The Muslim world is in the midst of the holy month of Ramadan, known universally for its daylong fasting.
A lesser-talked about feature of Ramadan, however, is God’s commandment to his believers to introspect and hold themselves accountable for all their acts of omission and commission—something uncommonly, if rarely observed by the fasting devotees.
What a coincidence—happy or otherwise, that remains to be decided—for the Washington-based Pew Research Center to unveil, in this very period, the findings of its latest survey, done a few weeks ago, in 14 predominantly Muslim countries, on their people’s perception of the menace of terrorism and extremism hobbling their countries. The findings are most illuminating, to say the least, on the common Muslim’s take of what has been plaguing their lives.
In Lebanon, for instance, home to myriad militias and sectarian anarchists, 92% of Muslims responding to the survey feel deeply worried about extremism stalking their beautiful land, especially in the wake of the Syrian civil war next door. Seventy-nine per cent of the Nigerians are disgusted and horrified by the monster of extremism ripping their country apart. Unsurprisingly, 82% point the finger at the terrorists of Boko Haram—the mirror-image of Al Qaeda—for much of the harm done to their social and communal fabric. The survey was done before Boko Haram abducted more than a hundred Christian girls who still remain untraceable.
The Palestinian territories are currently in the eye of the storm and Gaza, in particular, is being mercilessly pummelled by Israel for having Hamas for their leadership. However, the survey reveals that Hamas has been rapidly losing its grip on the people; its favourable rating—which was 67% when it took political control of Gaza in 2007—has plummeted to just 35%.
In Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim state in population, 76% of the people believe suicide bombing is un-Islamic and only 1% think it can be justified under special circumstances. The survey’s findings for Pakistan are most revealing, where 59% of the people have a strong dislike of the bloodthirsty Taliban; only 8% hold a favourable opinion of them and that, too, in Pakistan’s Pashtun belt which is also the Taliban’s cradle.
But the proof of the pudding is in the eating and the question understandably prompted, in this light, is why is it that in spite of widespread public loathing of fanaticism and extremism in these Muslim societies they are still prone to almost endemic violence and acts of terrorism, especially in a case study as sensitive as Pakistan? Social scientists and political pundits may come up with umpteen reasons and causes cradling a country like Pakistan, for instance, perpetually in the lap of religious extremism and terrorism. But, some ground realities are hard to miss.
Democracy deficit is a common thread running through the Muslim entities plagued by extremism and its ugly face, terrorism. From Morocco, on the western fringe of the Islamic world, down to Indonesia, its eastern end, democratic entities are more conspicuous by their absence than otherwise. Short-changing a people of their basic rights to choose their leadership triggers frustration, en masse, which quickly spawns despondency and anarchy. Look at how the Egyptians have been robbed of their democratic right to be led by a man they had chosen in a free election.
It’s interesting and educating that extremism and its natural corollary, violence and terrorism, is largely absent from countries like Turkey and Malaysia—notable exceptions to the rule of autocratic and despotic regimes ruling the roost in much of the Muslim world. Bigots among the religious preachers—whom the Qur’an, the Book of God, denounces as troublemakers—take advantage of the people’s frustrations to herd them into their bands of fanatics and radicals. The Taliban of Pakistan and Boko Haram of Nigeria are prime examples of religious fascism stalking a large swathe of the Muslim world.
However, what most social scientists overlook in their analyses of the causes and effects of extremism informing so many Islamic polities—something akin to missing the forest for the trees—is their lack of focus on the almost-universal absence of social justice in these societies. Denying a people their fundamental societal rights is a recipe, anywhere, for social unrest and despondency—a welcome breeding cesspool for anarchists and terrorists. But in a Muslim society it amounts to a categorical violation of God’s commandment to be munificent with the laymen and judiciously safeguard their rights. The Koranic injunction on social justice is sacrosanct for all people—irrespective of their belief, creed or dogma—living in a realm ruled by a Muslim ruler. God’s injunction is holistic; social justice is for all without discrimination and without fear or favour. There’s simply no discounting of it.
Why, for example, has Pakistan become a festering pool of fanaticism and extremism, which in turn unleashes terrorism under the flimsiest of pretexts becomes easier to understand with this godly injunction in perspective. The country hasn’t been able to promote anything akin to even a pale shadow of a system of social justice ordained by the Qur’an despite flaunting its faux credentials of an Islamic Republic (it is neither Islamic nor republic). It fails not only the bar set up by God but also sets at naught the bare minimum of its people’s expectations from a state founded in the name of God.
Little wonder, then, that its religious seminaries are in the clutches of bigots who, in turn, are the promoters of the likes of Taliban. Tens of thousands of children attending these seminaries—the so-called madrassas—are easy prey for those recruiting human fodder for the guns of Taliban or Al Qaeda.
It’s nothing short of a great irony that because of the failure of the state to dispense social justice, which it is obligated to, it’s the madrassas filling that void; they are the ones providing free meals and lodgings to underprivileged and deprived children. Indoctrination and brainwashing is their charge for it.
The holy month of Ramadan and the Pew survey offer food for thought for the believers who think fasting for a whole month is an end in itself. No, it isn’t. The pristine spirit of Ramadan was meant to inculcate awareness of care for the have-nots. That message is apparently being lost, collectively, in much of the Islamic world. Mere observance of rituals is no substitute for collective obligations to those in need of succour and right understanding of their religion. That’s a work cut out for the Muslim world as a whole.
Karamatullah K Ghori is a former Pakistani diplomat.