I was lured into reading an article by its name, “The Problems Facing Muslim Nations”, published at the Arab News, a leading English Daily in Saudi Arabia. I thought perhaps a person with insight of the Muslim Countries’ affairs would shed light on identifying key factors adversely affecting growth, prosperity, pluralism and good governance within the Muslim land. However, I was disappointed. In fact, disappointment perhaps is an understatement. The author not only failed to grasp the challenges facing the Muslim nations, his analysis of the issues are frankly demeaning, dispiriting and devoid of realism.
In brief, the piece identified five issues – education framework not fit for purpose; our obsessions with the past; like for abstract at the expense of concrete; obsession with angels, demons, God and satan and finally, lame and illogical dislike for arts.
When one read the article and the five factors identified, it becomes apparent that the writer feels that the Islamic faith as it is practiced by the most is responsible for much of the backwardness, irrationality, illogicality and superficiality. He feels that much of our nations’ adherence to the faith is blind, literal and therefore not rational and logical. Of course, he was at pain to stress that Islamic faith need not to be blamed, and no harm can arise from study of faith but it just needs not to be at the expense of others.
For a start, the author fails to understand the Muslim nations even on the basics. While Saudi Arabia, presumably the country of the Author and may be Iran, are the only two exceptions where faith may have some kind of dominance in the governance of the state. Countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Egypt and Turkey, nations with most Muslim population, enjoy a political culture and class in which faith has very little direct and visible effect. People with real authority and power who has been dominating policy making and state operation are predominantly western educated, secular minded and often with little visible devotion to faith. Why then have they not adopted the curriculum, created the context for recognition of the present as oppose to dwelling in the past? As for the love of arts, we know that many of these governments had almost irrational degree of love for art – music, film, fine art etc. There is also no evidence to suggest that these governments were threatened by the “religiou fanatics” to the extent that they had to compromise in their policy making. Other than in Afghanistan, none of the other nations had much rational fear of being ransomed by religious fanatics.
The argument thus that faith and a blind obsession with it is at the heart of our demise is nothing but an irrational, illogical assertion without factual and evidential basis. Further, it serves to the prevailing global policy to scapegoat faith, and in particular Islam. It also overlooks the reality on the ground.
Now that it is clear I disagree with the piece, what then are the issues with Muslim nations? Well this is too big a question to be answered in one article by a small individual like me. However, I shall seek to briefly identify several factors that I think are important.
Firstly, education curriculum, practice and framework in our countries are a problem and no, not because of their obsession with religion, far from it. The problem at the heart of our educational systems are two fold – firstly the lack of a conceptual basis which does not provide a vision behind our educational strategies and secondly, and perhaps as a consequent of the first, that our education’s emphasis is not on analytical, critical and intellectual development of the students. Curriculum in most Muslim countries seems to emphasise on recollection, memorisation and not on critical evaluation, analysis and problem solving. This is true of the science, arts and religious curriculum. Shockingly, this is true at all level of education – primary to the university level.
The second challenge in the Muslim countries is a lack of culture to debate competing ideas. Muslim countries are notoriously polarised along political and ideological lines - whichever ideology we hold dear, we reject the notion that others are also entitled to hold their own ideology. As a result, the secular minded rejects any notion that faith and those with an ideology inspired by faith has a stake in the affairs of the state and vice versa.
Third and final issue that I would highlight is the lack of patronage of religion by the state. I know some will find it surprising and many may well see that it is the opposite. But that is not so. Yes, there are states that provide huge funds and influence to religious institutions and scholars. But my point is that state should take a pro-active role in creating an environment in which scholars, students and public take an active interest in exploring faith in its totality, engage in debates and open discussions where difference is respected, celebrated and not condemned. That will only happen if states provide patronage to research based on religion which seek to explore finding answers to modern questions that Muslims and non-Muslims alike are facing. This will create a level playing field in which dogmatic, literalist and traditionalist scholars will not dominate exclusively the sphere of religious decision making.
But at the heart of all the above must be a realisation that faith, as a separate, independent and parallel entity to daily life cannot exists and must not exist. From an Islamic perspective, faith is intertwined with a person’s belief, action and though process. Attempt to separate state from religion, Islam from life, is an artificial separation which will only create confusion, chaos and often disunity. The question that ought to be at the top of our mind-set is how we can be true to our faith while embrace the spirit of innovation, creativity, objectivity and pluralism. After all, Islam has championed these values for centuries while the present western civilisation was in darkness.