Interview with Chandra Muzaffar *.

This interview took place on Oct. 10, 2001


How has the practice of Islam changed or the influence on Islam changed over the last 20, 30 years in Malaysia ?

As in a number of other post-colonial societies, Muslims in Malaysia have become very conscious of their Islamic identity. And they have sought and expressed that identity in certain ways. In the case of Muslims in Malaysia, and to some extent, Indonesia, the urbanization process that had taken place over the last two or three decades has been a very important factor.

If you look at Kuala Lumpur, say, 30 or 40 years ago, it was a largely non-Muslim city. When Malays began to arrive in large numbers as the result of urbanization and the new economic policy and so on, they needed to establish their identity in what was seen as a largely non-Muslim environment.

And they chose those aspects of identity that best expressed their distinctive character, which is what happens very often when you want to assert your identity. Now, this has meant that Muslims tend to emphasize — some would even say overemphasize — those elements which make them different from the others, distinguishes them from their fellow citizens. This is not very healthy. But at the same time, Islamic resurgence of this sort has led to a search for a more authentic expression of the self : What they are, who they are, what all this is leading to. These are questions that have to be addressed in any society, especially in a society that is confronted with the challenge of modernization and globalization. You want to know what your place is in the scheme of things.

Could you tell me what the key points are that have led to the misunderstanding of Islam in the West ?

There are both historical and contemporary factors which would explain this misconception of Islam within certain circles in the West. I suppose one should begin with the fact that Islam occupied parts of Europe — which had never happened to European civilization before that.

That was one of the factors. Then you had the Crusades, which was Christendom trying to, I suppose, impose its will upon the Middle East. And I use the term “Middle East” deliberately, because it was not just imposing its will upon the Muslim population ; the Jews were also victims of that process. And, some would argue, the Orthodox Christians were also victims of that process. So it was basically Western Christendom imposing its will with the Crusades, and because it stretched over centuries and it ended in defeat for the Christian princes. This, I think, had an impact on the psyche of Western civilization.

Then, of course, you had colonialism, which affected both sides and created a situation where the antagonism became even more serious.

Now, after the colonial period, I think of the major factor as being oil. The one commodity which is most important to industrial civilization, Western industrial civilization, happens to flow beneath the feet of Muslims, in the Arab world in particular. And I think the desire to control this source of power, as it were, on the part of the West has heightened the antagonism between Islam and the West. Every time someone decides to nationalize oil, for instance, you find that that person is caricatured and ridiculed in Western media.

It happened to people who were not necessarily Islamic as such, like Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 in Iran. And of course later, the Iraqi Baathist leadership, which was not Islamic as such. And it also happened in the case of the Iranian revolution after 1979. So that I think is another very important factor.

Now today, you have Muslim communities living all over Europe. It’s the Muslim that constitutes “the other” in Europe on European soil today. Now there is also, I think, complicated relations between the two civilizations. So you have all these factors which have led to a certain misconception of Islam and Muslims in the West. But let me also add very quickly that I find that, in the last decade or two, there have been some very sincere and serious attempts to overcome the prejudices and antagonisms of the past.

Do you think the Crusades actually affected the way Americans perceived the Islamic world ? Can you take the American perception that far back ?

This is an interesting question. To some extent, these historical events have influenced the American perception, too, because America, in that sense, is part of the larger European Western civilization, and it carries that baggage, to some extent.

But I suspect that the more important factor has been the United States economic and geopolitical position in the world today. And this one should link with not just oil, but also I think the whole question of Israel. In the case of the United States of America, more than in the case of Europe, I think Israel is a very important factor. The United States is perceived throughout the Muslim world as that superpower that protects Israel. And Israel is seen as the state that has usurped the rights of the Palestinians and the Arabs. The conflict of the last five decades, which has also got a certain history behind it, has made it very difficult for Muslims to accept the United States of America as a friend. So you can see how the whole question of Israel has bedeviled relations between Islam and the West.

Talk about the impact of colonialization on the Muslim world.

As with other colonized people, Muslims were victims of the colonial process in almost every sense. It’s not just the loss of control over administration, politics, the economy. … These are the more obvious aspects of colonialization.

