Even as Iraq is bombed into submission, Arab rulers continue to cooperate with the US while mouthing slogans to give the impression that they oppose the war. The “Arab street” will not tolerate these attacks, they say, yet their security forces feel no compunction about attacking anti-war protesters in Cairo, Amman, Sana and other capitals. In Sana the police shot and killed four demonstrators on March 22. Egyptian president Husni Mubarak warned disingenuously: “This war will create 100 Osamas throughout the Arab world.” Perhaps, but what have the Arab regimes done to confront the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq?
After two meetings of the Arab League é on February 23 in Cairo and March 1 in Sharm el-Sheikh é followed by the meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in Doha, Qatar, on March 5, Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa declared on April 1 that the League could not exist in its present form. Moussa was dead serious: the League had failed to agree even on a common declaration.
While participating in Arab League meetings to give the impression that they are eager to prevent the war, several member-states have allowed their territories to be used by American forces. Doha serves as the base for US Central Command; the invasion of Iraq is conducted from Kuwait; Bahrain hosts the US Fifth Fleet; and the Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia serves as US Air Command headquarters. Mubarak meanwhile has allowed American ships to ferry war material through the Suez Canal, and king Abdullah of Jordan has provided bases for the US air force to prevent any “Iraqi attack on Israel”.
Let us be clear: Baghdad is no ordinary capital; it was the seat of one of the greatest Muslim empires é the Abbasid khilafah é in history. True, it was sacked by the Mongols under Halaku Khan (Genghiz Khan’s grandson) in 1258 CE, but Muslims did not facilitate that aggression. Today, Arab rulers are supporting America’s aggression even while pretending in public to be opposed to it. Is this good politics or cowardice? Two states are crucial, for different reasons: Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Saudi Arabia is home to Islam’s holiest sites, which could be used as rallying points for Muslim awakening. Egypt is the most powerful Arab country, and it has to be kept out of the Arab camp that opposes Israel.
There is deep anger among Muslims at the suffering being inflicted on the people of Iraq. There is also much admiration for the Iraqis’ courage in resisting the immense military might of the US. Unlike the assault on Iraq in 1991, this time al-Jazeera is playing a major role in bringing the truth to people in the Arab world, where regimes usually peddle American propaganda. Several Arab governments have complained about al-Jazeera’s coverage; Jordan has banned the network. The US expressed its anger by killing an al-Jazeera correspondent and attacking the Sheraton Hotel, Baghdad, where foreign correspondents were staying; several were injured. Three journalists were killed in the Palestine Hotel, Baghdad, by American tank-shell fire. This is what journalists get for daring to broadcast news-bulletins that arenot sufficiently supportive of America’s war aims.
Muslim anger at such injustices and the impotence of their own regimes are serious problems, but they can hardly be redressed by mere demonstrations, however well attended. There is a much deeper malaise afflicting the Muslim world. While Baghdad is burning, some Muslims might consider discussion of the historical reasons that brought us to this sorry state as heresy, but this is precisely the time to address such issues. Unfortunately the Muslim mind tends to concentrate and pay attention only during crises.
Most ulama in the Muslim world have spoken out against the war and issued calls to resist it, except the Saudis, who have declared that Muslims should do nothing. This is even worse than many non-Muslims, who have spoken out against the war and have taken part in enormous rallies in western capitals. The Saudi ulama are of course following the lead of their rulers. Not so the ulama in Egypt, where even Seyyed Tantawi, the shaikh of al-Azhar, who is no revolutionary, has issued a call against the war and blessed resistance to it; other ulama have been more emphatic in condemning it.
For the Muslim masses, the issue is not one of nationalism but of being a part of the Ummah. Regardless of the nature of the regime in Iraq, it is the people whose wellbeing is of concern to every Muslim. The Qur’an reminds us: “The Muslims are one ikhwah [brotherhood and sisterhood]” (49:10). There are several hadiths that also emphasize this point. “The Muslims are like one body,” said the Prophet (saw); “when one part is hurt, the whole body feels the pain.” Another hadith states that when Muslims see injustice or oppression, they must stop it with their hands (i.e. physically); if that is not possible, they must speak out against it: if even that is not possible, for whatever reason, then they must consider it evil in their hearts, but this is the lowest form of iman (faith).
Although the Muslim peoples would like to live as one Ummah, the nation-state structure imposed on their societies by colonialism prevents this. The present ruling elites, who are the direct beneficiaries of the division of the Ummah, do not want unity. They are quite content to create such entities as the Arab League and the OIC, in which their separate identity and nationalism are considered paramount. It is nationalism that prevents Egypt, Saudi Arabia and every other Muslim country from coming to the help of Iraq, for instance. In fact, these regimes have strong differences among themselves that are voiced publicly, even passionately, whenever such gatherings are held.
