By Hamse Abdullahi
Sheikh Mustafe I. Harun is a Somali-Norwegian Muslim cleric and scholar who gained national and later global prominence in the nineties and early 2000s for his thoughtful and oratory speeches. Known for his extensive reading ability, Harun’s calm voice has symbolized wisdom and depth. With his progressive views, Harun focuses on how a Muslim society would conduct itself in the 21st century. My generation was captivated by his talks which were often full of examples pertinent to the contemporary debates on Islam, politics, economics, and society. Though his speeches were in Somali, which made his talks only popular in the Somali-speaking communities in the East of Africa and the Somali diaspora, yet the topics he covered were global in scope and profound in their analysis. I grew up listening to his talks with utmost enthusiasm. But my eagerness to listen to him was not simply based on blind following to a charismatic religious figure, but his views and analysis made a great deal of sense for me then and as I delved deeper into the academic field, I still find his ideas and the content of his speeches all over in the most established and up-to-date academic papers and books which I encounter on daily basis. How did he get to know about almost everything? I have always asked myself. While I met many great personalities in my life, Harun remains one of the intelligent people I have ever known. Below are 12 Lessons, I learned from his speeches spanning many years. It is important to note that the points aren’t direct quotations but rather a summary of what I have learned from his speeches largely relying on my memory and understanding. If any of the points does not sound or taste like Harun’s, it might be due to the English translation or misunderstanding on my part, in which case the mistake would be mine and mine alone.
1- Ideology underpins social science theories but not pure science
Knowledge is not automatically non-political as it is affected by ideological standpoints. This is particularly relevant in social sciences which is the branch of science that relates to the scientific study of society and social relationships such as economics, politics, sociology, anthropology etc. Theories proposed by thinkers and philosophers are inevitably affected by their political, economic and social views of the time. As you deconstruct a theory, you will always get a taste of the doctrinal belief of the theorist. The tone and content of a Marxist-written academic paper will always have a Marxist bent of mind and so has the one written by a capitalist, Darwinian, Freudian, atheist, Orientalist or feminist. Social science theories cannot be taken at face value. The background of the theorist is crucial in understanding his views. Local knowledge is regulated first by local concerns of the specialist and later by general concerns of the social system of authority. The interplay between these concerns are intricate but by no means indiscriminate. However, this is not the case when it comes to pure science like mathematics or physics as they are based on facts. The ideological belief of a pure scientist does not matter as long as the accuracy of the theory can easily be verified using the appropriate means of verification.
2- To be truly educated, one has to critically and independently analyze issues of the day
There is a need to go out of one’s comfort and think out the box, out of contemporary attitudes and popular prejudices, out of the debate which has carefully been framed by the elite who also control the media. A true education should make the individual to constantly inquire about issues affecting his/her society and beyond. Critical analysis and independent thinking are crucial in doing so. One should be able to formulate serious questions about the issues of the day and challenge what society is reluctant to raise. The world will always present issues but it is up to the individual to investigate and discover the truth. In the process, one can achieve a significant degree of self-education and feel solidarity with others.
3- Prefer decent and pious role models over celebrities with troubled lives
This is the most fundamental question which Muslims should ask particularly the youth. Who is your role model? The Western society is a society that worships celebrities, adores big names and fame, many will be drifted to embrace the lifestyle of celebrities should they get the financial means to do so. But it is not only embracing their life style that could be problematic, it is the blind following and unquestioning admiration of celebrities that is unhelpful. Famous actors, politicians, athletes and media personalities continue to attract unparalleled coverage in the media. Filtering through the headlines covering the lives of celebrities, you will invariably find scandals, falls from grace, infidelity, alcoholism, corruption etc. This is a stark contrast to the lives led by prophets of which integrity and decency had been constant features. Prophets and righteous people should be the role models for Muslims.
