by Zafar Bangash (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 4, Rajab, 1433)
Muslims occupy a vast swathe of the earth’s surface. From Morocco in the west to Indonesia in the southeast, Muslims reside in a part of the globe that acts as a bridge between Europe and the vast archipelago of Southeast Asia.
In Africa, too, from its northern Mediterranean rim encompassing Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt southward to Central and West Africa, Muslim majorities occupy this space. East Africa has large Muslim minorities as do Europe and Russia. Bosnia-Herzegovina is a Muslim majority state although the brutal Serbian onslaught (1992–1995) with active help of the West almost reduced it to a minority. There are also sizeable Muslim minorities in Romania and Bulgaria right in the heart of Europe. They are not immigrants but indigenous to the land. Immigrant communities in the rest of Europe — Germany, France and Britain — make Muslims the second largest religious group in these countries.
Beyond landmass, the nearly 1.8 billion Muslims constitute 25% of the world’s 7 billion people. Several Muslim countries — Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria and Bangladesh, for instance — have populations that run into the hundreds of millions. There are others whose populations touch the 80 million mark: Egypt (82 million), Turkey (76 million) and Iran (75 million).
There are other statistics that are equally impressive: the Muslim world accounts for 70% of the world’s energy resources and more than 20% of its mineral wealth. Based on landmass, population and natural resources, the Muslim world should be one of the economic and political powerhouses of the world, if not the leading player but it hardly registers on the global stage. Its share of global revenues is a meager 7.5%; its representation in global trade at 11% is marginally better, primarily because of energy exports.
So what factors or players have prevented the Muslim world from realizing its true potential by arresting its progress and development?
The vast majority of the world’s poor are Muslims even though some of the richest people also happen to be Muslims. The same holds true for the world’s refugees: Muslims constitute the bulk of the world’s refugee population. So what factors or players have prevented the Muslim world from realizing its true potential by arresting its progress and development?
Before we tackle the quantitative aspects of this question, let us consider some qualitative issues. It is generally assumed that material prosperity brings satisfaction and happiness. Thus, higher incomes, bigger houses, expensive cars and luxurious lifestyles are all considered essential for a happy life. Happiness, however, is not necessarily a function of material possessions. Some of the richest people in the world also happen to be the least happy, while some of the poorest people in the world are quite content with their lives.
Take the case of the Masai, a tribe of cattle herders in Kenya. Studies have shown that their level of happiness is the same as that of the top executives on the Fortune 500. The Masai tribesmen have no electricity or water in their straw mud huts yet the absence of such amenities has not affected their level of satisfaction or happiness. Thus what brings happiness is quite subjective. A child is happier with a 5-cent candy than a $100 bill; some people get satisfaction in accumulating wealth while others in giving it to the poor although the numbers in the latter category are admittedly small.
Another blow against the notion that material prosperity equals happiness is delivered by suicide rates. The world’s highest suicide rates are not among the poorest people but in countries such as Lithuania (43 per 100,000 people), Russia (37.4), Belarus (35) and Latvia (34.3). All these were part of the former Soviet Union. In the US, Las Vegas with 34.5 suicides per 100,000 leads other American cities. Colorado Springs (26.1), Tucson, AZ (25), Sacramento (22.7) and Albuquerque (21) follow in that order. It is not because a higher percentage of poor people live in these cities.
Las Vegas is dubbed “fun” city because of its gambling casinos and glitzy lifestyle. Even in the departure lounge at Las Vegas airport, there are slot machines for gambling. What better way to spend time — and money — while waiting to catch a flight! If Las Vegas is such a fun place that people from virtually the whole world flock to it, why are its suicide rates so high? American academics have advanced some exotic explanations. It is neither gambling nor rich people (presumably the happiest), that account for its high suicide rates, they insist. Instead, when unhappy people are around rich and happy people (the gamblers) then unhappy people become even more depressed and commit suicide! Stephen Wu, Associate Professor of Economics at Hamilton College is one proponent of this theory. “Perhaps for those at the bottom end, in a way their situation may seem worse in relative terms, when compared with people who are close to them or their neighbors.’’ He went on: “For someone who is quite unhappy [presumably on account of being poor], the relative comparison [with rich people they encounter in Las Vegas casinos] may lead to more unhappiness and depression.”
So the learned professor tells us that it is lack of money and jealousy of rich people that drive poor people to commit suicide! But Wu provides no evidence for his assertion that suicides are high only among poor people. Do alcohol and drugs play any part? After all, the highest suicide rates are to be found in the former Soviet republics where alcohol consumption is a major problem. True, loss of job or house may lead to depression thereby forcing people to lose hope and in some cases end their life but it would be wrong to assume that poverty alone leads to suicide especially when one encounters rich people and becomes conscious of one’s own deprivation.
