What drives some people to become socially active? Personal fulfilment or ambition? Nationalism, any ideology or religion? This has always been an intriguing subject.
This paper is a critical analysis of active Islamic groups in the West with a view to offering some thoughts on the Muslim community’s better future in an era of unparalleled challenges and opportunities. This is meant to create a discussion and debate on some vital issues so that the Muslim communities are better served by those who have dedicated themselves to bring continuous positive changes within themselves in a pluralist environment.
The author thinks it is time that Muslims and Islamic groups took a reality check of their approach and actions in western countries which they have made their homes and where their future generations will meet their destiny. Their present and future depends on whether and how they create a new generation of Muslims with a universal, progressive and inclusive vision of Islam; a vision that will motivate and empower them to excel in the common good of all by remaining true to the deeper message of Islam.
This is a personal reflection of the author in his personal capacity.
Muslims are not new in Europe, nor is Islam an alien religion here; contrary to what many Muslims and non-Muslims believe. The story of Muslim splendour in Europe, starting from the first Hijrah century of Islam was spectacular. In Britain King Ofa of Mercia minted a coin with the Islamic Kalimah (declaration of faith) in the 8th century. The spirit of humanity, creativity, positive endeavour and enterprise –all gifts from Allah – catapulted the desert Arabs into the world stage as teachers of all people. These Abrahamic values were absorbed in Europe that laid the foundations for the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment. Muslims then were bold and forward-looking, willing to learn from others and determined to act on what they believed.
The evolution of Muslim communities in the West is multifaceted and as such it demands better academic research. This paper is about how the leadership of various Islamic groups are coping with the hopes, aspiration and challenges of the emerging Muslim communities in western countries in recent decades, especially after the Second World War. Given the generally disadvantaged backgrounds of most Muslims in Europe and some in America and a lack of level playing field in the societies they are working, this has always been an arduous task. However, in spite of many internal shortcomings and external challenges in this environment, Muslims in general were able to initiate a lot of good works, e.g. setting up mosques and Islamic centres to meet the religious needs of the people, arranging Qur’an and mother tongue teaching for children, organising youth activities and creating youth organisations, setting up charities and fund raising for natural and man-made disasters, trying to connect with the Muslim world and keeping important ummah (global Muslim community, bound by faith) issues alive, making some fruitful initiatives in interfaith work, etc.
This short paper is broadly a critical analysis of active Islamic groups in the West with a view to offering some thoughts on the Muslim community’s better future in an era of unparalleled challenges and opportunities. In any analysis like this objectivity should not be lost. However, my intention is that while we must appreciate what is right with us; we must also explore where we are struggling and can do better. This is not to undermine any of the groups which have been working hard for the capacity building of our diverse communities and social engagement, but an exercise in critical reflection to improve the quality of this work and move beyond current confines.
This is a personal reflection in a personal capacity and is meant to create a debate on some vital issues so that the Muslim communities are better served by those who have dedicated themselves to bring continuous positive changes within themselves in a pluralist environment. This is from someone who has worked passionately in diverse communities for over three decades and is looking for a qualitative, seismic if I can use the word, change in what we are doing. This is not an academic or fiqh paper, I am sure scholars and specialists will be able to do a better job on that front. Some may think I have been unduly critical of some groups who, in spite of resource constraints in challenging situations, have tried their best. Others may think I have glossed over certain things and have not been critical enough. My intention is to initiate a serious discussion on social activism by Muslims so that we take this as an essential Islamic and civic responsibility in order to build a better society where we are living. I urge all to look into the spirit behind this paper rather than its language and semantics.
But first, I will briefly discuss some historical realities relevant to us, from the pre-colonial Muslim retreat to the present day commotion in the Muslim ummah, as the Muslim communities in the West bear a legacy of this past.
THE HISTORIC MALAISE AND RESPONSES OF THE UMMAH
For the last few centuries, during and after the European Renaissance, the situation of the Muslim ummah, truly speaking, deteriorated considerably. During this period, the ummah gradually lost the plot in world affairs and its dignity and honour nosedived. Many scholars and thinkers have discussed this in detail and are of the opinion that the ummah as a whole lost its balance between Dunya (this world) and Akhirah (Hereafter). As a result, when Dunya is lost there is every likelihood that Akhirah will also be lost. Only Allah, SWT, knows best, but it is His Promise that success in Akhirah will depend on actions in Dunya.
