Diversity and tolerance are considered very basis of modernity as
one of the modernity’s fundamental principles is individual and
community rights and also, as modernity implies democratic rule,
tolerance and right to pursue any ideology or religion assumes great
importance. The western countries consider themselves as role models
for democracy and freedom. Mr. Bush, after 9/11 attack often used to
say why (read Muslims) are jealous of our democracy and freedom?
Most of us believe in this myth that west stands for freedom of
conscience, democracy and liberty. And in theory it is quite
correct. But is it is in practice? First of all let us ask one
question did they ever consider non-whites, non-Europeans as equal
and entitled to equality and liberty? The history tells us no. The
white superiority was always underlying assumption and the blacks
(now known as African-American) were always discriminated against.
Even Jews, until Second World War, did not enjoy equal rights. They
were always discriminated against and forced to live in ghettoes,
apart from what Nazis did with them.
Also, until Second World War when the Western world was
mono-religious and mono-cultural its tolerance for non-western
religions and cultures was never tested. It is only when economic
migrations began from the erstwhile colonial countries that west
began to experience what they now call multi-culturalism and western
society became multi-religious and multi-cultural.
It was then that strains appeared and we saw number of cases of
prejudice and discrimination against non-white, non-western people
migrating to the west. The most re cent case is of Switzerland
voting to ban minarets for Muslim mosques. In the poll held 57 per
cent Swiss people voted against allowing minarets to Muslim mosques.
In Switzerland close to four million people are Muslims.
It is heartening that the New York Times editorially condemned this
proposed ban. It is worthwhile to quote excerpts from the editorial
which was published on November 30, 2009, immediately after the
referendum in Switzerland: “Disgraceful. That is the only way to
describe the success of a right-wing initiative to ban the
constitution of minarets in Switzerland, where 57 percent of voters
cast ballots for a bigoted and mean-spirited measures.”
Further the editorial says, “But the vote also carries a strong and
urgent message for all Europe, and for all Western nations where
Islamic minorities have been growing in numbers; and visibility, and
where fear and resentment of Muslim immigrants and their religion
have become increasingly strident and widespread. The warning signs
have been there: the irrational fierceness of official French
resistance to the shawls and burkhas worn by some Muslim women; the
growing opposition in many European quarters to Turkish membership
in the European Union.”
The New York editorial is, indeed the voice of sanity in the growing
intolerance in the Western world towards Muslims in particular and,
non-western cultures and religions, in general. We would again like
to reiterate here that in principle West does stand for equality,
freedom of conscience and human rights which most of the Muslim
countries have yet to learn. But, as we will show herein below that
Islam also stands for tolerance and respect for other culture and
faiths and believes diversity is creation of Allah but test really
comes in practice.
It is also true that terrorist attacks in some countries, and
especially after 9/11 has intensified hatred against Islam and
Muslims but then in Switzerland, the Muslims have been peaceful and
there have been no instances of such attacks and it appears quite
irrational that people of Switzerland should display such
intolerance towards their peaceful minority. However, the signs were
in the air.
I had delivered a lecture on Islam and non-violence way back in 2004
in Zuric which was held in collaboration with the local church. When
question answer session began the journalists present there said how
Islam can ever be non-violent and peaceful. I said I have based my
speech on the Qur’anic text and anyone can verify what I have said
but the journalists did not seem to be convinced. They kept on
arguing until the church official intervened. What these journalists
must have been writing about Islam is obvious. In modern society
media plays very important role.
This is further borne out by the TV debate between noted Swiss
Muslim intellectual and my friend Tariq Ramadan and Oskar Freysinger
on ban on minaret. It became evident from the debate that the real
issue was not minaret, but Islam itself. Dr. Patrick Haenni, a
researcher at Religiouscope, who believes that religion, not
politics, was the core of the initiator’s discourse through a
perspective full of misconceptions and stereotypes.
The ban on burqa in France by the Government is another instance of
this intolerance for non-western religions and cultures. This writer
is no advocate of burqas covering entire body and face from head to
toe but the question is not one should wear burqa or not, more
fundamental question is of individual right and choice? Whatever
reason for wearing burqa, personal conviction, social or peer
pressures or identity issue, does one have right to wear or not?
Should one ban it outright?
Here I would like to narrate an interesting experience. I was
lecturing on secularism in the University of Bukhara and in the
audience were mostly young women dressed in skirts as western women
do. During the lecture two burqa clad women (wearing burqa from head
to toe) entered and sat down. After my lecture was over some of
those women stood up and agitatedly said sir, why should we not
thrown out these two women (wearing burqa)? I was shocked at the
aggressive tone of these agitated women.
I enquired why do you want to throw them out? These women (all of
them Muslim) said why are they wearing burqa and why do they cover
themselves? I said I ask you one simple question suppose all these
women were clad in Burqa and two of you had come wearing skirts and
with modern haircut and if they had asked by not throw these two
skirt-wearing women out, what would have been your response?
