A lot of people agree that the Islamic world today is in urgent need of reformation.i
In the minds of the vast majority of non-Muslims, the word Islam is directly associated with violence, terrorism, oppression of women and violation of human rights.
In a reaction to an article entitled, “Isis in Iraq: UN report details ‘staggering’ violence, war crimes and ‘possible genocide‘ in Iraq,” published by the British newspaper The Independent on January 19, 2016ii, a lay reader by the name of Jerome wrote the following highly-opinionated comment:
“It is high time that the civilised world stopped groping in the darkness. Instead of futile attempts to ‘stop radicalisation of youth’ and ‘prevent spreading of terrorism’, the world leaders should admit to the elephant in the living room, the root cause, the terror manual called koran and its 6th century draconian ideology. For that, firstly, we have to accept the reality that there is no moderate or peaceful Islam. Every person who follows this ugly book is a potential terrorist. Until this nasty book and its nauseating ideology are completely wiped out from this planet, the life of civilised people will be at the mercy of this madness, and peaceful world will remain as an elusive idea.”
In principle this means two important things: firstly, the latest terrorist attacks in the Western world have further entrenched the stereotypes about Islam and Muslims in Europe and America and the Muslim world is doing strictly nothing to improve its image by reaching out to the affected people, social and religious organizations to rebuild confidence and to make Islam easy to understand. Alas, only some local organizations are left on their own to undertake this huge task unassisted both morally and financially.
The world is gone global for some time now, this has both positive and negative correlations whether we like it or not. So, if a stereotype is formed about a given culture or religion, it is undoubtedly insured global spread. The truth of the matter is that today Islam is equated with violence, dictatorship and terrorism.
Today, the Muslim world spans the whole globe with over 1,6 billion representing ¼ (23,4%) of the world population of which, and according to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation -OIC-,iii it is the religion of 57 states around the globe,iv 47 of these are Muslim and 10 other countries have Muslim minorities. By continents and regions the percentage is as follows: 24.8% in Asia-Oceania, 91.2% in the Middle East-North Africa, 29.6% in Sub-Saharan Africa, around 6.0% in Europe, and 0.6% in the Americas.
ISIS is a dangerous oddity v
ISIS has brought to the third millennium horrible practices of the Middle Ages meant to terrorize enemies and subdue grassroots, such as: public beheading or burning of imprisoned foes alive, as well as parading them in cages in markets and public places. Only two horror practices are duly missing from this horror repertoire, which probably will come later on: sticking the severed head of enemies on spears and putting them at the gates of cities to set an example to incoming visitors or travelers, and public dismembering of enemy prisoners. Not to forget of course the numerous harrowing and horrifying acts around the globe undertaken by groups of terrorists officially affiliated to ISIS or lone wolves sympathizing with this violent state.
The Islamic State, unlike other nascent states is not trying to win the hearts and the minds of the other countries, to be recognized worldwide. From the very beginning, it showed its bellicose nature and belligerent attitude, and this is rather odd. So, from the word go this organization-state has taken a suicide path, beheading Americans, French, English, Japanese and burning a Jordanian pilot who bombed their positions as part of the American coalition to destroy their terrorist entity.
For Slavoj Zizek, a Slovenian philosopher, psychoanalyst and social theorist lecturing at the Birkbeck School of Law, University of London and author of many books, including the “Absolute Recoil,”vi he argues:
“Does this make ISIS premodern? Instead of seeing in ISIS a case of extreme resistance to modernization, one should rather conceive of it as a case of perverted modernization and locate it into the series of conservative modernizations which began with the Meiji restoration in 19th-century Japan (rapid industrial modernization assumed the ideological form of “restoration,” or the return to the full authority of the emperor).”
ISIS has come onto the Middle Eastern scene at a time when the Arab uprisings of 2011 have brought a glimmer of hope to the Arab people, who have endured, over centuries, undemocratic rule, indignant nepotism, horrendous favoritism, horrible corruption, unacceptable abuse of power, terrible human rights violation and unbearable patriarchy.
With the advent of the Arab Spring and its domino effect with dictatorships in the region, ordinary people were rejoicing and hoping for the best in the future, but at the height of this promising revolution came ISIS with a retrograde agenda to take back, supposedly, the Muslim world to its Golden Era or rather to the dark ages, as a matter of fact, given the nature of its violent and inhuman actions and deeds.
Some people went along with this, with the belief that it will end the emasculation to which Muslims are still subjected by the Western world through colonialism, exploitation and subjugation, but that does not justify, in the least, the glorification of ISIS and its medieval beliefs and practices.
