[Reader-list] Quaid-e-Azam University Professor on Muslims and the West post 9/11

Rana Dasgupta rana_dasgupta at yahoo.com
Tue Dec 11 14:13:17 IST 2001


Pervez Hoodbhoy
America has exacted blood revenge for the Twin Towers.
A million Afghans have fled US bombs into the cold
wastelands and face starvation. B-52s have blown the
Taliban to bits and changed Mullah Omar’s roar of
defiance into a pitiful squeak for surrender. Osama
bin Laden is on the run (he may be dead by the time
this article reaches the reader). But even as the
champagne pops in the White House, America remains
fearful – for good reason.

Subsequent to September 11th we have all begun to live
in a different, more dangerous world. Now is the time
to ask why. Like clinical pathologists, we need to
scientifically examine the sickness of human behavior
impelling terrorists to fly airliners filled with
passengers into skyscrapers. We also need to
understand why millions celebrate as others die. In
the absence of such an understanding there remains
only the medieval therapy of exorcism; for the strong
to literally beat the devil out of the weak. Indeed,
the Grand Exorcist – disdainful of international law
and the growing nervousness of even its close allies –
prepares a new hit list of other Muslim countries
needing therapy: Iraq, Somalia, and Libya. We shall
kill at will, is the message.

This will not work. Terrorism does not have a military
solution. Soon – I fear perhaps very soon – there will
be still stronger, more dramatic proof. In the modern
age, technological possibilities to wreak enormous
destruction are limitless. Anger, when intense enough,
makes small stateless groups, and even individuals,
extremely dangerous. 

Anger is ubiquitous in the Islamic world today. Allow
me to share a small personal experience. On September
12th I had a seminar scheduled at the department of
physics in my university in Islamabad, part of a
weekly seminar for physics students on topics outside
of physics. Though traumatized by events, I could not
cancel the seminar because sixty people had already
arrived, so I said, “We will have our seminar today on
a new subject: on yesterday’s terrorist attacks”. The
response was negative, some were mindlessly rejoicing
the attacks. One student said, “You can't call this
terrorism.” Another said, “Are you only worried
because it is Americans who have died?” It took two
hours of sustained, impassioned, argumentation to
convince the students that the brutal killing of
ordinary people, who had nothing to do with the
policies of the United States, was an atrocity. I
suppose that millions of Muslim students the world
over felt as mine did, but probably heard no

If the world is to be spared what future historians
may call the “Century of Terror”, we will have to
chart the perilous course between the Scylla of
American imperial arrogance and the Charybdis of
Islamic religious fanaticism. Through these waters, we
must steer by a distant star towards a careful,
reasoned, democratic, humanistic, and secular future.
Else, shipwreck is certain.

“Why do they hate us?”, asks George W. Bush. This
rhetorical question betrays the pathetic ignorance of
most Americans about the world around them. Moreover,
its claim to an injured innocence cannot withstand
even the most cursory examination of US history. For
almost forty years, this “naiveté and
self-righteousness” has been challenged most
determinedly by Noam Chomsky. As early as 1967, he
pointed that the idea that “our” motives are pure and
“our” actions benign is “nothing new in American
intellectual history – or, for that matter, in the
general history of imperialist apologia”.

Muslim leaders have mirrored America’s claim and have
asked the same question of the West. They have had
little to say about 11 September that makes sense to
people outside their communities. Although they speak
endlessly on rules of personal hygiene and “halal” or
“haram”, they cannot even tell us whether or not the
suicide bombers violated Islamic laws. According to
the Virginia-based (and largely Saudi-funded) Fiqh
Council's chairman, Dr. Taha Jabir Alalwani, “this
kind of question needs a lot of research and we don't
have that in our budget.”
Fearful of backlash, most leaders of Muslim
communities in the US, Canada, and Europe have
responded in predictable ways to the Twin Towers
atrocity. This has essentially two parts: first, that
Islam is a religion of peace; and second, that Islam
was hijacked by fanatics on the 11th of September
2001. They are wrong on both counts. 
First, Islam – like Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism,
or any other religion – is not about peace. Nor is it
about war. Every religion is about absolute belief in
its own superiority and the divine right to impose
itself upon others. In medieval times, both the
Crusades and the Jihads were soaked in blood. Today,
Christian fundamentalists attack abortion clinics in
the US and kill doctors; Muslim fundamentalists wage
their sectarian wars against each other; Jewish
settlers holding the Old Testament in one hand, and
Uzis in the other, burn olive orchards and drive
Palestinians off their ancestral land; Hindus in India
demolish ancient mosques and burn down churches; Sri
Lankan Buddhists slaughter Tamil separatists.  