What is not that obvious — but is certainly far more insidious and perhaps in the long run, much more fatal for the colonized — was the colonization of the mind. This has had a very profound effect upon people everywhere, and Muslims have reacted to it, partly because they are much more conscious than other colonized people of their own history and of their own identity. This is why you’ll find that, even in countries like India, where the majority of the population was Hindu, it was the Muslims who first asserted their will against colonial dominance in various parts of the British Empire in India.

This is also true of colonized communities in other parts of the world. So I think this whole question of reasserting identity, discovering oneself, trying to define one’s space — it has become very, very important to Muslims everywhere. Partly because of historical process, which in the long run, is perhaps much more powerful than the colonialism of the past, and that’s globalization.

Can you tell me what the impact of globalization, the dominance of the West has had on the Muslim world ? On Muslims ?

There is the cultural dimension of globalization which Muslims are very conscious of. They feel that the sort of values and ideas, notions of living which are emanating from the West and beginning to penetrate their societies, influencing their young in particular, that these are harmful — at least some of the more obvious aspects linked to music and dance forms and films and so on. They see these things as injurious to their own culture and identity.

They’re also conscious of the fact that the global political system is dominated by the United States, to a great extent, and some of the other big powers. And somehow there is perhaps wittingly, perhaps unwittingly, the exclusion of Islam from the global process. And they’ve also been reacting to that, I think.

How have Muslims reacted to the value crisis ? What’s been the reaction to it ?

There have been I think two major trends. There is a dominant trend which is, to a great extent, negative. Meaning that Muslims have become very conscious of the fact of dominance and they have become exclusive. They have become inward-looking, in some respects. They have become very reactive and sometimes very aggressive. While one can understand the historical circumstance that may have given birth to some of these trends and tendencies, I don’t think there is any justification for this from an Islamic point of view, or from the point of view of the relations between civilizations.

Now there is a subordinate trend, which unfortunately remains very weak at this point in time. These are Muslims who say that, in the midst of globalization, you have to reassert the essence of Islam. And that is its universalism, its inclusiveness, its accommodative attitude, its capacity to change and to adapt, while retaining the essence of faith. In other words, expressing faith as something that is truly ecumenical and universal. Now that is a trend which has its adherents in almost every Muslim country, but it has remained on the margins.

Is there a tension between those two trends ?

Undoubtedly, undoubtedly. One finds that in countries where this struggle has really come to the fore — and the best example would be Iran — the Muslim groups, which tend to be inclusive and reactive, have very often fallen back upon their control with the levers of power to assert their authority, which is what’s happening in Iran.

But the masses in Iran seem to be on the side of the more reformist, progressive universal approach to Islam, which I think is very revealing. What it shows is that, at the level of ordinary Muslims, the sort of Islam which they want to be identified with their self, with their society, their culture, their history, is an Islam that’s inclusive, that is universal.

This is why if you look — not just at Iran where the reformists have so much support amongst the masses — if you look at other countries — take Pakistan, for example, or Bangladesh. Isn’t it significant that in both these countries [with] huge Muslim populations, parties that define themselves as Islamic in a very narrow sense have never had much support amongst the masses ? And this is also true of Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation. Which are the parties that have support amongst the people ? These are parties which I associated with progress, development, reformist ideas.

But those [parties] that define themselves in very narrow Islamic terms don’t get much support amongst the masses. So what this tells us is that the Islam of the masses is actually an Islam which is closer to the essence of faith as the reformists and the progressives would see. But somehow that has not emerged as a powerful trend, partly because of the control and the authority imposed by the narrow-minded elements in Islam.

Can you describe for me in more detail the progressive, reformist vision of a universal form of Islam ?

If one tries to understand that vision in terms of very specific concerns, the more universal approach to Islam would see as immutable, as perennial — not laws pertaining to criminal punishment, nothing of that sort. What they would see as immutable would be the laws of life and death and growth and decay ; laws of that sort which are universally acceptable. In other words, they will not be wedded to a certain interpretation of Islamic law. … You prove your Islamic credentials by chopping off the hands or stoning the adulterer and adulterers and all the rest of it ? Because that is not what defines Islam.

