Preaching Moderation

President Pervez Musharraf on December 24, 2003. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

A good deal has been said…congratulatory as well as skeptical, about General Pervez Musharraf's article on "enlightened moderation," carried by The Washington Post on June 1 and, curiously enough, by all of the major English language newspapers in Pakistan the next day. But there may still be room for a few additional observations.

It would be appropriate first to identify the essential ingredients in the general's exposition. These are: (1) Terrorism has made the world unsafe, and life difficult, especially for Muslims, because even though the perpetrators are currently coming from their ranks, they are, more often than not, its victims. (2) The force that the terrorist has at his disposal is "all but impossible to counter." (3) Terrorism emerges among people who are poor and ignorant and, at the same time, victims of injustice.

(4) Injustice will be found in the transactions of the western powers, especially the United States, with these poor people, and (5) in the "political disputes" they have with others who are cleverer and stronger. (6) The United States and other western powers must help resolve these disputes on a just and equitable basis if the most potent cause of terrorism is to be removed. (7) The poor and ignorant people (Muslims in this context) must do everything possible to pull themselves out of the hole in which they have fallen. They should also learn to be enlightened, moderate, tolerant, and peaceable.

(8) The western powers should help them get out of their poverty and ignorance. (9) While exercising self-restraint and moderation, Muslims should understand also that the world in which we live is not always fair. (10) Islam, as a religion, has nothing to do with terrorism. (11) Muslims should seek enlightenment by embarking upon a mission of renaissance.

No one, whose heart is in the right place, can object to any of these propositions. Trouble comes when they are all put together in one composition, because together they make the whole internally inconsistent. Let us identify a few cases in point. (a) If the force available to the terrorist is "all but impossible to counter" (2 above), there is little prospect then of our being able to stop him. (b) Terrorism is caused by injustice involved in unresolved political disputes (4 above), but Muslims must realize that the world in which we live is not always fair (9 above). In other words, some amount of injustice will always remain and we must learn to live with it.

The "prong" of this anti-terrorist strategy that the general has assigned to Muslims requires them to pull themselves out of their present poverty, ignorance, and incompetence, and embrace enlightenment, tolerance, and moderation. He must know, as many of the rest of us surely do, that even if Muslims got started on this project with the utmost seriousness, and gave it all available resources, it would take anywhere between twenty and fifty years to be accomplished. It follows that until then his prescription will remain consigned to the "cold storage," so to speak.

Notwithstanding the difficulties noted above, we must concede that "enlightened moderation," as a phrase, sounds good, and the general is to be commended for having brought it into our public discourse. That it sounds good may also be the reason why he has adopted it. He is now learning to be a politician, and we all know that politicians will often say things in order mainly to sound good.

But since General Pervez Musharraf's "thesis," and the phrase, "enlightened moderation," are likely to remain in the public domain for a time, they would seem to merit further consideration. We can agree that injustice is likely to arouse resentment, even anger, among its victims. But our historical experience does not sustain the conclusion that resentment and anger will always get translated into acts of terrorism. The Sindhi "hari" has been at the receiving end of unspeakably cruel injustice for generations but there are still no signs of his readiness to resort to terrorism. History is replete with similar cases of passivity.

The case of the Palestinians may be unique in some important respects. The state of Israel has been killing them, even the non-combatant among them, throwing them out of their homes, and bulldozing their neighbourhoods for the last 56 years. A few of them choose to pay the Israelis back in an outmoded and much less effective copy of their own coin.

Terrorist acts in Kashmir have been committed more often by outsiders than by the direct victims of Indian oppression. These outsiders belong to the clan whose other members have been perpetrating political assassinations and mass murders in Pakistan.

General Musharraf is in error when, in preaching enlightened moderation; he addresses himself to Muslims at large. The vast majority of them in every Muslim country have nothing to do with terrorism. This holds even for those who are not enlightened and those who are not altogether moderate in their views on theological, moral, or political issues. It may well be that no more than one in a thousand among them favour terrorism as a strategy for dealing with the more powerful adversaries.

Before going further in this discussion, let us pause to consider how the terms, "enlightened" and "moderation," are best understood. In an elementary sense one is enlightened if he/she is well informed, and aware of the implications and ramifications attaching to any given issue or proposition. In some of its uses, the term also has a connection with the "enlightenment," which was an eighteenth century intellectual movement, led by men such as Voltaire and Rousseau in France, John Locke in England, and Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine in America.

It urged the use of reason, common sense, and observation to combat superstition. It called for questioning of traditional doctrine and values, empiricism in science, cultural relativism and pluralism, and belief in the possibility of universal human progress.

Some of its spokesmen approached conventional wisdom with a degree of skepticism, opposed repression carried out in the name of absolute truth, and maintained that there could be numerous ways of being a good human other than those preached in Europe. Wanting to undermine the power of the Church by undermining its credibility, Voltaire attacked some of the fundamental Christian beliefs, such as divine origin of the Bible, incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, and eternal damnation of the unbelievers.

What does General Musharraf have in mind when he asks us to be "enlightened"? Assuming that he knows what he is talking about, he must mean that we should let go of the premise that as Muslims, or as members of a particular sect within the fold of Islam, we possess absolute and final truth, that all other persuasions are false, possibly wicked, and that they and their adherents deserve to be eradicated.

The attitude of mind he is commending to us necessarily includes a certain degree of reservation, or doubt if you will, about the absoluteness of our own belief system. We are to be open-minded, willing to accept the possibility that other belief systems may contain some merit, and that therefore they deserve respect. They have the right to exist, even flourish, alongside our own faith. This is moderation, and the disposition towards others that it generates is tolerance. Moderation and tolerance are, thus, children of enlightenment.

It will not do to claim that the generality of Muslims are enlightened, moderate, and tolerant all the way. They partake of these dispositions in varying measure. It may, however, be said that even when they are not fully tolerant of the dissident, even if they do not wish to have close relations with him, they have no desire to go out and kill him or burn down his home.

It follows that General Musharraf is addressing the wrong audience when he commends moderation to Muslims at large. Many of us are already enlightened, moderate, and tolerant. He should find ways of reaching those who equate moderation with infirmity of faith, those who are extremists and militants and violent. They are convinced that theirs is the only way of serving and pleasing God.

They believe also that pleasing God is much more important than peace on earth, much more important than the well being of individual Muslims, nations, and countries. In their reckoning Muslims who insist on being different do not deserve to live in any case.

Their terrorism has nothing to do with issues of justice. When they bomb a Shia or Sunni place of worship, they are not avenging injustice. Pakistani Shia and Sunni, as communities, have done no known injustice to each other. In executing these murders the extremists are simply venting their hatred of the dissident, and they are asserting their own presumed right to prevail to the exclusion of all others. Survival, prosperity, and stability of Pakistan, or any other Muslim country, are of no consequence to them. In their view, these are all fit objects of sacrifice at the altar of their version of the truth.

It would be foolish to expect them to heed Pervez Musharraf whom they regard as a puppet of the American infidel and whom they have already attempted, at least twice, to assassinate. How are they then to be reached? Send Qazi Hussain Ahmad and Maulana Fazlur Rahman to speak with them.

They and the extremists are kinfolk, they understand each other's terms of reference, and they speak the same language. Let Qazi Sahib and the Maulana do something by way of service to Pakistan for a change. A brief holiday from desk thumping in the assemblies, and sloganeering out on the streets, will not hurt them any.

Text of President Pervez Musharraf’s op-ed in The Washington Post http://