Akbar Ahmed: A message of violence and hatred

I've been denounced as an Uncle Tom, branded a Zionist agent and received threats. My wife begged me to keep quiet
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The Independent Online

For me, the enduring image of the poor treatment by modern Muslim society of the gentle voices of Islam is that of Yusuf Ali in the last days of his life: 81 years old, a homeless down-and-out, ill, impoverished and disoriented, sitting on the doorstep of a poor house in London in 1953. Ali had resigned from the élite Indian Civil Service to dedicate his life to scholarship. His monumental translation of the Koran into English is perhaps the most popular version even today. Ali's reward for attempting to bring together West and East was to be vilified and spurned by his own society. His lament is moving: "I had not imagined that so much human jealousy, misunderstanding and painful misrepresentation should pursue one who seeks no worldly gain and pretends to be no dogmatic authority."

For me, the enduring image of the poor treatment by modern Muslim society of the gentle voices of Islam is that of Yusuf Ali in the last days of his life: 81 years old, a homeless down-and-out, ill, impoverished and disoriented, sitting on the doorstep of a poor house in London in 1953. Ali had resigned from the élite Indian Civil Service to dedicate his life to scholarship. His monumental translation of the Koran into English is perhaps the most popular version even today. Ali's reward for attempting to bring together West and East was to be vilified and spurned by his own society. His lament is moving: "I had not imagined that so much human jealousy, misunderstanding and painful misrepresentation should pursue one who seeks no worldly gain and pretends to be no dogmatic authority."

It is a tragic story, but there is an even more tragic story in our midst now. The problem appears to be with the Muslim world itself, which currently is dominated by voices of violence. Osama bin Laden is an icon, a cult figure from Morocco to Indonesia. Here in British the loudest voice is that Sheikh Omar Bakri, leader of the extremist al-Muhajiroun, who speaks on behalf of bin Laden and is a darling of the media. Both bin Laden and Bakri reject any dialogue with Jews or Christians. Instead their message is one of violent confrontation and hatred.

Where have the gentle voices of Islam gone? The problem is not one of religion, it is one of politics. The Muslim states of today have one overriding objective: to stay in power at all costs. If they encourage thinking among their populations, they risk encouraging the very dissent which could bring them down. So they clamp down on knowledge.

As an Islamic scholar, I believe there is a correlation in my history between the great days of Islamic civilisation and the ascendancy of its peaceful, compassionate and universalistic scholars. Knowledge - or ilm - was once highly prized. Ilm is the second most used word in the Koran after the name of God. Scholars such as Maulana Rumi, the great 13th-century Sufi poet, talked of discovering the same spirit in the synagogue, the church and the mosque. Today scholars in this tradition are an endangered species. The pressure on these voices is intense, yet it is almost a taboo subject among Muslims.

The inevitable smear campaign is discouraging enough, let alone the thought of floating down the Nile in the belly of a crocodile (this is not a colourful metaphor: Saddam's henchmen would literally feed critics of the regime to the local wildlife). Of course, the knowledge that persecution of the family will swiftly follow usually breaks most independent-minded scholars.

The poverty of scholarship has long-term consequences for Muslim societies. In the place of scholars advising, guiding and criticising the rulers of the day, the sycophants and the secret services prevail. At the local mosque, the imam is often an apologist for the state - preaching a message of hatred towards America, Israel and the West. Wisdom, compassion and learning is replaced by paranoia and neurosis. This is true whether in Muammar Gaddafi's Libya, Saddam Hussein's Iraq or the Afghanistan of the Taliban.

With the scholars driven out, or under pressure to remain silent, it is not surprising that the Muslim world's educational achievements are among the lowest in the world. Literacy figures are poor, and for women they are alarming. As a result, women in the Muslim world are deprived of their inheritance and their rights, while men convince them that this is Islam.

In spite of the resources at their disposal, the failure of Muslim societies is spectacular. That can only be explained by the general sense of despair, disillusionment and discouragement. Take Pakistan, which once promised to be the model of a tolerant, modern Muslim nation. Scholars - Yusuf Ali, the translator of the Koran, Rahmat Ali, who gave Pakistan its name, Fazlur Rahman, the eminent Islamic scholar, and Abdus Salam, the only Nobel prizewinner of Pakistan - were encouraged to leave by the intolerant and the ignorant. Those with international reputations wishing to work in Pakistan - like Akhtar Hameed Khan, Mahbub ul-Haq and Eqbal Ahmed - died frustrated and broken-hearted.

Crude tactics are used even in the UK to intimidate the voices of Islam advocating dialogue. I have been denounced as an Uncle Tom for being too keen to have dialogue with Jews and Christians and far too impressed by Western civilisation. I was condemned for being the first Muslim Oxbridge don to speak at evensong at Selwyn College chapel in Cambridge. I was further condemned when I became the first Muslim scholar to deliver the Rabbi Goldstein Memorial Lecture for the Liberal and Progressive synagogues in the UK.

For this I was branded a Zionist agent - and received violent threats both from extremist Muslims appalled at my consorting with the "enemy" and from racist Britons who told this "black bastard" to "go home". My wife has many times begged me to keep quiet. Why should I take the problems of the Muslim world on my shoulders, she asks. But someone has to do it.

The issues I have chosen to take on are compounded in Western societies by a growing Islamophobia - a fear and hatred of things Islamic. This does not help Muslims seeking dialogue or understanding. They are seen by Muslims to be lame at best and apologists at worst.

We are living at a critical - and dangerous - time in history when several world civilisations are feeling under siege simultaneously. Muslims feel under siege, and point to the plight of the Palestinians, the Kashmiris and the Chechens. They view the continuing instability and violence in Iraq and Afghanistan with growing anger. They talk of the cloud of Islamophobia that now hangs over them in Western countries. The pictures from Abu Ghraib confirm the worst fears in Muslim minds of the West determined to humiliate them.

As if this was not bad enough, eminent figures in the UK and US have taken to attacking Islam. Vicious personal attacks have been launched on the Prophet of Islam himself. This is the final straw for some, because the Prophet is a highly revered figure for cultural and religious reasons.

Americans feel under siege, especially after 11 September. Israelis have felt under siege for several decades, believing that they are surrounded by Arabs determined on exterminating them. Dialogue and understanding are desperately needed to build bridges. The Western media needs to think carefully about the consequences of giving the oxygen of publicity to men like Bakri. Muslims, on the other hand, need to reclaim their spiritual heritage which once made them the leading world civilisation by rediscovering scholars such as Rumi.

As a Muslim scholar I am inspired, in spite of the discouragement, by the constant refrain in the Koran that God has created us as part of different tribes and nations so that we may come to know each other. We are all - whatever our colour or our faith - the children of God. It is a strong if distant thought to hold on to in our dangerous, changing and violent times.

The author holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington DC

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