At the same time, the more universal approach would regard women as equal.They would regard the woman as calipha or viceregent and allow her to perform her role, both within the sphere of the home and the public sphere, without restricting her in any manner.

The more universal approach to Islam would regard minorities, for instance, as groups that have the same rights as the majority community. They wouldn’t make a distinction between the two. They wouldn’t, for instance, say that certain offices are barred to the minorities or that they can’t participate in certain spheres of society. They wouldn’t adopt that sort of approach.

The more universal approach to Islam would emphasize values — universal perennial values which others can also identify with. And through that, they would establish a bond with the other. And the other would cease to be “the other” within that more universal perspective on Islam. The only identity that will count is one’s human identity. That would be the real Islam. Because the whole purpose of Islamic seems to me is to enhance one’s humanity, to discover one’s humanity.

To get to that point, there has to be a process of interpretation of sacred texts ?

That’s right.

Can you explain how that process has evolved, and how Muslims do that today ?

In some respects, the clerics, the ulema in Islam, are stuck in a rut. What is important is to look at the methodology behind interpretation, and use that methodology in a very creative manner. This is what is required. In other words, you go back to fundamental principles. See how they apply to the present. Look at the present in a very critical manner, and see how one has to perhaps bring about changes in one’s environment, so that some of these values and principles would flourish.

But that sort of creativity is not there amongst a lot of the clerics. What they have done is to take laws from the past and say, “Look, let’s apply them today without thinking about the contemporary situation.” This, I think, is a product of a certain trend in Muslim history. After the ninth century, one gets the impression that this particular approach to law, to rules, to regulations became stronger and stronger. And because of some of the convulsions that Islamic civilization went through before colonialism — I’m referring to the invasions from the Mongols, for instance, that destroyed some of the major centers of Islamic learning — that trend became even more powerful within Islam.

They became very, very conservative, because they felt that they had to conserve whatever little they had, because huge centers of learning were destroyed. Baghdad was destroyed in 1258. Other places like Bokhara, Samarkand, all those places were destroyed as a result of these invasions. I think this is one of the reasons why the conservative approach to Islamic jurisprudence has become so strong. And this is the approach adopted by the vast majority of clerics today all over the Muslim world.

So who is leading this [more progressive] form of interpretation ?

I see it emerging from three sources. Number one, I see women playing a very important role in the reinterpretation of Islam. Because if you look at some of the positions taken by women theologians, you’ll see that they are very concerned about, not just the role of women, but the larger challenges facing the Muslim world. And they want this process of reinterpretation to take place now.

It is significant that there are women theologians who are doing this, because what it means is that you have a whole gender community which would support this process of change. For changes to take place, you need that sort of force behind it. If you look, for instance, at the way in which ideas on social welfare and social justice emerged in the late 18th century, 19th century in Europe, you had a working class that was behind these changes, which intellectuals nowadays are articulating. So I think something like that has to happen within the Muslim world. You need a whole group, a gender community, as it were, behind this movement for change.

Number two, I see it emerging within Muslim communities in the West. Why in the West ? Because in the West, you’re challenged intellectually. You have to define your position. You have to try to understand some of your own precepts and principles. And that sort of intellectual challenge is very, very important. It’s something that is not happening in the Muslim majority societies where you have this very sort of complacent attitude, where thought has stultified. You find that creativity is no longer there. It’s all ossified. But in the West, it’s different. They’re challenged ; they’ll have to respond to it. So that’s the second source.

And the third source would be elements within the middle class and amongst the professionals. You would find them all over the Muslim world. They have to rethink their positions, too. They just can’t accept the theology that is handed down to them by the clerics. So these are the three very important sources which, to my mind, will bring about this new change.

But at the same time, there will be individuals from a clerical background who will also play a role in this. If you look at what’s happening in Iran and even if you look at some of the other Sunni-majority Muslim countries, you find that there are theologians who are very, very open-minded. And when they lend their weight and authority behind these changes, it gives a tremendous boost to the movement for reform.

Is it possible at this point to predict how that tension, the struggle between [the progressive and conservative] approaches to Islam will develop in the near future ?

