Who speaks for the Islamic movement? – making sense of the multiplicity of voices

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Rabi' al-Awwal 24, 1422 2001-06-16

Islamic Movement

by Zafar Bangash (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 8, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1422)

The Islamic movement is a multi-faceted and multi-dimensional entity, as broad and as varied as the Ummah itself. Most Muslims instinctively recognise which groups are part of the movement, and which are not, but the multiplicity of voices, within the movement can be bewildering. ZAFAR BANGASH, director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT), asks: who speaks for the Islamic movement?

Given the diverse opinions expressed by a large number of groups in the Muslim world, it is pertinent to ask: who speaks for the Islamic movement? More precisely, who truly represents the Islamic movement and should have the right and authority to speak on its behalf? Trying to answer this question, we are immediately confronted by the difficulty that the Islamic movement is neither a political party nor has a street address; it is everywhere and nowhere, But the difficulty is not as acute as may appear at first sight.

The Islamic movement, however, needs to be clearly understood. Contrary to popular belief, no Islamic party can be considered “the movement”; a party is an exclusivist group with membership, manifesto and other institutional accessories. Those who do not pay memberhip dues are excluded; similarly, those who do not conform to its manifesto are not accepted as members and their opinions, however valid, are not taken into consideration. The party can only be a partial Islamic movement, according to Dr Kalim Siddiqui, while the movement is an open system in which every Muslim is a member, as there is no membership form or fee. This is both an asset and a disadvantage.

Unlike an Islamic state or an Islamic political party, the Islamic movement cannot be destroyed or banned. A ban can only apply if there is a party office or a formal structure. The disadvantage is that people cannot readily identify with the movement because of the absence of constructs that go to make a party. People are used to visiting party offices, in which there is a hierarchy, a structural set-up and a chain of command. No such thing exists in the Islamic movement; it is everywhere and nowhere. This situation has led some to describe the Islamic movement as a “ghost.”

Ghost or not, the Islamic movement is different from an Islamic political party. So we still do not have a clear answer to the question of who should speak for the Islamic movement. It is easier to deal with the issue of who cannot speak for the movement. Muslims have an unfortunate tendency to allow their enemies to determine both their villains and their heroes. Because the Muslim Ummah hates what the US has done and continues to do to Muslims worldwide, anyone who mouths a few anti-American slogans is immediately a hero; if a dog were to bark at an American it would become a hero. People such as Saddam Husain and Mu’ammar Qaddafi come into this category. Such clowns litter the landscape of the Muslim world.

There is another category as well: groups like the Taliban and individuals like Osama bin Laden. They are a little more difficult to deal with. The Taliban have shown that they are able to stand up to the US in some crucial areas. This is their strength, but do their archaic interpretations of Islam qualify them to speak on behalf of Islam and the Islamic movement? We need to deal with this issue a little later. First, let us address the question of Osama bin Laden. He has undoubtedly shown by his example and spirit of sacrifice that he cares for the Ummah. His decision to abandon a life of luxury in his native homeland (Saudi Arabia) is clearly something that has earned him respect among struggling Muslims worldwide. His anti-American stance has also enhanced his reputation, but Muslims must be careful to avoid conferring larger-than-life status on him.

For all his brave talk and undoubted sacrifices, Osama is not a threat to the US; nor can he singlehandedly confront or defeat it. We are not living in the age of bow-and-arrow in which individual heroism accounts for everything. Osama has been projected onto the world stage as part of America’s policy of demonization of Muslims. The US needs an identifiable enemy; the weaker the better, since it is easier to demolish it. America has historically projected its enemies (real or perceived) as larger than life so that, once it has demolished them, it comes out looking great. After the second Gulf War against Saddam Husain’s conscript army in 1991, in which an estimated 500,000 people (civilians as well as soldiers) were slaughtered, the American army held a “victory” parade in New York. This display of naked jingoism was cheered by hundreds of thousands of Americans. That Saddam Husain was no match for the US was deliberately minimised by the western media.

The case of Osama has both parallels and differences with Saddam’s. Like many other Arab volunteers, Oasama worked closely with the Americans during the war against the Soviet occupation forces. What these volunteers did not realize in their innocence was that America was not fighting for the liberation of Afghanistan; it wanted to avenge its defeat in Vietnam. That was not all: once the Red Army had been defeated, Washington turned its wrath against the very mujahideen whom it had supported for nearly a decade. The haste with which the US abandoned the Afghans was scandalous; Uncle Sam has a strange sense of gratitude. But Muslims must realize that state policies are not formulated on the basis of sentiment; the US and its European allies are notorious for ditching their “friends” once they have achieved their purposes. Using others to do their dirty work is their time-tested formula. Saddam found this out to his cost; he fought Iran for eight years to weaken the only Islamic State in the contemporary age at the behest of the west, but once he had served his purpose they turned against him with a vengeance. From being a “hero”, Saddam was turned overnight into an international pariah.