There is no doubt that ISIS is a strange oddity of the third millennium and must be fought with no respite because it does truly give Islam a bad name and a terrible reputation.
Urgent need for renewal of Islamic thought
Considerable importance is granted by Muslim scholars to the issues of renewal and ijtihad (jurisprudence),vii particularly the renewal of Islamic intellectual thought and heritage. This renewal is the constructive process which continues the action of ancestors and benefits from the ijtihad of contemporary scholars in rebuilding cultural identity and entrenching its principles and lofty references, as well as, the divine revelation which guides man onto the straight path. This revelation is the referential framework and knowledge regulator in the Islamic civilization’s view of all concepts and matters. It is the factor most likely to propel it towards shedding the manifestations of backwardness which emerged during past historical phases, spread the culture of ijtihad which promotes complementarities and the unity that defies conflict, and repositions the Islamic Ummah (global nation)viii on the scene of cultural action and human contribution.
At this age of globalization, where challenges are growing in size and number, revitalizing Islamic intellectual heritage, renewing it and shedding light on the riches that contributed to the march of human civilization seem to be of utmost importance. The standardization and alienation attempts and centralist cultural tendencies that negate the multiplicity of historical courses in shaping human civilization are to be countered with force.
Islamic thought needs new blood and a reformist boost to be given by the Ummah’s scholars in a wise approach, free from the logic of exclusive bipolarity, where the sources of knowledge are integrated. Thus, can be edified the civilization of the Ummah of the middle way, known in Arabic culture as: wasatiyya (tolerance)ix, which stands witness to all mankind and carries the universal message of Islam: brotherhood of men.
Therefore, the Ummah will have to dedicate a series of new philosophies and lines of thought aiming to promote the Islamic cultural heritage in all its tangible, natural and intangible expressions, and protect it from plundering and looting. Attention will also have to be given to publicizing the achievements of this heritage throughout the intellectual and cultural evolution of the human civilization, such as the cognitive methods and forms it invented, the ethical systems and values it established, the religious and material human concepts and rules it devised, and the bases of political and civil institutions it set up, throughout the centuries. Indeed, these elements have become reference frames for the human thought and, by extension, for the human society, in the sense that they reaffirm the importance of the human being as a free entity and personality, equal in creation, faculties, capacities and dignity, as well as, in accountability, rights and obligations.
Being conscious of the importance of keeping up with international changes, the Ummah is already anticipating globalization’s repercussions in this field, motivated by certain uniform and standardized visions conveyed by this phenomenon, as well as, by the power of sophisticated technologies, put at the disposal of globalization to infiltrate the cultural specificities of peoples and nations, in addition to interfering with legislations, laws and systems which enable it to replace values, standards and concepts, so that they concord with its narrow perception of a single and unique culture.
In this regard, it will have to address these consequences from a positive angle, take benefit from everything positive this world phenomenon can offer for the Islamic cultural heritage, and make use of it in such a way as to become a catalyst for the human thought and civilization in the future. These consequences or repercussions will be dealt with from a distinct cultural position, based on an original cultural specificity and a unique civilizational identity that belongs to a single and same human origin, and lives in a wide world with multiple cultures, civilizations and religions.x
Very serious efforts will have to be dedicated to encouraging research aimed at exploring the means and ways to benefit from the Islamic intellectual heritage and study the methodical approaches to the required renewal-geared reading of religious and secular knowledge. There is a need to explore the opportunities made possible by globalization and the technological revolution and how they can be used to present the Islamic heritage and its contribution to enriching universal heritage. They would serve to demonstrate its ability, once improved and renewed, to play a part in building a universal Islamic thought that embodies the characteristics of the Islamic message, lays the intellectual foundations for a civilizational edifice, and presents an Islamic vision of the universe, man and life that can provide a civilizational alternative to rescue humanity and halt the unbridled progress of materialism.
Cultural diversity and acceptance of the other in his entire “otherness”
The cultural strategy of the Islamic world must underline that no one culture can survive by its own, and that cultural diversity and interaction between civilizations, cultures and peoples are realities that could not be circumvented.
This approach will contribute to promote the level of dialogue, both inside and outside of the Muslim world, and extend the scope of participation and consultation necessary for its implementation, as well as combating all forms of fanaticism and withdrawn attitudes.
Muslim countries will have to focus their action on programs and activities aimed at entrenching the culture of dialogue and the respect of cultural specificities and cultural diversity in consolidating human rights, understanding and concord between cultures; encouraging governments to ratify and publicize UNESCO’s international Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions of 2005;xi xii disseminating its contents as widely as possible, especially among young generations and civil society organizations; and working towards ensuring a democratic governance and the respect for cultural rights of ethnic and linguistic minorities.