After the fall of the Abbasid Khilafah (Caliphate) in Baghdad to the Tatar army in 1258, due to its own failings, the Muslim world gradually lost its vitality. Religious dogma overtook the spirit of our great religion. Lifeless mechanistic rituals and blind following of the past became the hallmark of our great community that once created a dazzling and lasting inclusive civilisation. During this period of decay the ummah slowly began to fall into the ‘lizard’s hole’ (reference to hadith number 7320 in Sahih al-Bokhari) and Muslim scholars were beginning to lose their dignity by succumbing to the whims of self-serving and, in most cases, incompetent rulers.
Intellectual sterility, lack of education and knowledge, illiteracy, and increasingly dependent and uncreative economies gave rise to an unskilled human population in the Muslim world that gradually became a liability rather than an asset. In the beginning of the 20th century almost all of the Muslim lands had been colonised by European powers. The ummah had become fragmented theologically, socio-economically and politically. The internal malady that characterises a fallen nation crept into the ummah; Muslims became their own worst enemy.
The crises of the ummah from the pre-colonial phase to date have broadly passed through the following phases.
The ‘Retreat’ Phase – This phase saw a retreat by the ummah from its global leadership role and role-reversal at the intellectual, military and political levels. Failure of participatory politics gave rise to internecine wars, internal divisions and emergence of independent regional and local rulers (sultanates/emirates), often under the token tutelage of the Khalifah. The concept of Khilafah survived in name only. The ummah became weak from top to bottom and susceptible to external aggression. A power vacuum was created which was filled by European colonisers. The Muslim masses were relatively passive during this phase apart from occasional revolts against the colonial invaders.
The ‘Colonial’ Phase – Colonial inroad into weaker spots, e.g., Muslim Bengal in South Asia fell in 1757, and then gradually came near-full colonisation of most Muslim lands by European countries with the destruction of social and cultural structures. The only Muslim countries which were not fully colonised are current day Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Afghanistan – but they also became very weak. Country after country, from the periphery to the Muslim heartland, fell on their knees to external aggression. Colonial land grab and pillage, ethnic cleansing and ‘divide and rule’ became the order of the day. The collapse of the Ottoman Khilafah in 1924, by then the so-called ‘sick man of Europe’, led to the loss of a political voice – keenly felt by Muslims all over world. Despondency swept over and across the ummah, as even the symbol of Muslim unity had now disappeared!
The ‘Post-Colonial’ or ‘Neo-Colonial’ Phase – Nominal independence from colonial rule, but divided ethnically and geographically with secular despotic regimes ruling on behalf of foreigner masters, which can best be termed as the neo-colonial phase. It turned out to be a mess – total mismanagement of Muslim countries and dismal failure in involving the general Muslim populations. Illiteracy, parasitic and dependent economy, political corruption and social disintegration – all these have become the hallmarks of Muslim failure in the modern age. During the cold war era the Muslim world became the ideological battlegrounds of the then two superpowers and the post-9/11 world has turned some Muslim countries into theatres of the ‘war on terror’.
The ‘Identity Crisis’ Phase – Massive identity crisis and cultural disorientation are sapping away the vitality of the ummah in the Muslim world and in the West – due to, first and foremost, Muslims veering away from their historical Islamic moorings; which then results in the absence of social cohesion and lack of direction, optimism and vision. The Muslim world and communities in the West have become a symbol of contempt in the world for the past few decades.
With colonisation came the political and economic subjugation and intellectual and cultural suppression by European masters and their various agencies, e.g., Orientalist efforts to discredit the root of Islam itself. The Muslim ummah was thrown into the deep end with all its depressing consequences. Islam gradually lost its strength in the public domain, although its inner power was determining the life of millions of its adherents. This period of direct colonialism remains a disgrace for the ummah that was once raised for the good of humanity.
However, due to the innate power of Islam there arose, during this dark period, various historical movements across the land of Islam that sought to give Muslims a ray of hope and vision for the future. Liberation movements for independence erupted in many parts of the world to restore freedom and dignity to their people. Shaykh Shamil in Daghestan, Senoussi in Libya, Mahdi in Sudan, the Khilafat Movement and Pakistan Movement in pre-partition India and the FLN in Algeria are just a few examples. Their contribution to the independence of Muslim lands from European subjugation was inspirational in their time. Simultaneously, there also arose some intellectual, educational and social movements in some parts of the Muslim world. Jamal al-din Afghani’s Pan Islamic movement can be cited as an example in this category.