If this were true, suicide rates would be very high in countries like Saudi Arabia (4.4/100,000) or Kuwait (2.06) where wealth disparities are huge especially between locals and their imported domestic servants that are greatly mistreated. This would be even more so in Pakistan (4.12) where the rich openly flaunt their wealth while the poor are trapped in an endless cycle of poverty and deprivation. Servants working in the homes of the rich witness on a daily basis the rapacious lifestyle of their masters; the servants’ children often go to bed hungry yet this has not led them to commit suicide. In recent years there has been an increase in suicide rates in Pakistan but that is because of starvation among the very poor that are unable to feed their children. This is an alarming development but jealousy of the rich is not a factor.
The first and foremost requirement for any society to make progress is the emergence of sincere leadership in society. Islam describes this as muttaqi (sincere, committed and honest) leadership that operates above personal, class or group interests.
We must, however, return to identifying the impediments to progress in the Muslim world. Allah (swt) has endowed human beings with immense potential; He has designated man as His khalifah (vicegerent) on earth. While material prosperity and success are not confined only to those who make a firm commitment to Allah (swt), the ones that do are promised much higher reward. Several examples of this are available even from recent history.
The first and foremost requirement for any society to make progress is the emergence of sincere leadership in society. Islam describes this as muttaqi (sincere, committed and honest) leadership that operates above personal, class or group interests. The responsibility of such leadership is to set a directional course and then motivate, inspire and guide people toward achieving it. When the collective energies of a large number of even ordinary people are harnessed for the achievement of a pre-set goal, the results are often truly astounding. Even non-Muslims will achieve these results but the difference between committed Muslims and others is that Muslims struggle for the pleasure of Allah (swt) and to secure the akhirah (hereafter) while non-Muslims struggle only for the dunya (this world). An Islamic-based value system brings much greater satisfaction and is able to achieve far greater results with limited resources while other systems plant the seeds of their own destruction even when they appear to be progressing. Let us consider why the Muslim world has failed to achieve its true potential despite being endowed with vast resources.
With notable exceptions such as Islamic Iran, Turkey and Malaysia, other governments in the Muslim world are illegitimate. They have no support or approval of their masses. Many are in open rebellion against the commands of Allah (swt). The family and tribal-based monarchies in the Muslim East clearly fall into this category. While the Qur’an calls for shura (mutual consultation, 42:38), the monarchical regimes insist that what they have grabbed by the sword (territory and power), they will keep by the sword. This is what Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, “Crown Prince” of Saudi Arabia, told a group of human rights activists in March 2009 when they met him to seek permission to establish a human rights body in the kingdom.
Considering the Saudi regime’s claim that its constitution is based on the Qur’an and the Sunnah, Nayef is clearly in rebellion against the commands of Allah (swt). In Islam, such a person is described as mufsid fi al-ard (guilty of spreading corruption on earth) and his punishment is death. That day will, insha’Allah come, sooner rather than later, not only for the cancer-ridden Nayef but also for the hordes of other so-called Saudi royals.
Let us reflect on Allah’s (swt) words in the majestic Qur’an that accurately capture the attitude of those that have rebelled against Allah’s (swt) commands:
Now whatever you have been given is but a passing comfort for the life of this world, and that which Allah has is much better for those who make a firm commitment to Allah and put their complete trust in their Lord; and those who shun the major sins and indecencies, and when they are angry, [they] forgive; and those that respond to the call of their Lord and institutionalize the salah, and whose affairs are a matter of mutual consultation, and who spend of what We have bestowed upon them [of our bounties]; and those when injustice is inflicted on them [by oppressors], defend themselves [against such oppression] with determination.
The recompense of an evil deed is an equal thereof, but whosoever forgives and makes amends thereby, his reward is with Allah. Lo! He loves not the rebellious transgressors. The way [of blame] is only on those who oppress mankind, and wrongfully rebel in the earth. For such there is a painful doom.
And verily whosoever is patient and forgives — lo! That verily is (of) the steadfast in matters. He whom Allah leads astray, for him there is no protecting friend besides Him. And you [O Muhammad] will see the oppressors when they see the punishment [of Hellfire], [how] they will cry out: Is there any way of return? (42:36–44).
In the absence of a representative government responsive to the needs of the people, alien systems are imposed and become entrenched. Such systems are inherently unstable because they do not have the support of the masses. Coercive methods have to be employed to keep people in check. Alienation between the rulers and the ruled deepens; resentment begins to build up ultimately exploding in a revolution.
Corruption also thrives in an alien system. The loyalty of those considered crucial to prop up the system has to be bought. The state’s resources are treated as family fortune and used and abused at will. This is what is happening in almost all the countries of the Muslim world. The elites live a rapacious lifestyle while the masses languish in poverty and misery. This is true especially in Saudi Arabia whose oil revenues were $324 billion in 2011. Additionally, the Saudi regime has stashed away $1 trillion in US banks, money that it is unlikely to see again.
