By Ameer Ali –
“Global Islamophobia has created a powerful means of isolating and demonising Muslims worldwide, legitimizing stigmatization and discrimination by reviving centuries-old caricatures of Islam as a violent and lascivious religion and remodelling them for the post-Cold War era, placing Muslims across the world on a spectrum linking them to ISIS and al-Qaida”~ (Jim Wolfreys, Republic of Islamophobia, London: Hurst & Company, 2018, p. 195)
In its search for a scapegoat to blame the failures of neoliberal economics, industrialised nations, led by the US, found Islam a fitting candidate, thanks to al-Qaida’s misadventure on 11 September 2001. Until that infamy, protests against neoliberalism and its economic models grew international and grew metamorphosed into a global anti-globalization movement threatening not only the political stability of Western democracies but also, more importantly, the economic dominance of the US Empire. What started as vocal protests against the IMF and World Bank meeting in Berlin in 1988 gradually became bloodier culminating in the most violent demonstration in 2001 when the Genoa Group of Eight met in that city in July 2001. Naturally, world leaders panicked and were desperately looking for a distraction to turn world’s attention and media focus away from anti-globalization protests. To these leaders Bin Laden and his al-Qaida was a manna from heaven. The so called War on Terror turned Islam the new enemy and gave birth to global Islamophobia.
Global Islamophobia produced two diametrically opposed reactions from the Muslim world. One was to counter this phenomenon in the most militant way and strive to create several Islamic states if not a universal Caliphate. Al-Qaida, Boklo Haram, Jamaa Islamiyya, the Taliban and ISIS are some of the most notable avatars of this militant Islamism. Their violence actually provided a meaning and justification to an otherwise baseless War on Terror. The other was a defensive stand by the majority of Muslims to hold fast to the Islamic religious status quo. Holding on to religious conservatism became the safest option when enemies of Islam are at the gates. Between the War on Terror on the one hand and the two extreme positions of the Muslim world on the other, reformists agitating for change in the Islamic Weltanschauung became collateral victims. This explains why it is hard to initiate reforms to bring about changers in some of the religiously rigid rules and practices in the Muslim world.
Islam did not face a reformation movement as Christianity did; but during the twilight years of the Ottoman Empire several thinkers and activists called for modernization which produced the Tanzimat reform movement in the mid-nineteenth century. Unfortunately, religious modernization proved difficult because of subsequent colonization of the Islamic world by the West. What the West saw as a civilising mission, la mission civilisatrice, to Muslims it was a destroyer of their pristine religion and culture. Under foreign domination and rule protection of what one already had took priority over change in the face of imminent destruction. Also, the term reform became detestable and a scaring phenomenon to the traditional majority especially after Kamalism’s de-Islamisation of Turkish polity and society in the name of reformation. In the second half of the 20th century and after independence reforms became a political tool in the hands of authoritarian regimes and dictators, who wanted to keep the reformists in check without antagonising the conservatives. They were playing a double game. In the wake of the War on Terror and global Islamophobia Muslim reformists who are calling for an intellectual mind shift from tradition to modernity have become heretics, atheists and black sheep to the conservative majority. This is the dilemma the Muslim world faces today. Even incremental reforms have become too difficult to achieve.
Why did it take so long for Saudi Arabia to introduce an innocuous reform allowing women to drive motor vehicles? Why are the human rights activists still in jail in that country? Why is that country still practicing the medieval punishment of beheading condemned criminals? Reformists within the Saudi ruling circle would prefer changes, but conservatives deem such changes as thin end of the wedge that will eventually destroy Islam, which according to their perception is what the Christian West wants. Closer to home why is it so difficult to reform an outdated Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act introduced more than half a century ago in Sri Lanka? Majority of the JSM committee, which consisted of legal experts, an educationist and women rights activists, recommend change in the status quo. In the mind of the conservative ulama however, why introduce these changes create controversy and divide the community when BBS, JHU, Sinha Le and Siva Sena are determined to cleanse the country of Muslims? Whether their fear is defensible or not the fact remains that external threat endangers internal reforms.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia