Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A Dream

My first post is a recent piece in which I attempted to recast the entire Muslim-Western-Arab-Palestinian-Jewish-Israeli conflict into a new perspective. The device used was to create a mythical speech entitled "A Dream" (loosely modelled on Martin Luther King's famous speech) delivered at some unspecified date to an equally mythical World Muslim Congress. This allowed me to paint a radically different picture of the political universe and its possibilities without becoming bogged down in the harsh realities and complexities of the real world. Both the shortcomings and advantages of this approach were briefly addressed in a Postscript which follows the piece.

Interestingly enough, my piece drew a response from a "Muslim academic". His/her response and my own replies are also included below. Names of my correspondents have been kept confidential since they have not granted permission for publication. I would welcome any further comments which, until this blog is fully up and running, should be addressed to

Please note that this site is in the process of construction.

A Dream

Martin Luther King Jr. knew the power of a dream whose time had come. I believe that Islam is due for a new dream to displace the nightmare unleashed by the Islamist movement. For those of us who are not Muslim, we hope the new dream comes sooner rather than later.

Let us imagine a World Muslim Congress representing all 1.5 billion Muslims scattered across the globe and the approximately 50 countries in which Islam is the dominant religion. A respected Muslim leader stands and delivers an earth-shattering speech which changes the course of human history. As a challenge to the Islamic world in particular to create something better, this is what I and millions of non-Muslims would hope for - more-or-less:

Dear fellow Muslims, I would like to announce the beginning of a new Islamic golden age. We will commence this new age by acknowledging that Islam is a great religion and that the diverse peoples of Islam constitute a mighty nation with a proud history. It is Islam that rescued Greek civilisation from the dustbin of history and provided the foundations of a new Western civilisation which, at the time, was sunk in barbarity, superstition and ignorance. It was our philosophers, mathematicians, doctors, traders, architects and scholars who created the leading global civilisation in our first Islamic golden age from the 8th to the 13th centuries.

Even now, after many centuries in which Islam failed to fully grasp the possibilities unleashed by our glorious start, we are a great nation. Muslims are amongst the richest people on the globe (as well as the poorest). Muslim states are pioneering revolutionary new forms of economic, social and commercial activity in the Middle East, even while many of their neighbours are sunk in poverty, superstition and tyranny. We own roughly 70 percent of all the oil reserves in the world. The Arab League, for example, occupies an area of 14 million square kilometres and this does not even include the 3 most populous Islamic lands in the world. Given opportunity, as in the USA and elsewhere, Muslims have demonstrated that they can compete effectively against other peoples in the arenas of economic, professional, scientific, scholarly and artistic activity.

Why then do we persist in seeing ourselves as powerless and as victims? Indeed we must recognise that the main threat to Islam comes from within, from those within our ranks who have propagated an obsolete and fanatical religious ideology thereby creating a culture of hatred, fear and death.

While this Islamist menace is usually seen as directed outwards against Christians, Jews and others, it is in reality a dagger directed at the heart of Islam itself. Driven by a fanatical and intolerant ideology, Islamists and other Muslim extremists have indiscriminately murdered tens of thousands of fellow Muslims. By including non-Muslims in their terrorist actions, they have brought the whole of Islam under suspicion and have created enemies instead of friends. Islam itself is perceived as a danger by fearful Westerners and others, who believe that our religious beliefs are responsible for the modern scourge of indiscriminate terror and the political, social and economic backwardness of many Islamic states.

But possibly even greater than these direct threats to Islam and to Muslims, is the reality that Islamist and indeed all extremist ideology constitutes the single major obstacle to the emergence of a new age of Islamic achievement in a modern, globalising world. It threatens to plunge us, fellow Muslims, into an Islamic dark ages, trapped by an obsolete religious orthodoxy, and feared and hated by our neighbours. Thus to fulfil our potential we must unambiguously renounce and reject those who wish to impose radical, violent and intolerant versions of Islam on Muslims and condemn us to a future of backwardness, strife and bitterness.

This brings me to yet another myth, indeed set of myths, which stands in the way of the new Islamic golden age. It is the insane and absurd idea that the Jews constitute a threat to our nation and religion and that the existence of Israel is a source of Islamic humiliation and shame. We must start with some sense of proportion. Muslims outnumber Jews by over a 100 to one. The total number of Jews in the world is not as many as the Muslim population of Cairo alone. Israel occupies a land area one thousandth of the lands dominated by Muslims. It has no oil or other natural resources whatsoever and more than half of Israel is outright desert. If we engulfed the whole of Israel, it would have no significant effect on the size and wealth of our possessions.