4- There is an intense debate around the ideal Muslim leader even in the Muslim world
There is an intense debate about the qualities of an ideal Muslim leader. Who should lead a Muslim nation even if the society has religious minorities? Is it a religious leader well-versed in the Islamic law and tradition or a leader with scant Islamic knowledge, or an average Muslim at best, with a secular agenda? Can a balanced leadership be found between the two? What kind of relations will such leader have with a world dominated politically and economically by Western powers? This is the dilemma that every Muslim nation faces today. A secular leader of a Muslim nation who actively wages a war on the society’s Islamic heritage will be met with resistance resulting in social strive. A sincere Muslim leader, who quickly imposes Sharia law in a Western-dominated world which looks upon an ultra-Islamic state with a great deal of suspicion, will most likely fall either as a result of Western-backed military take-over or from an outright Western intervention. Despite being in such dilemma, an ideal Muslim leader, besides being truthful and trustworthy, must also be strategic.
5- Free Media has led to the erosion of confidence in government
Advanced Western democracies pride themselves on the remarkable freedom of their press. Freedom of expression, association, and assembly are enshrined in many constitutions both in the West and the developing world. But it is the Western countries which have a press with a significant degree of freedom. It is believed that free media together with vibrant civil society can hold the government accountable. While, this is true to some extent, yet one major disadvantage of free media is the drastic erosion of confidence in governments despite the electoral process, through which those governments came to power, being staggeringly transparent. News headlines are filled with leaders messing up their lives and the integrity of their offices, opinion ratings going down, economies in decline, shocking revelations of politicians’ personal lives, collapsing public services, all of which undermine confidence in those in power. A recent study in the US has shown that public confidence in government is all-time-low. Noam Chomsky, in Necessary Illusions, defines new journalism as a ‘mindless readiness to seek out conflict, to believe the worst of government or authority in general, and on that basis divide the actors on that issue into the good and the bad’. But there are no open-ended rights for freedom of speech even in the most advanced of democracies. Denying the Holocaust is a crime in France but not in the United States. Can someone shout out vulgar language at people in public places? Of course, our rights have limitations. They are circumscribed by the society we live in. But what does Islam say about freedom of speech? Islam allows freedom of speech but prohibits both public and private degrading of people. It also prohibits gossip, baseless propaganda and personal humiliation against innocent people. And even those who mess up their lives, one should not publicize their bitter decline nor make money out of it. In other words, the honor of the person should be protected. An incident during the Caliphate of Ummar bin Khattab is a classic example of the right to question leaders or speaking truth to power. Salman Al-Farasi, a prominent companion of the prophet, publicly challenged and questioned Mr. Khattab during a Friday sermon on issues relating to transparency. Khattab, without losing his temper, addressed his concerns and after convincing Al-Farasi, Khattab went on with the sermon. This is a testimony of free speech in an ideal Islamic setting. A verse in Suratul- Humazah (104:1) sums it up ‘Woe to every slanderer and backbiter’.
6- In Islam, basic human rights are inherent and God-given, not a human artifact
This is fundamentally different from the Western perspective of basic human rights which is premised on the fact the society has struggled to secure their basic rights from repressive regimes. Western societies rose against kings, greedy landlords, bourgeois elites and the church to earn their rights. Those rights include freedom of movement, right to own property, voting rights, freedom of speech etc. Those societies have toiled to get those rights and, in most cases, paid a heavy price for it. They have formed labor unions, labor parties, civil society organizations, and media all with the intent to safeguard those rights. However, the Islamic concept of fundamental human rights is based on the belief that they are inherent and God-given and that leaders shouldn’t infringe them. It is therefore unfortunate that the worst cases of human rights violations, the most vicious predators of journalists, the highest number of political prisoners and torture cases are largely in the Muslim world.