These actions must, also, seek to enhance the sense of citizenship and active participation of foreign nationals and immigrants, as well as educating them on the values of tolerance and the rejection of all forms of discrimination, racism and hatred. Similarly, these actions will have to strive to reactivate the concept of international cultural Takaful,xiii in order to firmly establish the culture of human rights and the rights of peoples; consolidate cultural relations and cultural exchange; facilitate cultural mobility and the freedom of movement of people and ideas by encouraging South-South and North-South programs for student exchange visits.
Furthermore, this approach is aimed at setting up consultation mechanisms on labor and immigration to ensure the respect of human dignity of immigrants and foreign nationals; devising tourism’s development policies within the respect of cultural heritage and cultural identities; ensuring social harmony and combating poverty, violence, marginalization and social vulnerability.
In this age of globalization, information explosion and the multiplicity of audio-visual media and channels, the issue of image has acquired more weight and urgency in view of the impediments that may hinder the flow of information and its communication capacity. This has become even more relevant following the international changes to which Islam and Muslims were party, and in the aftermath, the image of the Islamic civilization became the subject of a tremendous amount of premeditated and unpremeditated distortion. There is talk of the phenomenon of Islamophobia which has taken many forms of which the most blatant is the discrimination against Muslim immigrants in employment, housing, education and other fields.
Some Western parties have even gone further and began to flaunt their hostility towards Islam, desecrate and denigrate its sanctities and make racist statements that are punishable by law and condemned by international conventions. Some Muslim institutions were the victim of vandalism and desecration as were some mosques, graves and cultural centers in the West. Faced with the escalation of this phenomenon and its progression from a state of dormancy to one of active notoriety, it is necessary for Muslim intellectuals to take charge of the mission of countering this phenomenon and addressing it following a two-tiered and tightly devised plan.
The first part consists of the emergency measure of monitoring and compiling what is badly written and said about Islam, condemning it and engaging legal action against it in cooperation and coordination with regional and international partners. The second part is presenting the truthful image of Islam on the ruins of the erroneous misconceptions and stereotypes circulating either in the media or school curricula, history books or biased literary works, which action represents a long-winded and strenuous road.
One of the major objectives that Muslim thinkers must seek to fulfill is to modify this erroneous image. Their action, in this regard, consists of many joint programs that they must begin to implement with international partners to cleanse school curricula from these stereotypes, and produce an Islamic encyclopaedia which will present an alternative and a full image on the Islamic world and its civilization, penned by Muslim and fair-minded Western authors.
Universities in the Muslim world must monitor seriously the Islamophobia phenomenon and draw up a database on all the manifestations of animosity towards Muslims and Islam, thus enabling researchers to study them or engage legal action against them, in addition to helping countries build up their cultural policies.
Advocating inter-cultural dialogue and inter-faith understanding and tolerance
Islam was the first civilization and culture ever to balance unity and diversity. It was, indeed, the melting pot of different peoples and cultures who rallied around this monotheist religion that provides for the right to diversity and difference without any discrimination or segregation. It is a religion that calls for mutual acquaintance and concord, as Allah says,
“O mankind! We created you of a male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other, not that you despise each other. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is he who is the most righteous” [Al-Hujurat (the Dwellings) 49:13],
“And among His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the variations in your languages and your colors” [Ar-Rum (the Romans) 30:21].
As a result of new threats and the outbreak of violent inter-ethnic conflicts in many parts of the world in recent years, violent terrorist incidents, international level propaganda against Islam, as well as the introduction of new technologies and certain scientific developments and the process of globalization, an increased surge in social problems has been observed.
Societies and communities have, also, observed an increase in intolerance and hatred among human beings on the basis or fundamentalism, extremism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. To respond to the challenges emerging in modern societies, it is necessary to adopt an integrated approach to combat racism, discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance. Islamic countries will have to take step to combat all forms of racism, xenophobia and discrimination and to promote dialogue among civilizations, in order to resolve all kind of differences and bring conformity in the creation of peaceful social conditions.
The International Conference on Fostering Dialogue among Cultures and Civilizations through Concrete and Sustained Action, which was organized in Rabat in 2005, jointly between ISESCO, the OIC, UNESCO, ALECSO, the Danish Center for Culture and Development, and the Anna Lindh Euro Mediterranean Foundation for the Dialogue between Cultures, provided an occasion to examine concrete and sustained initiatives in dialogue among cultures in the areas of education, culture, communication and science.
