Bonding with America…..
Akhlaq e Amrikiya
A Manual for the Survival of Muslims in America (2 of 7)
The International Context
Are there parallels between the Mongol period and the modern period?
History does not repeat itself, only its lessons do. The solutions of the past cannot be copied for the present but they hold invaluable lessons for charting out alternate courses for the future. What are the lessons from the Mongol invasions and Nasir Uddin al Tusi’s response to them? Specifically, what lessons can American Muslims learn from the turbulent thirteen century?
The temptation to draw parallels between the Mongol period and the modern period is obvious. The Mongols devastated a vast swatch of Eurasia from China to Hungary. Today a vast stretch of land from Afghanistan to Libya lies in ruins. The bombardment of parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Somalia is unprecedented, creating in its wake utter devastation.
But here the analogy ends. The Mongols were driven by a belief in their manifest destiny to rule the world. It was called Tengerrinism. “There can be no two suns on the same earth” is a famous saying ascribed to Genghis Khan. The nations that wreak havoc on the Islamic world are driven by more mundane commercial interests, namely, oil and economic control. Add to it the deadly internecine warfare which feeds on political, ethnic, sectarian, tribal and national rivalries.
The recent history of Afghanistan illustrates this observation. Afghanistan, sitting astride a plateau that connects central Asia with the Indian subcontinent has always been a prize fought over by invaders and empires alike. Alexander fought his way through it. The British Empire and Czarist Russia played “the Great Game” over its control. President Eisenhower sent then Vice President Richard Nixon to assess the prospects of drawing Afghanistan into the American orbit. Nixon advised Eisenhower to leave the Afghans to their own wits as a society that was too steeped in the past to be brought into the modern era. Khrushchev, the Soviet premier was not so circumspect. Under his initiative, the Soviet Union embarked on a program to train Afghan military officers, indoctrinate them with communist ideology and use them to gain influence in Afghanistan. A decade long Soviet infiltration of Afghanistan followed with a communist coup in 1973. When the Afghans rebelled against the communists, the Soviet followed with a direct invasion in 1979.
The control of Afghanistan was a major geopolitical move on the part of the Soviet Union. The Carter Administration responded by inventing and training the Taliban and supporting them from bases in Pakistan and with propaganda material printed in Texas. The asymmetrical warfare between the Soviet army and the Afghan mujahideen went on for a decade. The war destroyed the ancient tribal structure of the country. The dogged resistance of the Afghans exhausted the Soviet army forcing it to pull out in 1988. A year later, the Soviet Union itself collapsed.
The Taliban moved into the socio-political vacuum imposing their own version of a medieval state where the acceptability of a man was measured by the length of his beard and of a woman by a complete covering from head to toe. It attracted disparate and disgruntled groups such as Al Qaeda which made this hapless country the target of American ire after 9/11.
The degree of violence unleashed against Muslims is unprecedented in the post WWII era. From the massive bombardment of the Tora Bora caves in Afghanistan (2001) to the “shock and awe” strikes on Baghdad (2003), thousands of tons of ammunition have been dropped on Muslim countries. The overbearing violence has triggered a refugee crisis across Eurasia where millions of men, women and children move from one country to another desperately searching for security, food and shelter. Millions have perished. Feeding on the mayhem, extremist movements like ISIS have sprung up, promising to right the wrongs, but in fact unleashing more wrongs and more violence. The misery continues.
The analogy of the modern period with the Mongol period ends here. The Mongols enslaved the Muslims and forced them to compromise on their religious practices. By contrast, religion is not suppressed in America or Europe. Indeed, there is complete freedom of worship and there is a revolving door into and out of every religion. The Mongols practiced Shamanism which eventually gave way to Islam, except in China where Buddhism prevailed. By contrast, the west already has a world religion, Christianity, with a rich history of philosophy, science and culture. It draws its spirituality from its Judeo-Christian heritage and its temporal drive from a dynamic and sometimes tumultuous history of reformation, renaissance, empiricism and liberalism. The scientific achievements of this civilization gave it the power to dominate the globe for over two centuries. However, with all its technological might, the west was unable to either assimilate or vanquish Islam. Despite the close ideational interactions between Islam, Christianity and Judaism, many in the west construed Islam as an ideational challenge to western intellectual hegemony. As a consequence, the Islamic and Christian worlds existed as neighbors for long periods in cooperation but occasionally in conflict. And the dialectic continues.