7- Uniqueness of Islamic theology lies in its rejection of God’s incarnation
Most religions encourage morality, charity, and humanitarianism. But most of them also believe in the carnation of God. In other words, God came to earth in a human form. Christianity believes that Jesus Christ is the son of God. Hinduism and other faiths also believe incarnation. While Islam is the culmination of previous prophetic messages intended to guide the final chapter of humanity, It strongly dismisses the incarnation of God. According to Islamic theology, God is one and He does not take a human form, instead, He chooses a human who, upon receiving revelation, becomes a prophet. God communicates with the prophet at a higher level through Angel Gabriel. The prophet then recites the revelation to people. However, the selection of such human for this special communication, which the rest of the people don’t have access to, isn’t random. It is pre-planned by God and that is why almost all prophets had had strong credibility and were known to be good and truthful people long before prophethood.
8- Muslim social integration with the Western host communities is not quite a two-way thing
There are large Muslim migrant communities in Western countries. Campaigns to integrate these Muslim communities into the wider host communities have become a frequent theme in the news. But the real meaning of integration is often sugar-coated. It is presented as the increased and balanced interaction between the migrant and host communities. But the idea seems to be going against human nature. The culture, tradition and, to some extent, the religion of the host communities will have a bigger influence and domination. It will be more overwhelming than that of the migrant communities. It is no surprise that many migrant communities after many years in Western countries adopt the lifestyle of the host communities and not vice versa. Any host society would love their culture and tradition to prevail. Islam does not oppose integrating with communities of other faiths as long as it is within the purview of Islamic teachings. Islam encourages peaceful co-existence with communities of other faiths.
9- Is Islam democratic? A fundamentally misguided question
Many people ask if Islam is democratic or not. But the question is fundamentally misguided. Democracy is a political system but Islam is more comprehensive than a political system. It is a way of life. The question might have been rephrased as ‘Is Islam compatible with the democratic system of government? Or is Islam political? The answer depends on what someone means by democracy. If it means lack of dictatorship and rule by popular will, then that it is compatible with Islam as long as the popular will is compatible with Islamic teachings. The parting of ways with democracy is in the fact that, in a Western democracy, the majority rules regardless of the morality of the issue. If the majority of members of parliament vote in favor of a bill or, in a referendum, the majority of the population votes in favor of an introduction of a new law, it simply becomes a law regardless of the morality of the issue at hand. But the morality is itself contested in a Western democracy and the only way a Western society would put the matter to rest is a vote and the majority rules. In Islam, the righteousness and morality of the issue matter and not the majority. The Islamic teachings are the yardstick for such righteousness and morality and it is not contested at all.
10- Exporting Western Model of Democracy to the developing Muslim world is bound to fail
With the exception of some countries run by royal families, the majority of Muslim countries, which are mostly in the developing world, have adopted the Western model of democracy. Though elections are held in these countries, yet they are predominantly seen as flawed democracies. Mass poverty and deep ethnic divisions prevent an exactly similar version of Western democracy to work in many of these countries. Election results are often disputed and freedom of expression is curtailed. In the rare cases where a progressive and effective leader is elected, a tragic one follows radically reversing all gains. One possible reason why such democracies fall short of real democracies is that it has not organically grown in the developing Muslim world and that it has been imported from Western countries. Western democracy is based on the history and tradition of European societies of which the Roman Empire, the church, the Kings that ruled Europe in the dark ages are part of. Exporting such democracy to other nations with entirely different history, culture and tradition is bound to fail. Failure of democracy in the Muslim world does not only stem from the alien nature of the model but also from the fact that democracies promoted by the West are racialist, interest-based and geographical in nature. History shows that the West only wants real democracies for Europeans and within the geography of the West. During the high noon of colonialism, England was one of the freest societies in the world, but they have. at the same time, been carrying out appalling crimes in Asia and Africa. Why should you allow your society a great deal of freedom and at the same time deny other nations the same freedom? A democratically elected nationalist government which bows to domestic pressure for improved living standards and employment creation, but does not give a sufficient regard to Western investors, will immediately face the imminent risk of being toppled by a Western-backed popular insurrection or by the military. The Egyptian and the Algerian cases are perfect examples. An Islamic state can only triumph if popularly driven by a critical mass of the local population but not by few zealous groups. In Islam, the selection of a leader is done through ‘shura’ or a consultative gathering where the most deserving person is appointed to lead after a rigorous vetting and deliberation. Can the same shura be applied to a diverse society in the 21st century? This is yet another challenge which contemporary Muslim societies face today.