These spectacular movements were mostly led by Ulama (Islamic scholars) or by those leaders who had the passion and religious commitment to revive the glory of Islam. They tried to lay an intellectual foundation and create positive discourse in their own creative ways. Millions, particularly the youth, were inspired by them and jumped on the intellectual and political caravan to fight for the ummah’s political freedom and dignity. Due to their effort and also other global factors, e.g., the destruction and havoc wrought by the two World Wars, the colonisers’ grip on Muslim lands started becoming weaker and they found it untenable to rule their colonies directly for much longer. In the circumstances, the colonisers sought ways to leave and rule by proxy. Before leaving physically they adopted their iniquitous ‘divide and quit’ policy everywhere and handed over the divided Muslim lands to their intellectual brainchildren who they knew would serve their masters loyally rather than serving their own people. This is what happened in most Muslim countries after their formal independence.
By the middle of the 20th century Muslim lands became physically independent, but remained politically and economically subservient to western powers. The US took over the baton of neo-colonial rule from the Europeans after the Second World War. In due course, the resistance movements that spearheaded the anti-colonial fight were marginalised and bypassed. Muslim lands fell into the hands of ‘brown sahibs’, some ruling their people as tribal or military dictators. The energy and potential of the ummah was once again drained to such an extent that the world could not develop any positive opinions about Muslims as a people.
There is of course another story that needs mentioning here. This, I think, is more relevant to Islamic activism in the West. In the second quarter of the 20th century two movements by two powerful figures arose in the Sunni world with a view to recreating a ‘khilafah’ in the model of the Prophethood (ala minhaj an-Nubuwat). They were Hasan al-Banna’s Ikwhan al-Muslimun, commonly known as ‘The Brotherhood’, in Egypt (1928) and Syed Maudoodi’s Jamaat-e-Islami, or Jamaat in short, in pre-partitioned India (1941). They came in the aftershock of the abolition of the last Muslim Khilafah, symbolic as it was, in 1924. A parallel trend occurred in the Shii world that culminated in the success of the Iranian revolution in 1979. These new movements, aimed at bringing institutional leaderships to the fore rather than personality-centred ones, were rooted in religious and social conservatism. They were able to capture the imagination of millions, especially the youth, in the Arab world and South Asia through their vision and organisational networks. With new literature and an abundance of activists they were able to create a buzz in Islamic activism in Muslim lands and also in Muslim minority communities in the West, thanks to growing globalisation.
The Iranian revolution is now over three decades old and its power and limitations are still unfolding. The Brotherhood’s contribution in socio-political and intellectual life in the Middle East and the Pakistan Jamaat’s achievements in fighting the corner for Pakistan’s Islamic promise are undeniable. But, as critics ask, have they also ran their course and lost their vitality? This is a big debate and has become live in the context of recent uprisings in the Arab world. The Brotherhood, in particular, is now under a serious spotlight as to how it will perform in the historical mass uprisings in the Arab world. Jamaat in South Asia, in spite of their successful inroads into some sections of society, have not been able to reach ordinary people and as such their public support is weak. As they are known for their top down ‘Islam is the solution’ or ‘rule by the pious’ type rhetoric, their connection with the facebook and twitter generation of young people seems negligible. They are also paying the price for their past strategic mistakes – for example, Pakistan Jamaat’s support for a military dictator to bring in Islamic changes in the 1970’s and Bangladesh Jamaat’s collaboration with the Pakistan military junta against the independence of Bangladesh continue to haunt them.
Are these movements able to harness the potentials of all sections of people, e.g., the Ulama, other religious groups, the youth, women and the secular intelligentsia? Do they still have the energy to achieve their initial vision of reclaiming the golden days of Islam by rooting out the political and socio-economic problems that exist and creating an inclusive society based on freedom of choice, human rights and the rule of law in countries where they operate?