The second assertion is even further off the mark.
Even if Islam had, in some metaphorical sense, been
hijacked, that event did not occur on 11 September
2001. It happened around the 13th century. A quick
look around us readily shows Islam has yet to recover
from the trauma of those times.

Where do Muslims stand today? Note that I do not ask
about Islam; Islam is an abstraction. Moulana Abdus
Sattar Edhi and Mullah Omar are both followers of
Islam, but the former is overdue for a Nobel peace
prize while the other is a medieval, ignorant,
psychotic fiend. Edward Said, among others, has
insistently pointed out, Islam carries very different
meaning to different people. It is as heterogeneous as
those who believe and practice it. There is no “true
Islam”. Therefore it only makes sense to speak of
people who claim that faith. 

Today Muslims number one billion, spread over 48
Muslim countries. None of these has yet evolved a
stable democratic political system. In fact all Muslim
countries are dominated by self-serving corrupt elites
who cynically advance their personal interests and
steal resources from their people. No Muslim country
has a viable educational system or a university of
international stature. 

Reason too has been waylaid. To take some examples
from my own experience. You will seldom encounter a
Muslim name as you flip through scientific journals,
and if you do the chances are that this person lives
in the West. There are a few exceptions: Abdus Salam,
together with Steven Weinberg and Sheldon Glashow, won
the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979 for the
unification of the weak and electromagnetic forces. I
got to know Salam reasonably well – we even wrote a
book preface together. He was a remarkable man,
terribly in love with his country and his religion.
And yet he died deeply unhappy, scorned by his country
and excommunicated from Islam by an act of the
Pakistani parliament in 1974. Today the Ahmadi sect,
to which Salam belonged, is considered heretical and
harshly persecuted. (My next-door neighbor, an Ahmadi,
was shot in the neck and heart and died in my car as I
drove him to the hospital. His only fault was to have
been born in the wrong sect.)

Though genuine scientific achievement is rare in the
contemporary Muslim world, pseudo-science is in
generous supply. A former chairman of my department
has calculated the speed of Heaven: it is receding
from the earth at one centimeter per second less than
the speed of light. His ingenious method relies upon a
verse in the Qur'an which says that worship on the
night on which the Qur'an was revealed, is worth a
thousand nights of ordinary worship. He states that
this amounts to a time-dilation factor of one
thousand, which he puts into a formula belonging to
Einstein’s theory of special relativity. 

A more public example: one of two Pakistani nuclear
engineers recently arrested on suspicion of passing
nuclear secrets to the Taliban had earlier proposed to
solve Pakistan's energy problems by harnessing the
power of genies. The Qur'an says that God created man
from clay, and angels and genies from fire; so this
highly placed engineer proposed to capture the genies
and extract their energy. (The reader may wish to read
the rather acrimonious public correspondence between
Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and myself in 1988 on this
subject, reproduced in my book “Islam and Science –
Religious Orthodoxy And The Battle For Rationality”,
published in 1991).

Today’s sorry situation contrasts starkly with the
Islam of yesterday. Between the 9th and the 13th
centuries – the Golden Age of Islam – the only people
doing decent science, philosophy, or medicine were
Muslims. For five straight centuries they alone kept
the light of learning ablaze. Muslims not only
preserved ancient learning, they also made substantial
innovations and extensions. The loss of this tradition
has proved tragic for Muslim peoples.   