It is, however, the simple-mindedness of Muslims, even sincere ones, that is so depressing. In October 1990, while the west was assembling hundreds of thousands of troops to attack Iraq, Saddam Husain organized an international conference in Baghdad. What was depressing about this event was not only that hundreds of ulama and leaders of Islamic parties and movements attended the conference, but that some of them even proposed that Saddam declare himself the khalifah and said that they would give him bay’a. This suggestion did not come from immature youths but from some of the most senior leaders of the Islamic movement, who had suffered much torture and persecution in their life-long struggle against tyrants like Saddam. The Iraqi ruler has the dubious distinction of murdering some of the best ulama of Islam, including Syed Baqir al-Sadr, one of the great scholars of Islam. How could leaders of the Islamic movement overlook this?

A similar simplistic attitude is evident vis-a-vis the Taliban in Afghanistan. There are some groups in Pakistan who are so enamored of the Taliban that they would like to see their style of government imposed in Pakistan as well. True, the law and order situation in Pakistan is chaotic and people would welcome a firm hand to deal with it, but are they ready for Taliban-style restrictions? Indeed, do the Taliban represent the Muslims’ own universal understanding of the spirit of Islam? Afghanisan is largely a tribal society and the kinds of restrictions imposed by the Taliban may work in that environment, but they are not applicable in a society like Pakistan with its large urban centres and different conditions.

Muslims must be careful not to confuse cultural attitudes with Islam’s universal principles. Islam is concerned not only with stopping people from stealing but also with providing relief and support so that they do not need to steal. Are the Taliban doing that? Why are there so many people begging in the streets of Kabul (yes, even women in burqa with outstretched hands)? Have the rulers of Afghanistan paid any attention to this or are such matters beyond their comprehension? Why are there no squads assigned to find out whether people have enough to eat? During the khilafah of Umar ibn al-Khattab (ra), he personally carried a sack of flour and other food items on his back when he discovered that a woman and her child were hungry. What is the present-day Umar, who even calls himself “ameer ul-mu’mineen” (commander of the faithful), doing about the starving people of Afghanisan while his ministers drive around in land-cruisers and other expensive vehicles?

A recent visitor to Afghanistan, who heads his own group calling for the khilafah in Pakistan, conferred legitimacy upon the Taliban because he was treated like a “VIP” there. This VIP bug has regrettably infected many people in Pakistan. In order to accept the Taliban-style government as Islamic, we have to apply a few simple tests. Do the Taliban enjoy the support of the overwhelming majority of the people of Afghanistan? Have they been tested at the bar of public opinion without coercion? Have they addressed the issue of poverty and starvation in the country? Have they shown adequate concern for the well-being of their people and done something for them instead of simply issuing edicts banning various activities? Is their model applicable elsewhere? (Remember: Islam is a universal deen; its laws are applicable in every situation.)

A review of even partial answers to these questions indicates that beyond such mundane issues as the length of one’s beard, and forcing women to cover themselves from head to foot in a tent-like burqa, the Taliban have shown little understanding of Islam’s universal principles. They may be good fighters, indeed brave fighters, but that is hardly a criterion for legitimising them. The Vietnamese have demonstrated immense bravery by defeating every invading enemy — Japanese, French and American — yet no Muslim in his right mind would say that they are Muslims or that their government is Islamic.

Internationally, the most urgent issue confronting the Muslims today is that of al-Quds and Palestine. Has the Qandahar-based “ameer ul-mumineen” any idea about how to deal with the zionist menace in Palestine? Has he uttered a word about this issue; if not, why not? Taking on the title of “ameer ul-mumineen” imposes enormous responsibilities upon the individual; indeed he assumes responsibility for the entire Ummah. Those in Pakistan who call for bay’a to Mullah Umar should practise what they preach; they should go ahead and give him bay’a but stop killing innocent people in Pakistan simply because they disagree with their point of view. Killing and lawlessness are no way to win people’s hearts. The Qur’an describes Islam as a deen (a way of life); it is not about killing or coercion.

But we must go back to the question of who should speak for the Islamic movement. At present only the Islamic movement in Iran has succeeded in establishing any sort of Islamic state. We must readily concede that it is not a perfect model; it is still undergoing teething problems but there are certain features that are clear. For instance, its leadership is in the hands of muttaqi ulama; they have the support of the people; they are able to deal with the world on their own terms without hiding behind archaic rules. They have also inspired parts of the Islamic movement elsewhere and Islamic Iran has taken a leading role in articulating the concerns of the Ummah in Palestine, Lebanon, Bosnia and elsewhere. True, there have also been failings in certain crucial areas, but these will have to be overcome. If anyone has the authority to speak on behalf of the Islamic movement, it is the leadership of ulama in Iran.

Muslims elsewhere will have to rise above their sectarianism to understand that any group of Muslims has the right to lead the Ummah, be they Shi’a or Sunni. Similarly, the leadership in Iran must represent every part of the Ummah without expecting Muslims elsewhere to subscribe to their particular school of thought. It is this maturity that is currently lacking in the Ummah and which is being exploited by the enemies of Islam.

One point, however, is clear: whatever the present difficulties of Muslims, there are hopeful signs on the horizon. The brutality and oppression of the enemies of Islam, whether in Palestine, Chechnya or Kashmir, have failed to subdue the Muslims. As their enemies’ policies unravel, Muslims will gain confidence. What they need to do is to enhance their understanding and avoid the distraction of petty fiqhi details that at present are sapping their energies. When the ground is burning underneath the feet of the Ummah, that is no time to be arguing about the finer points of law. This is a luxury that must wait for better times.

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