The resistance movements have done their job and history is judging them. The resurgence movements are still trying to achieve their goals and history will tell where they end up. However, one thing is undeniable – that all of them have left a lasting legacy of Islam-inspired social activism amongst modern day Muslims all over the world, including in the West. This is the focus of the rest of this discussion. THE EMERGENCE OF MUSLIM COMMUNITIES IN THE WEST
The Muslim ummah is immensely diverse and this diversity is reflected in all Western countries where Muslims have a significant presence. However, due to historical links during the colonial period some ethnic communities are heavily represented in some European countries, e.g., South Asians in Britain, Turks in Germany and North Africans in France. In the US the picture is somewhat different; it already had its indigenous Black Muslim presence and as a land of opportunity it attracted thousands of gifted Muslim students and professionals from across the world. Black, brown, white and mixed-coloured Muslims from all corners of the world are now living side by side with the indigenous people in the West. Their ethnicity and faith are, however, often confused. Under the effect of globalisation, probably for the first time in many centuries, ultra-conservative to extreme liberal and practising to non-practising Muslims of various ethnic, linguistic and cultural backgrounds are living side by side. They are of different sects, theological and political trends, lifestyle and fashion. To some Muslims who come from mono-ethnic or mono-religious backgrounds this amazing diversity is totally new and thus shockingly splendid. This global manifestation of Islam in Muslim minority countries is a unique phenomenon of modern times and has amplified the tapestry of contemporary West as well. This flies in the face of the current myth surrounding Muslims as a monolithic group or Islam as a one-size-fits-all religion.
Sociologically speaking, from 1960’s, a massive migration of Muslims from the developing world started arriving in western countries for varied reasons. In the beginning, it was just about survival of the new communities in the new environment and helping one another with their basic social, religious and cultural needs, e.g., prayer places, halal food, etc. However, as the communities were growing through further migration, new births and receiving converts their demands for socio-economic needs also grew. The Muslim communities started establishing their businesses, schools, charities, purpose-built mosques and community centres. They started working with their co-religionists of different backgrounds as well as indigenous people in the wider society. Political participation, engagement with civil society groups and other people of faith and no faith, joining in various public or private sector employment became the norm. The overwhelming proportion of Muslims in all western countries started to integrate into wider society, without compromising the basic principles of their faith; through positive contribution to economy, politics and culture. The curry industry run by the Bangladeshi community itself contributes billions of pounds to the British economy, employing tens of thousands of people and making BanglaTown Bricklane the Curry Capital of 2012!
However, we should not underestimate the challenges and difficulties faced by these communities in the social and political life of the Western society they live in. With some exception, Muslims in most European countries are the most under-achieving in education, employment and economy; the proportion of Muslim households living under the poverty line in any European country is disproportionately high. The dearth of internal capacity in many communities, the lack of a level playing field in the media and political arena, prejudice and intolerance from certain sections of mainstream media and political class have made Muslims probably the most disadvantaged people in most Western countries. The contrast between success and failure within Muslims is also glaring. They constitute the highest proportion of prisoners in many western countries; they are also spectacularly over-represented in certain professions, e.g., medicine.
Since the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, Western policy makers have advertently or inadvertently sought to replace Communism with a new challenger called ‘Islamism’. The Islamophobic media and think tanks on both sides of the Atlantic have turned their guns against Islam and mainstream Muslim organisations accusing them of conspiring to establish a ‘totalitarian’ khilafah in the Muslim world, ‘take over’ the West through the backdoor and turn the clock of history back to 7th century Arabia. Absurd ‘Eurabia’ and ‘Londonistan’ theories are gaining acceptance today in sections of the media and political class in the West. This has gained momentum in the aftermath of the 9/11 atrocities in America and 7/7 bombings in London.
The wave of anti-Muslim prejudice and Islamophobia comes from an amalgam of right wing media, think tanks and policy makers. Some polls in the UK are suggesting that over half the British people see Muslims as ‘alien’, ‘a problem’ and ‘them’, due to the tireless effort of these powerful anti-Muslim bigots; while other polls suggest that Muslims are the most loyal citizens of the country. This stifling and noxious ‘anti-Islamist’ narrative is gradually becoming mainstream. Some powerful European political leaders are putting fuel in this fire of anti-Muslim rhetoric. A strong wind is blowing against Muslims who are constantly being accused and tried by the media, of ‘theological conservatism, political radicalism, Islamo-fascism or clerical totalitarianism’. Very few Muslim groups have been spared from this McCarthy type witch hunt that has already created an atmosphere of fear amongst the Muslim population. Even ‘moderates’ are not moderates any more, they may be the ‘conveyor belt towards extremism’, according to such detractors. The picture is similar in almost all Western countries, including in the United States where the recent Congressional hearings on Muslim radicalisation has raised the temperature of anti-Muslim rhetoric even higher.
