WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN TO THE ISLAMIC WORLD? (ON THE NECESSITY OF A MENTAL TRANSFORMATION IN THE MUSLIM WORLD)
As Turks, or the people living in Turkey, we love the “country-saving conversation” [in Turkish: “memleket kurtarma muhabbeti”]. At home, schools, cafes, or in other places, whenever a group of friends come together, sooner or later the conversation revolves around the issue of “what’s going to happen to this poor country?” Just right there, we tumble governments, set up new ones, and discuss how, if we are given authority, we would solve the serious problems of our country right away. If there happens to be someone among us with a little more education, s/he reminds that saving a country is not a simple issue, and thus, lowers the tone of the discussion. And, if there is a more educated, older one with some life experience, stipulates that to “save the country” goes beyond our limits, and comes up with a recommending style, stating that “the one who cannot save himself/herself cannot save anyone else; thus, try to save yourself first if you can!” This is where I myself ended up with after reaching 50, that is no less than half-a-century.
If saving just a single country of our own is such an intricate issue and if “there does not exist any magic formulation for salvation,” could it be possible to save the whole Islamic world at once? Definitely not, impossible, no way! As a matter of fact, various Islamic movements, be it radical or moderate, spawning here and there, have been trying to save the Islamic world for a long time, yet, not surprisingly, no success. Getting more seriously, let’s face the reality: the Islamic world is, in many ways, in a terrible condition today. Internal political conflicts never stop. Civil wars, bloody struggle for power, oppressive leaders, armies merely besieging their own countries, either military or civil dictatorships, are unfortunately the dominant outlook observed almost everywhere in the Muslim world.
Looking at the macro-economic indicators, our conditions are still pitiful. In terms of income per capita, investment, production and export capacity, accessibility of health and education services, etc. the Muslim countries score below the world average, let alone the Western developed countries. The population living under poverty line is relatively high, literacy level is low, ratio of the youth with higher education is smaller, ratio of infant mortality is higher, and life expectancy at birth is also lower. In political, military, and economic terms, many Muslim states are far from standing on their feet; a large portion of the Islamic world is either directly or indirectly under occupation, serving as a colony of, or being controlled and manipulated by the Western imperial powers. In short, looking either from the perspective of economic prosperity levels, or military-political conditions, e.i. being subject to occupation, colonial control and manipulation, the Muslim World is now in a disheartening situation.
The situation of Turkey, as a country doing relatively much better than many other Muslim countries, is also far from being satisfactory. The country has been deeply involved in the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East in recent years, especially since the eruption of the Arab Spring. The political leadership in Turkey wanted to see more democratic and civilian regimes in the Middle East. Yet, it could neither stop the apparent military coup in Egypt, nor the bloody civil war in Syria. It could not enable the regional populations to get rid of dictatorial regimes and embrace democracy. Internally, the country is also having difficulty in producing robust and permanent solutions for its own internal problems, the Kurdish-terrorism issue being the foremost. Let’s not be unfair, the Turkish leaders worked hard for overcoming these problems in a peaceful manner since the early 2000s. Yet, the situation in the country in the aftermath of the 7 June 2015 elections is disheartening: political instability combined with no new government set up in 3 months after the elections (only an “election government” could be set up to serve until the early elections scheduled for early November), the terror menace coming up again after so many years of efforts to bring it down to a halt. The civil war in Syria is still in continuation; millions have left their homes, hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians have been killed in skirmishes; and there are many other instabilities ongoing in the region. In short, the state of affairs is not good.
Here is the question then: why are we, as Muslims, in such an undesirable, even terrible conditions? Why is the Islamic world failing to come up with permanent solutions for its internal complications? Why, disregarding exceptions, is the Muslim world prone to the manipulation and intervention of the Western powers, seeking aid from external sources, or still being under colonial control? Why is the region unable to say “stop it” to external powers? Why is the Muslim world unable to control its own environment?
Well, summarizing a long answer in one simple, clear sentence, I argue the following: because the Muslim world today is weak in terms of economic, political, technological, and military conditions; it has no enforcement power towards the external powers, and does not have a freedom-oriented political system of governance that is flexible enough to come up with solutions to internal problems.
Here is another question, then: has the situation always been in this way?
