Podium: The two styles of Muslim leadership

From an address by the Cambridge don to the Royal Commonwealth Society's `Leadership in Islam' conference
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The Independent Culture
UPON THE answer to the question of who speaks for Muslim societies rest the concerns and thinking of many in the West; not only scholars and journalists but also policy-makers and political leaders. Yet there is a great deal of wishful thinking in providing the answer. In the West, it is well to remember that Western experts, on the eve of the Shah of Iran's fall in the late Seventies, were predicting Iran's emergence as a modern, secular force in Asian politics that would dominate the region for decades. There was no Islamic cloud on the horizon. Western analysts have therefore got it spectacularly wrong before. They need now to be more cautious, more analytic and more understanding about what is happening in the Muslim world today.

To many Western commentators and leaders the model they would like to see succeed in the Muslim world prejudices them in favour of that model and against the other ones. They overlook the serious shortcomings of their favourite group, which in turn explain the popularity of the opposed models. The more they support one group, the greater the internal pressure in society to bolster and push up the other group. That is why the tussle becomes international and global from regional and local.

When speaking of Muslim leadership let us not talk to the sophisticated leaders who have returned from Ivy League colleges or the Oxbridge ones to provide leadership to their societies. Let us talk to the ordinary man and woman in the Muslim world who must face the brunt of the injustice, oppression, collapse of law and order and escalating prices that have become the daily grind. To these ordinary Muslims, their first priorities are law and order, a feeling of safety and security at home, and a desire to see justice being done. Finding little succour in Western-style democracy, they invariably fall back to the regional and local Islamic support being offered them. At least in Islam there is the hope of justice and law and order.

The two opposed models of leadership that clearly confront each other are: first, one based in the newly emerged religious groups, as in Afghanistan; and secondly, one found in the democratic societies such as Pakistan and Bangladesh. The first is rooted in the Madrassah, the village or religious school, and creates a student with a defined vision of the world. The aim is to propagate Islam and alter the world order to do so. Theirs is the rhetoric of confrontation and violence, of sacrifice and challenge. The other model, which has struggled to survive and has shown resilience in spite of many hurdles, is based on a democratic order. Leaders are thrown up in elections and they then attempt to carry out their election promises during their tenure for the allocated period in office.

The relevance of M A Jinah [the founder of Pakistan] to this model is great. It was not only his sense of abiding by the law but also his integrity which made it work. It allowed deflection of his critics, who said he was not an orthodox Muslim. Although they could challenge him for not being regular at prayer or dressing like a Muslim or failing to grow a beard, they could not challenge him on his integrity or high moral principles.

The style and content of this leadership are different. It is not only a question of superficial sartorial differences. There are substantial ideological and philosophical differences. One believes in being educated in the indigenous vernacular and using Arabic as the base language; the other in English and looking towards Westminster. One believes that society is God-ordained and it is the duty of every Muslim to change it according to the laws of God; the other that democracy must prevail and the voice of the majority must be heard. One believes in wearing traditional clothes, living a simple life and remaining close to the roots of society; the other in aspiring to the style of leadership of other world democracies, which often involves vast expenses beyond what the local treasury can support.

One believes in honesty and integrity as a moral duty; the other talks of integrity and morality but is often seen to be violating them in behaviour. One believes that Islam and only Islam is the way of life; the other, while acknowledging Islam, also takes into account other religions and cultures and incorporates this into their constitutions.

One believes in challenging the West head on and targeting the Jews and Christians as the enemy; the other believes that we are related to a global system that requires some interdependence and some cultural interpenetration, and that the Muslim world can learn from, and absorb, the West.