In contrast, there are fringe elements within Muslim communities who are reaping the benefit of becoming ‘famous’ by giving ammunition to a ‘doctrine of hate’ with their unwise behaviour and detestable media comments. Their ‘anti-West’ hatred is well publicised and multiplied manifold by the media to show how awful Muslims are. These grandstanders within the Muslim communities and the real fascists in wider European societies appear to be working in tandem! And this has the potential to whip up serious anti-Muslim intolerance against Muslims in coming years. The political class in most European countries have yet to grasp the seriousness of this one-sided negative portrayal of their Muslim citizens.
This is a complex picture and more so on the ground from country to country. In a paper of this size it is not possible to go into the details of this. But whatever we see today, encouraging or exasperating, is the result of our collective making. Our achievements or failures are due to the collective efforts of individuals and community leaders at different levels of the community and from various sectors – Islamic or secular, practising or non-practising. Islamic groups, from whatever backgrounds or trends they may be, have contributed significantly to this process along with others.
ISLAMIC GROUPS – A REALITY CHECK!
This analysis is about Islam-inspired social activism and as such the focus is on the groups that subscribe to activism derived from teachings of Islam and examples of our righteous predecessors. These groups, in particular, were inspired to set up numerous local and national Muslim organisations across every western country. While setting up prayer places, mosques and evening Qur’an classes were the act of ordinary Muslims, setting up community organisations and professional bodies in most Western countries was mainly the act of these Islamic groups. All these acts together formed the foundation of community building and in this some groups have done better than others, depending on their focus, priorities and the resources they could muster.
Collectively, all these groups have delivered impressively in some areas of life in their countries of residence. Some of them have focused on the educational achievement of Muslim communities and helped set up Islamic schools and contributed to the educational curricula of the mainstream education sector, some promoted political participation and encouraged Muslims to vote in local and national elections, some focused on economic activities and tried to promote ethical and Islamic financing, some encouraged Muslim cultural activities – many tried to forge alliances with other faith groups and civil society bodies in order to bring the Muslim communities to the heart of wider society. The main purpose of this was to create a niche for Muslims so that they feel at ease with the pluralism of Western societies.
All of this work is positive and encouraging, but there remains much missing. Let us now see where they have faltered and why. I have categorised them into the following broad areas. Once again, this is my personal observation and readers have every right to disagree with me.
1. Disunity and friction among Islamic groups
One can understand the difficulties in uniting disparate Muslim communities coming from the four corners of the world. It is also natural that Islamic groups will bring with them the theological, political and cultural baggage and trends of their countries of origin. The main two groups of Sunni and Shii Muslims with their unique sects, schools of thought and denominational groups are a matter of longer Islamic history. But the groupings that are very much alive today are from a small number of trends within the Muslim ummah that have continued to divide Muslim communities in the West, e.g., Salafism, Sufism, Barelwism, Deobandism and the Movement. While this is the reality of modern day Muslims, in recent years some right wing think tanks on both sides of the Atlantic have tried to divide Muslims in their own ideological way; into Liberals, Secularists, Moderates, Sufis, Traditionalists, and Islamists – with a view to advising Western governments on who they should work with and to what extent. This divisive agenda has proved counter-productive at best and dangerous at worst.
Attempts have been made by prominent Muslim leaders in some countries to bring all of the Muslim groups together on the basis of a common framework and coordinated stand in certain areas. While this has been reasonably successful in some countries, say with the formation of the Muslim Council of Britain, proper unity is still a far cry. Intra or inter group rivalry is still considerable and on occasions this comes to surface with a muddied outcome damaging the reputation of the whole community. This is not, however, uncommon in other communities, e.g., in the Jewish community. It is hoped that with new generations of Muslim leaders this will gradually subside.