In a sense, globalization and the changes that are being wrought in the larger environment would favor the progressives. … As a result of globalization, societies everywhere are becoming heterogeneous. In other words, “the other” is no longer some theoretical construct out there. The other is a living reality. You have to relate to the other. That’s bound to change your thought processes.

At the same time, you have the role of women, and that’s again part of the whole process of globalization. Women in Saudi, for instance, know what is happening to their Muslim sisters in, say, Malaysia or Indonesia. As a result of that, they’ll have to think about their own situation. They are exposed to television. Internet is part of their lives. These are changes that one just can’t stop. So I see globalization as a process which will aid the movement for change within the Muslim world.

Of course, it can also lead to very reactive stances. But in the long run, as has happened in other societies at other points in time, the reactive approach would lose out to the more progressive, open, inclusive approach.

How will that progressive approach play itself out ? Is that something that leads to secularization and a comfortable relationship with the West ? Or has it got potential to provide an alternative to the West and its values ?

I do not see [it] leading to secularization, if by secularization, we mean a process by which the human being distances himself or herself from the revealed truth and from the sacred and the transcendent. If that’s what one means by secularization, I don’t see that happening. In fact, what I see happening is a process by which one becomes more conscious of the transcendent, the sacred ; but in such a way that you approach the transcendent, the sacred in a rational, humane manner — in a way in which the best in the human being finds expression in this new set of relationships that must emerge. …

So the individual discovers his or her spiritual route. Not because someone has laid out certain rules and axioms for the individual but the individual discovering it on his own, on their own, which is what’s happening in certain parts of the West now.

So I see that as part of a larger historical process. In other words, what we may see at the end of the day is a sort of intermarriage, if you like, between the spiritual essence of our religious past and the humanistic essence of our secular present. And that may give birth to a new civilization.

Has there been a history of positive relationships between Western civilization and the Muslim world ?

As in most other interactions between civilizations, there are always both positive and negative dimensions. And if one looks at some of the positive aspects of this relationship, one could argue that the way in which centers of learning in the West absorbed knowledge from Islamic civilization in the earlier period through the Iberian peninsula, in Sicily and even via the Crusades. The Crusades had a certain dimension to it which is not often emphasized. It was not just the wars. There was also the exchange of ideas by conquest and trade. You find that ideas pertaining to science and technology and navigation, all those ideas crossed borders and boundaries. So that was positive.

You had a person who later became pope studying in one of the great centers of learning in the Muslim world. And he adopted a very open approach towards Islam. There wasn’t the antagonism that his predecessors had shown. So that sort of interaction had existed in the past. And one could argue that, at the level of the mystics, there was a great deal of exchange — even if some of it took place without the mystics themselves being conscious of this. These were idea that traveled across time and across boundaries.

Now if one looks at the modern period, I would say that as far as politics and government go, Muslims have absorbed a great deal from the West, especially in relation to democracy, human rights, democratic forms of governance. There’s been as great deal of absorption on the part of Muslims from the West. And I don’t think there’s any Muslim society today, including those which have remained closed and cloistered, … that can ignore the force of democracy. It’s been one of the greatest political forces of the 20th and 21st century.

It seems the West has forgotten about much of what Islamic civilization has brought to it. What do you think the main thing that has been forgotten that it should try and remember and learn about its debt to Islamic civilization ?

I suppose the debt that the West owes to Islam in the realm of science would be something which the present generation should be made aware of, because science is so central to life in Western society. And if people are aware of the roots of science, and the evolution of science, the scientific method, for instance, which is so central to scientific inquiry, if people become aware of this, then I think the attitude towards Islam would also change.

And I suppose they should also be aware that there are ideas pertaining to inter-gender relations which would put Islam in a very positive light, because one doesn’t see that today. One sees Islam partly because of the media, but partly because of the behavior of certain Muslim groups as a religion that is somewhat contemptuous of the role of the woman. But if one is told, for instance, that chivalry as an idea actually grew out of Islamic civilization, that it was absorbed by the West, that there are all sorts of rights which are given to [to women], and these were rights that [Muslim] women enjoyed a 1,400 years ago. Now, if that sort of knowledge, that sort of information is disseminated in the Western world, then I think Western perceptions of Islam would change.