The answer is clear: No. The Muslim world has not been in such terrible conditions throughout history. On the contrary, once upon a time the Muslim world pioneered civilizational developments; served as the land of inventions, explorations, and innovations. The countries or regimes of the region were not a puppet, colony, or pawn of the western imperial powers. Being able to solve its problems on its own, it had control over its own destiny. Both in terms of military power and in economic welfare, it was well above the world average. Under the Four-Caliph Era (right after the Prophet Muhammad) in the first half of the 7th century, especially under his Excellency Omar b. Khattab, the 2nd Caliph, a leap for development was achieved and Muslims were able to control Hejaz, North Africa, Spain, Central Asia (more or less today’s borders of the broader Muslim world). Under the Umayyads, Abbasids, Seljuks, and the Ottomans, Muslims controlled a vast geography in Asia, Caucasia, Europe, Mediterranean, Middle East and North Africa, being able to peacefully command various populations and societies from different religions and cultures. Especially between the 8th and 13th centuries, world’s richest libraries, universities, observatories, and hospitals were hosted by the Islamic World; inventions and innovations were conducted mainly in the Muslim countries. Not surprisingly, in that era of five hundred years, there existed a vivid scientific-intellectual-philosophical discussion atmosphere across the Muslim World. Even though communication, transportation and information technologies were incomparable to today’s standards, a lively interaction existed between the East (e.g. Asia, Samarkand & Bukhara), and the Middle East (e.g. Baghdad & Damascus), and the West (e.g. Muslim Spain, Andalusia, Cordoba & Granada). Books written by Muslim thinkers and scholars were used as textbooks in many Western universities. The Muslim World was coming up with innovations especially in mathematics, algebra, medical sciences, and astronomy.
So, the next question is, what happened in the history so that we are in this situation now? What was the reason that the Muslim world, once pioneer-of-civilization, was degraded to become a follower? How did we lose control of ourselves and our environment and became states that are easily controllable by others, prone to internecine fighting, failing to live under peaceful coexistence, and hostile to its own civil population and the world?
Tough question. Well, it’s a long story, but cutting it short, we can argue the following: two determining reasons: 1. Political (Moghul invasion), 2. Intellectual (fear of freedom). Before going into any further detail, we should stress one thing: Yes, the social reality is very complex; there are many economic, political, sociological, and historical factors leading to major turning points that determine the subsequent course of events in certain ways. In other words, the course of events is the result of a myriad of factors interacting with each other in many ways, be it direct or indirect. Thus, one should be aware of the hazards of explaining the breaking points within civilizational history by one single factor. Yet, one can argue that in affecting the course of events within the chain of dynamics, some factors are more decisive. In this framework -leaving the details maybe to a more comprehensive scientific article-, it can be said that the reason for the condition of the Islamic world experiencing today is due to two factors. As mentioned above, one political and one intellectual reasons.
The political reason is the Moghul (or Mongol) Invasion and the subsequent loss of much of the political, cultural, scientific, and intellectual treasures of the Muslim world, accumulated through centuries. Riding from Central Asia, this nomadic plunderer horde, ravaged all the way down from Caucasia to the Middle East and Anatolia, massacring hundreds of thousands of people, and destroying libraries and Madrassas (universities of the time). This disaster triggered an entropy, trauma, and loss of self-confidence within the Islamic world, which led to introvertedness, and all-suspicious attitude against outsiders—thinking that anything coming from outside is bad and damaging, hence should be rejected at once. In a sense, the Islamic world, has not been able to overcome this trauma even today.
The other decisive factor, or the second underlying cause of the pitiful situation of the Islamic world today, the “intellectual cause”, is the dominant mentality of the Muslim World distancing itself from freedom, innovationism, change, and pluralism. It is an unfortunate reality that these concepts are not warmly welcomed among many of the Muslim countries today: the typical Muslim approach towards these concepts is suspicion, hesitation, keeping a distance, or even rejection. The word liberty or freedom prompts some of us to think of “diverging from creeds and revolting against God.” As pointed in one Turkish saying that goes “Don’t bring a new custom to the old village,” many of us condemn “unwelcome innovations.” Being in fear of losing their thrones and crowns, such concepts as change, reform, democracy and pluralism frighten the power elite across the Muslim world. Saddening, but true.
The historical-mentalistic background of this issue has its roots in the conflict and subsequent triumph of the Ahli-Hadith School over Ahli-Rey School. These were two major intellectual-philosophical schools conflicting in many ways over the major issues. Again, shortening a long story, one would say the first one (Ahli-Hadith) was “fatalist, transmissionist, literalist” [in Turkish: kaderci, nakilci, lafızcı]. On the contrary, the 3 major distinctive characteristics of the second school (Ahli-Rey) were “free will, rationalism, and interpretation.” In other words, mentality-wise, an Ahli-Reyists was predominantly “free willist” (human beings determine their own destiny to a great extent), “rationalist” (reason and logic is a reliable source of knowledge), and “interpretationist” (holy text can be interpreted in a hermeneutical manner) [in Turkish: özgür iradeci, akılcı, yorumcu]. Probably due to the social-cultural-economic conditions of a predominantly agrarian social formation at the time, power ambitions of the ruling elite, and –who knows- maybe persuasiveness of its defenders, the former school defeated the latter in this vital intellectual battle, hence favored by the power elites of the time.