11- The representativeness of Western democracy is contested
According to the Western constitutions, parliament is the representative of the people. It is the legislative body charged with making laws that govern the country. Members of parliament are elected by the people whose interest they represent in parliament. In a presidential system, the president is elected separately and the parliament, together with the judiciary, serves as a check and balance for the executive. In a parliamentary system, the party with the majority of MPs appoint one of their MPs, mostly the party leader, to become the prime minister who serves as the head of the executive branch of government. The question is how is the president or the parliament representative of the general population? Normally each MP is elected by a constituency. One constituency might have 20,000 registered voters while another constituency may have 150,000 registered voters. But the same two MPs have the same vote and power in parliament. In parliament, most laws are often passed by simple majority i.e. %51. Therefore, 51 percent of the MPs do not necessarily represent the majority population. In fact, in most cases, the losing %49 may have a bigger combined electorate than the winning side. In the American presidential system where an Electoral College system is used, the winning candidate can win the presidency without getting the majority of the popular vote. This scenario has occurred in recent US elections. But the representational issues are not merely numerical; there is a class under-representation as well. It is nearly impossible for a working class person to run for an elected public office in the West as s/he won’t be able to finance an incredibly costly political campaign. Majority of elected officials do not come from the poor working class which represents the majority of the society. They come from upper and middle class. In the American Congress, Ivy Leagues graduates are well represented and so are Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge) graduates in the British parliament. And even when they leave office, they don’t go back to the working class as they land in big jobs in big law firms, banks, and international organizations. It is, therefore, not a coincidence that 3 out of the last 4 UK prime ministers went to Oxford and 2 of the last 3 US presidents went to Havard. But how much of the general population have access to those elite colleges? Of course, very little. This shows that the Western democracy, which is based on the electoral process, does not necessarily represent the will nor the social class of the majority of the population. This is part of the multiple contradictions inherent in the capitalist system.
12- Various hypotheses on the relatively remarkable political stability of Western democracies
Governments with advanced democracy appear to be stable compared to most governments in the developing world which are unraveling. Election cycles put poor countries on the verge of civil war and it is too difficult to dislodge the ruling party from power through the ballot. There is a deep mistrust of the electoral officials. Claims of vote rigging are common. As the political opposition sees no electoral victory in sight, they resort to violent means to challenge those in power. The ruling party responds with vicious violence to suppress them. This results in social strive and enduring insecurity in the country. In the rare cases, where the political opposition wins the election, a dramatic change ensues as the new leader populates state apparatuses with loyalists often from close family and ethnic communities. The country is again polarized. The uncompromising warring sides result in incompetent and corrupt leadership. This is a stark contrast to the situation in the developed world where the electoral process is amazingly transparent and national politics is remarkably stable. A change of government in Western countries hardly leads to a dramatic episode. The English society under a Labor or Conservative government is pretty much the same so is the American society under a Republican or a Democratic government. The general effect of the change of government on the fabric and values of the society is minimal. The question is where has the political stability of Western democracies come from? There are various hypotheses about it. Some argue that the strong and independent institutions prevent against a dangerously powerful leader. Others suggest that Western societies have tremendously matured and the generally shared values are jealously guarded by these societies which makes any incoming leader unable to infringe those basic rights. Another view suggests that there is an invisible hand and that the real power lies with the corporate elite who are stage-managing the leadership behind the scene and that the elected leaders are simply figureheads. Despite these various hypotheses which explain the political stability of Western democracies, the real answer is surely complex.
Hamse Abdullahi is a Somali writer and community activist. Abdullahi is a postgraduate student at the University of Oxford. He is also a former Chevening Scholar at Bristol University and a former Mandela Washington Fellow at the University of Delaware in the United States.
For any comment regarding Abdullahi’s article please address it to his personal email below