This bridge-building may ensure that there is enough pressure on the rulers in the Muslim countries to grant basic freedoms to their own people.

Dr. Ghayasuddin Siddiqui is leader of the Muslim Parliament and the Director of The Muslim Institute, London

Originally published in The Milli Gazette, 1-15 September 2004