We also need to acknowledge that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is yet another myth created mostly by Muslims to serve the shameful end of driving the Jews out of the tiny land they occupy in the Middle East. Let us start by stating the truth that the Jews, the Zionists, who came to Palestine in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were not settlers and colonialists seeking wealth and power. They were essentially refugees fleeing centuries of European Christian persecution, exploitation, dispossession and murder. They were returning to an ancient, poverty-stricken homeland in an effort to become a people like other peoples, with a country to call their own and a sense of national identity and pride. Those that failed to escape Europe died in their millions in the Holocaust.

Furthermore, the arriving Zionists did not displace a people, the Palestinians. The phrase “a land without a people for a people without a land” (first used not by Jewish Zionists but by non-Jews) was essentially true. The Middle East, including Palestine, was subject to the Ottoman Empire. Palestine itself was grossly under populated with large stretches being either uninhabited, malaria-ridden swamps or occupied by poor Arab tenant farmers on behalf of rich landowners living in Jerusalem and elsewhere, and subject to raids by Bedouin bandits. Thus, it was not a land without people, including Jews themselves, but it was certainly a land without “a people”.

The peoples of the Middle East, as we now know it, were created by the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, the machinations of the European powers, especially Britain and France, together with Arab elites living in the region. It is perhaps to be expected that in this climate of rapid transition, the Jews and the newly “liberated” Arab peoples would come into conflict. The Jews were fighting for their very lives while the Arabs were fighting for despotic rulers and for religious and ethnic pride. It is not surprising who won.

From the refugees created by the wars between Israel and its Arab-Muslim neighbours, we created the Palestinian people. We kept them out of our lands to live in squalid, festering refugee camps and encouraged violence and extremism amongst them largely with one aim in view: to destroy Israel through the mechanisms of terror and propaganda. What we achieved was not the destruction of Israel but misery and a creation of a death cult for the millions of Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza strip and elsewhere. These dysfunctional societies with their state allies and terror gangs threaten not only Israel but Islam as a whole. We have stupidly placed a powerful propaganda weapon in the hands of Islamists, which is used as a recruiting tool for terror across the world.

No golden age of Islam is possible without recognising and remedying these dreadful errors. So as of today, we the united Muslim peoples of the world announce the end of terror and intolerance. We intend to become full members of the family of nations and we are confident in our strength and beliefs to embark on the road of peace and coexistence. We will fight the extremists and terrorists together with the rest of the world since they threaten us more than they threaten you. We will reinvigorate Islam and make it relevant to the demands of an interdependent and diverse world.

We also announce to the Jewish nation that you are not large or strong enough to make peace, but we are. We not only accept tiny Israel into the family of Arab-Muslim states making up the Middle East, we welcome you as honoured guests and brothers. We will remove the threats on your border by opening our countries to the Palestinians and together with our friends in the Western world, including Jews and Israelis, by financing their reintegration. We will oppose with all our strength the terrorists in their ranks or those fighting in our name. We are proud that the Jewish people will eventually find friendship and a welcome in the land of their origin amongst the Islamic nations of the region, who are themselves the offspring of the Jewish faith.

We invite the peoples of the world, and especially the Israelis, to visit and cooperate with us in all matters pertaining to the security, economic advancement and social and cultural development of our peoples. The Islamic peoples of the world are numerous, creative and powerful enough to change the dynamic of history if we can act together in pursuit of a truly glorious cause: the dawn of the new Islamic golden age and an age of peace and progress for the rest of the world.

Let us start without delay.

(PS. I will be accused of gross oversimplification, naïveté, and wish fulfilment. To these charges I plead, at least partly, guilty. But I’m presenting a vision, an alternative view of reality and its possibilities, not a blueprint. It is a vision worth serious contemplation.)

Mike Berger

Response (note that my replies in italics and bold are interpolated with the response below. Spelling and grammar unaltered.)

I read you peice with great interest and forwarded the email through to an academic, liberal Muslim friend for comment. Hope you dont (sic) mind. Here's his view:

I think the article has its heart in the right place and much of what is said is true. By outlining the problematic parts I don't intend to give the impression that it is a bad article but rather that certain things should be reconsidered. Here are the problematic parts:

1. The writer uses the word "Islamist" very widely and seems to equate Islamism with violence and extremism. This is a gross generalisation. Islamism is basically a mixture between Islam and politics also known as political Islam. In many cases this experiment has failed. However, in Turkey it seems to be working. Turkey is a democracy and the government is an Islamist government. It plays by the rules of the democratic tradition and it has moved closer towards Europe than any other secular government. It is also the most economically and socially viable and stable government Turkey has seen in its modern history. Turkey also has quite good relations with Israel. Rather the word "extremism" in a sense of irrational violence and bigotry used in the name of Islam should be used.