Science flourished in the Golden Age of Islam because
there was within Islam a strong rationalist tradition,
carried on by a group of Muslim thinkers known as the
Mutazilites. This tradition stressed human free will,
strongly opposing the predestinarians who taught that
everything was foreordained and that humans have no
option but surrender everything to Allah. While the
Mutazilites held political power, knowledge grew. 

But in the twelfth century Muslim orthodoxy
reawakened, spearheaded by the cleric Imam Al-Ghazali.
Al-Ghazali championed revelation over reason,
predestination over free will. He refuted the
possibility of relating cause to effect, teaching that
man cannot know or predict what will happen; God alone
can. He damned mathematics as against Islam, an
intoxicant of the mind that weakened faith.

Held in the vice-like grip of orthodoxy, Islam choked.
No longer, as during the reign of the dynamic caliph
Al-Mamum and the great Haroon Al-Rashid, would Muslim,
Christian, and Jewish scholars gather and work
together in the royal courts. It was the end of
tolerance, intellect, and science in the Muslim world.
The last great Muslim thinker, Abd-al Rahman ibn
Khaldun, belonged to the 14th century. 

Meanwhile, the rest of the world moved on. The
Renaissance brought an explosion of scientific inquiry
in the West. This owed much to Arab translations and
other Muslim contributions, but it was to matter
little. Mercantile capitalism and technological
progress drove Western countries to rapidly colonize
the Muslim world from Indonesia to Morocco. Always
brutal, at times genocidal, it changed the shape of
the world. It soon became clear, at least to a part of
the Muslim elites, that they were paying a heavy price
for not possessing the analytical tools of modern
science and the social and political values of modern
culture – the real source of power of their

Despite widespread resistance from the orthodox, the
logic of modernity found 19th century Muslim
adherents. Modernizers such as Mohammed Abduh and
Rashid Rida of Egypt, Sayyed Ahmad Khan of India, and
Jamaluddin Afghani (who belonged everywhere), wished
to adapt Islam to the times, interpret the Qur’an in
ways consistent with modern science, and discard the
Hadith (ways of the Prophet) in favour of the Qur’an.
Others seized on the modern idea of the nation-state.
It is crucial to note that not a single Muslim
nationalist leader of the 20th century was a
fundamentalist. Turkey's Kemal Ataturk, Algeria's
Ahmed Ben Bella, Indonesia's Sukarno, Pakistan's
Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, and
Iran's Mohammed Mosaddeq all sought to organize their
societies on the basis of secular values. 

However, Muslim and Arab nationalism, part of a larger
anti-colonial nationalist current across the Third
World, included the desire to control and use national
resources for domestic benefit. The conflict with
Western greed was inevitable. The imperial interests
of Britain, and later the United States, feared
independent nationalism. Anyone willing to collaborate
was preferred, even the ultraconservative Islamic
regime of Saudi Arabia. In time, as the Cold War
pressed in, nationalism became intolerable. In 1953,
Mosaddeq of Iran was overthrown in a CIA coup,
replaced by Reza Shah Pahlavi. Britain targeted
Nasser. Indonesia's Sukarno was replaced by Suharto
after a bloody coup that left a million dead. 
Pressed from outside, corrupt and incompetent from
within, secular governments proved unable to defend
national interests or deliver social justice. They
began to frustrate democracy. These failures left a
vacuum which Islamic religious movements grew to fill.
After the fall of the Shah, Iran underwent a bloody
revolution under Ayatollah Khomeini. General Mohammad
Zia-ul-Haq ruled Pakistan for eleven hideous years and
strove to Islamize both state and society. In Sudan an
Islamic state arose under Jaafar al-Nimeiry;
amputation of hands and limbs became common. Decades
ago the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was
the most powerful Palestinian organization, and
largely secular. After its defeat in 1982 in Beirut,
it was largely eclipsed by Hamas, a fundamentalist
Muslim movement.
The lack of scruple and the pursuit of power by the
United States combined fatally with this tide in the
Muslim world in 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded
Afghanistan. With Pakistan's Zia-ul-Haq as America's
foremost ally, the CIA advertised for, and openly
recruited, Islamic holy warriors from Egypt, Saudi
Arabia, Sudan, and Algeria. Radical Islam went into
overdrive as its superpower ally and mentor funneled
support to the mujahideen, and Ronald Reagan feted
them on the lawn of White House, lavishing praise on
“brave freedom fighters challenging the Evil Empire”. 