2. Involvement of youth and women
Communities and nations need a blend of energy and creativity from the young people and the experiences of the older generations. But harnessing the potentials of the youth, both men and women, in the decision making process of Islamic groups still remains a red herring. Our communities and Islamic groups have so far ignored this to their peril. As a result, most Islamic groups are starved of creative ideas and suffer from organisational lethargy. It is true that some exemplary work is being done by some youth groups, but they are mostly localised and do not have serious impact on wider Muslim communities and the broader society. The new generation of Muslim youths are either in the periphery of Islamic organisations or are not interested in the existing groups. The involvement of women, while slightly better than before, is still far shorter than where it needs to be.
Sadly also, some of these youth themselves are overly critical of their elders and scapegoat these elders for all the problems in Muslim communities. They also keep away from any community work themselves. In the absence of motivation from community elders, and due to other external factors, many are not offering their intellectual brilliance and voluntary commitments to their communities. With a disproportionately large youth sector in our communities Muslims have the potential to do miracles; sadly their youthful energy is wasted. A significant number of our youth are languishing in prisons in many Western countries due to criminality. A small section is busy building their careers, which it is hoped will be of some benefit once they commit themselves to give something back to their communities and the country later in life.
3. Leadership by example
While many groups talk about the message of Islam, the dawah work, they are seen as mechanical and old-styled, thus having little impact and few outcomes. Islam’s asset was its adherents’ conviction in their faith and exemplary behaviour towards people around them. Sadly, this is not seen in Islamic leadership today.
With structures and strategies borrowed from the Muslim world most Islamic groups ignore professionalism in doing things and are, therefore, seen as wasting energy and time. There is a general lack of efficiency in running Islamic organisations and most of their works are process oriented rather than output focused. In essence, there is a serious lack of leadership or leading by example in our midst which is affecting recruitment and training of the next generation of leaders. This is the biggest and most severe existential challenge facing Islamic groups in our times. This sluggishness is giving rise to internal power politics in some groups and making them intellectually more sterile and socially more exclusionary. There is a tendency to box one’s self in within one’s small world towards a ‘frog in a well’ mindset, disconnected from what is happening outside.
4. Text and context: a theological insecurity
Some of these groups and organizations are facing internal fractures on the basis of over indulgence in matters related to fiqh. Although it is now far better than the days when issues such as participating in elections, dealing with democracy, wearing the niqab (face veil), etc, dictated discussions within Islamic groups; tendencies towards ultra conservatism and extreme liberalism are still prevalent in certain groups and sections of our community that are creating friction within and among them. Islam, as the religion of the middle-path, has taught us the priorities of life. Like the Fard (obligatory), Sunnah (the practice by the Prophet, peace be upon him, in addition to Fard) and Nawafil (optional) in ritual practices, Islam has also taught us the ‘must, should and can’ in matters pertaining to our day to day life. Islam’s broader principle of ‘all things are generally acceptable, unless something is specifically prohibited’ is unique in guiding Muslim life.
But this is often ignored by some people in some Islamic groups and religious practice is made difficult for ordinary Muslims to follow. Context is often missed when discussing the text, or vice versa. De-contextualised rhetoric, failure in producing home-grown Ulama, disputes over less important fiqh-related issues are inhibiting many Islamic groups from doing their job properly.
A VISION FOR THE COMMON GOOD
It is important to understand that modern Western societies are rule-based and rooted in democracy with a huge inclination to adhere to ethical norms and decency. There are civil and political ways of expressing one’s opinion and as long as one does not break the law people can choose to speak up and lobby others to bring changes in most areas of life. Social trends are created or shifted through this process of gradually creating a momentum and desire for change. Muslims, like other communities, have the potential to create positive opinions on any social issue including public opinion on them. It is true that in the absence of a level playing field weaker groups are often victimised and exploited, but Muslims have to learn the rules of the game to survive, compete and prosper. With values such as openness and non-compulsion, widely shared in the wider society, there are plenty of opportunities to influence policies towards more positive change, albeit within the parameters of the existing system.
There are issues of principles and theology in Islam that are non-negotiable. But what are they? In Islam there are things that are clear; they are its core and foundation. Then there are issues that are matters of interpretation. As I mentioned, most of the things in the world, apart from those which are categorically defined to be unacceptable, are generally acceptable. Whilst we must guard the foundation and core of our religion, we must equally guard against making Islam ‘difficult’ – in all the senses of that term. Freedom of speech, rule of law, accountability, justice, and decision by majority or consensus – these are universal values that are embedded in Islam. They are known to be religious products and matters of Islamic pride.
