On Western and Islamic Values

What were the self-proclaimed objectives of the first colonialists as they appeared at the non-Western shores a couple of centuries ago? If the answer is sought in one word, it was “Redemption.” The Old World needed to be redeemed by the New. To make a sentence: “the natives needed to be civilised.” And to elaborate: They lacked education, moral sense, discipline, ideas of self and state governance, methods of organisation, scientific spirit, egalitarian attitudes, adventurous minds, courage against odds, intellectual integrity, and higher principles of life. The European was there to bestow on the natives all that. For him, it was self-sacrifice of a supreme kind to have ventured out at all, and nothing but a sense of duty would have brought him to the tropical lands: the lands of diseases, vermin, and intolerable heat.

Curiously enough, if there was anyone not so very impressed by the declared intentions, the abilities of the redeemers, and their qualities, it were the scholars of Islam. They rejected the plan and the planners, the adventure and the adventurers, the mission and the missionaries. Though of course, if they were skeptic, some others were not. The native elitists, who soon cropped up, and the intelligentsia were there to bear witness to the ability of their new masters and their sincerity. This class, the brown sahib, educated on new enlightened lines, was the second in command and always expressed gratitude for its personal placement. Once in a while, one of them had the good fortune to visit the lands of the nabob sahibs and came back swearing that he had seen it all with his own eyes: “those buildings, those streets, the system, the manners.. Oh!” He was breathless.

But the scholars stuck to their guns. Although, admittedly, there were some who thought that there were a few good things – such as science, technology, and modern methods of management – that could be taken from them; that all and everything could not be rejected; but the traditional scholars, the core personalities, wouldn’t change their position. They rejected the redeemers on both counts: on their sincerity as well as their quality. They would not even allow science and technology taken from them, not at least in total dependence. But rather, they maintained that these should be developed by Muslims themselves, on parallel and independent lines. They would therefore, have nothing to do with the new civilization dawning upon them, but rather, resisted it and fought against it. The famous 1857 Indian revolt against the British was entirely a Muslim struggle launched by the Ulama. Abdul Qadir in Algeria, the Sannusis (Siddi Ahmed and ‘Umar Mukhtar) in Libya were other examples of outright rejection and bloody opposition.

With regard to “the good intentions” of the colonialists, the scholars of Islam expressed their reservations. They felt that they had in truth come to their lands in their own interest, first and last. As to the qualities they boasted of, they thought they were not, firstly, rooted in a divine source. Secondly, they were materially oriented and had material ends in sight. Thirdly, they were shallow and superficial. Fourthly, they (the colonialists) were far from believing in them seriously. Fifthly, they were not universal of nature, but bound to a certain kind of people, social setting and a specific civilization. And, finally, their function was of exigent nature, utilitarian. They could and would be dropped off when they had served their purpose.

It took a few decades, but the skeptic outlook of the Muslim scholars began to appear as perhaps not so absurd. Gradually, (at least in the Indian sub-continent), even the non-Muslims – who ordinarily did not judge by spiritual parameters – began to see the point. From the colonialists’ side too, the truth began to leak out. Once in a while one of them would admit of the true intention. In the words of one of them,

“These [outlying possession of ours] are hardly to be looked upon as countries… but more properly as outlying agricultural or manufacturing estates belonging to a larger community. Our West Indian colonies, for example, cannot be regarded as countries with a productive capital of their own… [but are rather] the place where England finds it convenient to carry on the production of sugar, coffee and a few other tropical commodities.”

So, the truth was out. The colonialists were not there for civilizing the natives. They were there for sugar, cotton, leather, minerals, slaves, and so forth. Some others forwarded reasons “holier” than that for occupying the colonies and for plundering them. In the words of one of them, 

“It is necessary, then, to accept as a principle and point of departure the fact that there is a hierarchy of races and civilizations, and that we belong to the superior race and civilization, still recognizing that, while superiority confers rights, it imposes strict obligations in return. The basic legitimation of conquest over native peoples is the conviction of our superiority, not merely our mechanical, economic, and military superiority, but our moral superiority. Our dignity rests on that quality, and it underlies our right to direct the rest of humanity. Material power is nothing but a means to that end.” 

(Both the above statements have been quoted in Edward Sa‘id’s, Culture and Imperialism, p. 69 and 17 respectively).

Thus the scholars proved right, at least on one count: intentions. However, the colonialists still maintained that their qualities and belief in higher values and principles, rested in conviction, were of permanent value, and something they could offer to the rest of the unenlightened, undeveloped world. This point has been maintained through and through, up until recent moments. But, sadly for the West, leaves are falling off, and the tree is getting naked. Events after the September 11 attack are offering proofs of legitimacy of the skepticism of Islamic scholars on the second count also.

Western power, which appeared as a result of three centuries of colonialism, had been, for some time, at its apex. With the USA in the lead, it stood invincible and unquestionable. It maintained its position not merely as the source of scientific ideas, technological innovations and hi-tech products but also – ironically – as a bestower of moral values. Through its own example, it gave lessons to the world in civil rights, personal liberty, freedom of expression, right to privacy, et al. It demonstrated respect for democratic values, fair play, economic justice, and human rights.

But all that seems will be consigned to the past. The leader of the modern day colonialists, the USA has thrown away in days, what was held dear for centuries. Today, all that is being done – within the democratic America – which was once considered the ways of the communists, dictatorial regimes and oppressive systems. Arrests without evidence, detention without trial, punishment without due judicial process, spying on one’s own citizens, raids by the secret service agents, electronic surveillance of the citizens, intolerance of the immigrants, persecution of those who oppose the views and policies of the establishment, all considered characteristics of tyrannous, dictatorial regimes, have now become the order of the day in America. Today, it terrorizes its citizens as it terrorizes the world. Gore Vidal has put it eloquently:

“Restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press; on the rights of assembly and associations; and violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic, and telephonic communications and warrants for house searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.” The tone is familiar. Clinton? Bush? Ashcroft? No. It is from Hitler’s 1933 speech calling for “an Enabling Act” for “the protection of the People and the State” after that catastrophic Reichstag fire that the Nazis had secretly lit. (Gore Vidal, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, p. 50).

If, according to the same source, there were 30 million under surveillance in the USA in 1996, and 400 million evesdrop of telephone conversations, then, the number has jumped by ten-fold since 9/11. Common man is scared. He is told by the governmental agencies that the best way to avoid being picked up for questioning, is to behave normally: “Don’t act funny.”

Citizens are spying on citizens. Voice of dissent is suppressed, entry of several classes of people into the country is made difficult. Endless searches are making air-travel a harrowing experience, every e-mail is being read, every account in every bank is being monitored, admission of talent into the country is being denied, certain courses in the universities are not being offered to citizens of certain countries.

So, what happened to the good qualities? To the moral superiority? To the civil rights? Can any American stand up today and speak of human rights without evoking laughter among the audience? Do the scholars of Islam stand vindicated now, who maintained that the qualities the West boasted of were like dry leaves that would fall off with one strong blow of the wind? That they are shallow, materially oriented, exigent, local and entirely artificial. In contrast Islamic values suffer no such disadvantages. They are God-given, divinely oriented, universal, natural, permanent, spiritual, and not only demand absolute sincerity but also generate it.

Muslims must realize that their 300-year-old idol has crashed along with the twin towers. They must, one and all, return to Islamic values. And Ramadan is one occasion to inculcate them: “Believers! Prescribed for you is Fast, as it was prescribed for those who were before you – haply that you will acquire God-consciousness.

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