Islam as an Alternative?

Maqbool Ahmad Siraj is the executive editor of the Bangalore-based English monthly Islamic Voice, India’s largest-circulated Islamic magazine in English. He is also a regular contributor to various Indian dailies and mag­azines and the Urdu service of BBC Radio. I include a long article by him to give an idea of an insider’s view of the Muslim movement worldwide.

Most believers of ‘Islam is the alternative’ campaign grossly overestimate the capacity of the followers of Islam. They mainly go by their increasing numbers which is purely a result of demographic expansion. Their increased visibility in the West also boosts their confidence. Some even feel flattered by catchphrases – propagated even by the official American literature – like ‘fastest growing religion in the US’. They are also easily misled by such refrains which simultaneously provide the explosive fodder for the Islamophobic lobby. Some conversions, mainly from the West, are also heartening news for them.

If at all things have changed, they have changed for the worse for the Muslims and Islam in the world during the last three decades. Muslim population has rapidly grown to stand near 1.6 billion mark today. But numbers is not all that Islam requires to project itself as the alternative. Most images are deceptive. We often get misled with pictures of mosques popping up in all corners of the earth, Muslims praying on streets of Paris or Madrid, nearly three million gathering around the Kaaba on the 27th night of Ramadan – more than the number of Haj pilgrimage – in Makkah, the holy Quran being distributed by lorry loads among the faithful during the pilgrimage et al.  An iftar party by President Obama with a few friendly sound bytes, release of Eid Mubarak stamp by the US Posts, an odd university setting up an Islamic Studies department to prove enough elixir for an average Muslim heart to delude him/herself of Islam conquering the West. The very fact that we go gaga over such token forays of Islam into the West as piece of cheerful news, should serve as an index of growing Muslims’ fascination for the West. The mere acceptance of civil liberties of the nascent Muslim population in the West causes ecstasy in our ranks and file. A Saudi journalist informed me a couple of years ago about a directive he had from the Ministry of Information that directed him not to encourage publication of stuff from South Asia. ‘We should look towards the West, where lies our destiny’, the directive  had demanded, Jeddah scribe told me. I have some other instances too. Two Jeddah dailies, Arab News and Saudi Gazette discontinued exclusive news pages for India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Philippines five years ago and started bunching small items from the entire region  in a single page. Reason: the Ministry’s directive not to publish much of stuff from the East.  This obsessive fascination of the West among the Arabs bespeaks of the Muslim mindset which is ever on the lookout for Western endorsement of Islam’s attributes.

Ideas, ideals and ideologies by themselves do not count for much unless the people who champion, espouse and follow them carry some substance. Ideologies after all require the human agency to be implemented. Looked at from this angle, not much material progress is seen among Muslims. Qualitative upgradation has not kept pace with the quantitative expansion of the ummah.  Muslims remain mired in the same miserable mess that surrounded them around the end of the colonial rule. Capitalism led globalisation has rather only added to their subordination, subjugation and suppression. In the 70s when Shah Faisal stopped the supply of oil to the West for their crime of planting and supporting the Zionist state of Israel, some hope arose on the horizon.  It appeared as if the ummah was beginning to retrieve its soul from the West. But soon these hopes were dashed, shattered to smithereens. The West brought in new stratagems. They started studying Islam afresh.  Several of us mistook this study for love for Islam/Muslims in the West. Not alone history, society and languages, but even the economic resources, historical animosities, tribal and ethnic affiliations, sectarian divides, ideological schisms, came to be mapped and explored. It was more methodical.

Muslims had no clue about the West’s designs. They were being led by mere rhetoric, the illusions of Islam’s popularity which even the Western agencies were engaged in actively sustaining, going by the wishful air that generally pervades the Muslim societies. A boxer embracing Islam here and a Michael Hart eulogizing the Prophet there continued to massage the Islamists’ ego.   There was no hard work behind the ‘Islam is the best’ rhetoric. Muslims remained dependent on the Western technology. Imports kept spiraling. Some of these nouveau riche societies fuelled by the oil wealth were methodically acculturated in extravagance, opulence and ostentations. They were being trained to enjoy luxuries they themselves were not able to produce and provide.  Human genius from the poorer and less developed Muslim societies was systematically poached and taken to the West. The Ummah has been bled white. It is barely able to crystallize an objective for itself, let alone guiding the destiny of the  humanity.

