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Radical Without Apology

Badrol Hisham

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In the name of God, the most Compassionate, the most Merciful.

Hopping across the capitals of Southeast Asia, stopping at Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Jakarta and Manila one gets the same impression: “Radicalism is a dirty word.” This veritable fatwa from the high priests of Washington has managed to intimidate millions of Muslims the world over, and cast a spell on many a collective conscience. Unwittingly, some of the brightest and sharpest minds that the Muslim world has produced have also begun parroting the litany of nonsense that now has become the stuff of international political discourse.

Even prominent Muslim leaders in Indonesia, including intellectuals from the Muhammadiyah, Nahdatul Ulama, PPP (Islamic Party), PKB (Nahdatul Ulama’s political wing) and the PKS (Justice Party), have begun to speak the same language of shallow apologia: ‘We are not radical Muslims,’ they plead, ‘we are moderates, the good Muslims you can talk to.’ Never mind that the so-called ‘battle for the hearts and minds’ of Muslims is a prehistoric relic of the cold war, and that such phrases were used during the Vietnam conflict.

Across the world, Muslim society is under both physical and cultural pressure to conform to a foreign, secular, capitalist ideology.

Across the world, Muslim society is under both physical and cultural pressure to conform to a foreign, secular, capitalist ideology.

The real danger now is that the very discursive terrain of Muslim politics and society is being altered and redesigned. The redesigning of the Muslim mind and political conscience will be next, to the point where Muslims cannot even be critical and confrontational, for fear of being labelled a radical.

The semantic acrobatics is as neat as it is sophisticated: a chain of equivalencies has been drawn, linking Islam to terror and violence, linking militancy to radicalism. By doing so one who is ‘guilty’ of one is immediately assumed of being ‘guilty’ of the other. To call oneself a radical activist in Southeast Asia immediately earns oneself the dubious title of ‘militant’ as well; the next thing you know, the security forces will be knocking on your door - if not breaking it down in the early hours of the morning.

While Islam clearly prohibits indiscriminate violence against civilians and acts of terror, terrorism and radicalism are two completely different things. Muslims denounce all forms of terrorism as fundamentally un-Islamic for they know it only too well as having themselves being victims of terrorism - in Palestine, Jammu & Kashmir, Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, South Philippines, and elsewhere. But does this mean that we should abandon a radical approach to politics?

One can only answer this question if one goes back to the etymological roots of the word ‘radical’ itself. To be a radical does not necessarily mean being a bomb-wielding fanatic devoid of reason and compassion. Indeed, until recently being a radical was seen as a good thing.

One famous ‘radical’ who upset the status quo was Nelson Mandela. He was a radical because he defied and challenged the racist and abusive regime in South Africa that systematically oppressed black Africans for centuries. When Mandela was dubbed a radical, the world rejoiced, not just his supporters: it underlined the just principles upon which his whole political project was based. Was ‘radicalism’ a dirty word then? Surely not!

Then there were the rights activists in the US, including Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. They too were dubbed radicals because they sought to subvert and overturn the racist political culture that had been institutionalized in America for so long. They were indeed radicals because they challenged the status quo and worked to overturn the violent hierarchies of power, race and class in racist America. Were they wrong?

Looking further back Buddha too was radical as he challenged the repressive hegemony of Brahmanism in India. Jesus, peace be upon him, was likewise a radical who challenged and opposed the hegemonic power of the rabbinical class then, condemning the rabbis for their monopolization of authority and their collusion with the Roman invaders. He too was accused of being ‘subversive’ and convicted as a radical.

The best and living example of progressive, emancipatory radicalism can be found in the life and teachings of Muhammad, may peace and blessings be upon him. But do we reject such radicalism? The divine message of Islam is indeed radical, disruptive and subversive insofar as it seeks to challenge the institutionalized injustices, inhumanity and evil in the world by bringing about a new social order built on bonds of ethics, justice and trust. Islam rejects unreservedly all forms of caste, racism, class oppression, usury, exploitation, abuse of the law and dehumanization of Man, the best creation of God.

Do we then dilute the message of Islam and rob it of its radical transformative potential? But today in our growingly unjust world, things need a radical overhaul - Islam in its radical best!

The international financial order is in chaos ruled over by robber barons and mercenary corporates who exploit and abuse at will. International law and norms of diplomacy have been trampled by an increasingly militarist, fascist, xenophobic hyperpower that is bent on projecting its might and prowess to every corner of the world. The global media are increasingly coming under the command of a small coterie of bigots. Their Islamophobia is becoming every more blatant. Ethno-centrism, exploitation of the poor, abuse of human rights, oppression of the weak is the order of the day.

In the midst of this Islam stands alone as a system of ideas and values that can serve as a counter hegemonic force, if only Muslim economists, social scientists, politicians and intellectuals can get their act together, and cease mouthing platitudes.

However, despite the decrepitude of the Muslim regimes, Islam continues to inspire and lead millions worldwide, from the landless peasant in Morocco to the urban slum dweller in Jakarta. The world needs justice; Muslims need justice. But justice does not come without effort, both intellectual and physical. It will involve challenging the hegemony of the capitalist barons, who do see Islam as a ‘radical’ threat to their political, economic and cultural domination.

In the face of this, the world needs intellectuals and leaders who can confront the violent and exploitative hierarchies and put forward a just and balanced model for society, government and economics. Therefore, instead of shying away from being branded as radical or offer plaintive apologia for simply being Muslims, they can and must show the way for a truly brave and noble world. What the world needs now is a ‘radicalism’ without apologies.


Published Saturday, December 6th, 2003 - 03:08pm GMT

Article courtesy of Islamicity

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