Feeling misunderstood, wrongly portrayed, discriminated against and on the defensive, Muslims appreciated US President Barack Obama's call for a new beginning in the relationship between Islam and the West. Indeed, there is much to criticize about Western attitudes, certainly in the post 9/11 period. Yet, Muslims play an important role in shaping non-Muslim perceptions of Islam and need to play their part in changing views of others.
While Obama's speech in Cairo in tone and substance constitutes one of the most far-reaching efforts by a Western leader to extend his hand to the Islamic world, it also laid down a challenge to Muslims to radically change the relationship by doing their bit not only to alter perception but to ensure that the dialogue between civilizations takes place on a level playing field. That is a tall order involving a far-reaching re-evaluation of Muslim perceptions of Islam, its history and tradition and how they project this within their own diverse communities and to the non-Muslim world – a reevaluation needed to frame a new relationship between the Muslim and non-Muslim world.
Muslims stress the peaceful and tolerant nature of Islam. No doubt, Islam compared to Christianity has a great tradition of tolerance towards minorities, whose members often rose to positions of prominence and power in Muslim societies. Nonetheless, much of the portrayal of Islamic history by Muslim historians is not one of peace and tolerance but of conflict, war and struggle for power. Starting with sirat, the historiography of the Prophet Mohammed, Muslim historians have focused more often than not on the Prophet's military battles and successes rather than his efforts to achieve peace through dialogue and persuasion, particularly in Mecca and Medina.
Post 9/11 there has been much debate of madrassah education in various parts of the world constituting a breeding ground for religious extremism. Important in and of itself, the need to project a less glorified, less militaristic perception of Islamic history goes far beyond the madrassahs. It reaches into all spheres of society such as education, religious institutions, civic society and the media. It underscores efforts by many Muslims and non-Muslims to emphasize Islam's major contributions to human history, in the realm of science for instance, and the co-existence of reason and faith. These efforts however have to focus as much on Muslim communities as they do on non-Muslim ones.
That realization has already begun to emerge. In one of the most explicit exposes of the challenge Muslims face, Maulana Waris Mazhari, a leading Indian scholar of the Deobandi, an Indian Sunni revivalist movement founded in the 19th century to prevent British colonialism from corrupting Islam, says: "I think there is an urgent need for reappraising our approach to writing Islamic history. Many aspects of the Prophet's life, which numerous sirat-writers, in their obsession with war and conquest, ignored or else gave little attention to, must be highlighted as these are particularly relevant for Muslims living in a plural society today. For instance, the Mithaq-e Medina, the pact between the Prophet and the non-Muslims of Medina, which set out the rights and duties of the different communities residing in the town. And, of course, the thirteen years of the Prophet's peaceful preaching in Mecca." Mazhari was speaking in a recent interview with Tarjuman Dar ul-Uloom, the official organ of the Deoband Madrasa's Graduates' Association.
Just how widespread the need for questioning one's own assumptions is, is reflected in the debate engaging not only the Muslim mainstream but also its radical fringe, in which many are questioning the assumptions that led them to violence. Inevitably if perhaps unwittingly, it constitutes a key ingredient in the Muslim world's effort to meet Obama's challenge. Propositions emerging from this debate often directly address issues raised by Obama in Cairo. Hizbullah in Lebanon is increasingly acting as a political party rather than a militia, Hamas in Palestine is discussing ong-term arrangements with Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood recently acknowledged that Egypt's Copts should enjoy equal political rights. Exiled Tunisian Islamist leader Rashid Ghanouchi, has called for Islamists to enter into dialogue with other faiths, arguing that secular and democratic approaches do not contradict Islam. Others have said they would entertain the notion of a woman head of state.
For his part, Mazhari, stressed that the purpose of the dawa is to communicate God's message, not establish political entities. Mazhari's de-emphasis of the Prophet's military campaigns and successes in favor of his efforts to communicate and persuade directly addresses Obama's implicit call for a level playing field. In stressing dawa as the tool to communicate God's message, Mazhari reaffirms the Quran's view of all prophets, including Prophet Mohammed, as being of equal stature. Defining political rule as the purpose of dawa "would, God forbid, mean that many prophets of God had failed in their mission because they did not establish any religion-based polity… All the prophets, the Quran says, taught the same primal religion or deen, which, in Arabic, is called al-Islam or 'The Submission', although their methods may have been different in some respects," Mazhari says.
All of this responds to Obama's call for Muslims to honor religious diversity, Muslim and non-Muslim.
To do so effectively, the Muslim world will have to focus on issues it has so far often neglected: economy, education, media and interaction with civil society. That focus is emerging but is likely to involve a degree of change many Muslim countries have yet to embrace in deed rather than word. "No community can progress if it is weak in terms of economics, education and media presence. Because Muslims, not just in India, but globally as well, lag behind others in these spheres, their marginalization is hardly surprising. And, being marginalized, it is not likely that others will bother to listen to them. Even from the point of view of Islamic dawat, Muslim empowerment in these sectors is crucial," Mazhari says.
It will take time for the full implications of Obama's challenge to sink in. It involves radical change in the way Muslims understand their religion and how they project their faith, tradition and history. They will have to squarely place Islam in the context of a pluralistic, open society. Military history by its very nature paints the other as an opponent, if not an enemy. Islam's tradition of peace and tolerance constitutes a far healthier basis for others to empathize and understand Muslim concerns and for Muslims and non-Muslims to work together in seeking solutions. To do so, Muslims will have to overcome their defensiveness, be proactive rather than reactive and willing to replace glorification of Islamic history with emphasis on its positive aspects and confrontation of the negative ones, often involving un-Islamic acts committed by Muslims in the name of Islam. That may be a tall order, it is one that is unavoidable.