What do you expect from such a gullible lot?  Far from being the standard-bearers of an ideology that could promise salvation, Muslims today offer no hope.  Few among them have any sense of direction and the perception of the grave challenges posed by the exploitative West. They are groping through the thick smog made up of sentiments, romanticised memories of the past and verbal rhetoric.  Led by an ill-informed clergy totally bereft of the ground realities and needs of the human society and brought up on the stale diet of  hackneyed ideas, Muslims are nowhere in the reckoning. Far from offering the humanity any alternative, they are vulnerable to experimentation of all and sundry ideologies. All new weapons are being tested on the Muslim lands and are even paid for by the Arab oil money stacked in the Western banks. They have missed the bandwagon of knowledge and are poor on the scale of values. No great ideas have emerged from their societies during the last six decades. They have built few institutions of repute and real learning.  Barring a few nations, they are ruled by despots, monarchs, dictators, army generals and self-styled leaders.  In fact they are all rulers. The Muslim world has produced few leaders.  These rulers lead nobody except  themselves.   Their societies suffer from pathetic paucity of role models.

Taking pride in numbers is often the pet pastime of Muslims. For all such passionate believers in numbers, the Pew Forum’s survey of Muslim population (published in 2009) made a great reading. The survey has pegged the number of Muslims around the globe at 1.56 billion or 23 per cent of the people inhabiting this planet.

Fancy for numbers even propels some of us to exaggerate the size of the community and even suspect under-enumeration or suppression of real figures by authorities.  All this talk about conversions to Islam in the West is much baloney and self-delusion rather than factual.

More enlightened guesses suggest that scores of youth with Muslim names in American universities say that their parents used to be Muslims on being asked if they are Muslims. American mathematician Dr. Jeffrey Lang in his latest book painfully admits that youths of Muslim parentage are being driven away from the faith because the Islam propagated by these so called dawah group is ‘retrogressive, stagnant, patriarchal remnant of a lagging culture, mired in meaningless controversies and hollow and lifeless formalism’. (Ref. Losing my religion: A Call for help by Amana Publications). He says that mass numbers of descendents of Muslims, converts, and spiritual seekers are forsaking the American Islamic community and fears that many of these will inevitably abandon the religion. Yet the popular refrain across the world is that ‘Americans are turning to Islam en masse’ and in their fondness for religious sensationalism some even forcibly drag Neil Armstrong and Michael Jackson into the fold of Islam. The fact is that some in the West are in quest of spiritual solace and definitely turn to Islam fascinated by the images of neat rows of namazis praying in solitude of mosques or the spirit of renunciation visible through Hajj pilgrimage. But for the majority of the enlightened citizens of the world, Muslim world holds no charm. We need to ask why?

The exodus of creative genius from the Muslim societies towards the West provides a partial answer to such queries. Restrictive social and political environment drives away the learned, the intellectuals and the scholars to where they find a vent for their knowledge and skills. Ask a group of 100 post graduate students anywhere in the Muslim world as to which country they would choose to migrate if the option is between the USA and Saudi Arabia. Chances are that 85 per cent would opt for the US. Why? Because the deficits in knowledge, freedom and women’s empowerment in the Arab world (and more or less all over the Muslim world) does not enthuse a pursuer of knowledge, cherisher of values,  or lover of freedom and believer in gender equity. Education and learning  in the Islamic world suppresses questioning, independent thinking and self-confidence leading to passive attitudes. No wonder then why life in Muslim countries is so monotonous with only food and worship filling the gaps.

Consequently, we have some of the most ignorant, illiterate and uncreative societies around us. No major invention has emerged from the Muslim world for the last five centuries. In numerical terms, 41 predominantly Muslim countries with about 20 per cent of the world’s total population generate less than 5 per cent of its scientific output, going by the proportion of citations of articles published in international science journals. A study by academics at the International Islamic University Malaysia showed that OIC countries have 8.5 scientists, engineers, and technicians per 1,000 population, compared with a world average of 40.7, and 139.3 for countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (For more on the OECD, see http://www.oecd.org.) On average, the 57 OIC states spend an estimated 0.3 per cent of their gross national product on research and development, which is far below the global average of 2.4 per cent. Yet another determining factor for diffusion of knowledge is the number of available scientists, engineers, and technicians. Those numbers are low for OIC countries, averaging around 400–500 per million people, while developed countries typically lie in the range of 3500–5000 per million.