You talked about the colonization of the mind. Explain more about what that process was.

The essence of the colonization of the mind is how it influences the way in which we see ourselves, how we see the other, and the world as a whole. The way in which we see ourselves, for instance, in the larger hierarchy of things. The Muslim, like the Hindu, or the Christian, or the Buddhist who had been colonized sees himself as inferior to the West.

I think that perception is something that’s very, very serious, because what it means is that your history, your heritage, your patrimony, as it were, doesn’t have the sort of status that it should enjoy. You begin to judge everything that you have in terms of the West. So that becomes the yardstick. It becomes the ultimate criterion for determining whether something is good or bad.

You look at something very, very simple and yet profound, like notions of beauty. Why is that if you go to Shanghai, for instance, the mannequins now look very Caucasian ? They don’t look Chinese at all. So there’s a certain notion of beauty which has come to be associated with the West. And others who will not be able to embody that notion of beauty, because physically, they are different. But somehow they see that as the ultimate, as far as beauty is concerned. So there’s something wrong. …

And it goes [further], for instance, if you look at the way in which the colonization of the mind expresses itself in things like the economy. We have come to accept the market and the way the market functions as a sort of God-given truth, if you like. You know that this is the only way in which it can function. And yet we forget that this is something very recent in human history. Markets have existed for a very, very long while, but markets operated in a different way. But today, you have a certain notion of the market that has become all-pervasive.

One can say that of almost everything else. And I think this is what the colonization of the mind is. If you look at textbooks used in many parts of the post-colonial world, you’ll find that the way in which they look at world history is conditioned by this. The way in which they look at the history of their own societies somehow is defined and determined by the colonial experience.

When I was in school, for instance — and most of my primary and secondary school was after [Malaysian] independence, after 1957 — the history books told my generation that Francis Light had discovered Penang, Stanford Raffles had discovered Singapore. I mean, that is a lie. Because Penang and Singapore had existed before Francis Light and Stanford Raffles came to these places. They had flourishing communities. They traded. They did all these things. They were part of larger empires. And yet somehow, the history books will tell you that they discovered these places. That is the myth of discovery, which is very, very dangerous, because what it means is that you did not have a history before that. You didn’t exist. This is what it means. And if you look at this myth of history, myth of discovery, as it were, that is a very, very dangerous idea.

So I used to tell my students when I was teaching that it’s not Francis Light that discovered Penang ; it’s the people of Penang who discovered Francis Light standing on their shore one day. You know, this is what really happened.

So I think it’s this process of rewriting history that has to take place. But at the same time, one should be very careful about this. One should not go to the other extreme and deny everything that had happened, and try to glorify a past which should not be glorified. There are all sorts of warts and pimples on our own face, and we should acknowledge that. I find that sometimes Muslims, when they talk of their past and the glories of the past, tend to ignore the dark side of history. That, I think, is wrong.

They must also acknowledge this openly that if you look at, say, the first four caliphs, three of them were assassinated. That is historical fact that you can’t run away from. There were factions, that there were feuds. You did not have stability for long periods. You had corrupt caliphs. All these things are part of our history, and we must be willing to acknowledge that.

And I think this is true of people everywhere. We must be willing to come to terms with our past.

Some Muslims are reactive. Can you explain that process and how that—

What I just said is part of that process. When they look at history, for instance, those who are reactive tend to glorify the past without taking into account what had really happened. They feel very uncomfortable when you tell them, for instance, that there are other aspects of history that you must also be willing to acknowledge. The reactive approach to Islam also, it seems to me, will regard certain principles and values as fixed in time.

It is a very static notion of the religion : that this is what it was, this was the ideal, we have to go back to the ideal. They don’t see going back to certain principles as an attempt to apply those principles to the present, [that] the important thing is to distinguish what is perennial from what is ephemeral.

There is another dimension to this reactive approach to Islam, to religion. There is a tendency to reject the West in total, to a point where they will not acknowledge that, like all civilizations, it has its strengths and weaknesses. This is part of that reactive psychology.

