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From the December 2001 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 48, No. 12)

Muslims Who Opt for Neither Bush nor Bin Laden

Who Elected You, Mr. Osama?

Farish A Noor, Malaysiakini.com (Internet newspaper), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, October 10, 2001


Osama Bin Laden addresses the Arab world on Al-Jazeera television, Oct. 8, 2001.
There is the saying, now reduced to a cliché, that the first casualty of war is truth itself. Cliché though it may be, it remains relevant to all of us in the light of the deplorable developments in the immediate present.

As the world edges closer to a devastating conflict that is more than likely to spiral out of control, the primary antagonists in this so-called “clash of civilizations” have begun to play the universalist card once again. The president of the United States of America and his missile-hugging hawk buddies in the Pentagon have already claimed that their “just war” against the people of Afghanistan is part of a global “crusade” in the name of civilization and humanity.

Just who and what makes up their idea of civilization and humanity is anyone’s guess—but one wonders if it includes the millions of Americans who have openly come out in protest against the U.S. administration’s decision to let loose the dogs of war.

On the other side of the frontier stands Osama bin Laden and his erstwhile allies, the mullahs of the Taliban in Afghanistan. They too have begun to call for the global Muslim community to rally behind their banner and to join them in their “jihad” against the Americans and the West in general.

Like their Western counterparts, Osama and his motley crew have also claimed that their struggle is for the sake of another type of civilization and carried out in the name of humanity. But have they taken into account the millions of Muslims who regard their brand of reactionary Islam as fundamentally repugnant to the teachings and principles of the religion itself?

Worse still, the calls for a jihad against the West and in defense of the global Muslim ummah have now been taken up here in Malaysia as well. The official media organ of the Islamist party, Harakah (Sept. 26), has reported that the spiritual leader of the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS), Nik Aziz Nik Mat, has called on all Muslims to perform solat hajat (special devotional prayers) across the country in order to prevent the Americans from launching an attack on the Muslim ummah as a whole.

Just how Nik Aziz could have come to the conclusion that an attack on Osama amounts to an attack on Islam and the Muslim community is an open question. At what point did this war between a state and a clandestine militant movement become a war between civilizations and religions?

Few of us have cared to point out that the vast majority of the human race did not elect the Texan cowboy George W. Bush as president of the United States of America. Had we been given the chance, the likelihood is that we would have voted for someone else. So for Mr. Bush to go around claiming that he speaks for humanity and civilization is a case of casting the net a tad too far. “Who elected you to speak on our behalf?” is the question on everyone’s lips.

Likewise, none of us elected the mullahs of the Taliban or even Osama (or even Mr. Nik Aziz for that matter) as the representatives and spokesmen for the Muslim community. Had the Muslim community been given the chance to choose its leaders, the likelihood is that we would not have chosen a bunch of Wahhabi and Deobandi extremists to speak for the rest of the Muslim community, which is much bigger and certainly more diverse in its differences. This is precisely the problem when political leaders (and here I include the mullahs as well) begin to speak the language of realpolitik dressed in the mantle of ethics and universalism. Politicians, as we should all know by now, speak the language of universals when they really want to pursue goals and ends that can only be particular. No politician or religious leader can or will ever speak on behalf of a truly universal constituency for the reason that they always rely on one base of support.

The U.S. president may try to beguile us with his pleas on behalf of universal humanity, but we all know that he is not even qualified to speak on behalf of all the citizens of his country. Reading through the lines of Bush’s speeches, one can see whose agendas and interests are being served: the Pentagon hawks, the moguls of the oil industry, the captains of commerce and trade.

Likewise, when Osama and the leaders of the Taliban speak for Muslims as a whole, they can only speak for themselves and their closed circle of adoring followers. They do not and cannot speak for the thousands of Afghan women and girls who have been denied jobs, education, and a public role in society in that so-called “blessed model” of an Islamic state which they have clumsily tried to build at the point of a gun. Those purists and “defenders of Islam” can hardly speak for the thousands of Muslims who have been killed by them in the quest for a model Islamic state: the Shias of the north of Afghanistan, the thousands of Muslim liberals, intellectuals, activists, and secularists whom they have put to the sword in their pathetic attempt to create a model Muslim society for the rest of us to follow.

This brings us to the situation in Malaysia. Certain components of PAS may well want to gather the support of Muslims in Malaysia for buddies in Afghanistan. It is understandable that they would be upset to see their cherished model Islamic state blasted to oblivion by the Americans and their allies.

Likewise, the fans of the Taliban among the local Islamic crowd would also want to see Malaysia and Malaysian Muslims showing more solidarity with the Taliban administration in Afghanistan. This is perfectly understandable, as they themselves would relish the opportunity to import the same type of Wahhabi-inspired Islam here in Malaysia.

But this puts the rest of us in a complicated and unenviable position. Most level-headed Muslims (those Muslims who are not naive enough to think that their faith can be reduced to questions of how long their beards should be) should know by now that while the Pentagon warmongers are not our friends or allies, neither are the Taliban.

Our sympathies should lie not with the U.S. government nor the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, but with the poor unfortunate victims of the attacks in America and the potential victims of any attack on Afghanistan. Our solidarity should lie with the people and not their so-called leaders.

But this crisis should also force all of us in the Muslim world to seriously ask some pressing questions about the nature of leadership in Muslim societies as a whole. For one of the more interesting aspects of contemporary Muslim societies today is that they tend to produce such self-proclaimed “leaders of the ummah,” “warriors of Islam,” “defenders of the faith,” etc., with such promiscuous ease. What is more, most of these self-proclaimed leaders in the Muslim world like Osama and Mullah Omar of the Taliban seem to have come to the fore not via some democratic electoral process but rather through the use of arms or with the support of external forces. Mullah Omar’s rise to the peak of the Taliban pyramid, for instance, was not a matter of chance but rather a calculated political struggle, which cost the lives of thousands of his enemies.

Only after he had wiped out all opposition against him did Mullah Omar don the reputed mantle of the Prophet Muhammad (before an awe-struck crowd of semiliterate mullahs). Osama was an agent in the service of the CIA and other Western agencies and like that other “warrior of Islam,” [exiled Afghan leader] Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, he was willing to accept money, arms, and training from the United States, which he now calls the Great Satan. (Some Muslim leaders apparently don’t mind getting help from Satan while carrying out their duties in the name of God.)

In the Malaysian context we need to ask ourselves how and why the ulama have been able to pull the same tricks. The man who calls himself the Murshid’ul Am (Spiritual Leader and Guide) of the Islamist party (and the Muslim ummah by extension) was not elected by the Muslims. It is the absence of democratic culture and practices in the Muslim world that leads to the rise of self-proclaimed leaders like the mullahs of the Taliban, Osama, and our own mullahs and Osama-wannabes here in Malaysia. And as long as a sense of political awareness and understanding of democracy is not instilled in ordinary Muslims the world over, such practices will invariably continue and we will all remain hostage to bigoted fanatics who claim to speak, act, and think on our behalf without us knowing so.

That, in the final analysis, is the real tragedy behind the looming crisis which the world is about to face. In the midst of all this hysteria—whipped up by the saber-rattling rhetoric of leaders on both sides—the Muslims and non-Muslims of the world may well be dragged into a conflict brought about by leaders who do not represent their interests, and worse still, they did not even elect.

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