Forty-six Muslim countries contributed 1.17 per cent of the world’s science literature, whereas 1.66 per cent came from India alone and 1.48 per cent from Spain. Twenty Arab countries contributed 0.55 per cent compared with 0.89 per cent by Israel alone. The US NSF records that of the 28 lowest producers of scientific articles in 2003, half belong to the OIC. According to the Pakistan Council for Science and Technology, Pakistani researchers have registered just eight international patents in the past 43 years. In 2004, high-tech exports – mostly software – amounted to just one per cent of total exports from our neighbouring country.

Talk about science, education and research, one perforce looks at the record of the Arabs, because it is they who have resources to spare on such pursuits. But Arabs have proved themselves the worst (or best) laggards, coming even behind Turks, Iranians, Pakistanis, Malaysians and Indonesian. The Arab world has less than 53 newspapers per 1,000 Arab citizens compared to 285 papers per 1,000 for developed countries. Arabs have 18 computers per 1,000 persons against global average 78 for 1,000. Translation is considered to be the most important channel of diffusion of knowledge. On average, only 4.4 translated books per million people were published between 1980-85 in the Arab world, while the corresponding rate in Hungary (not a very enlightened society by current standards) was 519 books and with regard to Spain it was 920 books. The number of scientists and engineers working in R&D in Arab countries is not more than 371 per million citizens while the global ratio is 979 per million. Arabs constitute 5 per cent of the world population but produce only 1.1 per cent of the books, most of which is religious literature. The production of literary and artistic books in Arab countries is lower than the general level. In 1996, it did not exceed 1,945 books, representing only 0.8 per cent of world production, i.e., less than the production of a country such as Turkey, with a population one quarter of that of Arab countries. With such pathetic state of diffusion and dissemination of knowledge, how do we expect to offer any solution or salvation to a world racked by wars, catastrophes, both human and natural?

Arabs have failed in all departments of human effort except in matters of procreation. Their number has doubled–from 180 million in 1980 to 360 million in 2010 – in the last 30 years. Their lack of creativity is the ideal fodder for doomsayers. All that they manufacture together is less than what is produced by the Philippines. In 20 years – between 1980 and 2000–Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, the UAE and Syria could register merely 367 patents. Their chief foe Israel registered 7,652 patents while tiny South Korea had 16,328 patents.

The 57 OIC countries together have 1,800 universities. But no university makes a grade among the top-100 listed by the Newsweek every year or the top-500 ranking compiled by Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

If knowledge comes last among the priorities of Muslims, social values are even more elusive. Most Muslim societies are corruption ridden, though social crimes might be less prevalent.  Most Muslims tend to look at the individual pieties to judge their own societies.  Only 13 Muslim countries figure among the first 100 least corrupt nations, remaining being listed among the more and most corrupt ones on the Corruption Perception Index of the Transparency International.   Be it freedom of religion, speech, press, most Muslim nations make a heap at the bottom. No wonder then why Muslim believers in liberal humanism and intellectuals like Hossein Nasr, Ziauddin Sardar, Tariq Ali, Akbar Ahmed, Dr. Fazlur Rahman, Nimat Hafez Barzangi, Asma Barlas, Ayesha Jalal, Khaled Abul Fadl, Raji Al Faruqi, Hashir Farooqi, Tariq Ramadan have to seek the Western hospitality.  These were not the people of the ilk of Rushdie, Taslima or Hirsi Ali. Yet they found the air unwelcome in their own societies. The West accommodates them just as it thinks necessary to have in its midst Noam Chowmsky, George Galloway, Anne Marie Schemmel, Karen Armstrong, Murad Hofmann, Roger Garaudy et al.

Numerical growth of the Ummah or the noticeable growth in ritual practices holds no key to its weight, assertiveness, prestige and prosperity. Minuscule communities/nations such as Jews, Parsis and Koreans have contributed to the humanity and gained respect than an impoverished, uncreative and weightless Muslim multitudes. It is time for us to assess if the Ummah is anywhere near offering salvation to the misery ridden humanity.  It is time to seriously question all that rhetoric that has been fed to the somnolent community.



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