By: Br.Youcef Soufi
I want to relate two stories. The first is about Islam; and the second is about the West. While stories about Islam and the West are well known to us, the stories I want to tell here are somewhat new.
My stories will not end up labeling one group as depraved and the other as godly or one group as backwards and the other as progressive. Rather explanation and elucidation on a very particular matter is my goal: I want to use these stories to encourage us to think about how what happened to the MIA, between February 6th and June 6th, 2010, could have happenedat all. After all, I think that what struck many of us was that what unfolded in the MIA simply does not happen in other Manitoban institutions and organizations outside of our Muslim community.
It is difficult, for example, for us to conceive that our schools, hospitals, legislature, etc., could ever be controlled for months by one individual who has no regard for their official rules, has virtually no support among those who have legal authority over the institutions, and engages time and again in plain defamation, which is a criminal offense under Canadian law. So while we might rejoice at the founding of a new executive that is committed to upholding the constitution, my hope is that what follows will serve as a catalyst for sober reflection from our community as to how to prevent this from reoccurring.
My two stories about Islam and the West seek to reveal two different ways by which a society can gain stability and order. I want to suggest that we as Muslims have inherited a very different tradition than that of the West in this regard, and that this has a significant impact on the management and operations of our organizations today.
I could begin the story on Islam anywhere prior to the modern era, but the point is more forceful if we start earlier than later because it shows the pervasiveness in our community of the trait I want to highlight. We find a famous tradition about the Khalifa Ali (R): a man asks Ali, “Why is there so much turmoil in your era and not in the time of Umar and Abu Bakr.” The answer of Ali was quick and blunt: “Because they ruled over people like me and I rule over people like you.” In short, the Caliph was instructing his followers that the state of a society depends upon the moral integrity of its members.
For the Khalifa, it was because the companions were imbued with moral qualities from the Prophet that their society was not only stable but could forge an empire in a matter of a few years. Otherwise stated, being good Muslims equals having a good society. This is because good Muslims are imbued with qualities like honesty, trustworthiness, obedience to those in authority, and diligence, necessary for collective striving towards a common goal. What is perhaps more important is that when we examine the method through which Muslims were and still are supposed to gain their moral virtues, we find that it is done in two steps: first, there is mutual exhortation among believers, hence the terms tadhkir, maweezha , and naseeha, expressed in such settings as the Friday sermon. Second, there is personal effort or individual striving to adopt good habits or morals through good actions, whether they be prayer or helping one’s brother in need. In both steps, it is important to note that the individual must recognize the truth of the Islamic moral teachings and be committed to following them through. Our heritage then, counts or depends on individual conscience or on changing the hearts of Muslims to ensure that they do the right thing.
The second story that I want to present begins to take shape in the late 17th century Europe. This is a society that for various reasons does not have much faith in human nature or the human ability to reflect high virtues. The thinkers of this society are turning their attentions not towards the hearts of individuals that make up the sum of society but are beginning to theorize about society as a system. Thinkers such as the physiocrats in France and Adam Smith in Britain were emblematic of this way of thinking. Their hope was to organize society in such a way that human selfishness, avarice, or deceitfulness would not harm society’s stability and economic prosperity.
Like the method of instilling virtues in Islam, this was historically done in two steps. The first was to organize an economic system, which, despite having fixed and rigid rules, nonetheless made it possible for men to seek out their economic self-interest and amass the amount of wealth which they desired. This is still today how we sometimes speak of capitalism—as a system that is based on self-interest. Bernard Mandeville famously characterized this situation as making “private vices” into “public virtues.” The other step was to ensure that those who broke the rules would be denied their desires. This depended on various mechanisms of surveillance and of punishment. Leadership started to become increasingly divided, like the checks and balances we know so well from the United States government. As for the masses, they were increasingly subject to various state institutions, like schools, the army, and hospitals, in which rules were scrupulously applied and where they learnt that disobeying rules would only end to their detriment. Another way we could call these two methods is to say they reflected a social system of “carrots and sticks”, i.e. rewards and punishments.
By the early 19th century, Europe was undeniably becoming more militarily capable than Muslim states. In response, Muslim thinkers began to ponder about the reasons why. Many, such as the Egyptian Rifa’ al Tahtawi and Khayr al Din al Tunisi, located the problem specifically in our lack of those social mechanisms in the West that I mentioned above. They used the term “civilization” not in a moral sense, but to designate this system that encouraged members of society to work diligently and collectively for the state’s prosperity. As a result they did not believe that Islam was at odds with European mechanisms of civilization.
However, by the early 20th century, it became evident to thinkers such as Rachid Ridda and Hassan al Bannah that the effects of adopting the social mechanisms of Europe could actually affect the individual virtues of Muslims in a negative manner: thinking about the reasons that made Europe stable and productive societies then gave way to concerns about how to retain Islam in a world that had in fact adopted many of the West’s institutions.
When we look to our community today we find the legacy of the history of Islam that I have related. When people seem apathetic to organizing activities for the community, when leadership is remiss in its expected duties, and when there is conflict between Muslims, our initial reaction is exhortation—naseeha, maweezha, and tadhkir. Statements like “brothers, we have to care about our community and get involved,” or “leadership is a trust, we shouldn’t violate it” or still, “as brothers and sisters, we have to be kind and respectful to one another” abound. But establishing mechanisms that reward good behaviour and monitor abuse of power are virtually nonexistent. We have not, for example, established official review boards to periodically monitor the performance of the executive council of the MIA or made use of salaries to motivate the most capable people to fulfill positions within the MIA. While our community would be a sad one if we abandoned the notion of mutual exhortation towards being righteous, it is perhaps time we think about the ways in which we can neutralize the darker sides of human nature by creating mechanisms for the monitoring, punishing, and rewarding of those in positions of trust in our community.