There are elements in Western civilization which parallel certain characteristics of Islamic civilization. There are stupendous achievements as far as Western civilization is concerned, and some of those achievements have benefited the Muslim world. And that there has been a healthy interaction between the two civilizations at different periods in history.

They would not be prepared to acknowledge all this. This, I think, is part of the problem of that reactive approach — a sort of very blind attitude towards one’s own history, and at the same time, a very myopic view of the world which does not acknowledge the strengths of other civilizations. …

Some Muslims seem to turn to violence and to terrorism. Explain to me how the thinking that has led some people in that direction, how they’ve managed to justify it with a faith that seems to be predominantly about peace and justice.

This is something which is the product of a variety of factors. Sometimes it’s just sheer desperation and frustration emerging from a situation which is totally out of their control. If, for instance, Palestinians resort to violence, it’s largely because of the situation that they’re in. And I would distinguish that sort of violence one has seen in other parts of the world, while not justifying violence as a mode of political action, which is my own ideological position.

I don’t think violence is justified under any circumstances. Whether it’s violence of the victim or the violence of the oppressor, I don’t think there is any justification at all for violence. But the sort of violence which has come to be associated with certain groups in the Muslim world which I personally abhor would be like the violence of the Abu Sayyef in the southern part of the Philippines. They loot, they kidnap, they blackmail people, they target innocent civilians and all the rest of it. I see this as a tendency that exists in all cultures and civilizations.

There are groups like that in Japan, in Italy, in Germany. It’s not confined to the Muslim world in any way. The reason why they do this and try to justify this in the name of Islam is because they need an ideological basis. And what better ideological justification than something which is linked to religion ? Because that carries with it a very powerful emotional thrust. And they need that emotional thrust to justify what they’re doing.

It’s also a way, I suppose, of squaring with their own conscience. They do all these killings because they see it as something which is justified in the name of religion. It brings merit to them from a religious point of view. …

How do you think Afghanistan and the Taliban fit into this tension between progressive and literalistic interpretations of Islam ?

I don’t know whether the long drawn-[out] war in Afghanistan has had a certain impact upon the psychology of the community as a collectivity. After the Soviet invasion and the defeat of the occupying forces, one would have thought that they would have rebuilt their society. But that did not happen, because the various factions began to fight with one another. As someone once said, the Afghans are such good fighters that they just can’t stop fighting. And this is what has been happening.

And now you have a situation where the Taliban has emerged from the refugee camps of Pakistan, actually, and consolidated their position. And I suppose for a war-weary people, the Taliban, with their very strict interpretation of Islamic law and the capacity to enforce the authority, they have managed to win quite a few adherents within the country. But I don’t see that sort of approach to Islam gaining the support of Muslims in other parts of the world.

You’ll find that whenever the Taliban has done something which is outrageous, other Muslims have spoken out against them. On the question of women, women being denied the right to work outside their home, a lot of Muslims came out against it.

When they destroyed those statues, not only Muslim movements, but Muslim governments came out openly against the Taliban. So the Taliban, in a sense, would be an aberration, as far as the Muslim world goes. And I hope that’s the way the West will look at the Taliban — as an aberration. Such aberrations have existed in other cultures and traditions at other points in history. So it’s basically an aberration. I mean, I would like to regard the Inquisition as an aberration as far as Christian history is concerned. And I think the Taliban would be an aberration as far as contemporary Muslim civilization is concerned. …

[Regarding] worldviews and a Western worldview versus an Islamic worldview, what do you see as the differences between those two different ways of seeing the world ?

One should qualify the use of these two terms, “Islamic worldview” and “Western worldview” by saying that these are generalizations. Reality is much more complex.

But having said that, at this point in time, one can argue that faith is perhaps the principal distinguishing element between these two civilizations — that Islam is very much a faith-based civilization. Everything, at least in the theoretical sense, centers around faith, that you believe in God and as a result of that, you hold on to certain practices and rituals. And you believe that politics should be conducted in a certain way, the economy should be run along certain lines and so on. All that emanates from faith and the oneness of God and God’s revelation over time and the place of the prophet Muhammad — may peace be upon him. That’s part of one’s belief system, rooted in faith.