The conference was crowned with the Rabat Commitments. These commitments constitute a successful outcome of the efforts in reflection about the ways of instilling the values of tolerance, dialogue, and openness onto other cultures, civilizations and religions, into the minds of children and the youth in schools, through integration of concepts serving that purpose into educational programs of formal and non-formal education institutions, to uproot the causes of violence and discrimination that might result of cultural, ethnic and religious differences.
Safeguarding human rights
Recognition of human rights include civil and political rights, such as the right to life and liberty, freedom of expression, and equality before the law; and social, cultural and economic rights, including the right to participate in politics and culture, the right to food, the right to work, and the right to education, is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)xiv provided basic foundation to proclaim that ALL human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. Islam has always promoted human, civil, economic and social rights; asserting these rights provides firm foundation for peace and justice and allows all human beings to live with each other with dignity and freedom.
Women are equal to men in pursuits of knowledge. The status of women in Islam constitutes no problem. Islam grants equal right to woman to contract, to enterprise, to earn and to posses independently. Efforts will have to be continued to promote gender equality and balance. Acknowledgement of social rights of women is an urgent necessity and has, undeniably, to be followed by projecting women’s role in social development, keeping in view Islamic principles and values.
Conferences, seminars and symposia will have to be organized to examine women progress towards empowerment and gender equality and social, economic, political and cultural obstacles, to increase their capacity. Projects will have to be implemented to strengthen their role in social development through cross-cutting themes especially related to poverty alleviation in poor localities. In order to uplift women especially in rural and urban areas. Formal and non-formal education and training will be utilized in order to alleviate their role and provide equal opportunities in the social development of their societies and to achieve self-fulfilment.
Achieving development through quality education
During the twentieth century, the world has witnessed tremendous changes at various levels. These changes have had diverse impact on human being, on society and on environment, at the same time.
Some of these transmutations were positive such as the incredible leap in scientific and technological fields like medicine, space conquest, communication and computer science. But, others have generated disadvantages and threats that never crossed the mind of the human being. By discovering ways to provide a better and longer life, medicine has also prepared a suitable environment for population growth along which cropped up many other problems that affected the environment and created the need to protect nature from man. Medical advances in genetic engineering and cloning have also become a danger threatening all humanity because of absence of ethical values.
On the other hand, technological leaps and the changes they entailed in workplaces have generated a huge gap between the education dispensed and the requirements of the job market, which led to a loss of credibility in education, especially with the increase of the number of unemployed graduates. This, has resulted from the slow development of educational institutions compared to the fast pace of social changes and the accompanying change in requirements.
In the light of these successive changes, and in an attempt to catch up with progress, the Islamic countries have to aim to achieve scientific development through education, and to achieve continuous and global development based on the teachings of Islam and respectful of the Islamic characteristics and Islamic civilization. They have, also, to set up programs to link education to development under its various forms and make efforts to improve environment, population, and health education at the theoretical and practical levels as an integral part of general education and as guidance for the person in his dealing with the dangers of unbridled and liberal development, where morals have no say and greed for money is the master.
Keeping abreast with changes
Improving educational and teaching systems is a major factor in the development of countries and societies and would enable these to achieve success in today’s world, to prepare generations for the future by arming them with enough resources to adjust to the rapid changes and keep alert for unexpected shifts.
Institutions should aim for a better quality of education, reduce occasions of educational loss and waste and constantly make the necessary improvements required in the educational process in order to keep up with regional and international changes in various fields.
But, though a number of countries are aware of this need, many of them still follow traditional systems in education and fail to give educational research and planning the importance they need. In consequence, the Islamic countries have to endeavor to find more than one means to raise education to a viable level, to ensure a good effectiveness of the educational system and to prepare the Muslims for the demands and the realities of modern times. This requires that the educational process moves from the technique of mere learning by heart to that of understanding, creativity and application.xv
Technological education has to benefit from a generous share of the Muslim countries’ interest, the aim being an alignment of education with the realities of daily modern life and encouraging students to make constant use of it. Another goal would be the training of persons to use increasingly sophisticated technology.
Another factor that is tantamount to the achievement of educational development is the issue of finance. Useful education, as aspired to by most countries, requires huge investments that governments are in no position to bear alone. In the twenty first century, the wealthiest countries in the world will have difficulty covering all the expenses of education from their budgets. Deep reflection is needed to come up with possible formulas for the financing of education, formulas such as cooperative schooling, encouraging private education institutions and approving investments that would generate funds for schooling.
