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Harsh Kapoor aiindex at mnet.fr
Thu Dec 20 13:00:04 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

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

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 colonizers.

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 wrong.

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

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 interests.

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


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