From Kosova to Kashmir, and many other places yet further afield, Muslims are being deprived of their lands and lives. In some cases, the ‘international community’ expresses concern and intervenes; in others, it is apparently oblivious. In some cases, such as that of Iraq, the ‘international community’, which includes the Muslim-majority states, perpetrates the suffering. The Iraqi people have been living in misery for nine years under international sanctions, pawns in a cynical political game between Saddam and the United Nations.
The first week of October saw protests against the anti-Iraq sanctions in many Western cities, including one in Toronto, Canada. Approximately 400 people came to protest outside the provincial legislature. Most were non-Arab Muslim students. Speakers repeatedly pointed out that the sanctions’ main effect is to kill children. Iraq now has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. A true Muslim cannot go to sleep while his neighbour is hungry, one reminded the crowd.
I could not help but remember that only 25 of us (including our small children) had stood in this very spot in 1988, demonstrating against Saddam’s use of chemical weapons at Halabja, and few in the larger Muslim community or the ‘international community’ could have cared less. Hundreds of children, as well as adults, died horribly at Halabja and other Iraqi Kurdish villages, such as Khalifan, where the Iraqi government used poison gas.
In the 1980s, Saddam destroyed thousands of Kurdish villages, and tortured and executed thousands of people. The sexually abuse the female relatives of dissidents and guerillas was routine. The ‘international community’ looked the other way as Iraq was fighting the world’s war against Iran. Only when Saddam invaded Kuwait did the ‘international community’ discover the unspeakable crimes that had been committed in Halabda, because any evidence that Saddam was a monster was welcome to bolster western public opinion in favour of the west’s war.
But Muslims, by and large, continued to maintain an embarrassed silence about Saddam’s crimes. It is one thing to oppose oppression of Muslims when it is perpetrated by non-Muslims; it is quite another even to begin to discuss the oppression of Muslims by Muslims.
This problem is not limited to the Kurds. Few countries with Muslim majorities are ethnically homogeneous, and similar problems exist in many of them. Ethnic minorities seek autonomy, or even independence, or migration to another Muslim country (or the west) where they hope to be free of discrimination. Brotherhood and sisterhood are believed to demand that we paper over these problems with slogans about "one Ummah", while discussing such issues is considered to be fomenting division. Brotherhood, apparently, means ignoring oppression if the oppressor has a Muslim name.
The colonial powers encouraged divisions among Muslims, in order to ‘divide and rule’, and in the belief that nationalism was essential for modernity. The spectre of ‘pan-Islamism’ was seen as a threat to western interests. Speaking of the oppression of, say, Kurds by Arabs, therefore, is now seen as promoting a neo-colonial agenda. However, refusing to speak of such oppression also promotes a neo-colonial agenda; since Muslims are not heard to speak out, western nations and ‘human rights’ groups appear to be the only ‘defenders’ of the oppressed. This is a role the west has been trying to play since colonial times.
The media is also significant in determining the causes that Muslims support. Sympathetic media coverage of a cause cuts more ice with many Muslims than anything else, and adopting causes which are socially acceptable in the west is thought to be safer. The Muslims who ignored the victims of Halabja happily donated money to the jihad in Afghanistan because US president Ronald Reagan had called the Afghan mujahideen ‘freedom fighters’. It is a blessing to be able to do Islamic work without having to spend long hours educating people about an issue; how convenient if the media has already done the job!
The western media generally have not supported the anti-sanctions movement. However, the cause has been taken up by some Christian churches. A Chicago-based group, Voices in the Wilderness, has been opposing the sanctions with acts of civil disobedience such as delivering toys and medicine, and donating blood in Iraq. The American government has responded by imposing fines, and media coverage of the situation has created some popular feeling against the sanctions. Opposition to the sanctions has become an "alternative" cause, especially in some ‘progressive’ circles in universities. In this situation, Muslims who adopt the cause can promote an ‘Islamic alternative’ under the umbrella of a current fashion.
However, the main reason for Muslim reluctance to deal with the issue of oppression within the Ummah is anti-intellectualism. Muslims want simple solutions, but the problems of the Ummah today are extremely complex. An Islamic state is presumed to be able to solve such problems by mandating brotherhood. How brotherhood can be built on the existing foundations of nationalistic, linguistic and even racist prejudices, and unspoken historical grudges, is a question that is never raised, let alone addressed.
The situation in Iraq is only one example of this complexity. The tragedy of Halabja has its roots in geopolitics, ethno-racism, totalitarianism and, above all, a horrifying moral failure. Looking at such issues is searingly painful, and raises many disturbing questions. How much easier it is to look away, or to hastily cover the offending sight with excuses, defensive answers and idealistic slogans, as Saudi censors black out offensive pictures in imported magazines. This type of anti-intellectualism, which prefers slogans to serious consideration of issues, can operate as a strategy of self-preservation. Considering the origins of these problems would necessitate examining two contentious issues: jahiliyya and the problem of complicity.
As a reaction to colonialist attacks on Muslim cultures, Muslims have a tendency to idealize their cultures and history. Discussing jahiliyya in relation to Muslim cultures and history seems threatening in this context. One jahili value that acts against brotherhood is ‘asabiyya - partisan loyalty to one’s tribe. This notion is deeply rooted, and the colonial powers would not have been able to divide Muslims on the basis of ethnicity if ‘asabiyya had not already been present. It also has a modern expression in nationalism. Muslims show ‘asabiyya through loyalty to nations, tribes and regions, as well as to class interests and schools of thought. It is seen as an essential prop in this age of increasingly weak faith; even some Islamic movements use it because appeals to people on Islam alone can no longer be counted upon to produce results.
‘Asabiyya is an important ingredient of totalitarian systems, such as Ba’athism, and is used to incorporate people into a web of complicity. The aim is to involve all citizens to some degree in the state system. ‘Asabiyya also enables the state to create enemies, who can be annihilated without a qualm; thus Saddam successfully projected himself as the defender of Arab, Sunni Islam against the "Persian enemy", descended from fire-worshippers. Any opposition to Saddam was therefore portrayed as a betrayal of Islam by appealing to racial and sectarian prejudices. The Kurds, as non-Arabs who opposed Saddam, ended up being lumped with the "fire-worshippers", and atrocities against them were therefore seen as justified.
Muslim thinkers and activists need to examine their assumptions and programmes for such jahili concepts. They need to determine why these ideas survive, what socio-political role they play, and search for ways to deconstruct them so they can be replaced by real brotherhood on the basis of Islam alone.
Muslimedia: October 16-31, 1999