Towards a Progressive Islam on Our Own Terms
By Farish A. Noor.
As the world awaits the impending humanitarian disaster that is about to fall on Iraq, there is much talk about the need for a 'regime change' (re. Coup) against Saddam Hussein so that a friendly pro-American regime will be put in power instead. In neighbouring Iran the mood is just as sombre, as another 'regime change' is on the cards for the one Muslim country that has successfully made the democratic transition from radical Islamist politics towards a culture of pluralism and openness.
All of these geo-political shifts - motivated by realpolitik concerns more than anything else - have been predicated on a superfluous discourse that pits 'radical Islam' against 'progressive Islam'. Worse of all, the entire debate has been set on terms that are exclusively Western, as CNN and the BBC decide who qualifies as a 'good Muslim' and who exactly is a 'bad Muslim'.
This should not, however, distract us from the simple fact that 'good' and 'bad' Muslims exist. The normative experience of living Islam is, sadly, not immune to the pitfalls and dangers of the modern world and there have been many Muslims whose own reaction to Western hegemony has been to blame and oppose the West in toto, including innocent Western civilians who may well be on the side of Muslims themselves. Then there are the fanatics and Pharisees in our midst, whose only political strategy seems to be labelling other Muslims as 'kafirs', 'munafik' and 'traitors to Islam'.
Lest it be forgotten, the rich discursive repertoire of Islam furnishes us with enough distinctions and standards to judge these fanatics and extremists. Those who practice the despicable neo-Khwarajite culture of takfir have already exiled themselves from the mainstream of Muslim society and should be regarded as extremists on Islamic terms. Likewise there are those who truly deserve the label of 'progressive' Muslims, as they live up to the standards of openness, tolerance and universal humanism as found in Islam.
But the danger we face today is that there is the 'good' version of Islam being promoted by Washington and the powers that be in the West. This is the genetically-modified version of Islam that is toothless, spineless and gutless and can only parrot the litany of the West uncritically. For such Muslims, critical engagement with the West effectively means doing whatever their Western paymasters pay and tell them to do. By doing so they have not only discredited themselves, but also the agenda and project of progressive Islam itself.
The real threat that moderate Muslims face today is being squeezed between the fanatics in their own community and the Cold Warriors of the West who wish to promote progressive Islam as the final bulwark in the 'war against terror'.
Muslim leaders, governments and states must therefore be extremely vigilant and careful about what they sign and agree to these days. At a time when Washington is on the lookout for more domesticated cronies to call their own, Muslim leaders have to be prepared to stand up for what they believe in and to defend the interests of Islam and Muslims as a whole. They cannot, and should not, fall into the trap of selling their principles for the sake of short-term political gains, or allow themselves and their states to be unwittingly recruited in the lopsided 'war against terror' which basically means allowing their countries to be used as staging posts in a global theatre of war where Muslims are the primary targets (and victims).
Malaysia in particular should be wary about how and where it treads from now on. Malaysia has always been against any form of terrorism and violence, be it in religious or non-religious form. But Malaysia should not allow itself to be dragged into a war that is not its own making for reasons that are not its own.
It is not an exaggeration to say that over the past few decades Malaysia's image and standing in the Muslim world has risen to new heights. All over the world - and the Muslim world in particular - Malaysia is seen as the one Muslim country that has achieved some meaningful and substantial degree of success, both economically and politically. Though there exists some misguided and hapless Islamists who may think that Osama bin Laden or the Taliban are the embodiments of Islam (which speaks volumes about their own orientation and values), it is safe to say that most of the Muslims in the country are still sane, rational, sensible people who think like adults.
To squander this goodwill and prestige for the sake of realpolitik would be a major own-goal on our part, and undo all the work that has been done so far. It would give the mistaken impression that Malaysia's Islamisation project that was geared towards the promotion of an approach to Islam as a religion of peace, progress and development was a 'made in Washington' brand of Islam intended to please the West rather than serve the interests of Muslims themselves.
Any form of progressive Islam has to be intimately linked to universal concerns like human rights, democracy and freedom. It must also demonstrate its worth and credentials by critically engaging with the realities of the global age we live in, and it cannot be afraid of speaking the truth to power - particularly when that power emanates from the developed and industrialised Western world that is deliberately and systematically exploiting and dominating the rest.
A 'progressive Islam' that does not take up concerns like globalisation's uneven impact on the Third World, the marginalisation of the poor and underprivileged, the abuses of human rights in our midst and the plight of persecuted peoples like the Palestinians is not a progressive Islam at all: it is merely a castrated and toothless tiger allowed to squeak once in a while, but it remains a piece of decoration. Good for soundbites but nothing else.
For progressive Islam to succeed in Malaysia and in the rest of the Muslim world, it has to be allowed to thrive and prosper in a political climate that is open to differences of thought and opinion and where critical thinking is not only tolerated but encouraged. It has to be rooted in the tradition of Islamic thought and it has to revive the open, plural and progressive tendencies that have been silenced for so long.
Islam can and must be a vehicle for social transformation, democratisation and justice on both the local and global levels. But most of all it has to be an effort initiated and sustained by conscientious Muslims themselves, and not Western technocrats and Cold Warriors who can only see Muslim states and peoples as pawns on a global battlefront.
Dr. Farish Noor is the former Secretary-General of JUST