"Islam must meet the challenges of the day"

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Abdelwahab Bouhdiba
Abdelwahab Bouhdiba
© PUF
03 November 2016

"Islam in the world today", the last volume of UNESCO’s major work on The different aspects of Islamic culture, is dedicated to Islam in action, "the Islam that tackles the explosive asperities of the present", in the words of Abdelwahab Bouhdiba, co-editor of the Volume VI, and author of the introduction. The volume covers recent history, explains its experiences and identifies its lessons, but it also makes an up-to-date assessment of the cultural, economic and strategic advantages Muslims can draw on to make a daring entrance into the third millennium.

Wide Angle offers an overview of this volume, at the occasion of 35th Edition of the Sharjah International Book Fair (United Arab Emirates), held from 2 to 12 November 2016, where UNESCO presents its collection on The Different Aspects of Islamic Culture, which has been completed in August 2016.  A presentation ceremony of the Collection is held at UNESCO Headquarters on 17 November, from 10 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. in Room XI. 

The recent history of the peoples of Islam is made, as always, of success and failure, violence, rupture, continuity, energy spent wisely or wasted in the ensuing chaos and the zigzags of a momentous cycle of rise and fall, of colonization and decolonization, destructuring and restructuring, change and resistance to change. It is, ultimately, a highly fruitful socio-historical dialectic.

These cycles of effervescence and progress have nevertheless been conducive to the emergence of criminal, blind and in the long run ineffective violence: those who have now taken the path of terrorism are mistaken in their objectives and means. Far from ensuring that Islam is integrated in the universal human family, this path makes it an outcast among nations. By default and by excess, within and without, violence can only miss its objectives. It is not a solution. It is always a problem. It is considered above all as a desperate admission of failure, not as a sign of hope or positive engagement.

Islam sees itself adamantly as a way of life and as a project for the future. It is a future that is indeed backward-looking for some, but for many, its opening to the contemporary world cannot take place without a return to its roots and an espousal of the present, for better and for worse. A civilization’s past, in Islam more than elsewhere, implies fidelity and commitment. The past is never worth anything per se, nor indeed is the future. It is people who give it value, or who devalue it. Only the synthesis of the two is creative. After all, the most committed attachment to the past is still part of the present.

Volume VI of The different aspects of Islamic culture is dedicated to this Islam in action, the Islam that tackles the explosive asperities of the present, with the heavy burden of the self, the strange ambiguity of the other, which has been actively making its way towards modernity for a couple of hundred years. After the many decades of its nahḍa (renaissance), it aims now, more than ever before, to put an end to its persistent status as a ‘sleeping beauty’, and dare to regain the historical initiative.

Do Muslims have the means to do so, though? They certainly do not lack the determination. It will also require a great deal of work and a great deal of intelligence. Hence the economy of volume VI: covering recent history, explaining its experiences and identifying its lessons on the one hand and, on the other, making an up-to-date assessment of the cultural, economic and strategic advantages Muslims can draw on to make a daring entrance into the third millennium.

Being attached to anachronisms is being stuck in time

In order to understand Islam today, we need to reconstitute its recent history and imagine possible developments. Centrifugal and centripetal forces are at work upon it, with a blend of endogenous and exogenous influences. Pan-Islamism was devised – yesterday and today still and under varying titles and justifications – as a bastion that is a source of identity and an agent of the fusion of the many of ‘us’. It is the unfulfilled but recurrent dream of Muslims. It may take many forms: aesthetic and peaceful, or activist and violent. The unicity of God in fact has as its corollary the community of the faithful. That they are divided is a major theological scandal. However, from the community of faith to political union, there’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip. That community soon worn down by the emergence of nations and the differing outcomes of attempts at nation-building.

The 20th century – which was ideologically a continuation of the preceding century, barely renewing it – saw the merciless confrontation of the dialectic of the painful and often aborted birth of nations. Then, after the Baku Congress (held by the Communist International in Azerbaijan, 1920), nationalism and communism clashed in a terrible yet sterile way in the Middle East, Indonesia and Central Asia. Twin brothers and feuding brothers! All these movements seemed – with hindsight and its strange mockery – to emanate from the same effort: ensuring self-possession and recovering from the inside and the outside. This is no doubt the same insatiable quest for the self. Identity is a mirage, conceived and established as modernity against a background of nostalgia for an often mythical and embellished past or future.