There are certain political issues which have stalled Islamic groups for some time. One of them is the issue of ‘sovereignty’; there are a few others. But finding a way out of them is not insurmountable. On the issue of sovereignty, no Muslim has any doubt that Absolute Sovereignty belongs to Allah (SWT) alone, as everything in the universe belongs to Allah. However, as emissaries or vice-regents of Allah (SWT) on earth, human beings are delegated or bestowed the authority to run their own affairs on earth, as long as they are not against core Islamic principles. These are the theology-related issues Muslims have been arguing around at a political level for some time now and it is time that they are put to rest, as Muslim communities have done with so many other issues in the past.
Muslims, as in their heydays, need to be a full part of the society they live in. They need to develop a vision of the prosperous, just and good society, and dedication and passion to work for it. They should agree to what is good in a society and challenge, in civil ways, anything that is harmful. They must develop pools of vast energy, motivation, dynamism and creativity to inspire their future generations to work for this vision. If Islamic groups cannot grasp this or are not in a position to lead their communities on this basic need in this challenging time then the future of the Muslim ummah in the West is indeed bleak.
One question automatically comes to mind. Why are other groups, say those who are not inspired by Islamic activism, also failing to do things properly? No one is preventing them! It seems to me that others too are probably incapable of generating their own innovative thinking, sustainable initiatives and resources. After decades of frustration the youths across Middle Eastern countries are now bypassing their existing leaders and launching their own initiatives in mobilising the Arab uprisings. The question is how long are the Muslim youths living in the West going to wait to launch their own initiatives?
What realistic steps can Islamic groups take to improve their intellectual potency and increase organisational drive to properly contextualise their strategy and move faster to work for the common good of all in society? What practical initiatives can they take in setting a broader civic agenda in a post-9/11 socio-political climate and how can they defend their beleaguered communities against the political and media onslaught from some quarters which are becoming more emboldened day by day? How can they prioritise the needs of the day, e.g., bringing in talented and committed young people to leadership positions to create energy and optimism within Muslim communities?
There are no set prescriptions to the above questions; the answers lie in a group journey that we must make together. We all have a role to play in that journey – through which we may develop a shared vision and some ideas for action in the society we have chosen to live in. Out at the other end of this journey, there may be a lot we can do better: here I have grouped my thoughts into five major areas. There definitely are other important areas; then there are the issues of how we can bring them to fruition, but that is beyond the scope of this paper.
a) Reconnecting with our roots
We need to genuinely return to the sources of our strength, e.g., reconnecting deeply with our Creator Allah (SWT) and the core principles of Islam on the one hand and with the soil and its people on the other. This rootedness – physical and spiritual, emotional and intellectual – is essential for anything we do.
We belong to Allah and to Him we will return (Al-Qur’an 2:156). Allah is nearer to us than our jugular vein (Al-Qur’an 50:16) and Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is dearer to us than our children, parents, families and our own selves. Love for Allah and His Messenger, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), gives rise to love for fellow human beings and other creations. This motivates believers to purify themselves and inspires them to act for the good of all in humanity. This gives them a purity of intention and a sense of responsibility that cannot be achieved through any other belief or means. Through proper understanding of this reality and proactive following of our beloved Prophet (peace be upon him), Muslims in their creative days were able to transform themselves into an ummah of blessings, to themselves and others. It is only through this reconnection with our sources and revitalisation of our energy that we can make the world a better place.
b) Institution building
Our community has already a good number of mosques, centres and organisations; we now need to consolidate their works and run them effectively with professional efficiency. Whether it is a community organisation or specialist body, a centre or a mosque, it is vital that our communities and Islamic groups build them as institutions with clear visions, effective strategies and of benefit to all – Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Their constitutions, policies and procedures should be well defined, open and transparent. Organisations should be rule-based and have clear succession plan while maintaining continuity. They should be the blend of young and old, thoughtfulness and action, energy and wisdom.