With an imposed alien system, rulers are beholden to foreign masters rather than relying on Allah (swt). They become so dependent on external support that they are unable to formulate their own policies. Egypt offers a good example. More than a year ago, the people of Egypt forced the long-entrenched US/Zionist-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak from power. The system, however, remained virtually intact frustrating the people’s aspirations to establish a truly representative government. This also reflects to some extent the failure of the Islamic movement in Egypt. Instead of challenging the corrupt order head on, they have opted to work within it in hopes of riding to power.
This brings us to the role of militaries in the Muslim world. They are one of the greatest impediments to progress. They consume huge state resources to buy expensive weapons and live a luxurious lifestyle that is way above the average person in society. More critically, they act as Trojan Horses facilitating the penetration of Western ideas into the Muslim world. Western militaries cultivate close links with their counterparts in the Muslim world through such schemes as training missions on Western weapon systems as well as through personal contacts. Each group thinks it is using the other to its advantage. Ultimately, it is the Muslims that end up being used because they are dependent on the West.
Dependent societies by their nature are incapable of developing technologies that will enable them to stand on their own. Dependency undermines self-confidence and breeds an inferiority complex. Not surprisingly, not one army in the Muslim world has achieved victory against their external foes. This is as true of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq as it is of Pakistan. Forget about Saudi Arabia and its army of pleasure-loving amateurs that are trained only to kill their own people or unarmed civilians in such places as Bahrain. Saudi soldiers have seldom witnessed real combat. In December 2009, when they attacked Houti tribesmen in North Yemen, hundreds of Saudi soldiers surrendered after a brief skirmish. The Saudi regime had to beg the Houtis to release them in return for huge sums of money. So, we are forced to ask: what purpose do the multi-billion dollar armament purchases serve if the Saudis cannot even fight lightly armed tribesmen?
Muslims have achieved success against foreign aggressors only through the mobilization of the masses. This happened in Iran after the Islamic Revolution, in Afghanistan against the Soviets and now against the Americans, and by Hizbullah in Lebanon against the Zionist invaders. Not one Arabian army or a combination of armies has been able to confront and defeat the Zionist enemy. That honor belongs only to Hizbullah. How did a few hundred Hizbullah fighters armed with light weapons defeat the mightiest military machine in the Muslim East when all the Arabian armies with their hi-tech weapons failed to do so? Should this not force Muslims to reflect on the role of militaries and re-think their strategy rather than continue with the same failed policies that have brought nothing but humiliation to the Ummah?
Dependency on material goods leads to a state of mental dependency as well. Elites in Muslim societies have become mental slaves of the West. Learning and speaking Western languages is their life’s ambition. Regrettably, this is also true of many otherwise educated Muslims. The reason is that Western institutions implant Western values in the minds of Muslims. Unless Muslims develop a better understanding of the alien systems in their societies and the institutions that prop them up, they will neither achieve independence nor make progress.
In addition to the militaries, there are other institutions as well, such as the bureaucracy, universities and political systems that are based on values alien to Islam. They are instruments of exploitation and corruption. All these institutions merely perpetuate the dependency syndrome and therefore, despondency among Muslims. In societies where Muslim elites have opted to work through traditional systems, they have invariably resorted to the pre-Islamic era of jahiliyah. Thus, the Saudis practice the worst kind of tribalism but use the label of Islam to camouflage it. The same holds true for other family or tribal-based systems.
The major impediment to Muslims breaking the chains of slavery is their own mental block. Once this is overcome, everything else will fall into place.
Thus, to break the chains of dependency, Muslims will also have to liberate their minds. They must learn to think differently from the way the elite in Western societies think. In fact, Muslims will have to unlearn what they have been taught and begin to learn anew their own values that are based on the principles of Islam. What is being suggested is nothing short of a revolution in Muslim political and cultural thought.
To better understand this, we must consider some practical examples. The first and foremost example from our contemporary history is that of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. What makes this unique is that it is absolutely different from all other revolutions that occurred in the 20th century or even earlier. In fact, the Islamic Revolution traces its roots directly to the first revolution that took place in Arabia more than 1,400 years ago. That revolution, led by none other the noble Messenger of Allah (pbuh), brought about a paradigm shift in the thought-process of the people by challenging the jahili system that had existed in society. It was this paradigm shift that enabled the early Muslims to challenge and ultimately defeat forces many times greater. People that were considered little more than savages, after imbibing Islamic values, were able to establish a civilization that lasted nearly 1,000 years.