Military interventions have a logic of their own. The trillions of dollars of oil in the Persian Gulf is the golden treasure at stake. The power that controls this oil controls the jugular veins of the economies of the world. The ancient Shia-Sunni cleavage, exacerbated by power struggles between the littoral states of the Gulf is an invitation for continued outside interventions. The tensions generated by sectarian and ideological differences as well as a competition for wealth and political dominance have fostered civil conflicts wherein millions more have died or been dislocated. One measure of this dislocation is the arms sales to the region. The Middle East and South Asia are the largest importers of arms which are used to maintain a balance of tension and controlled conflict between antagonists so as to sustain the lucrative international arms trade and keep the region in perpetual poverty and chaos.
The Muslim community in the United States is not insulated from these upheavals in far-away lands. The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center was a defining moment for American Muslims. The American Muslim community was ill prepared for the avalanche of well-financed anti-Muslim propaganda that followed the attacks. A perception was driven home that Muslims could not be trusted. Islamophobia has now become a $50 million a year industry. Anti-Muslim rhetoric occupies center stage in the 2016 presidential debates. The sustained and unrelenting propaganda has found its mark. According to a Zogby poll conducted in June 2014, only 27% of Americans have a positive view of Islam and Muslims. The tidal wave of anti-Muslim rhetoric has overwhelmed the intellectual resources of the nascent American Muslim community.
Muslims in America must share some of the responsibility for this state of affairs. First, there was a tolerance, indeed nurturing of right wing ideas. The writings of Hassan al Banna, Syed Qutb and Maryam Jameela were swallowed wholesale by some of the new immigrants. Wahhabi ideas, hoisted atop petrodollars acted as a counterpunch to moderate ideas.
Secondly, during the heady expansion of the Muslim presence in the thirty years from 1965-1995, the community overextended its political reach, engaging in empty rhetoric about international issues it could not influence. Political realism and emotive intelligence gave way to oratory. The American Muslim community allowed itself to be sucked up into this empty rhetoric. It was a case of a child attaching a police badge to his uniform and pretending he was a policeman.
Third, there were exhausting discussions about minutia as applied to social issues, which were irrelevant in the American paradigm. The community, which should have spent its intellectual energies contributing to the development of a civil society based upon justice for all, spent its energies discussing minute points of Islamic jurisprudence. This might have been useful for Egypt or Pakistan but was of no relevance in the American context.
Fourth, no attempt was made to codify a Sharia of nature. This is clearly an area where Islam can round off the jagged edges of a global materialist civilization. Western civilization tried to reconcile reason with faith. Unable to do so, Medieval Latin scholarship separated reason from faith, confining faith to the church and abandoning the created world to secular reason. Islam has also struggled with this issue and has yet to construct a coherent position acceptable both from the rational and belief perspectives. A Quranic perspective on this issue would be a contribution to the civilization of man. An attempt in this direction has been made by the current writer in his article, “Why the Scientific Revolution Did Not Take Place in the Muslim World”, published in previous issues of Pakistan Link.
Lastly, too much effort was spent spelling out the dos and don’ts of religion. Rituals took preponderance over the innate spirituality of faith. Scholarship became synonymous with quotes and quotations. The long saga of intellectual stagnation which started in the late seventeenth century continued, accompanied by ethical rot. No attempt was made to define citizenship in a modern, secular state from an Islamic perspective or to articulate an ethical vision for Muslims living in a technological, secular, post-modern society.
It is in the context of these challenges that we attempt the compilation of an ethical treatise for American Muslims. What does it mean to be a Muslim in a modern, secular, democratic, technological state? What are the modalities of an Islamic life in a pluralistic society wherein Muslims are a small minority? The issues faced by Muslims in Europe, Canada, Australia, Russia, China and many parts of Africa are similar and the lessons learned from the development of an American ethics (Akhlaq e Amrikiye) can be useful in other parts of the world. We imbibe the example of Nasiruddin al Tusi, who realized that he could not challenge the Yasa (Rasa) but asked himself how Muslims of his era could survive and thrive within a hostile Mongol framework. History proved him right. The renewal of Islam fostered by the Sufis and the Akhlaqi schools saved the day and Islam emerged triumphant from this period of adversity. The challenges faced by Muslims in the modern world demand a similar effort today.