Western civilization, contemporary Western civilization as a product of the enlightenment, is a civilization that centers much more around reason. It’s an enlightenment of the head, not of the heart. If you look at the way in which the Buddhists, for instance, talk of enlightenment, it is from the heart. But in the West, it’s basically, the head. It’s a rational attitude, it’s empirical, it’s secular in the sense that it’s not linked to the revealed truth or to a scripture. It’s different in that sense.

But if you begin to look at these two civilizations at another level, you’ll find that there are a lot of similarities. Today, for instance, in the West there’s tremendous concern about the environment. That is a value, a virtue that exists in other civilizations, from the Taoists and the American Indians, and to Islam. This is a very important principle — living in harmony with the environment.

And these are the meeting points that one should emphasize in a world where civilizational dialogue is, to my mind, the prerequisite for peaceful co-existence ? We really have no choice. We have to learn from one another. We have to dialogue with one another. I’ve been very involved in this. I see this as my mission, to promote dialogue between civilizations and cultures.

You mentioned the environment as one example of what the West can learn from Islam. What other things do you think the West should and can learn from the Islamic world ?

The nexus between faith and action, the way in which faith interpreted in a very universal inclusive manner, the way in which faith can inform deeds in different spheres of human existence. In politics, for instance, it would mean a more ethical approach to power. In the economy, it would mean a more ethical approach to profits and to markets and so on. And the same thing with culture ; a greater emphasis upon character, rather than what is sensate and immediate. And so on and so forth.

So I think that’s where faith comes in, this link between faith and action that’s very important. As I said a while ago, it’s faith interpreted in a very broad manner ; it doesn’t mean that one has to attach oneself to a particular notion of God. It’s a notion of transcendence and a certain sense of awe, the mystery of life. I think this has to be restored in our lives.

I find that this is something that really separates very ordinary Muslims and people of other faiths — Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and in Asia and Latin America — from ordinary people in the West ; this idea that life is a mystery, that there is something transcendent beyond all this. This, I think, is very important. …

You hear a lot about the desire for an Islamic state in Malaysia, et cetera. Can you tell me where that desire for an Islamic state comes from, and what the limitations are in its application ?

At the root of it, it’s the desire to live as a Muslim. This is what it is. So you want to create an environment, because the state is a vital ingredient in shaping the environment in which you live. You want to live in an environment where you can be a Muslim in that sense.

But the notion of a state defined in certain terms, that you must have the Sharia interpreted in a certain way, you must have criminal laws or hudud laws applied in a certain manner, you must define the position of the woman in a certain way, minorities in a certain way — this is something very recent. It’s not part of early Muslim history.

Even if you look at the charter of Medina associated with the prophet, that charter doesn’t make the distinctions which Muslims make today when they talk of an Islamic state. [That is] a state which has embedded within its structures this notion of “us and them.” It’s very, very, strong. There is, in other words, no notion of a common citizenship, as far as an Islamic state is concerned. And you find that very often it makes women second-class citizens and all the rest of it.

I am not an advocate of an Islamic state. At this point in time, I think Muslims should be talking about values. And given the way in which the world is a globalized world, one should be talking about values that one can share with other human beings….

[Some people] think that the idea of human rights is [somewhat] different in the West and the Islamic world. Can you just clarify to me how that is seen ?

Many of the rights which are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 are rights which Muslim political thought would be able to accept and accommodate without any difficulty at all, whether it’s freedom of expression or the right to a fair trial, the right to food, shelter, the right to found a family. Those things are all there.

The difference is at another level. It is at the level of the underlying philosophical premises, because if you look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is a document which is postulated on the notion of the individual. Now, in the case of Islam, as in some other civilizations, there is also a communitarian dimension that is very important. So it’s not just the rights of individuals ; there is also a certain notion of the community that is very crucial. And you must bring that community dimension into your articulation of rights.