The Islamic revolution led by Imam Khomeini who joined heavenly company on 6-3-1989, established a system of governance based on Islamic principles. This enabled the people of Iran to withstand internal as well as external enemies. Internally, they were subjected to a campaign of bombings and assassinations in which some 1,200 leading figures of the revolution were martyred. Any other system would have quickly collapsed. Externally, they faced a full-scale invasion from Ba‘thist Iraq that had the backing of the petro-dollar-flushed Arabian rulers and all the Western powers consumed by a deep hatred of Islam.
The direct military assault on Iran lasted eight years. The people of Iran led by muttaqi leadership single handedly defended the revolution. True, they paid enormous sacrifices but without such sacrifices, it may have been difficult to defend the revolution. Islamic Iran continues to face sanctions, embargoes and sabotage but because of their complete reliance on Allah (swt), they have weathered all these challenges. In the 33 years since the victory of the Islamic Revolution, Iran has made enormous strides in virtually every field. Sanctions and embargoes have only strengthened their resolve to withstand these pressures.
In the political, diplomatic, economic, social and military fields, Iran stands out above all other Muslim countries. When faced with even minor problems, other rulers run to the US for help; Iran stands up for its rights and confronts the aggressor. Islamic Iran has taken huge strides in the scientific field. It is the only Muslim country — indeed among few in the entire world — to have put its own satellite into orbit. Today, it is able to manufacture planes, tanks, submarines and missiles for self-defence, through the efforts of its own engineers and scientists. Last December, its cyber engineers successfully captured and safely landed a US RQ-170 Sentinel (drone), the most sophisticated drone plane in the US arsenal. The plane’s electronic system was overpowered by Iranian computer specialists and by feeding new instructions the plane was brought to land safely in Iran.
This was a remarkable feat on two levels. First, Iran has developed so much sophistication in the field of electronics that it can successfully bring down the most advanced US plane by overriding its programmed commands. Second, Iran challenged the US and refused to hand over the plane. Is there any other country in the world that can stand up to the big bully? How does Iran manage to do it when other, much bigger countries cringe before Uncle Sam? It is certainly not because Iran has a bigger arsenal of weapons than the US. The real reason is that the people of Iran are armed with the most sophisticated weapon that no power on earth can overcome: the weapon of iman (faith-commitment). People armed with iman become impervious to threats and can never be defeated. We witnessed the same phenomenon in Lebanon when Hizbullah successfully beat back the Israeli onslaught in July–August 2006. The Afghans are proving equally difficult for the US and its allies to defeat. Similarly, despite suffering immensely, the Palestinians in Gaza have developed a spirit of resistance the arrogant Zionists cannot break. All these are the direct result of having a strong faith in Allah (swt), the only Superpower there is and will ever be.
Iran has also made strides in other fields. Being a cultured people with thousands of years of history, they have developed a sophisticated system to protect their interests. Diplomatically they have reached out to many countries worldwide. They have developed strong economic and trade links with countries as far afield as South and Central America and Asia. They have reoriented their policy away from the US and Europe. Today, Iran is not dependent on the West; instead, Europe desperately needs Iran. After the US imposed an oil embargo on Iran that is to go into effect in July and the European Union, toeing the US line, said it will embargo Iranian oil by the said date, Iran announced it was cutting supplies to a number of European countries. They came begging to Iran to not cut oil flows.
Iran’s greatest success can arguably be seen in its steadfast refusal to forego its rights under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The US and its Western allies tried unsuccessfully to bully Iran into abandoning its rights. Despite three decades of sanctions and embargoes, Iran stuck to its principled position ultimately forcing the bullying powers to accept Tehran’s rights. They may yet renege on their word. After all, Western countries do not play by the rules, even the ones they themselves have put in place, but Iran’s steadfastness has shown it is possible to stand up to oppressive powers.
For Muslims to make progress, they must first look inward and end the mental slavery into which they have fallen. Without breaking the chains of slavery, no progress or development is possible. Today, the rulers of Muslim nation-states are like animals in a zoo. They have become so accustomed to being fed dead meat that they cannot think of feeding themselves. This is even true of lions. In its natural habitat, the lion is considered king of the jungle. In the zoo or circus, it responds to the crack of the ring master’s whip. Its natural instinct of remaining free is tamed and destroyed. True, a lion in the zoo is still capable of mauling its handlers but it seldom thinks of escaping captivity. Human beings, especially Muslims can learn from the lion’s example.
Unlike the lion, Muslims have the Book of guidance from Allah (swt) and a practical manifestation of its application through the Sunnah and the Sirah of the noble Messenger (pbuh). These are enough for Muslims to overcome any problems in the world. It has been shown by Muslims in the past as well as the present. All it requires for Muslims is to embark on this journey toward total transformation from jahiliyah to Islam.
The major impediment to Muslims breaking the chains of slavery is their own mental block. Once this is overcome, everything else will fall into place.