Several days ago I wrote a piece in which I sought to explain why blasphemy is a source of such profound offense to Muslims. I noted that Islam is the single most powerful unifying force in the Muslim world and transcends other sources of self-identity, including ethnic and national origin.
The New York Times recently conducted a survey of journalists from Pakistan. As the op-ed chart shows, a majority of respondents chose Islam as their “above-all” source of identity. Moreover, 75 percent noted that they believe God is a necessary pre-condition for good moral values. I point these results out not to posit the philosophical correctness of either proposition, as many secularists would disagree, but rather to highlight the fact that Islam and God are indeed inseparable from the psychology of the Muslim world. It should be noted that this survey encompasses an extremely narrow set of Pakistanis, namely journalists, who represent one of the most educated, cultured, progressive, and politically astute demographics in any society. In spite of this, a majority denoted Islam as their paramount basis for self-understanding. Indeed, had this poll been conducted of Pakistani civilian society, the results would be homogeneously in favor of an Islamically-premised self-identity. It bears noting that these same journalists overwhelmingly had a favorable opinion of the United States and the American people, in spite of a strongly critical attitude of US foreign policy. That seems to me a judicious stance, and one held by a large percentage of Europeans and indeed American themselves.
CNN reported the findings of a major Pew study several weeks ago that found that, in a mere twenty years, the Muslim population of the world will double to an astounding 2.2 billion and thus represent a quarter of the world’s population; that is, 1 in 4 humans on the planet will be Muslim by 2030. In light of this emerging demographic trend, it is clear that Islam will be one of the world’s major intellectual forces for many years to come; despite the recent events in Egypt, a secularization of the Islamic world, along the lines of post-Enlightenment Europe, seems highly unlikely in the immediate future. As such, far from being a purely academic subject, understanding Islam is of the highest practical significance to all people in the world, Muslim and non. If we hope to achieve international peace and political reconciliation between the many warring states of the world today, it seems that interfaith understanding is an indispensable first-step towards these ends. To a young Muslim and activist like me, it is an incredibly exciting time, and indeed an honor, to be a member of a faith whose moral success is essential to global peace.
Several years ago I, like many others, was deeply influenced by the writings of the late Edward Said who dismissed Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis as an absurd and simplistic caricature of human civilization. Although Said’s position arguably had strong currency at the time of its publication, it is becoming increasingly clear that large segments of modern societies, both in the West and Islamic world, view the world’s current political malaise in cosmic terms; a pronounced ideological divide between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities of the world has emerged since September 11th, the Afghanistan War, the Iraq War, the Madrid and London bombings, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, the “cold war” with Iran, and a deterioration in the Israel-Palestine conflict. This polarization should not come as a surprise, as it is inherent to the human condition to cling tighter to one’s identity when one perceives that it is under assault, no matter how irrational the underlying belief may be.
My belief is that religion, per se, is not the fundamental cause for global enmity; rather it springs from something deeper, namely the many social diseases that have plagued humanity since its inception: human bondage and deprivation of individual liberty, economic destitution, racial enmity, gender inequality, exploitation of the weak, and the willingness to use violence to aggrandize political and economic power. Today’s nation-states and vigilante movements, both of which have a long history of perpetrating war and terrorism, are perfectly willing to set aside religious and ideological doctrine when circumstances demand. The United States’ unholy alliance with religious extremists during the Russian-Afghanistan War is a case in point.
One must ask: if religion were effaced from the world today, would the maladies referenced above suddenly eviscerate? It seems unlikely. Indeed, humans have a remarkable capacity to create an infinite set of false divisions and tribes in pursuit of their sinister ends; sometimes one is American, white, black, man, woman, rich, poor, conservative, liberal, socialist, capitalist, communists, ugly, beautiful, Catholic, Protestant, Sunni, Shiite, Hindu, Buddhist, Asian, Caucasian, African, and on and on, and on. That is, no matter how many individual categories may wiped out, there will be another to replace it in a moment’s notice. In the tradition of Nazi Germany, riding the world of Islam, as some seem to be covertly advocating, will do little to enable world peace. Indeed, at a young age children begin to exhibit the human proclivity for tribalism and artificial identity, as a social caste emerges during one’s very first playground experience. Human beings find repose in contrived categories, which enable them to differentiate themselves from others in a way that is helpful to arriving at a sense of self-awareness. However, once artificial division becomes a source of injustice and misery, it loses its salutary character entirely. In a world in which tribalism is revered as an expression of “patriotism,” it takes a judicious mind and immense moral discipline to overcome allegiances in which truth and principle are abdicated to one’s tribe. It is for this reason that I have such profound respect for men like Bertrand Russell and Noam Chomsky and the doctrine of moral consistency they have imparted to activists, young and old, all throughout the world.
When contemplating the horrors that divide the world today, my belief is that it is essential not to lay blame upon abstractions like “religion” or “nations,” but rather where it squarely belongs: on us, human beings. Without wanting to give away to empty clichés, diversity must be celebrated and regarded as source of unity, not division. In words that could have just as well been uttered by Thomas Paine, Islam’s supreme egalitarian ethic teaches Muslims as much:
“Mankind, We created you from a male and female, and made you into distinct nations and tribes so that you might come to know each other. The noblest among you in God’s sight is the one who is best in conduct.” (Qur’an 49:13)