I said throwing out or banning a practice is not the solution but to
dialogue with each other and to understand each other. They then
appreciated my viewpoint and sat down quietly and we continued our
discussion. Thus to accept the other, as other is (not with
prescriptions) is the essence of democracy. Prescription for the
other violates the very spirit of others’ rights and dignity which
is the basis of modernity. Now it has been universally accepted that
it is not only individual rights which are important but also group
rights of minorities as well are equally important.
The west, whatever its principles and values, is yet to come to
terms with non-western others. Also, it should not depend on the
doctrine of reciprocation but group rights should be absolute. I
remember in U.K. there was debate in eighties how Muslims treat
Christian minorities in Muslim majority countries. Do they give them
equal rights and freedom of religion? If not, why do they expect
such rights in western countries?
This reciprocative approach contradicts the very spirit of
democratic values and principles. These values and principles are
absolute and no conditionalities could be prescribed. Of course
there are complex reasons for the growing intolerance towards Muslim
minorities in the western world. As everywhere the rightist forces
thrive on hatred of the other and the ban on the minaret in
Switzerland is also the result of rise of rightist politics. The
Muslims in India too have experienced it when the BJP tried to come
to power through hate politics of Ramjanambhoomi.
In France too, ban on hijab came under the regime of Sarkozy who is
known rightist. Secondly, the rising number of immigrants also
creates fear in the minds of original inhab -itants of the country
and, in order to press the issue, these numbers are highly
Muslims, both by way of migration and birth, are the fastest growing
minority in the Europe. Thirdly, most of the Muslim migrants are
non-whites, many of them blacks from African countries and here both
religious as well as racial prejudice combine and intensify hatred
In France, for example, most of the Muslim migrants are from former
French colonies and hence happen to be black. Discrimination against
them and their marginalization totally alienates them and this
alienation finds expression through complex ways – through
aggressive behavior or overemphasis on their identities which in
turn further intensifies their alienation.
And, if this is followed by economic crisis as Europe is undergoing
these days, majority fear against the ‘migrant other’ becomes even
more aggressive born out of fear and the rising tide of rightist
forces in such circumstances further aggravates it. Also, the US
policies in the Middle East has resulted in intensifying extremism
in a section of youth in the Muslim countries resulting in terrorist
attacks such as 9/11 which excites even more hatred against Muslims
in the west.
What is the way out then? Where to stop this vicious circle of
action and reaction? It is for sure that we cannot control all the
factors. But it is also equally certain that we need a wise
political leadership who is not after power but welfare of people.
Democracy ideally speaking is for people’s participation and for
their well being. However, like other political systems, democracy
too, has become means of grabbing power by certain groups and
classes. Also, it tends to be majoritarian i.e. heavily tilted in
favor of racial, religious or linguistic majority. There has been
hardly any exception to it in the world.
Certain Muslim countries who swear by Qur’an as their constitution
also flagrantly violate Qur’anic provisions. Qur’an gives certain
ideals and values for governance, an idea of the desirable society.
It says diversity is Allah’s creation and must be respected and
celebrated. And this diversity includes linguistic, racial and
religious and human beings, whatever religion, race or linguistic
group they belong to, must be accorded equal dignity and which means
all of them should enjoy equal rights.
However, you will not find any Muslim country swearing by Qur’an as
book of Allah implementing these ideals. You find discrimination on
the basis of religion, even sects, language and ethnicity. You very
much find discrimination for example in Saudi Arabia, against
non-Arabs, against non-Wahabi Muslims and against other ethnic and
racial groups. One finds discrimination in Iran against Sunni
Muslims, against Arabs, against Bahais and against non-Persians.
In Pakistan one finds discrimination against certain linguistic
groups like Baluchis and Sindhis. It is dominated by the Punjabi
majority. Not only that there is sectarian violence between Shi’ahs
and Sunnis besides Christians and Hindus. It is Punjabi majority
which rules the roast. One has yet to see any Muslim country which
does not violate injunctions of the Qur’an while swearing in by it
as one has yet to see any western democracy not violating
injunctions of their own constitutions enshrining ideals and values
of modern democracy.
As long as the goal remains power, this is bound to happen. Another
bane of the situation is current rise in rightist forces which
arouse emotions of people on the basis of religion, race and
language. Again no country is an exception to it. Education system
itself, which prepares children and students for future material of
the society, is controlled by, in most, if not all cases, by
The Netherlands is also undergoing severe problem of anti-Muslim
tirade. One politician made a film called Fitna and refused to take
it back. Also, a Muslim fanatic murdered a film maker from the
Netherlands who caste slur on Islam and this further led to
anti-Islamic surge there. I met a professor of Islamic studies from
Netherlands in Germany who spoke on Islam. The seminar was on
I was stunned by his anti-Islamic outpouring. It was nothing short
of hate-Islam speech. When we protested the organizers maintained
that all views are allowed to be expressed from this forum. May be
it was so. But what was worrying factor was that the person was
teaching Islam in the Netherlands. If such Islam is taught in
universities of a country what mindset would be generated? One
shudders to think.