The nation-state structure is alien to the political system and culture of Islam. Even when khilafah é the system established by the first generation of Muslims after the death of the Prophet é was changed into mulukiyya (hereditary kingship), Muslims did not abandon their sense of belonging to one Ummah. It continued to reverberate in their hearts even during dynastic rule whether in Spain, India or under the Ottomans. It was only after the Ottoman khilafah é a corrupted version of the original, first established in Madinah more than 1400 years ago é was abolished in 1924 that Muslims lost their moorings. They have been adrift on a sea of nation-states, buffeted by the ill-winds of history, ever since.
While the Muslim masses continue to respond to crises in the Muslim world é whether in Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan or Iraq é the ruling elites in the Muslim world hide their impotence behind claims that they are protecting their own “national interest.” This explains why the Palestinians’ plight does not get much support from the rulers of Egypt or any other Muslim nation-state. While the Muslims protest against US attacks on Iraq in such distant places as Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Egypt and Jordan, the regimes use their security forces to suppress these expressions of affinity.
As Baghdad follows a long list of Muslim cities é al-Quds (Jerusalem), Sarajevo, Johar Gala (Grozny), Kabul and Srinagar é that lie smouldering in ruins, it would be well to remember that the Muslim world is not poor. It is not a lack of resources or weapons but a lack of ideas and conviction, as the late Algerian scholar Malek Bennabi put it, that lie at the heart of the Muslim dilemma. The Muslim world is plagued by a bundle of contradictions: it has some of the richest as well as the poorest people in the world; even in relatively poor societies, such as Bangladesh, Pakistan and Egypt, the rich live it up in a way that would be the envy of most people in the West. Yet one finds the vast majority of people living in absolute poverty, lacking such basic necessities as clean drinking water, a roof over their heads and one square meal a day. Some parts of the Muslim world are as “modern” as those found in the West, with all the amenities of life, while others have barely moved beyond the “Stone Age.” Islam condemns such extravagance and disparities, yet there is no shortage of court ulama eager to “justify” such behaviour by questionable use of selective passages from the Qur’an and the hadith.
The real failure in the Muslim world is not that of the much-derided masses but of the elites. They have accepted defeat and subservience as their permanent condition. While Allah commands them to worship and fear Him alone, they worship and fear everything except Allah (nastaghfirullah). Their condition is like animals locked up in cages in a zoo. They have got so used to being fed dead meat that they can no longer think of freedom in order to survive by personal effort. They are dependent on foreign ‘aid’ that goes against the very definition of being a Muslim, who must depend only on Allah for all things. Even wealthy Muslim countries é like Saudi Arabia é are mired in huge debt because of mismanagement and corruption. The country’s wealth, far from being considered an amana (trust) from Allah, is treated as a family fortune, to be used at their whim and passed on to the next generation of the same family.
It would serve little purpose to lament the lack of unity in the Muslim world, or ask why these regimes do not come to the rescue of Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan or Kashmir; they were not created for this purpose. They are the products of colonialism and continue to serve that function. Nor does it help the Muslims much to hijack planes and slam them into tall buildings, admirable as the courage of the people involved might be. Similarly, it does not help to kill a ruler merely to change a regime. Killing Anwar Sadat in October 1981 did not bring Egypt any closer to becoming an Islamic state, even if his elimination helped assuage the anger of some people. Muslims have to change the systems in their societies that do not serve the interests of the people. This requires, first and foremost, a clear understanding of what is wrong with the existing systems, and comprehension of who benefits from them.
Muslims must also develop a better idea of who their real enemies are. The ruling elites in Western societies work in close tandem with each other as well as with elites in Muslim societies. For instance, before the Anglo-American attack on Iraq, Russia, France and Germany were opposed to it; now they have all lined up to join in “rebuilding” Iraq, in order to “grab a part of the action”. Greed, not principle, is at work here. It is pointless to repose much confidence in Russia, France or anyone else to safeguard Muslim interests; self-reliance is the only guarantee.
The Iraqi dilemma makes it clear that the Muslims’ present systems cannot ensure their survival in a hostile world. While they need to acquire the wherewithal, as commanded by Allah (8:60), to defend themselves, their ultimate defence lies in the mobilization of the masses, for Muslims will never be able to match the firepower of the kuffar. It is the masses that can inflict sufficient damage on an invading army to make the cost of such an adventure unattractive. The Hizbullah example in Lebanon is a case in point. Similarly, North Korea’s mercurial rulers have shown that when you have sufficient firepower and a leadership that has bone instead of a rubber hose up their spines, you can keep the strongest military power in the world at bay.
Weakness and a lack of conviction invite trouble. Today the Muslim world unfortunately suffers from both. This is a recipe for catastrophe.