Friday, August 25, 2006

Sitting on the fence …

It’s often said that Islam and democracy cannot co-exist. The claim is made by fringe Muslim groups such as Hizbut Tahrir as well as by some critics of the status quo of Muslim-majority states.

Hence, we often read headlines in newspaper articles like “Islam must first get its house in order” and “Islam’s weaknesses must be acknowledged”. Naturally, many Muslims find such headlines offensive. After all, Islam is a faith and a set of principles based upon the same foundations and emerging from the same region as Judaism and Christianity.

When a democratic deficit exists in South American countries, we don’t see headlines saying “Christianity must get its house in order”. Similarly, when countries like Burma, Sri Lanka and Cambodia are gripped with endemic corruption, we don’t read of “Buddhism’s economic crisis”.

When something is given the label “Islamic” or “Islam”, for most Muslims this means the phenomenon being described emerges from the teachings, ethics and religious laws of Islam. What people of nominally Muslim faith might do or say isn’t anymore representative of Islam as what people do in Rio of Auckland is reflective of Christianity.

Unfortunately, in relation to those claiming or deemed to follow Islam, the mistake is made over and over again. It is reflective of the fact that so many people in the West regard Muslims as one huge foreign and potentially hostile population bloc. Muslims are one huge “them”.

For me as a Western Muslim, this can be very frustrating. Just as I become frustrated when I travel to Muslim-majority states and must politely put up with endless questions from my hosts about “those Westerners” or “them Europeans”.

For Western Muslims, the problem we face is one of sitting on the fence and being able to recognise the enormous variety in both pseudo-sectors. As far as we are concerned, Westerners fit into our “us” category as much as people from Muslim-majority states.

It’s easy to get offended when a Western journalist questions us on the timetable for “Islam’s reform” or “the democratisation of Islam” or “Islam’s embrace of liberty”. As far as we are concerned, the problem isn’t with Islam. The problem is with citizens of nominally Muslim states. Don’t blame the faith, the ethics and the religious law. Blame the supposed followers who have abandoned Islam.

As I finish writing these lines, I can’t help but wonder why I should feel loved to write something so damned obvious and self-evident. I guess we always have to remember that it is only by sitting on the fence that you can gain a better appreciation of the people and terrain on both sides. As the fence gets higher and higher, those on either side find it more and more difficult to appreciate those on the other.

And with the fence now reaching perhaps maximum height, being a Western Muslim isn’t something you should embrace if you are unable to keep balance or are afraid of heights!

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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