Media is no exception. While it must be made clear there are
honorable exceptions and some newspapers and TV channels which are
quite objective or tend to be so but then such papers and channels
are, more often than not, popular. They are read or watched by
serious kind of people. Popular media tend to be prejudiced. Also,
media is often owned by certain interests and it is not committed to
the cause of objective reporting.
And media plays most crucial role in democracy. I would say if media
plays responsible role rising above all interests modern democracies
would be far more conflict-free than they are today. And in
answering the question raised above media provides one of the
crucial factors. Despite all the laws made by the state, media
behaves the way it wants to as various state organs fail to
implement the laws.
It is true we cannot have ideal democracy as the German philosopher
rightly points out ideal is not real and real is not ideal, still
one has to try to come as close to ideal as possible. Even such
efforts are lacking in modern democracies. Invariably it is powerful
interests which determine the shape and direction of things and
there is always tension between vested interests and the ideals and
interests seem to win.
Of course if the conflict remains manageable it is one thing but
disaster takes place when it goes beyond manageable proportions. The
attack on 9/11 and subsequent attack on Afghanistan and Iraq took
this conflict between Islam and the west beyond all imaginable
proportions as here too very powerful interests were involved.
However, it would be wrong to consider it a self fulfillment of
Huntigntonian prediction of ‘clash of civilization’. It was,
instead, clash of political interests on both sides.
It is interesting to note that Huntington’s book received such media
attention in the west precisely because certain interests in the
west wanted such book written to promote conflict. Of course things
may not have gone as planned but to an extent those interests were
served but at a great social cost. It greatly sharpened prejudices
in the west against Islam. And this has been going on for quite some
Since Muslims began to immigrate to the western countries in the
post-colonial period the anti-Islam prejudices began to acquire
sharper edge. The Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses in the eighties
and the support it received in the west was also part of this
process. The enthusiastic support was not for the sake of freedom of
opinion. There was a purpose behind it. The Islamic revolution had
occurred in Iran which was anti-west in its thrust and made Iranian
oil beyond western powers.
Thus the west adopted anti-Iran posture and when Khomeini, for his
own political compulsions, issued fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the
swords were drawn on both sides and west lent unqualified support to
Rushdie in the name of freedom and Muslims stood by Khomeini’s
fatwa. It was neither freedom nor Islam but who will dominate Iran
and its oil, west or people and rulers of Iran.
All these developments through eighties culminated in 9/11 attacks
and everything was complete for anti-Islamic prejudices in western
countries and media. As far as Arab oil is concerned the clashes are
likely to continue and will go through different phases. It reached
its culmination during the Bush’s unqualified support to rightist
policies and outright adventure in the West Asia.
However, since it crossed critical limits in conflict management
Obama took over the reigns of administration. But it would indeed be
too much to expect that Obama would resolve the conflict. But yes,
certainly he may succeed in managing the conflict a shade better and
he appears to be sincerely trying. He is far from free agent as many
think. His hands are tied by so many uncontrollable factors.
Al-Qaeda and Taliban issue is not here to disappear in few years.
Afghan people are fiercely independence loving and even Muslim
rulers like Moghuls failed to subdue them, much less totally aliens
like Americans. American policy makers should study history of
Afghan rebellion much more seriously than they have done. US
jackboots cannot crush Afghans. Obama has to an extent realized this
and though he is sending more forces but has also promised to
withdraw by 2011.
Withdraws or not but certainly solution does not lay in trying to
crush Afghans but to resolve it through dialogue and accommodation
which again is not easy. US is also not in Afghanistan for just to
wipe out Al-Qaeda and Taliban but to control rich gas and mineral
resources in Central Asia. It did not invaded Afghanistan for
nothing. And as long as US wants to control rich resources of
Central Asia it cannot find accommodation with Afghan Taliban and as
long as Taliban issue continues anti-Islam prejudices will remain
strong as ever.
It is also absolutely necessary to solve Palestinian problem if one
desires peace in West Asia. While Afghan Taliban are more concerned
about peace in their region but Al-Qaeda is more focused on West
Asia and to solve both the problems sans US interests in both the
regions is asking for let us say impossible. Should we despair then?
Not really. But it is a challenge which few politicians can succeed
The Muslim countries too will have to seriously contemplate policy
changes and have to make concerted efforts to project peaceful Islam
on their part. They will have to fight powerful interests and
confrontationists mindset on their part. The rulers in the west Asia
have to go for modernization, changes in their education system and
promoting spirit of understanding and dialogue with the other.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is wiser than his predecessors and
following strategies to contain extremist elements in his own
country. Like Obama’s his hands are tied too. In Pakistan military
establishment is too powerful to be contained easily and for quite
sometime to come civilian rule will not be able to ascertain its
independence and Pakistan is very crucial for peace in
Well, while working for greater understanding let us understand
these challenges too.