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August 6, 2012 |  8 comments |  Print  Your Opinion  

Why Eastern Islamic Societies Cannot be Role Models to the Arabs

Vikas Kumar: Moderate Eastern Muslim societies cannot serve as role models to the Arab world, given the ethno-linguistic rootedness and demographic diversity, as well as the cross-cutting ethnic affiliations of these societies. It is for this reason that the Arabs must rely on themselves for guidance.

Muslim-majority Bangladesh, which separated from Islamic Pakistan to protect Bengali language and cultural heritage, is known for its democracy and empowerment of women and is contesting radical Islam. And, Indonesia, another Muslim-majority democracy, proud of its linguistic and cultural heritage, promptly responded to home-grown terrorism. In contrast, the Taliban, who destroyed the cultural heritage of Afghanistan and adjoining parts of Pakistan and killed thousands, are nurtured as strategic assets by Pakistan. The Taliban are products of Deobandi seminaries sympathetic to the extremist Wahhabi cause. These seminaries promote Arabic — ‘the official [sic] language of Islam’ — at the expense of South Asian languages.

Predictably moderate Eastern Islamic societies, which have so far been supportive of NATO’s War on Terror, are held up as role models for democratizing Arab countries. But they can be treated as role models only if their moderation can be explained by factors that are not peculiar to East Asia and southern and eastern parts of South Asia.

Muslims across the world can be divided into Arab, Persian, Southeast Asian, South Asian, Sub-Saharan, and Turkic Muslims and immigrant Muslims in the West. But starting in the late 19th century, Arab Islam gradually claimed moderate Islam in the northern and western parts of South Asia. Islam in the rest of South Asia, however, continues to be moderate so that we can still speak of an Eastern Islam to refer to Islam in large parts of Southeast and South Asia. Moreover, Sub-Saharan Muslims are rarely taken seriously on ideological issues, while moderates within immigrant communities in the West are denounced as sell-outs.

This leaves us with four potential role models within the Islamic world — Arab, Persian, Turkic and Eastern Muslims, which can be further classified into two broad groups: those who use Arabic language and/or script for daily communication and those who do not. So far only the latter have proven to be largely moderate and conducive to relatively stable democratic states and have, unsurprisingly, been held up as role models for Muslims elsewhere.

Most Muslims in countries like Bangladesh and Indonesia and in provinces of India like West Bengal and Tamil Nadu are ethno-linguistically rooted and use Arabic only for prayers and specialized religious studies. Many of them read the Quran translated into their mother tongue (and written in a non-Arabic script), which is also the language of the state, as well as market. This has four effects.

First, the majority of Muslims in these countries cannot directly participate in West Asian religious discussions and are, in turn, less affected by such discussions.

Second, clerical control over religious discussions is largely confined to specialized debates. The routine religious debates that most believers are exposed to are conducted in a linguistic medium which the clerics cannot claim exclusive control over.

Third, the favorable position of local language among the believers helps them maintain links with local cultural heritage.

Fourth, local languages allow engagement between believers and non-believers. Non-believers not only access developments within the local Muslim community through a common language, but also make creative contributions.

These effects reinforce ethno-linguistic roots of believers by strengthening their bond with local cultural heritage, as well as by building a bond between believers and non-believers who share that heritage. Ethno-linguistic rootedness in turn dampens the quest for ideological and cultural dominance à la the jihadists, while secular bonds between believers and non-believers and the marginalization of clerics shield the state from religious majoritarian pressures.

Equally importantly, in the lands of Eastern Islam, Muslims are part of a religiously and, often, ethnically diverse societies. In these societies, there is a substantial non-Muslim population and religious minorities are not unlikely to belong to ethnic and/or linguistic majorities. Moreover, Muslims are themselves divided into various groups, some of which blend with pre-Islamic faiths. Cross-cutting ties in turn shield religious minorities from the fury of the extremists within the Islamic majority.

