Masood N. Khan M.D.
During my recent visit to the North African Muslim country of Tunisia to pay my tribute to its successful revolution that became the harbinger of Arab Spring, I had the privilege to dicsuss with Tunisians their revolution and its aftermath. Trying to be as inclusive as possible I probed taxi drivers, waiters and other ordinay, not so well educated people, as those who are well placed in the society, among them, a doctor and a managing director of a German multinational company, with questions to stimulate the discussion on revolution. As expected, Tunisia is passing through a postrevolutionary transition marked with challenges of political uncertainties, declining economical strength, inflation-induced increase in prices, unemloyement and municipal inefficiencies. Yet I never heard the words “the time before the revolution was better” even though it is not uncommon in such hard conditions for people to reminisce about the past. The whole of Tunisia was uniformly grateful to come out of the clutches of a brutal dictatorship and was ready to courageously face the hardships of day-to-day living brought by the revolution. The refreshing relaxation of freedom was everywhere in the air. No looking around suspisciously before starting a conversation nor was there anybody looking over the shoulder of the conversant. This was all well and good, but what struck me somewhat to my surprise, was an extremely liberal atmosphere of the country which seemed to accommodate both an Islamic conservative social conduct and a westernized boldy immodest lifestyle including an uninhibited and open sale of alcohol. In a country with 98% of its population being Muslims, proud of a rich history of traditional Islamic scholarship and culture, underlying conflicts of differing views concerning the role of Islam in the society were quite palpable in the bazaars and other public places. Grim-faced reactions and disapproving nods reflected the disgust at the glimpses of western immodesty very offensive to Muslim sensibilities. As Tunisia boasts of the highest literacy rate in the Middle East (78% of adult populations), I was sure an intense debate was going on in homes and private gatherings of Tunisians about the place of their beloved faith in their newly acquired freedom enjoyably rampant in the society. It is perhaps to the credit of a mature and educated Tunisia that such conflicts of ideas and debates have not degenerated into violent polarizations or a collapse of democracy that followed revolutions in other Arab countries.
It is a sad and bitter truth that the revolutions that have eliminated brutal dictators and let people feel the joy of freedom, have also brought havoc of destruction and bloodshed upon them. There is no denying that religion and its extremist variants are as responsible as the ugly power struggles, for this unfortunate situation. It has forced all the reborn free Muslims to question what to do with Islam now, since the dictators are gone. They have begun to wonder if Islam is going to become a menacing burden that has to be dealt with or redemption from the brutalities of dictatorial oppression. The void created by the absence of an authoritarian and high-handed administration seems to have unleashed a fierce competition between secular democracy with full freedom and Islamic theocracy with a check on abuse of freedom, each claiming to emancipate humankind with its own price-tag. My observation in Tunisia affirmed beyond any doubt that humanity, having suffered a suffocating confinement under the dictatorship, would never again compromise freedom that is so alluringly available in abundance in a secular society which separates the church from the state. However, Muslims have also painfully witnessed the oppression and humiliation of their beloved faith which suffered along with them at the hands of the dictators. Hence there is this intense desire to give Islam its due and let its revolutionary spirit complement and enhance the revolution at hand. These two passions sediment down to such intriguing questions; whether Islam will give the freedom Muslims are longing for while sparing them from its abuses the modern societies are suffering from and if so, should Islam have a role to play from a position of authority and power in a free Muslim country? And what kind of role that could be so as to positively fit in people’s lives in a free democratic country? Faced with suchquestion it seems Islam has ceased to be a black and white solution, earlier generations so confidently enjoyed, but has become a big question mark in the modern world.
The passionate debate about Islam among Muslims be the ordinary citizens or the elite intellectuals is a naturally expected consequence of freedom. Muslims are now free to question and think and debate in countries like Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Afghanistan where just a couple of decades ago, such a debate was irrelevant for Islam being subservient to the interests of oppressive governments, was intellectually stunted. It is indeed impressive to see Muslims embrace a long overdue critical evaluation of the role their faith should play in a modern, democratic and free society. Watching their passionate articulations first-hand in Tunisia, I sometimes wondered if Muslims have an amibivalent love and hate relationship with islam. Love for being the divine guidance that will come to restore their freedom and dignity, rescue them from tyranny and injustice and bring peace in their deeply hurt lives; and hate for its unfortunate history of misinterpretation, institutionalized misapplication for centuries and its dreadful Fatwas that are products of either a rigid jurisprudence or corrupt political ambitions with a record of narrow-minded discrimination against women, corporal punishments and ruining of families.
In this fast evolving world with all the discontents of globalization, wide open channels of communication that act like a two-way sword, and abundance of information you sometimes don’t know what to do with, will the understanding of faith and its application in lives of people remain intact as preserved in the annals of traditional Islamic scholarship or change to become more independent and individual, is yet to be seen. Free Muslims of Tunisia have the confidence and recklessness to even test out the concept of separation of church and state, so vital to the secular societies in the west and so novel to Islam. Tunisians have moved forward in their quest for practical answers to this question by having voted down a government of moderate Islamic party Al-Nahdah and with it the concept of political Islam. They have confidently brought to power a secular coalition proponent of a very loose bond between church and state. The experimentat on is the outcome of a healthy freedom to think and debate about the role of Islam which is very reasurring. Hopefully Muslims enjoying post revolutionary freedom will be able to undo the layer upon layer of man-made suffocating dogmas, cultural influences, monopolized interpretations, lack of critical thinking and depressing intellectual stagnation that have made their religion a liability rather than an energizing force. Hopefully Islam will emerge in future as raw and fresh, as naturally simple and as progressive as it existed at the time of the Prophet. A critical evaluation of their faith and the debate about its role will no doubt be catalyst to a healthy and rewarding evolution in countries that have unburdended the yoke of dicatorship. As in Tunisia, Muslims in other countries in post revolutionary transition will fast learn that Islam is neither an oppressive system dictated by Mullahs nor a ‘Shariah Law’ to be established with force by acts of terrorism. On the contrary Islam in its future role will have to be friendly and compassionate, making Muslims as comfortable with it as in the company of a friend who they have met after a long time.
Seeing Muslims debate and argue, I left Tunisia with a happy feeling that they are free to debate at last. I felt reassured that Islam of the future, God-willing, will treat men and women equally, will remove every trace of of tyranny from the society including the one which creeps into human behavior through a false sense of self-righteousness, will decentralize the interpretations of Quran and the Prophet’s sayings, will reduce its voluminous Fiqh to the simplicity of a divine message, will distinguish piety from conservatism and will reinforce the age old dictum that the purpose and intent is more important than the outward form.
The current state of affairs in the countries after revolutions has shown one thing very clearly for sure, and that is any implementation of Islam by force much less by terrorism will only result in death and desturcion to great detiment of Muslims all over the word whereas the debate Muslims around the world are indulged in is hightly promising and will process Islam to its original peaceful and revolutionary spirit. Perhaps it is to a great advantage of Islam, that the turmoil in the Muslim world will inevitably compel Muslims to reassess their faith in relation to the demands of the modern world a cleansing distillation that other faiths are
too unprovoked to go though. This seems to be a divine plan perhaps for its constructive metamorphosis and reemergence. Who knows, under the deep clouds of chaos the shining rays of freedom will dawn a new Islam, free, confident and unfettered with boldness to again invite the world to its revolutionary declaration of “no God but God”