Where possible, they should create waqf (endowment) so that they leave an inspiring legacy for the newcomers. Muslim organisations should try to be as much inclusive as possible and not be seen as tribal or personality based.
c) Creation of rooted leadership
Leaderships of Islamic organisations need to be chosen or democratically elected from among the most competent and dedicated individuals within them; the younger section of the community who have creativity and vision, as well as energy and motivation, should be at the heart of these organisations. Loyalty to Islam and the community, commitment to the good of society and accountability to scrutiny should be embedded in the ethos of these organisations.
Leaders should be able to lead through example and involve all, young and old, from across the board. They should be rooted to the ground, be able to grasp the reality of our times and contextualise actions while remaining true to Islamic principles. They should be able to lead with a unique balance between our responsibilities towards our co-religionists, i.e., the ummah, and duties towards people around us in our neighbourhoods and society, i.e., the qaum (people we live with).
Also, for social activism to be meaningful the activists of Islamic organisations need to be creative change-makers, not just blind followers or leg workers as often seen in many Islamic groups.
d) Capacity building
Muslim organisations must increase their internal capacity by improving their human and material resources and by bringing in efficient management in running them. While volunteerism, which is in the spirit of Islam, needs serious promotion within the community, a thriving organisation cannot be fully dependent on volunteers. Capacity building demands recruitment of quality people with better skills and motivation at all levels, securing of necessary funds to efficiently run the organisation or its projects and initiatives, effective management and good internal and external communication. Muslim organisations must find ways of overcoming their current cycle of chronic under-funding that constrains their activities.
Capacity building includes increasing the ability of the local people through educational and economic projects, empowering parents with parenting skills and helping them address youth and community issues that affect ordinary Muslims. Muslims with professional background and other life skills should come forward and take this up on their shoulders.
e) Creation of an ethos of ‘complementation and coordination’
It is obvious there will be some duplication of works, as Muslim communities are diverse and their evolution as a community is not smooth. It is also understandable that forming a coalition of Muslim organisations, such as the Muslim Council of Britain, is not always easy in many countries. Even an umbrella organisation may not be able to solve many issues. Thus, in order to avoid repetition of works, and stepping on others’ toes, it is vital Islamic groups work out a protocol to enhance levels of cooperation and coordination between them. Each organisation should aim to create a niche for itself and excel in a certain area of work, but at the same time should try to be part of the whole. That is a better way of strengthening the community and bringing unity.
Each Muslim organisation should engage in areas of activities where the have the ability excel and Muslim groups should avoid becoming too generic by trying to do everything. While healthy competition to perform better is useful, it is vital they keep away from unnecessary competition with other groups. They should try to see the whole picture and make their contribution as part of the whole. The dignity of the community lies in its inner discipline.
The ultimate source of inspiration for a Muslim is in the search for personal fulfilment to please Allah and social activism that comes from Islam’s teachings that, as vice-regents of Allah on earth, human beings are accountable to Him on the Day of Judgement. Islam motivates its adherents to flourish spiritually and be active socially – to create a better world, with balance and harmony. ‘Enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong’ (Al-Qur’an 3:110) has been the cornerstone of a Muslim social life. Islam teaches us to ‘help one another to virtue and piety and not sin and transgression’ (Al-Qur’an 5:2). Islam’s five pillars uniquely prepare a believer to be at ease with one’s self in this world, and at the same time to play a communitarian role in society. Social activism is thus embedded in the Muslim psyche.
Any action by a Muslim, inspired by the noble teachings of Islam, should be rooted in the sources of our strength, e.g., a deep connection with our Creator, Allah (SWT). Only then we will be able to practise self analysis and self-questioning, ‘think outside the box’ and avoid pointing fingers at others.
Muslims have to step back and think seriously about where they need to improve. Individual Muslims, groups or communities cannot remain complacent based on the achievements so far; they should always aim higher and try to do better tomorrow. The following hadith from our beloved Prophet (pbuh) is a unique reminder, especially in this day and age.
He whose two days are equal (in accomplishments) is a sure loser – Sunan al Daylami
It is time that Muslims and Islamic groups took a reality check of their actions in Western countries which they have made their homes and where their future generations will meet their destiny. Their present and future depends on whether and how they create future generations of Muslims with a universal, progressive and inclusive vision of Islam; a vision that will motivate and empower them to excel in the common good for all by remaining true to the deeper message of Islam.