In short, the moderation of Eastern Muslim societies critically depends on their ethno-linguistic rootedness, demographic diversity, and cross-cutting ethnic affiliations. So, they cannot serve as role models to the Arab world, where Arabic and Islam have long ago erased diversity. The Arabs have to find their own solutions.

Vikas Kumar is Assistant Professor of Economics at Azim Premji University, Bangalore.

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Tags: | Islam | Middle East |
 
Comments
Unregistered User

August 6, 2012

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Professor Kumar, Thanks for a thought-provoking essay. Based on statements in your concluding paragraph "Arabic and Islam have long ago erased diversity", and "Arabs have to find their own solutions" it sounds 1) as if Eastern Islam is no longer engaging, or even interested in engaging, Arab Muslims because of their lack of diversity and use of the Arab language, and 2) this "wall" between eastern and western Islam appears to marginalize non Arab and moderate Muslims as they are "not taken seriously on ideological issues" or considered as "sellouts". I would argue that those are exactly the reasons for Eastern Islamic societies to redouble their efforts in engaging Western Islam in order to amelioriate "the fury of the extremists within the Islamic majority" and bring the strengths of diversity to Arabic Islam.

Further isolating these communities entrenches their "us against the world" mentality, leading to more extremism and allows them a monopoly on the use of Arabic as ‘the official [sic] language of Islam’. The world needs greater civil discourse, not further alienation into radicalizing groups. It sounds to me that the strengths of Eastern Islam are the cross connections into other societies, cultures and languages, and I would hope that those strengths can be used to crack the veil of suggested intolerance and homogeneity in Arabic Islam.
 
Vikas  Kumar

August 8, 2012

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Dear Chris,

Thanks for taking the trouble to comment on the article. Two clarifications are in order.

One, the article is not about whether Eastern Islam should engage Western Islam. Rather it (justifiably) presumes engagement and then asks if there are ready-made solutions that can be imported. I argue against the availability of ready-made solutions.

Two, when I conclude that the Arabs cannot learn much from say Bangladesh or Indonesia, I do not mean that there should be no attempt to bring the two together for a healthy exchange. I only mean that they are structurally different and democracy building in the Arab world cannot mechanically follow the Eastern Islamic countries. Normative commitments can be shared across societies. But the policy prescriptions have to be different. It is like saying that driving a car in the city of Jakarta is different from driving the same car in the mountains of Afghanistan. In both cases the drivers could share normative commitments (say, drive safely). But they need different strategies to achieve the same goals because one cannot level the mountains of Afghanistan (just as one cannot make the Arab world ethno-linguistically diverse through diktat).

But it seems my article sounds pessimistic about prospects of change within the Arab world. For want of space I could not discuss the ongoing changes. The Arab world is not an unchanging monolith. See, for instance, my article on the future of Berber languages in the otherwise Arabic North Africa. (http://www.atlantic-community.org/index/Open_Think_Tank_Article/The...) One could make a similar claim with regard to the Kurds. I have argued elsewhere that these developments could reintroduce diversity in the Arab world.

Regards,
Vikas
 
Shafiq  Hamdam

August 8, 2012

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Dear Vikas Kumar,

Thanks for nice article, I really liked the subject. I think this can be a great subject to write more about.