Consequently, fatalism (believing in a pre-determined destiny, out of the control of our will), transmissionism (knowledge transmitted from earlier generations is better than the new knowledge generated through reason, logic, and experience), and literalism (take it as is, word-by-word, no interpretation) have become the dominant mentality within the Islamic world. This mentality became so prevalent that even the followers of rationalist school, the followers of Imam-ı Azam Abu Hanife (the Great Imam of the Hanefi/Ahli-Rey School), who rejected acting based on the weak Hadith (sayings of the Prophet), have begun to forego reason, logic, comparison, syllogism, and personal opinion over acting based on the weak Hadith. Writings of the older generations were taken as the ultimate, invariable source of the judgments; the motto was “The doors of ijtihad (making new rulings by the eligible scholars) were closed,” hence rejecting any kind of new, novel ideas. Almost nobody could stood up and say “we cannot solve the problems of an industrial or information society with those fatwas (scholarly judgments) offered for an agricultural society hundreds of years ago.”
Wrapping up, as Muslims, if we want to break our chains and free ourselves from this pitiful conditions, get a sense of ourselves, stand on our own heels, and be able to control our own resources, we need a mental flinging out, shake up of ourselves, or a mentality transformation, so to speak. Under this framework, what we need is a mentality, way of thinking, that is predominantly characterized by freewill, rationality, interpretation, and innovation. We should be more open to freedom, plurality, flexibility, and tolerance. We should be eager to become a more open society based on liberty, openness, rule of law, democracy, free markets, competition and innovation in every sense. We should get rid of our century-old fears from individual and political freedoms, criticism, open borders. We don’t have to adopt all outdated and outmoded ultra-positivist nation-state’s ambitions to create a uniform, single-type, homogenous society as opposed to multi-culturalism, multi-ethnicism, and pluralism.
Having said that, one important issue should be raised here: Most of the time, we take the easy way out by delegating the whole responsibility to the politicians. I think it is not fair, because this “burden” (of a thorough social, political, economic, and cultural transformation) is much heavier than the poor politicians can lift by themselves. The road map for the politicians have to be developed by scientists, scholars, intellectuals and philosophers. Based our own historical experience, holy texts, our values, accumulation of knowledge at our disposal today, our scholars and intellectuals should put forth theories, develop models, and draft applicable road maps so that the political leaders would know what and how they can do. In short, we should abandon holding account of the politicians of our own misfortune and the inability to overcome this hardships, we are all partly responsible for it. Don’t forget, our Holy Book, Qur’an says, “God does not change their situation unless a community does not change itself.”
Producing such models and road maps, conversely, also requires free spaces. The human mind can be creative and productive only under free social, cultural and political environments. Only under freedom can men and women pursue their curiosity, follow their dreams, and invent novel products. In a terrible environment where there is no freedom, under bad conditions where, as our intellectual master Cemil Meriç states, “ideas are chased as a rabid dog,” where the ideas that are not liked by the power elites are criminalized, and where every kind of discrimination exists, unfortunately new ideas, ways, means and methods cannot be produced. Creative minds, thinkers, guides and inventors cannot emerge. Accordingly, neither an applicable model nor a road map can be developed. Therefore, the most important value we need, that is as significant as bread and water, is freedom. Freedoms can only be guaranteed under a governance based on the rule of law. In places where there is no rule of law, and where the ruling elite say “people who do not think like me or dress like me are traitors,” then arbitrariness, oppression, and suppression become dominant.
In environments of cruelty and oppression, internal rivalries, civil wars and bloody power struggle precedes everything.
In places where there are internal detrimental rivalries, the societal energies are spent for subversion and destruction. If scarce resources are spent in this manner, none is left for production, investment, invention, innovation, and development. The most vivid example for these undesirable developments is the recent history of Turkey. The recent history of other Muslim countries is not very different either.
Thus, we should give up fighting with ourselves; beware that segregation and discrimination is unhelpful to anyone. We should not forget that in a democracy, there is no “internal enemy,” but criminal citizens. We must improve all kinds of freedoms, embrace societal differences, and set up a fully developed pluralist democracy based on the rule of law. Simultaneously we should look forward to our scientific-intellectual community, who, under a free, rational, hermeneutical, and critical mentality, would focus on developing new theories, models, and road maps.
Prof. Dr. Mustafa Acar, Analyst, Strategic Outlook