Sir Syed’s Message Still Valid: Understand the West, Don’t Antagonize It

By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News on Friday, October 8, 2004

When early last year the most powerful man in the world declared major combat over, few even in the Muslim world could have foreseen what horrors lay ahead in Iraq. Fought on behalf of what George W. Bush claims as civilization, the war was going to be swift and clinical, claiming a minimum of civilian casualties and, above all, as few lives among the invading forces as possible. Here was “freedom”, coming down like a ton of bricks on “terror”. What confrontation more likely to rally the whole world behind the forces of good and against the forces of evil?

Yet the loathing with which the Muslim world appears to regard that civilization, that freedom, has taken even those by surprise who urged caution on a power-drunk US leader and the extremists behind his throne. It was one thing to say that Bush had not learned the lessons of American history, that in Iraq like in Vietnam ideas and beliefs are not defeated by bombs. But it was another to realize that with each bomb dropped, with each pronouncement on the blessings of democracy emanating from the White House to win the hearts and minds of the Islamic world, the divisions between Muslims and what they see as the West would become more deeply entrenched.

Do we, then, hate freedom and civilization? It is well to remember that circumstances rather than philosophy has brought Islam and non-Islamic ideas into conflict. Posturing and challenges issue from both camps, extremist views clash. Each camp becomes progressively shriller in its wholescale rejection of everything the other side stands for. Whatever the truth of the convictions on either side of the trench, the practical effect is to polarize cultures, and to hinder meaningful communication when it is most needed.

The most powerful media influences in the world come out of the United States. Newspapers, television and films are the subtle weapons of the war of ideas, the carriers of assumptions and ideas, attractively packaged and presented as entertainment. The symbols of society — and therefore the philosophy — that produced them are universally known. The technology that comes from the same society spans the world, from the aircraft that drop their bombs on innocent civilians to the computers that power the most forceful engine of the war of ideas, the Internet. How then can the Muslim world have any hope for the future?

In a word: Understanding. In the 1860s, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan — the man who united the Muslim community and taught it the value of Western education — recognized change and movement in history. He knew his Islamic history well and understood the religion. Both the conclusion he drew and the message he communicated were directed against the ill-founded assumptions about the West and ill-informed criticism of the reform movement. He saw no conflict between Qur’anic principles and science. He laid stress on interpretation, not conformity, on innovation rather than blind acceptance of what some would tell us is Islamic law.

Sir Syed’s reformist concerns underline the significance of the intellectual history of Islam in the Subcontinent in changing the stereotypical images of Islam and its followers. The ethos that drove his reformist views is as valid now as it was then. Demystify Islam, move away from dogma and entrenched views, reveal the truer, liberal face of Islam and listen to liberal voices. As widely acclaimed historian Mushirul Hassan wrote in The Indian Express in a 1998 column, “Sir Syed could have settled for a lazy existence in one of Delhi’s havelis, reveled in the glory of a bygone Mughal past. Instead, he chose a harsher alternative in the dusty road to Aligarh, deciding to leave his mark on the city, the state and the nation. He moved with the times, responded to the winds of change with a sense of urgency and urged his community to seize the opportunities offered by British rule.” Sir Syed’s Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) is now the principal seat of Muslim education in India.

Then as now, understanding was the key. Understand that the West leads the world in technology and scientific research and many of the forces that drive the planet — and, yes, that it organizes its own house more efficiently than we have learned to do, all its shortcomings notwithstanding. Understand that Western and non-Islamic culture is here to stay, is more physically effective and far wealthier than the Muslim world. Most important, understand that to prosecute the case of Islam, we must use the strength and proven effectiveness of Western method without necessarily being seduced by its philosophy. The rehabilitation of Islam and Arabs, for nothing less is needed after Sept. 11, 2001 and its fallout, is a task that requires all our wits.

Rather than relying on megaphone transmission of entrenched viewpoints, communicate through the peaceful technology the West has to offer. Present the human face of the Arab and Muslim world with its faults and richness, failings and strengths. Tell the population of the Western world that, though different in some ways, East and West have more in common than they realize.

How do the vast majority of people in the West get to know about the world? Their media tell them about it — through sophisticated manipulation of images, through a form of discourse immeasurably more advanced than our own. The task of the Muslim world is not to clash with the ideas, but to present effectively the human face of Islam and, by implication, the ideas associated with it, embracing the techniques developed in the West. Do not let the terrorists among us be the only ones who know how to use communication technology to their advantage.

Introduce the West to the historical fact that its existence was borne out of the civilizing influence of Islam: Do it not through screaming oneupmanship but by highlighting Islam’s contribution in terms the West can respect. Embedded in the fabric of the West are branches of the tree planted by our beloved Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in Madinah and Makkah 1,400 years ago, the early fruits of which were the foundations of modern mathematics, literature, medicine and science.

The West has developed enormously and differs substantially from Islam now, but the two cultures share the same roots. So where in truth is the conflict? Celebrate the differences, understand the commonality, and make a friend of the West. This was the message of Sir Syed in the late 1800s. And this should be our message in the 21st century.

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