Best
Shafiq
 
Unregistered User

August 9, 2012

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One thanks Prof. Kumar for succinctly putting forth certain characteristics of the "Islamic" world. What does however seem common - even within discussions within European academia about Islam (within its varied viewpoints) seems this rootedness within religion as its primary filter as well as its cultural channel, while it has been variously noted that religious traditions usually are far more complex/sophisticated than the various selective readings that usually are done and usually go for popular religious education. This is said to leave roles and scopes for its various abuses that perhaps account for the various violences that religion - across the spectrum - seem to give rise to: both direct & indirect including their often noted intolerance for other viewpoints.
Secondly, while deep philosophical issues are often cited for differences that religion has vis-a-vis modernity and the Enlightenment Project - the popular citation of Islam as a ground that seems most vulnerable to intolerance arises as an interesting feature - while one may safely indicate similar authoritarianism that marks both communism and religion, including underdevelopment. The role of religion vis-a-vis underdevelopment and authoritarianism (more violent societies in terms of Human Rights abuses as well as low Human Development Indicators) is not really a single factor since underdeveloped societies that are non-Islamic also show a similar tendency towards underdevelopment and violences arising from authoritarianism, with communism already mentioned (except in its relative exception in Cuba while China already has declaredly moved beyond communism). Given the role religion is said to play in determining culture, it does becoming interesting to wonder about the relative roles that such societies indicate for other factors or their shared commonality that makes Islam merely a more abused notion. They usually can easily be contrasted with societies based upon the Principles of the Enlightenment Period that mark for Human Rights & high Development indices. Obviously, Christianity (as religion and its role in the life of the human individual) was first trumped by those societies that account for the modern societies founded upon the principles of the Enlightenment Period - and which remained a hard-won win for humanity! One thanks Prof. Kumar again for a succinct view.
 
Vikas  Kumar

August 13, 2012

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Dear Lawrence,

Thanks for the comment. I will respond to three key issues implicit in your comment.

First, I do not think that religion determines culture. Religion jostles with a number of other factors that contribute to the making of culture and are in turn influenced by culture. But, it is easy to confound “culture within a religion” with “the culture of the society” and then transfer the explanatory load of culture to religion.

Second, determining causal relationship between religion and social phenomena is a difficult exercise. In “Does Monotheism Cause Conflict?” (Homo Oeconomicus, 2012, Vol. 29, No. 1, pp. 17-45), I argue that the doctrine of monotheistic religions (Islam included) cannot be causally linked to conflict.

Third, the causal arrow does not point from modernity to restriction of the influence of Christianity within Europe. Actually, the restrictions on Christianity contributed to the emergence of Western modernity. But one could in principle conceive of other modernities that may not need complete marginalization of religion in public space. And, therefore, politics phrased in religious terms is not necessarily an impediment to modernization.

Best regards,
Vikas
 
Tabatha  Robinson

August 15, 2012

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Professor Kumar,

Thank you as well for this article. I found your points provocative and still sophisticated. Furthermore, your clarifications and expansions in these comments strengthen your argument for the better.

Although your article does not address this specifically, I am curious as to what kind of solutions the Arab world must find on its on. They may lack ethno-linguistic rootedness, demographic diversity, and cross-cutting ethnic affiliations, at least to the extent of Eastern Islamic societies, but they must have some unique cultural characteristics that they can use to their advantage and historically, i.e. in the 8th through 13th centuries, they have. Can you speak a bit more about what cultural traits the Arab Islamic societies might need to tap into today?

Regards, Tabatha
 
Vikas  Kumar

August 15, 2012

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Dear Tabatha,

Thank you very much for your question. Since the Atlantic Community has a word limit I had to restrict my argument to elimination of non-solutions. I’ll submit a fresh article to the Community to answer your question. At this stage I would like to restrict my response to the following.

The solution to the problem faced by the Arab world lies in provincial autonomy, with or without popular elections. I’ll add flesh to this argument in my next submission and also explain why I am sceptical of direct cultural solutions and also when I think local cultural resources could hopefully work.

But to your point regarding lack of diversity in the region I’ll add that the exodus of Christian minorities is the one of the unintended consequences of the Second Iraq War and Arab Spring. This is further reducing the much-needed diversity.

Best regards,
Vikas
 
Vikas  Kumar

August 19, 2012

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I'ld like to add a point to the article. Most Arab countries, particularly, the oil rich countries among them, attract guest workers from across the world. This adds to their limited native racial, linguistic, and religious diversity. But, unfortunately, migrants to these countries do not enjoy rights the way they do in other countries, say, in the West. This in turn limits the influence of acquired diversity on developments within the Arab world.
 

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