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Last Updated: Friday, 26 September, 2003, 10:15 GMT 11:15 UK
Viewpoint: Islam and modernity

By Arzu Merali
Islamic Human Rights Commission

"Modernise or die" screamed an email we received a few months back at our offices.

Though brutally put, the charge is not uncommon. Just as victims of rape are sometimes accused of "asking for it", Muslims - the targets of amongst other things hate crime and legislative paranoia in the West, and despotism and dictatorship in the East - are deemed to warrant their plight because of their religious identity.

Islam and its practice have become synonymous with self-imposed backwardness which needs modernity - aka Western philosophical and political progress to make its adherents acceptable members of society.

The manufactured consent of Western democracies is not a great model for the West let alone elsewhere
What could be wrong with that?

The overwhelming majority of refugees worldwide according to the UN are Muslim.

Equal numbers are impoverished or imprisoned by cruel regimes. The case for modernity seems irresistible. Yet, there are problems aplenty.

Scepticism of the modern

By asking whether Muslims should accept modernity, we simply assume that the average bearded or veiled adherents on the streets of our global village don't want to be governed in ways that reflect their wishes.

The Islamic mind is seen as static, stuck in the (European) Middle Ages that required the Enlightenment.

The question is not whether Muslims need to modernise, so much as whether we all need to find new, less confrontational ways towards progress
This stereotype belies the returning of people worldwide to Islam, often having rejected the secular world, from Bosnia to Bangsamoro.

For them Islam often means spiritual and political freedom. Their scepticism of the modern is not unique. The manufactured consent of Western democracies is not a great model for the West let alone elsewhere.

Islamic scholars of earlier centuries provided the motor for the Renaissance from the arts to natural science and philosophy.

The Islamic command to seek knowledge from cradle to grave, gainsays the notion that Muslims by definition refute learning.

Equal responsibility

Post-modernists like Rorty and Foucault offer a critique of the neo-imperialism of modern discourses.

Exponents of universal human rights like Michael Ignatieff acknowledge that everyone is entitled to choose the good life for themselves.

The question is not whether Muslims need to modernise, or how much they can learn from the West so much as whether we all need to find new, less confrontational ways towards progress.

Recognising that we are all equal partners in finding a way out of the global crisis is the challenge not so much for Muslims but those who wish to impose their version of the way forward on the rest of us.

Do you agree or disagree with the author's comments? Are Islamic concepts compatible with modernity? Send us your comments using the form below.


Your comments:

Muslims are on a mission to conquer and convert Western societies into Islamic societies
Yara, Beirut, Lebanon
I was in London in October 2001, just after the terrorist attacks in the US. A bearded man wearing Muslim a outfit approached me in Oxford street when he heard me talking in Arabic. He reprimanded me for not wearing the Hijab and he preached to me about Jihad. I was stunned. This doesn't happen in Beirut, and definitely shouldn't happen in the UK. I felt that Muslims are on a mission to conquer and convert Western societies into Islamic societies. It is amazing that Muslims living in the West want to become visible and adopt some dress codes.

They dream about "Sharia" that tolerates beheading, stoning, amputations, bigamy and honour crimes, despite living in societies that value human rights. Why don't they simply relax and enjoy the freedom that others lack? Please modernise and set the example for millions of Muslims under oppression in other parts of the planet. Modernity is not a threat to Islam.
Yara, Beirut, Lebanon

The author needs to give examples to justify all the points she made. Otherwise, it is just empty theory. Why are there no moderates and liberals in this religion? Why do people get murdered just because they disagree with the Mullahs? Why is the entire Muslim world, with a couple of exceptions, ruled by dictators? Why do Muslim countries try to drive out all non-Muslim minorities? Why such intolerance?
Prem Chander, India

The current "Islamic revival" looks to me to be far more like a fashionable assertion of cultural pride by a beleaguered group rather than anything deeper
NK, UK
It's all very well to attack the very notion of "modernity" but the reality is that millions of Muslims flock to the West every year, abandoning so-called traditional societies in favour of the wealth and freedoms of the "modern" West. The reverse does not happen. The current "Islamic revival" looks to me to be far more like a fashionable assertion of cultural pride by an undoubtedly beleaguered group rather than anything deeper. It reminds me very much of my own fervent Celtic nationalism as a teenager - which, in hindsight, was really nothing more than a romantic fantasy of a world that never was.
NK, UK

This article was nothing more than a superfluous account of the conflict between Islamic and Western values. Perhaps the author should examine the underlying causes. For instance, she could look at 4:89 of the Koran that says apostates should be executed and then look at the human rights declaration, which states in no uncertain terms that people should have the right to follow whatever religion they want, including the right to change religion. She could then do a comparison with the prodigal son passage in Luke 15 of the Bible, which offers no evidence that the father in the story sought to have his son murdered for turning away from him. Examining fundamental facts and underlying conflicts is the only way to bring an end to this conflict.
Graeme Phillips, Germany/UK

To begin with, is all modernity good? One should note that Islam is Islam; it can't be changed, unlike the Western world. It is very clear in its teachings. As a Muslim, personally I think all Muslim countries should abide by the Sha'ria (Islamic) law.
Zain Shah, Germany

We have to examine, change and improve ourselves as human beings before we can expect others to accept us
Mohammad Imran, USA
The author thinks that there is nothing wrong with Muslims, as individuals and as a community. She also wants Muslims to be accepted as equals when they display outward signs of their faith such as the wearing of headscarves. I agree on this latter point. However, unless we Muslims change we will not improve, and without improvement everything else, including acceptance by others, is immaterial. We should look at our history and ask hard questions such as why we have we lost the intellectual leadership of the world and we should come up with hard hitting factual answers. Just now, no Muslim is willing to criticize the destructive forces which are prevalent in the Muslim community, because the critic will be putting down the religious leaders who control the minds, thought processes and actions of the Muslim community. Other things to investigate and debunk are the mythologies, such as Muslims are superior to the others that we are special human beings and that others are out to destroy us. We have to examine, change and improve ourselves as human beings before we can expect others to accept us.
Mohammad Imran, USA

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