A new agenda for Muslims


Kuala Lumpur -- THE STATE of the Muslim world, so dismally revealed during the Persian Gulf crisis and its aftermath, may be summed up in a single phrase: A collapse of moral initiative.

The Muslim mind-set today is both morally and intellectually docile. On the one hand, we have become accustomed to blaming everything on the colonial legacy while, on the other, some of us seem to have little hesitation in condoning the naked aggression of one Muslim country against another.

Instead of honestly addressing the central issues that face the Ummah, or Muslim community, our leaders have engaged in emotional exploitation. There are empty slogans and rallying cries aplenty -- cries which, like Saddam Hussein's cant against Western imperialism and his call for a Muslim jihad, are little more than manipulative political ploys when made in the name of an oppressive regime.

The Muslim psyche revels in such emotional outbursts, yet it remains oblivious to the rational behavior demanded by the complex realities of the global order.

There is, of course, truth in the Muslim criticism of the West. The West has not shown a moral consistency in dealing with the Muslim world. It is this Muslim disillusionment with the West which is partly responsible for the current state of affairs.

However, the latest events in the gulf tell us that the Western bogey is invoked by tyrants and aggressors to perpetuate their hold on their own people. Their invocations of the dictates of Islam are mere escapism because they do nothing beyond these pronouncements against the West to improve the lives of their own people.

This status quo must change. Muslim leaders must take the initiative to get out of their predicament by appealing to reason and moral principles.

In the past, we have been steadfastly oblivious to the excesses and brutalities inflicted by Muslims on their own people. We have failed to recognize that the rampant corruption, chronic poverty, disregard for fundamental human rights, denial of opportunities to women, economic inequality, illiteracy and tolerance of, or even collusion with, tyrannical systems are not symptoms, but the cause of our decay.

Besieged by these social problems of our own creation, how can we be justified in blaming them on others?

It makes little sense to curse the materialism of the West and sanctify anti-materialism when the majority of Muslims cannot afford the basic amenities of life. All of the 40 or so Muslim countries belong to the so-called "Third World." Even if we forget this cliche of the West, we cannot ignore the abject conditions under which the Muslim masses are forced to live.

It is inconsistent to censure modern education when the majority of us have no access to basic education. Could we be more distant from contemporary realities?

In today's world, Muslims are marginalized. They are excluded from advanced technological society, which, to a great extent, will determine our political fate. The devastating effectiveness of Western military technology in the gulf war provided fresh evidence of this actuality. The military absolutism and dearth of pragmatic thinking on the part of Muslims made it no contest.

In our efforts to regain moral initiative and resolve the identity crisis of the Ummah, we must push aside symbols and rhetoric to embrace the Islamic commands that bind us as a community. These commands enjoin good and forbid evil, and call for the improvement of our socioeconomic condition. They enjoin us to defend the rights of the poor and oppressed, refrain from economic exploitation and strive for a socially just society.

On the global scene, Muslims must develop the confidence to become actors rather than passive spectators.

To begin, we should accept the reality of a pluralistic world. Within Muslim history, pluralism is far from an alien concept. Any doctrinaire rigidity that runs counter to Islamic principles of accommodating others should be rejected. We must then muster the political will and commitment to change, which can only happen in an atmosphere of free expression.

Intellectual reconstruction, which can only be based on free expression, is every bit as urgent in the wake of the gulf war as repairing the material and environmental devastation. Only under the free flowering of the Muslim intellect can we jettison the rigid polemics and intolerance of thought and develop credibility with the rest of the world community.

Beyond this immediate task of intellectual reconstruction, the Muslim world must establish new priorities. We must develop the potential to construct and maintain an economic infrastructure which is self-reliant as well as globally competitive. Only on that basis can we begin to improve the living conditions of our people and provide them with the basic amenities of life.

Then we can realistically aspire to fulfill the moral imperatives of Islam -- the promotion of universal education, prudent management of resources, respect for basic human rights and fair distribution of wealth.

If we do not take these imperatives as the new agenda of all Muslims, our existence will remain one of dependence and despair.

Anwar Ibrahim is the finance minister of Malaysia. He is also a member of the Board of Governors of the Islamic Development Bank and a committee member of the World Council of Mosques.

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