Tradition and revolution remain the two strings in the bow of Islam. We become very quickly disillusioned, and reality appears in its immense gravity, as modernity has a price and all-out change can only be painful. Living life to the full today has a double cost. The social cost of progress and the cost of social progress – equally difficult to pay – must both be fully assumed, and at the same time. Reluctance, however, or even refusal, makes progress difficult if not explosive.

Obviously, whether we like it or not, Islam must meet the challenges of the day. No matter what anybody says, the problems that societies face are always new. The pitfalls of the mirage of the classic era make efforts inadequate. Being attached to anachronisms is being stuck in time. Hence the need for a dual analysis: of the actual problems of structure and conditions, and of the material and human assets required to face them, and especially not to forget that every day there are new situations and new decisions to be made. However important the economic and, above all, moral and cultural values of Islam, they are not safe havens, much less ‘open sesames’. We cannot stand up for them without understanding their deeper meaning, nor can we simply denounce them as pernicious mystification.

A dialectic Islam

Islam, which now has more than a billion and a half followers, has become globalized. It is now present in every corner of the planet. This forces it to become dialectic, to live with others, interact with them or confront them. It is necessary to learn to live in a minority and away from home. The minority status that it is ‘granted’ in Europe, North America and elsewhere is not always generous. Restrictions on social, cultural and above all political rights that are applied to discourage believers (exclusion, misperception and intolerance) frequently fall short of the universal norms of international law and of jus cogens.

Minorities, immigrants, sometimes clandestine, these believers are often outcast, even when they manage to fit in and carve out a prominent place for themselves in the host country. The information on Muslim minorities gathered together here – for the first time, we believe – is valuable and needs to be analysed once again in order to clear new horizons for Islam on the five continents.

Whether expatriates or not, Muslims of all classes and categories aspire to wellbeing as never before. They seek consumption not poverty, jobs not unemployment, freedom not oppression, justice not exclusion. The scope is immense: food, healthcare, education, housing, information, leisure, places of worship and religious practise. The demand is as great as the resources are scarce in nature and quantity. Underdevelopment and the squaring of the circle: the situation has been discussed and analysed a thousand times over.

At present, access to education at all levels, from preschool to postgraduate, is perhaps above all the largest Muslim conundrum. Education must teach the masses, train professionals and develop the finest skills. All these choices and priorities are constantly challenged by inflows at the bottom and demands from the top. The policies thus focus on quality as well as quantity. Birth limitation or demographic transition? For a long time, Islam, in some countries at least, officially opposed the former. Is the ‘natural’ development of things bringing de facto answers that make this earlier reluctance pointless? The data presented in volume VI are invaluable. They bring together information from ongoing publications by international organisations and states, exposing the shortcomings without always obtaining the hoped-for success.

Equally invaluable is the information provided on finance, economy and natural resources. Political will, and therefore the management of human affairs, is naturally crucial. The record figures reported on paper do not always reflect reality, owing to difficulties of capital absorption and implementation of the most justified and informed decisions. Vitality, wealth, experience and creativity are seldom lacking. Culture, however, with its constants and its variables, remains the major conditioning factor. Material and cultural potential is nothing without experience and implementation. Legacy – heritage and moral values – is merely a potential to be developed, used and brought to fruition through work and wise choices.

An Islam of cooperation

The information provided in volume VI, by force of circumstance, is sure to change. In what way, it cannot be known. In any case, it constitutes a good basis for discussion, raises many questions and provides no more than tentative answers. With this attempted inventory of the material and moral potential, of the peoples of Islam, the direction of their trajectories can only be provisional and needs to be further defined. The management of these achievements and future challenges requires considerable discernment and willingness on the part of both scientists and decision-makers. Dialogue with oneself and with others can help to bring this heritage to fruition. Islam today is by necessity an Islam of cooperation. Its universalizing global nature is both an opportunity and a vocation.

Abdelwahab Bouhdiba

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A. Bouhdiba (Tunisia) is Professor of Islamic and Maghribi Sociology at the University of Tunis. Author of numerous studies on development and contemporary Islam, he is a winner of the 2004 UNESCO-Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture. Born in 1932 in Kairouan, he has presided for many years over the Tunisian Academy of Sciences, Letters and Arts, Beït al-Hikma, in Carthage. His most renowned work, Sexuality in Islam, has been translated into English, Arabic, Bosnian, Spanish, Italian, Japanese and Portuguese.

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