Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The clash of faiths and its fallout

There is apocalyptic Islam on the one side, and a messianic Western Christianity, disguised as secular humanism, on the other. These are the two deeper undercurrents that provide ballast to arguments and military attacks from each side. Europe’s secular act is rather hollow. From Christopher Columbus down to the latest Western humanitarian aid workers in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Darfur, the Cross remains the inspiring force along with the flag. The little humanism that is to be seen in Western European acts and deeds is indeed derived from the spirit of Christianity.

Those with messianic zeal are generally optimistic about the future. Those who believe in the apocalypse have given up the ghost even before they are dead. They are indeed the pessimists. You cannot blame Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestinians for being pessimists. They have only tasted defeat and immense suffering. Though Islam has a more humane vision of history – this may come as a surprise to many who have only seen the ugly face of Islam in the last few decades – present-day Muslims are literally wallowing in misery and despair. They have as much to blame themselves as the colonial and imperial games of Western European nations.

Triumphant Western Christianity is busy preaching humanistic values to hapless Muslims who failed to retrieve their political fortunes either through peaceful economic development or through wars. That is why, they are a beleaguered lot, both on the battlefield and in their homes.

It is quite unlikely that European-educated Muslim liberals are of any help in lifting Muslims from their poverty, ignorance and ignominy. The revival has to come from within the orthodox religious circles. This is not as paradoxical as it may sound. Jehadi Islam is unorthodox Islam, and more accurately deviant Islam. It is orthodox Islam that can provide succour and hope to the majority of Muslims whose future looks so hopeless right now.

It is absolutely necessary for Muslims to get back their religion for themselves for them to deal with the world. When Muslim societies regain their self-respect and self-confidence, then they can cope with the challenges posed by modernity, technology and the power games of realpolitik.

Perhaps, Muslims of the world will have something to learn from the Confucian China, Shinto Japan and Hindu India. People belonging to these three faiths have been vanquished and humiliated by Western Christians through the colonial period. But traditional Confucian, Shintoist and Hindu elites managed to bounce back after going through the phases of despair and self-hatred, and then through the false starts of revivalisms. They caught on to the new wave of civilization – science and technology – and reinterpreted their traditional values in the light of the new reality.

This was not a smooth affair. In Japan, it took the form of extreme nationalism, in China the warlords and Maoist fanatics played havoc. The experience of Hindu elites has been fortunately different. The Hindu revivalists failed to capture the imagination of their followers, and tradition triumphed among the Hindus through a modernist transmogrification.

What about the experience of the Jews? Their experience is not very different from that of the Muslims. The Jewish elites seem to have adapted to modernity with great skill and success. But this is only on the surface. The inner sense of insecurity of the Jews is not very different from the diffident and defiant attitude of Muslim intellectuals. Many of the Jews have taken to Zionism, which is again a deviant form of Judaism, with great alacrity. But there is need for Jews to make sense of the deeper meaning of their faith in the modern context. The Jewish soul is brittle, and part of the belligerence of the Zionists is to be attributed to this. Political Judaism has scored over pietistic Hasidism. This is the tragedy of modern Judaism. There is an apocalyptic streak among modern Jews as well. That is why, they have been at the forefront of so many national revolutions of Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, and so many of them embraced socialism and communism with such fervour.

The historical reason for the failure of Muslims to manage modernism successfully is due to the fact that there were no traditional elites left in most of the Muslim countries at the turn of the modern period when colonial depredations of European Christians had begun from 18th century onwards. The politically victorious Ottoman Turks seemed to have signed the death certificate of spiritual and intellectual Islam onwards when Constantinople fell to the Seljuk Turks in 1453.

At the very moment when Europe was being reborn intellectually, the Muslim world under the Turks was slipping into an intellectual and spiritual stupor. It is true of the other two great Muslim empires of the time as well – the Safavids in Iran and the Mughals in India. Thus, there is a steep climb ahead for the Muslim elites across the world.

It is quite unlikely that anyone else will give them a helping hand. They have to pull themselves up on their own. The decline of secular politics in the Muslim countries can seem to be another sign of defeat. But it might as well prove to be a blessing in disguise. The fanatics will lose their steam very soon. The future is indeed open for the majority of Muslims, who should reinvent themselves with the help of the core principles of Islam, which is the only religion that is amenable to a happy and fruitful life in this world.

Most other religions look upon this world as a mere passageway. In Islam, the earth and its treasures are the gift of God to its people, which are to be nourished, used and enjoyed.

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