To give an example of this, which it would be very pertinent to our discussion, you take the Salman Rushdie phenomenon, the Salman Rushdie episode. He had a certain right as an individual, and he expressed that right. But in the course of expressing that right, Salman Rushdie hurt the collective feelings of a people. And one would argue that one should have taken that into account, too, while saying, “Look, a person has a right to articulate his position, this freedom of expression. [But] there is also a collective notion of honor that a community has. The community felt that it had been demeaned, that had it had been denigrated.

So that sort of notion is something that one shouldn’t ignore, either. So this is something which Islamic philosophy is concerned about, where when you talk of rights, you must also think of the communitarian dimension. …

With the Rushdie affair, was this fatwa, this death threat, a suitable response ?

A number of us wrote articles at that time criticizing Ayatollah Khomeini for issuing that edict. We argued that it was wrong, because a Muslim has a right to leave his faith and to take whatever position that he wants. And one cannot compromise as far as that right is concerned. You can criticize him for what he wrote, which is something else. But the right response to that is to write another book and attack the man. But you don’t put him to death. That was wrong. I think most Muslim intellectuals were appalled at Khomeini’s fatwa.

You mentioned the reform movement, progressive thinking about Islam. But where do you see that most manifesting in Malaysia ?

One, it is reflected in the way in which we have developed a notion of power-sharing between Muslims and non-Muslims that does not institutionalize the “us and them” dichotomy as would happen in, say, certain Islamic states. That, I think, is an example of progressive thinking — that you share political power because you’re a citizen, you’re a human being, you participate in the political process. That is an example of progressive thinking.

Equally important, the rights accorded to women. We have Muslim women in this country holding very high positions. The governor of the central bank is a woman. You have a few ministries whose heads — these would be the bureaucrats — whose heads are women. You have three women ministers in the cabinet. And women dominate our public universities. The majority of students are women.

So women have been playing a very important role in this country. I would regard that as a manifestation of progressive Islam. And, of course, the attitude toward the other, the houses of worship of the Buddhists and the Christians, the Hindus and so on. Their festivals are part of the national calendar. Every one of those festivals is a national holiday in this country with a Muslim majority. That is something which is really beautiful. …

What role do you think Muslims in the United States can have in shaping the expression of Islam around the world ?

Because they live in a society where they’ll have to define their position and define their relationship with Islam on intellectual terms, they’ll have to argue out their case. They should help to strengthen the intellectual dimension of Islam, which is very weak at this point in time.

They should also try to articulate a role for Islam which takes into cognizance the multi-religious environment of the United States, but also the multi-religious world in which we live. And this, I think, would be yet another contribution that they can make to Islam, and to the world as a whole.

And if they can also restore that notion of transcendence, of the sacred in the lives of people — this, I think, is very, very important. I think one of the reasons why the family is in a state of crisis is because that notion of the sacred has eroded, and this has begun to affect relations within the family and relations within the larger community. So if one can restore a sense of, of the community, if the family can be a very important pivot of society again, then I think Muslims would have made a contribution to American society.

How would you sum up your vision of Islam as a spirituality, a way of life, culture and possibly a renewed civilization ?

The essence of Islam’s mission, as I see it as an individual Muslim, is to elevate our humanity, to make us more conscious of justice, to make us more conscious of the unity and the brotherhood and sisterhood of the human family. This, I think, is the mission of Islam : To restore to humanity that principle that is repeated over and over again in the Quran, to believe in God and to do good. And this is all there is to it. All the other schisms and divisions that we see, to my mind are the products of the human beings’ own failing, his or her own fallacies. But the strength of Islam lies in this — in making us more human.

* A Malaysian academic and social activist who teaches at the Center for Civilizational Dialogue at the University of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, Muzaffar is a critic of what he sees as the damage and oppression brought on by indiscriminate globalization in countries of the third world. Founder and president of Aliron, a multi-ethnic Malaysian reform movement dedicated to justice, freedom, and solidarity from 1977 to 1991, he is now president of the International Movement for a Just World, an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur which is concerned with global politics and social justice. In October 1987, Muzaffar was arrested by the Malaysian government under the Internal Security Act and released without conditions in December 1987. The following year he was nominated by Human Rights Watch as a monitor. This interview took place on Oct. 10, 2001

Source : Frontline