Like so many activists and institutions in the Islamic movement, we at Crescent International take the unity of the Ummah as a basic assumption and premise of everything that we do. As we have so often affirmed, the understanding that we all have in common as Muslims far outweighs our many differences.
Like so many activists and institutions in the Islamic movement, we at Crescent International take the unity of the Ummah as a basic assumption and premise of everything that we do. As we have so often affirmed, the understanding that what we all have in common as Muslims far outweighs our many differences is fundamental to converting the theoretical principle of Muslim unity into a practical reality, particularly at a time when Islamic movements around the world both face unprecedented challenges, and have unique opportunities.
Merely sharing this fundamental understanding, however, is not enough. The global Islamic movement is not organizationally or institutionally a single entity; instead it consists of countless scholars, intellectuals, activists, groups and movements, operating separately and independently, and following different strategies, methods and priorities according to their perceptions of the circumstances in their own parts of the world. Despite their theoretical understanding of the unity of the Ummah, most of these activists and movements have trouble relating their own struggles with those of other movements and of the fragmented Ummah as a whole.
One lesson of a life spent working in Islamic causes of one sort or another is that the wider perspective tends to get lost as organizations and individuals become consumed with the pressures of smaller and more local, but also more tangible and immediate, projects. The Muslim Institute in London — now sadly defunct — is a case in point. It was conceived in the 1970s by Dr. Kalim Siddiqui and those working with him as a think-tank for encouraging Muslim intellectual work in preparation for a possible future Islamic revival. The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1978–79 gave this work an immediate resonance and relevance, and through the 1980s the Muslim Institute served as a genuine and effective intellectual centre for Islamic movement activists from all round the world. In particular it hosted international seminars in London at which activists from every corner of the globe could come together to discuss issues such as the legacy of colonialism, the problems of nationalism and nation-states, understandings of state and politics, and the centrality of Hajj. As important as the formal discussions on the topics of the seminars were the general circulation of ideas among the delegates, and the contacts established between Islamic activists from all parts of the Ummah, from revolutionary Iran and the Arab heartlands of Islam, to Turkey, the Asian sub-continent, north and west Africa, south-east Asia, and Muslim communities in the global diaspora. Over two decades later, those associated with the Muslim Institute at that time still meet activists who remember and appreciate those seminars wherever we may go.
The world, of course, has changed in those two decades. As a result of the impact of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and on the pretext of the “security threat” posed by al-Qaeda-type groups since 9/11, Islamic movements all over the world are subject to persecution and controls that make it impossible for such gatherings ever to be held anywhere, let alone in a western capital such as London. Some of those who attended those conferences are in American or other jails; others are deeply involved in local affairs, political or otherwise, in their own countries; some are no longer involved in the movement at all. The Muslim Institute itself no longer exists, its attention and resources, like those of Dr. Kalim himself late in his life, having been consumed by local issues in Britain, particularly the establishment of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain in the early 1990s. The fact that both the Institute and the Parliament fell into disrepair (and in the case of the latter, disrepute) after Dr. Kalim’s death in 1996 makes those seminars and the intellectual environment that they engendered seem all the farther away. Of all the institutions that Dr. Kalim established to serve Muslims and the Islamic movement, only Crescent International still survives, such as it is. (For more information on the Muslim Institute and Dr. Kalim Siddiqui, see the website of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought, www.islamicthought.org).
But the role that the Muslim Institute originally set out to fulfil, that of providing a platform for the generation and circulation of ideas within the Islamic movement, remains desperately needed. The movement is full of writers, commentators, analysts and scholars producing ideas and writings and putting them out for public consumption and consideration; but most unfortunately are reaching only limited audiences, and few are effectively engaging in any meaningful exchange of ideas with others in similar positions. The main reason for this is that the platforms on which such writings are published tend to be of limited perspective and reach; and the few that aspire to be something more usually fail because of the limitations of their resources, quality and management. What the Islamic movement lacks is an infrastructure for the circulation and exchange of ideas; and this absence is the greatest hindrance to the intellectual revolution that the movement needs to progress further from the situation established by the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which other movements have failed to emulate for various reasons.
In the hegemonic West, this role is fulfilled by the global network of universities, research institutions, academic professional associations, think-tanks, journals and publishers that provide a support system and sources of patronage for intellectuals working within the Western framework, wherever they may be. By engaging with institutions in this network, intellectuals and would-be intellectuals anywhere can engage in debates with others anywhere in the world, and identify themselves as part of a global community of thinkers working on similar ideas. The ethos of this network also channels intellectual work in certain directions by rewarding those who accept its parameters, and tacitly accept the legitimacy of Western hegemony, while excluding and marginalising those who reject it. Among the young Islamic activists who attended the Muslim Institute’s seminars in the 1980s are several who have subsequently forged careers in mainstream academia and in the process lost touch with their roots in the movement. In many cases, they went into these positions genuinely determined to use them for the furthering of their Islamic ideals, but were unable to resist the socialisation inherent in working in those institutions. Elsewhere there are countless Muslim intellectuals who chose to work outside mainstream institutions, but have struggled to be heard at all, let alone to engage effectively in any larger discourse.
Such negative factors apart, the key role this infrastructure plays is in circulating Western ideas, providing a global discourse within which intellectuals can place their work, and integrating them into a community of thinkers engaged in a collective intellectual enterprise. Providing the Islamic movement — then much more vaguely perceived, of course — with a platform and a framework for integrating Muslim intellectuals into a global community of thinkers, reflecting the unity of the Ummah, was a key element of Dr. Kalim’s thinking when he established the Muslim Institute. In his final book, Stages of Islamic Revolution, completed and published shortly before his death in April 1996, he reiterated the need for an intellectual revolution, and outlined the “open university of Islam” that the movement needed to generate the ideas of this revolution.
The Islamic movement, and the world historical situation that it faces, have moved on greatly since 1996, let alone since the Muslim Institute seminars in the 1980s or the foundation of the Institute in the mid-1970s. So too, thanks to the internet, has the nature of intellectual and public discourse. But the fundamental need for an intellectual infrastructure that can help realise the unity of the fragmented and diverse Ummah in the form of a single community of Muslim intellectuals engaged in a global discourse in pursuit of the goals of the Islamic movement remains as great as ever. The task of fulfilling this need awaits the attention of those who recognise its importance and potential.
Iqbal Siddiqui is a former editor of Crescent International (1998–2008). He now publishes a personal blog, ‘A Sceptical Islamist’: