Muslims Must Reform or Be Left Behind

Anwar Ibrahim

Affirmations of brotherhood and lamentations over the elusiveness of a long-sought fraternity are two perennial themes of modern Muslim rhetoric. It seems that no summit would be worthy of the name unless such sentiments were somehow woven into the agenda. The 10th summit of the Organization of Islamic Conference to be held outside Kuala Lumpur later this week will probably be no different.

Few will be surprised if the opulence of the conference venue is matched by an appalling poverty of ideas on how to cure the Muslim malady -- poor governance, economic deprivation, political restiveness among citizens, and, of course, the bad press the community has been receiving. Sure, the delegates will be vociferous in condemning terrorism. They will also express disgust with the U.S. for its imperialistic designs. And they will launch diatribes against the WTO, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund for their failure to address concerns of developing countries.

No doubt, these groups are all culpable in some way, but ranting about insidious neocolonialism and issuing pious platitudes about the superiority of the Islamic approach are no substitute for a workable plan to address the depressing state of the Muslim community. And their Muslim audiences are not likely to miss the irony of living under virtual one-party systems.

The Palestinian question will continue to be the dominant issue at the conference. Israeli state terrorism must be condemned before there can be any effective check against the desperate and retaliatory acts of terror that the dispossessed Palestinians resort to. Many Muslims see the U.S. stance in this conflict as diabolical, and the outrage has been aggravated by the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. But concerned Muslims are asking where this Muslim outrage was when the Taliban insulted the Islamic tradition of respect for other religions in their destruction of the statues of Buddha at Bamiyan? And why was there silence for decades in the face of Saddam Hussein's atrocities against Kurds, Marsh Arabs and Shiites; and what about his war against Iran and conquest of Kuwait? When the bodies are tallied, Muslims will find that more of their brothers and sisters have been butchered by their own leaders than by non-Muslims. Even now, Muslim governments have expended little effort in the quest for a just resolution to the conflicts in Chechnya, Kashmir and Aceh.

Thus one can appreciate the widespread cynicism among ordinary Muslims about the OIC. They see it as a body too frail to champion Muslim causes and a loose ensemble operating on ideas out of tune with the times. One testimony to their ineffectuality is the Islamic News Agency. Formed in the early days of the conference, it was, on its face, a noble idea. Its role was to correct an imbalance in international news coverage due to the perceived biases of Western news agencies. But it was doomed at its very inception because it was not to be an agency selling uncensored news, vigorous reporting, and critical commentary. Its creators meant, instead, for it to be a recorder of official views and a peddler of reports on national development and successes. In short, it was to be an internationalized propaganda agent. It is not surprising, then, that al-Jazeera, hailed as a new voice of independent journalism in the Middle East, is viewed with apprehension by many Arab governments, even as it irks the U.S.

Paradoxically, the controlled national media have been parroting the most naive utterances, perpetuating stereotypes of Islam and Muslims. Thus the ruthless and secular Saddam Hussein has been styled an "Islamic dictator," the perverse policies of the Taliban equated with the Shariah, terrorism ascribed to Wahhabi teachings and the Shiite community characterized as people with a propensity to violence. And then, it is a simple matter of sticking the label Taliban, Wahhabi or Shiite on dissenters before eventually arresting them under draconian laws allowing detention without trial.

Many developing countries welcome the wind of democratic change sweeping across the globe, embracing reform to ensure the entrenchment of fundamental liberties and the promotion of economic growth. But a large section of the Muslim belt remains stuck in political systems that are anathema to freedom. And as a cultural group, Muslims appear to be the most resistant to democracy. Their economies, straining under dirigiste systems, are slumping the fastest. The few Muslim majority countries that can claim some measure of economic success have done so because of secularism and democracy, as in Turkey, or the presence of industrious Chinese, as in Malaysia and to some extent Indonesia.

Yet we still hear the sermon of self-serving Muslim autocrats that their subjects are incapable of democracy. Who in his or her right mind does not want to be free to exercise choice? Could there be morality without freedom? These are questions that should be hurled at the enemies of democracy. They have to be reminded that the notion of choice is embedded in Islamic theology. It is a moral imperative for Muslims to make the leap to responsible government, departing from oppressive and corrupt policies. Having been embittered by the CIA and Mossad, as they claim, Muslim leaders should know better than to use intelligence agencies such as Saddam's Mukhabarat or the Special Branch in Malaysia to harass or terrorize citizens.

Instead of denigrating the Shariah and demonizing Ulama, the Islamic council of wise men, Muslim leaders should ponder the reasons why an increasing number of Muslims, including young professionals, see the Shariah as a viable alternative to the current systems in their countries, where the rule of man has supplanted the rule of law and the institutions of justice have been all but physically destroyed. Representative government, with adequate constitutional safeguards, is the best insurance of peace and economic progress.

To be relevant to our times, those claiming to represent Muslims cannot afford to gloss over these issues. Most of all, they must accept the inevitability of a predominantly democratic and pluralistic world. The Muslim world must navigate its way toward freedom and justice, which, after all, were integral components of the Prophet Muhammad's mission.

Professor Anwar Ibrahim holds the Malaysia Chair of Islam in Southeast Asia at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.