TCS Daily

The State of Islam -- 2003

By Daniel Drezner - October 20, 2003 12:00 AM

Post-9/11, there's been a lot of gnashing of teeth about the role that Islam plays in the promotion of terrorism and general hostility to the West. It is often stressed that Islam encompasses more than the Arab Middle East, and should not be conflated with the ideology of Osama bin Laden or his cronies. Surely, true Islam is not fundamentally anti-Semitic, for example?


The Organization of the Islamic Conference last week had its 10th Islamic Summit, which seems as good a venue as any to mull the state of the religion in 2003. So, let's go to what outgoing Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad said in his welcoming speech:


1.3 billion Muslims cannot be defeated by a few million Jews. There must be a way. And we can only find a way if we stop to think, to assess our weaknesses and our strength, to plan, to strategise and then to counter attack....

We are actually very strong. 1.3 billion people cannot be simply wiped out. The Europeans killed 6 million Jews out of 12 million. But today the Jews rule this world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them....

We are up against a people who think. They survived 2000 years of pogroms not by hitting back, but by thinking. They invented and successfully promoted Socialism, Communism, human rights and democracy so that persecuting them would appear to be wrong, so they may enjoy equal rights with others. With these they have now gained control of the most powerful countries and they, this tiny community, have become a world power. We cannot fight them through brawn alone. We must use our brains also.

Of late because of their power and their apparent success they have become arrogant. And arrogant people, like angry people will make mistakes, will forget to think.

They are already beginning to make mistakes. And they will make more mistakes. There may be windows of opportunity for us now and in the future. We must seize these opportunities.


When the European Union -- which knows from anti-Semitism -- declares that a speech is anti-Semitic, you know a line has been crossed.


What's scarier, that Mahathir Mohammad said this or, as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, the reaction from the crowd?:


The Indonesian President, Megawati Soekarnoputri, joined a standing ovation for her Malaysian counterpart, Mahathir Mohamad, after he called on Muslims to consider Jews as their enemy, it has been revealed.

All 57 leaders at a Conference of Islamic Nations summit applauded the comments, which have renewed regional tensions ahead of next week's APEC leaders' conference. Among them were several key figures in the post-September 11 world, including Ms Megawati; the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai; President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan and Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.


Al Jazeera's coverage of the reaction to the speech had more bon mots:


"I don't think they (the remarks) are anti-Semitic at all. I think he was stating the facts," Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi said.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher added: "There are people wanting to create trouble, invent problems that do not exist... I would advise them to read the whole speech, which was a speech addressed to Muslims asking them to work hard and affirm their personality."

And Fahmi Huwaidi, an Egyptian political analyst, told Aljazeera: "Nowadays, any criticism against the Jews and the Jewish policy is considered anti-Semitic.

"This proves how far Israel and its allies have succeeded in sanctifying Israel, preventing any side from criticising it."

He added: "Such a common view proves Muhammad's comment on the extent to which the Jewish global influence has reached."


This is how Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar tried to explain the comments away to Voice of America: "The prime minister's statement is a statement calling for moderation, calling not to utilize violence to achieve our objective, start to think, look at the example of what the Jewish community achieved."


The Best Moderate Political Islam Has to Offer?


The scary and pathetic thing is, Minister Hamid Albar is correct -- relative to a lot of Muslim leaders, Mahathir's position is moderate. Mahathir embodies the moderate face of Islam. To his credit, he was at the helm as his country indistrialized. He was smart enough to appreciate the importance of the rule of law and the role of markets in fostering economic growth. He bucked the IMF's advice and imposed capital controls during the Asian financial crisis and lived to tell the tale. He pursued a number of policies designed to ameliorate ethnic tensions between the poorer but more numerous Malays and the wealthier ethnic Chinese. These feats are not easy for a developing country leader to pull off.


And yet, this man, the best that moderate political Islam has to offer, is rotten with flaws. Mahathir subverted his country's democratic traditions to suit his political purposes. He jailed his anointed successor for having the temerity to question whether the IMF might actually be correct. And the anti-Semitism is hardly new -- he blamed the Jews, specifically George Soros, for causing the Asian financial crisis.


The other parts of the speech spelled out very clearly what Mahathir believes should be appropriated from the West:


The early Muslims produced great mathematicians and scientists, scholars, physicians and astronomers etc. and they excelled in all the fields of knowledge of their times, besides studying and practising their own religion of Islam. As a result the Muslims were able to develop and extract wealth from their lands and through their world trade, able to strengthen their defences, protect their people and give them the Islamic way of life, Addin, as prescribed by Islam. At the time the Europeans of the Middle Ages were still superstitious and backward, the enlightened Muslims had already built a great Muslim civilisation, respected and powerful, more than able to compete with the rest of the world and able to protect the ummah from foreign aggression. The Europeans had to kneel at the feet of Muslim scholars in order to access their own scholastic heritage....

But halfway through the building of the great Islamic civilisation came new interpreters of Islam who taught that acquisition of knowledge by Muslims meant only the study of Islamic theology. The study of science, medicine etc. was discouraged.

Intellectually the Muslims began to regress. With intellectual regression the great Muslim civilisation began to falter and wither....

We are enjoined by our religion to prepare for the defence of the ummah. Unfortunately we stress not defence but the weapons of the time of the Prophet. Those weapons and horses cannot help to defend us any more. We need guns and rockets, bombs and warplanes, tanks and warships for our defence. But because we discouraged the learning of science and mathematics etc. as giving no merit for the akhirat, today we have no capacity to produce our own weapons for our defence. We have to buy our weapons from our detractors and enemies. This is what comes from the superficial interpretation of the Quran, stressing not the substance of the Prophet's sunnah and the Quran's injunctions but rather the form, the manner and the means used in the 1st Century of the Hijrah. And it is the same with the other teachings of Islam. We are more concerned with the forms rather than the substance of the words of Allah and adhering only to the literal interpretation of the traditions of the Prophet.


There is actually a powerful critique of Islamic fundamentalism in this passage -- but the critique is exclusively over means and not ends. Mahathir explicitly denounces the use of wanton violence to exterminate the state of Israel. He's advocating the use of brainpower -- to exterminate the state of Israel.


What Mahathir wants is for Islamic countries to embrace modernization without Westernization and its tacky "Jewish" traits of human rights and democracy. However, it's no coincidence that the peak of Islam's power and influence came at a time when the religion was tolerant to scientific and religious views outside of the Quran. Although scholars Samuel Huntington and Benjamin Barber disagree, I side with the writer Jonathan Rauch in believing that it's impossible to embrace modern science without embracing the tolerance for free thought that is at the core of Western liberal thought.


I could very well be wrong, however. This is the trillion-dollar bet for the West for the next century -- hope that the Islamic world, in embracing modern science and technology, learns to tolerate views outside the ummah. Or suffer the consequences of a modernized but rigidly theocratic Islam.


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