After the Soviet Union collapsed the United States
walked away from an Afghanistan in shambles, its own
mission accomplished. The Taliban emerged; Osama bin
Laden and his Al-Qaeda made Afghanistan their base.
Other groups of holy warriors learned from the Afghan
example and took up arms in their own countries. 

At least until 11 September, US policy makers were
unrepentant. A few years ago, Carter’s U.S. national
security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski was asked by the
Paris weekly Nouvel Observateur whether in retrospect,
given that “Islamic fundamentalism represents a world
menace today”, US policy might have been a mistake.
Brzezinski retorted:

What is most important to the history of the world?
The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some
stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe
and the end of the cold war?
But Brzezinski’s “stirred up Moslems” wanted to change
the world; and in this they were destined to succeed.
With this, we conclude our history primer for the 700
years uptil September 11, 2001.

What should thoughtful people infer from this whole
narrative? I think the inferences are several – and
different for different protagonists. 

For Muslims, it is time to stop wallowing in
self-pity: Muslims are not helpless victims of
conspiracies hatched by an all-powerful, malicious
West. The fact is that the decline of Islamic
greatness took place long before the age of mercantile
imperialism. The causes were essentially internal.
Therefore Muslims must introspect, and ask what went

Muslims must recognize that their societies are far
larger, more diverse and complex than the small
homogenous tribal society in Arabia 1400 hundred years
ago. It is therefore time to renounce the idea that
Islam can survive and prosper only in an Islamic state
run according to Islamic “sharia” law. Muslims need a
secular and democratic state that respects religious
freedom, human dignity, and is founded on the
principle that power belongs to the people. This means
confronting and rejecting the claim by orthodox
Islamic scholars that in an Islamic state sovereignity
does not belong to the people but, instead, to the
vice-regents of Allah (Khilafat-al-Arz) or Islamic
jurists (Vilayat-e-Faqih). 

Muslims must not look towards the likes of bin Laden;
such people have no real answer and can offer no real
positive alternative. To glorify their terrorism is a
hideous mistake – the unremitting slaughter of Shias,
Christians, and Ahmadis in their places of worship in
Pakistan, and of other minorities in other Muslim
countries, is proof that all terrorism is not about
the revolt of the dispossessed.

The United States too must confront bitter truths. It
is a fact that the messages of George W. Bush and Tony
Blair fall flat while those of Osama bin Laden,
whether he lives or dies, resonate strongly across the
Muslim world. Bin Laden’s religious extremism turns
off many Muslims, but they find his political message
easy to relate to – stop the dispossession of the
Palestinians, stop propping up corrupt and despotic
regimes across the world just because they serve US
Americans will also have to accept that the United
States is past the peak of its imperial power; the
50’s and 60’s are gone for good. Its triumphalism and
disdain for international law is creating enemies
everywhere, not just among Muslims. Therefore they
must become less arrogant, and more like other peoples
of this world. While the U.S. will remain a superpower
for some time to come, it is inevitably going to
become less and less “super”. There are compelling
economic and military reasons for this. For example,
China's economy is growing at 7% percent per year
while the U.S. economy is in recession. India, too, is
coming up very rapidly. In military terms, superiority
in the air or in space is no longer enough to ensure
security. In how many countries can US citizens safely
walk the streets today? 

Our collective survival lies in recognizing that
religion is not the solution; neither is nationalism.
Both are divisive, embedding within us false notions
of superiority and arrogant pride that are difficult
to erase. We have but one choice: the path of secular
humanism, based upon the principles of logic and
reason. This alone offers the hope of providing
everybody on this globe with the right to life,
liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 
Pervez Hoodbhoy is professor of nuclear and
high-energy physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, 
Islamabad, Pakistan  <hoodbhoy at isb.pol.com.pk>. 

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