Architects of Change in the Muslim world
Weekly Pulse
January 20-26, 2006
A succession of developments in the post-9/11 world—including the start of the “War on Terrorism” its militant repercussions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the corresponding rise in Islamophobia, and the danger that even the most genuine of Muslim conflicts such as Palestine and Kashmir could become a victim of this “War,” given the propensity of its Neo-Conservative US exponents to brand even those Muslim communities fighting for self-determination for decades as “terrorist”—is forcing the Muslim regimes to start changing their internal priorities and approaches to the outside.

The current momentum for change in the Muslim world is significantly indigenously driven, an outcome of serious introspection by Muslim leaders over the plight of the Muslim world and a growing urge on their part to pull it up from its bootstraps in order to realise its due global status. Its motivational spirit is visible from the growing realisation on the part of Muslim leaders about the urgency of correcting the distorted image of Islam and Muslims, promoting dialogue with Western/non-Muslim world and networking with regional and international organisations, rectifying the economic and social plight of the Muslim world, and restoring the Muslim people’s confidence in their representative institutions.

Leading Voices

The above reference to ‘Muslim leaders’ is based upon the discourse of those personalities who have been, or currently are, in the driving seat of the Muslim world’s reform and revitalisation process. The chief exponents of change in the Muslim world are basically four Muslim leaders, including President Pervez Musharraf, Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi of Malaysia and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan.

It was the Saudi King who, for instance, took the bold initiative of establishing an International Counter-Terrorism Centre at the International Conference on Combating Terrorism in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in February 2005. Even during the long ailment of the former Saudi ruler, Fahd bin Abdul Aziz, King Abdullah had started to transform his country from a staunchly Wahhabist entity refusing to move an inch from its historic position on Palestine based on the negation of Israel’s right to exist to an increasingly pragmatic state proposing workable options including the conditional recognition of the Jewish entity.

Since the events of 9/11, with Saudi Arabia coming under real US/Western scrutiny, the Saudi leader has been quite forthcoming in expressing his country’s resolve to fight extremism and terrorism. After taking over the seat of power, following the demise of King Fahd in 2005, King Abdullah has become even more vocal in his anti-extremism, anti-terrorism pronouncements. As he stated in the opening speech at the December 2005 Islamic Summit at Mecca, “Islamic unity will not be achieved by bloodletting as the miscreants—in their misguided waywardness—insist on claiming. Fanaticism and extremism cannot grow on an earth whose soil is embedded in the spirit of tolerance, moderation, and balance.”

‘Enlightened Moderation’

As for President Musharraf, he is the architect of the strategy of ‘Enlightened Moderation,’ which lays down the two-pronged framework within which the Muslim world is being reformed today. Under the second prong of Enlightened Moderation, Muslim leaders want the Western world, especially the United States, to meet its “moral obligation” by addressing the sources of injustice, desperation and helplessness through a just and fair resolution of the unresolved conflicts of the Muslim world and by contributing to its socio-economic development. In the last quarter of a century, most regional conflicts that often led to war occurred in the Muslim world or involved Muslim communities as victims—including Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Bosnia, and Chechnya.

Similarly, most of the Muslim countries remain economically impoverished and socially backward, direly in need of a fairer international economic order. The Pakistani leader’s discourse on ‘Enlightened Moderation,’ especially its second prong concerning the “moral obligation” of the West, seems to establish the fact that the Muslim leadership is not merely reacting to the post-9/11 dictates of the US-led West; and that its age-old desire to end its marginalisation in world affairs is still intact but has only assumed a more accommodative and pragmatic form.

Even though Dr Mahathir Mohammad is no more in the position of leadership in Malaysia or the Muslim world, his years-long discourse on the need for a dispassionate analysis of the causes of decline and decay of Muslim societies, and to evolve a comprehensive strategy to pull them out of morass, has survived. Prime Minister Badawi has consistently pushed Dr Mahathir’s message through the Muslim world’s largest organisation, the OIC, by shifting its traditionally political focus to the promotion of trade and finance as a means for countering extremism and terrorism, and achieving prosperity for Muslim countries.

Challenge from Extremists

Whether the prominent Muslim personalities of today are spearheading change in the Muslim world due to internal challenge from extremists, or in response to Western demands from the Muslim leadership to combat extremism and terrorism, or as part of an indigenously driven concern for a concerted action, is a debatable question. However, their currently being in the driving seat of Muslim world transformation remains an undeniable reality. Moreover, unlike the Saudi King or the Pakistani President, the Malaysian leadership is not largely perceived to be facing a credible Islamist challenge at home or acting under the US-led Western pressure.

Under the pro-Islamist regime of Prime Minister Recep Tayyap Erdogan, Turkey has also shown renewed interest in the affairs of the Muslim world. Turkey’s very geopolitical location between Europe and Asia, or the East and the West, also makes it relevant to the current Muslim world’ emphasis upon dialogue between the Muslim world and the West, a discourse which Dr Ekmeluddin Ihsanoglu, a former Turkish professor of the history of science, has championed ever since occupying the post of the Secretary General in early 2005.

In the affairs of the Muslim world, personalities can make a lot of difference, since the lack of a leadership having the required political will is often identified as the main impediment to achieving credible reform and unity within the Muslim world and securing its due assertion in global politics. Throughout Islamic history, it is largely the leadership factor that has either marred or made history for Muslims.

Domestic Performance

However, the said reality is that the domestic performance of most of the Muslim regimes and their leaders negates their external proclamations within the context of the Muslim world’s intended reformation. For instance, at least two architects of change in the Muslim world, Pakistan’s military leader and the Saudi King, show this glaring dichotomy between their expressed desire for reprioritising the goals of the OIC, including wide-ranging democratic and human rights reforms, while their respective domestic performance in respecting the values of democracy and civil liberty remains highly questionable.

As for Muslim leaders who are relatively inactive in the affairs of the Muslim world, from Uzbekistan’s strongman Islam Karimov to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, they make no secret of their inherent distaste for political pluralism. Is the “War on Terrorism” promoting or preventing the growth of democracy in the Muslim world? It is not, if we look at the way the regimes of the frontline Muslim states fighting this “War”—such as those of Uzbekistan and Pakistan—are using it as a means to crush opposition and extend their authoritarian rule.