The Muslim countries will have, also, to undertake efforts and implement actions to deal with social and human problems and issues which are resulting from poverty or emanating from an extreme form of it. Special projects and awareness campaigns will have to be launched to enhance understanding of this thorny social issue.
Alleviation of poverty, a scourge that is widely spread in the Muslim world has always remained a target under various programs of international, organizations. In view of the significant impact of poverty on sustainable economic development, Islamic States will have to initiate policies, projects and national plans and support the implementation of appropriate strategies and solutions to reduce the plight of poverty.
Activities of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) working in the field of social and human sciences are to be strengthened to tackle issues of vital concern for populations living in poor localities. Initiatives will have also to strengthen the action of the parties engaged in the alleviation of the suffering of impoverished populations. Training programs are to be conducted to foster the capacities of the underprivileged and physically-handicapped people of the society. Creation of economic opportunities for the unemployed and empowerment of women will also remain a targeted area of action.xvi Muslim countries will have to work jointly with the United Nations agencies both in the organization of conferences and seminars and in the implementation of in-field projects to alleviate poverty.
A final word
Today, it is axiomatic that the development of education, science, culture and communication hinges on security and peace, within or between states both at the regional and international levels. No development will be conceivable under a climate filled with ethnic, sectarian and religious tensions. The same is true for the lack of justice and mutual respect, which are key elements for creating international relations that could promote prosperity and human development.
Also, it is internationally recognized that the alliance of civilizations represents the sole means that can restore balance to the world and establish peace, respect for diversity and the acknowledgment of the legitimate cultural rights and civilizational specificities of the different peoples and nations.
A renewal of the Islamic thought is undoubtedly an urgent task that has to be undertaken, at once, by Muslim thinkers and decision makers for the benefit and the well-being of the Muslim ummah, in particular, and the world community, in general. Islamic reformation will, undoubtedly, stifle extremism, reduce hate and promote inter-cultural understanding, social justice and economic well9being.
iii. The OIC is an inter-governmental organization, a kind of collective voice of the Muslim world, which aspires to safeguard the interest and ensure the progress and well-being of their peoples and those of other Muslims in the world over.
vii. Ijtihad (Arabic: اجتهاد ijtihād, “diligence”) in Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) refers to the a decision-making made through personal effort of “independent reasoning” which is completely independent of any school (madhhab) of jurisprudence. It requires a “thorough knowledge of theology, revealed texts and legal theory (usul al-fiqh); an exceptional capacity for legal reasoning; thorough knowledge of Arabic.” Ijtihad stands opposed to taqlid, the “following” of received expert opinion in jurisprudence. Amujtahid is an Islamic scholar who is competent in interpreting sharia by ijtihad. Cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ijtihad
viii. Ummah (Arabic: أمة) is an Arabic word meaning “community”. It is distinguished from Sha’b (Arabic: شعب) which means a nation with common ancestry or geography. Thus, it can be said to be a supra-national community with a common history. It is a synonym for ummat al-Islamiyah (Arabic: الأمة الإسلامية) (the Islamic Community), and it is commonly used to mean the collective community of Islamic peoples. In the Quran the ummah typically refers to a single group that shares common religious beliefs, specifically those that are the objects of a divine plan of salvation. In the context of Pan-Islamism and politics, the word Ummah can be used to mean the concept of a Commonwealth of the Believers (أمة المؤمنين ummat al-mu’minīn). Cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ummah
ix. Wasat, also called wasatiyyah (وسطية) is the Arabic word for middle, centered, balanced. In the Islamic context, it refers to the “middle way”, a justly balanced way of life, avoiding extremes and experiencing things in moderation. Cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wasat_(Islamic_term)
x. This is affirmed in the Islamic Declaration on Cultural Diversity and the Tripoli Commitments on Renewing Cultural Policies in the Islamic World, adopted by the 5th Islamic Conference of Culture Ministers (Tripoli, November 2007.)
xiii. Takaful (Arabic: التكافل) is a co-operative system of reimbursement or repayment in case of loss, paid to people and companies concerned about hazards, compensated out of a fund to which they agree to donate small regular contributions managed on behalf by a takaful operator. It is defined as an Islamic insurance concept which is grounded in Islamic muamalat (Islamic banking), observing the rules and regulations of Islamic law. This concept has been practised in various forms since 622 AD.Muslim jurists acknowledge that the basis of shared responsibility (in the system of aquila as practised between Muslims of Mecca and Medina) laid the foundation of mutual insurance. Cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Takaful
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