With respect, this is semantics. Islamist is used to denote a politicised and intolerant form of Islam which has motivated violent Jihad against a variety of targets across the world, including other Muslims and Islamic states. It is not a homogeneous doctrine, but a common element includes the idea of expanding the reach and sovereignty of a radical and "purified" form of Islam. Alternative terms for Islamist include Islamofascist and Islamic Jihad. No single label can capture all the nuances, but Islamist is widely used and understood. Turkey is an Islamic state, not an Islamist one.

2. I don't think that the Martin Luther King analogy should be used. King made the speech against the backdrop of racial discrimination in the USA. Many Muslims and Muslim states are of the opinion that Muslim nations and Muslims are not treated on an equal footing as others and so the dream is for more equatable treatment rather than just becoming part of a world that is in an identity crisis. Many Muslims would argue that the Palestinians are the blacks of Israel. How true this is, is highly arguable but the point is whether it is true or not, you not going to get the attention of most Muslims by framing it this way.

The Martin Luther analogy was not to compare Muslims and blacks, but to denote the power of a "dream" - or a "vision". In no way is the situation of Muslims comparable to that of blacks within the USA before the civil rights movement took effect. Any problems that the world Muslim community currently faces result mainly from the state of play of Islam today, and owe relatively little to the alleged evil machinations of the West. Quite honestly, this is a red herring.

3. Regarding Israel the situation is far more complex and problematic than the writer makes it out to be. Firstly, there are much more serious issues affecting the Muslim world such as poverty, political instability and so on. Nonetheless, since he mentions Israel, here is the problem: Many Muslim sates have cordial relations with Israel. The Arab-Israeli conflict is about refugees, Jewish national identity, occupation and claims to land. These are very complex and difficult issues. By Muslims just accepting Israel for what it is and for Israel just accepting its neighbours for what they are is not going to solve anything. The Palestinian question is not merely a religious question as the writer makes it out to be. It is one of nationality, politics and human rights. I am not sure what the writer is driving at here. I don't actually think that the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be difficult with the radical change in the mindset I proposed in "A Dream". Without a change in the basic mindset, the "solution" may be well-nigh impossible. Is the writer suggesting that a "solution" would lie in Israel's surrender of the idea of a Jewish state or homeland in this small sliver of the Middle East? If so, it would be a solution in the same sense that the Holocaust was a "solution" to the "problem" of European Jewry. I am sure he or she does not mean that.

Another point is the explanation the writer gives for "a land without a people." His explanation might make sense to some people but I think it is a very emberassing justification. The article would be much stronger and the case for Israel would be more humane if the entire paragraph regarding "a land without a people for a people without a land" is excluded. On the contrary, the point being made is not embarrassing in the slightest. Palestine was indeed a land with people but not with "a people". That is simply an historical fact, and an important one at that.

4. If the writer genuinely believes that it is possible for a council to represent all 1 billion Muslims who are divided into religious Muslims and secular Muslims and who are further divided into cultural Muslims, sceptical Muslims and believing Muslisms, who are further divided into Shia, Sunni, Ibadi, Ahmadiyyah and Druze who are further divided into 9 schools of jurisprudence and 4 schools of belief and and for one scholar to mention something and for all Muslims to follow him this is merely wishful thinking. Islam is extremely splintered and diverse. It is not monolithic and norms and social conditions change dramatically from one country to another. As I supposed was obvious from the title of my piece (A Dream) and my PS, of course I don't believe that a World Muslim Congress would represent every division, nuance and opinion within the 1.5 billion members of the global Muslim community. But that does not mean that a radical new vision announced could not have immense impact across not only the Muslim world, but across the entire globe. Martin Luther King did not speak for every African-American, and the Zionist vision, especially when first articulated, only represented a minority viewpoint. Both these visions had, however, enormous impact. That is the point I'm making.

To sum up my (Solar Plexus) position. The respondent, well-intentioned as he/she may be, is in a state of denial and is resorting to nit-picking. The world needs Muslims who have the insight and especially the courage, to grasp the essential truths in "A Dream" and to convert these into effective political currency. I put "A Dream" into the public space for this purpose.

No comments: