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The Muslim World

Islam and the Challenges of Modernisation
By Dr. Mozammel Haque

Dr. Farhan Nizami, Director of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, Oxford, welcomed the former Prime Minister of Lebanon, HE Mr. Najib Mikati to lecture on “Islam and the challenges of Modernisation” at the Examination Schools, Oxford, on 19th of February, 2015. Mr. Mikati briefly spoke on the subject and then engaged in the discussion with the audience. Lord Williams proposed the vote of thanks after the Questions and Answers session.

            While introducing Mr. Mikati, Dr. Nizami said, “Mr. Mikati is a graduate of American University of Beirut and applied his Masters and Business Administration to set up with his brother a brilliantly successful telecommunication company. He turned from business to government service and from 1998 held ministerial post with responsibility for public works and transportation and was elected as a member of parliament for a constituency in Tripoli.”

            Dr. Nizami said: “His Excellency was and remains a figure trusted by the different religious and political constituencies that make up the political kaleidoscope of modern Lebanon.  He always tries to be the voice of the centre, the voice of moderation and tolerance and a symbol of national unity. That is why in 2005 at a time of renewed political mistrust in the country he was chosen to head the transitional government pending new elections. The general consensus was that he to be credited for steering the country away from civil war. The elections held on schedule and a new centre alliance duly formed a freshly legitimised government. His second term as Prime Minister begun in early 2011.”

            Mr. Mikati resigned as Prime Minister in March 2013.

            Dr. Nizami said Mr. Mikati has consistently championed pluralism, tolerance and government by consensus. “Because he has direct hands-on experience of the realities of political life; he is well placed to tell us whether and how the Islamic world can deal with those realities. Things that instability that accompanied the acute inequalities and injustices is not confined to the Islamic world, his perspective can also enrich us and understand what is happening in other parts of the world”.

            Mr. Najib Mikati, said, “The terror today is about Islam and how it might be on a collision course with other religions especially within the modern western society. For me, this is a fundamentally forced debate. Religious theological beliefs clash with no other organisations, since they connect to all people at virtual level. What seems to be coming to the fore are rather cultural differences between people, as well as, economic pressure, fast communication means and political turmoil. Religion is firmly outside this debate. When watching the evening news or grabbing the morning papers one has the clear sense that something is confusing in the relation between Islam and the western world.”

Signs of Fear and Mistrust
Mr. Mikati said, “This is translated by growing signs of fear and mistrust. Fear has primarily to do with   the issue of violence. Violence that transcends the ancient past and the modern present; from suicide attacks, conquest of Spain, the Crusades, the colonialism, the Iraq war, the Palestine, headscarves, the youths created chaos in the suburbs, Jihad, provocative, humour and the freedom of speech.”

Important Messages of Islam
Mr. Mikati made it point blank clear, “I am neither a theologian nor a historian. I view Islam, my religion and that of 1.2 billion around the world to have related important messages that have gone noticed beyond certain circles of curious researchers or brave intellectuals. Those messages are felt with humanity, humility and equality and one can draw many lessons and construct the linier conjecture about Islam which wanted to instil in society at the outset.”

1) First Message: Women and entrepreneurship
Mr. Mikati started with the message on women and entrepreneurship. He said, “Islam is always portrayed in the western media as discriminating against women and especially one that confined woman to procreation and household duties. Khadijah, the first wife of the Prophet (peace be upon him), was a lady entrepreneur, not an idle homemaker. Khadijah was a very successful trader. Her businesses outnumbered all other traders of the Makkah tribes put together or Khadijah employed others to trade on her behalf. Ladies and Gentleman, 1400 years ago, a rich female merchant was Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) first and only employer. This event established a guidance for the role of woman and business as productive and full economic partner in Muslim culture. This is the first teaching of Islam.

2) Message on Racial Equality
After the first teaching of Islam, Mr. Mikati moved to the message on racial equality. Mr. Mikati mentioned, “Bilal (R.A) was one of the most trusted and loyal companions of the Prophet. Bilal was among the emancipated slaves freed by Abu Bakr. Thanks to Islam and to the Islamic teachings on slavery, he was freed in the Arabian Peninsula at a time when racism and tribalism prevailed in Makkah. The Makkan tribal men … considered themselves superior to all other people of the world. A black man had no place amongst the Arab tribes except as a slave; that was the way before Islam. The Qur’an stated that: “No Arab is superior over a non-Arab and no white is superior over black. And superiority is but righteousness and God fearing alone.” Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) also declared that if a Black Muslim were to rule over Muslims he should be obeyed. Such clear and more conventional act of racial equality by promoting Bilal into a prominent position within a nation religion was really a very powerful message that reverberated long ago and far.”

3) Message of Social Harmony
Mr. Mikati then moved on to another message, that of Social Harmony. He said, “Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) came to Madinah after the period of 13 years of preaching Islam in Makkah. At that time the City of Madinah and its surrounding area were home to many Jews, Christians and other Arabian pagan tribes. There were also people of various racial and national origin, including Romans, Persians and Ethiopians. Taking into consideration the hopes and aspirations of this community of multi-ethnic multi-religious background, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) drew up the basic principles of a pluralistic Constitution. The new Constitution strengthened the unity between the immigrants from Makkah and the people of Madinah. Moreover, it established the rights of equality of every citizen irrespective of their religious orientations before the law as well as freedom of belief, trade and speech. The following is a statement by the Prophet on this subject: Let it be known: If any one Muslim commits injustice, insults, aggravates, mistreats or abuses a person of the people of the Book who are protected by the state or an agreement he will have to answer to me for his immoral action on the Day of Judgement.”

4) Fashion and Humour
Mr. Mikati said, “Let’s move to current issues; topics of social relevance such as fashion and humour.” He started with fashion. He said, “I think this is rather a sign of cultural difference. ….To us, as head cover just as a cowboy has hat the Arabian has headscarf. Most people think of the veil as socially and religiously a term affiliated with Islam and they forget it is much older. Originated from ancient Indo-European cultures such as the Greeks, Romans and Persians, it was also common with the Assyrians.”

            “Strong association of veiling with class rank as well as urban presence persisted historically up until  the last century Women even in Europe dressed more like women in the Muslim world than it is generally realised. It was customary especially for married women to cover their head with various kind of head-dresses,” said Mr. Mikati and added, “This becomes part of the classic man outfit that represent the most conservative style of  female dress in the Christian world.”

            “As we know, Western societies have moved on from this former fashion trend yet the veil causes such a controversy initiated by an enactment of law and forced discrimination in the street. This is an example of modern society rejecting an old habit and accusing those women who maintained it of religious backwardness, not simply looking at it as being out of fashion.”

5) Humour
What about humour? The former Lebanese Prime Minister said, “Weeping is universal but laughing is not. What’s funny for an English audience could be seen as boring for the American crowd and what is satirical in French could look blasphemous in Africa. It is a question of sensibilities.”

            The difference in human culture is for centuries, from country to country and from region to region. Again what is funny in New York may be not in Texas and what’s funny in Massey might be less so in Paris,” Mr. Mikati added.

            In the United States, religiously inspired humour does not go beyond the confines of comedy clubs and seldom into the broader place. “Why, because United States is a deeply religious society with references to God,” said Mr. Mikati and added, “Consider for a moment, the American dollar … in God we trust. This does not worry any one in the Western society. Yet, if a Muslim takes the phrase, in Allah we trust; he would be treated with suspicion.”

6) Islam rejects democracy
Former Lebanese Prime Minister then spoke of another case of religious divide. The Muslims live principally in non-democratic regimes. Mr. Mikati said, “Now they say religious divide. Is that Muslim live in a non-democratic society; henceforth Islam rejects democracy and some pundits assert that Islam as a religion does not encourage the freedom of speech; but when Communism prevails in USSR and the Nazi regime in Germany, Fascism in Spain and Italy; was Christianity playing for promoting totalitarian regime. Such regimes have no religion, creed or nationality. The transition from the totalitarian regime to liberal democracy is always painful; certainly was in Europe as it is very painful today in both Arab and Muslim countries. But surprisingly labelling certain Muslim societies as non-democratic purely on religious grounds rather than for political reason is a grave show of lack of knowledge and great display of misunderstanding of Islam. This is ever-changing modern society. People from all creed, religion and backgrounds are hardly coping with the shifting social landscape.”

7) Islam and Modernisation are not mutually exclusive
This comfort brings about fears of the unknown, vices from the unfamiliar and doubt about the other. Mr. Mikati said, “The challenge of Islam with modernisation is neither religious nor theological. Islam and modernisation are not mutually exclusive. Islam was one of the first religions that promoted modernisation fourteen centuries ago in Arabia. The challenge, in fact, is cultural or I would say, multi-cultural.”

Need for dialogue
“However, cultural patterns between nations combined with a fast moving modern society are pitting more non-religious issues into the fold than any differences of executive interpretations and divine cultures. The narrative dimension of the conflict is greatly needed because recent events have increased temptation to embrace deeply polarised position as a popular level narratives and inter-cultural differences have become dominant. To avoid becoming this destructive debate we must come together as experts in politics, education, sociology and communication to launch a consortium where policies based on plurality and tolerance can be discussed and initiated. Dialogue should be established in all different levels.”

Lebanon: A living example of multi-cultural democratic society
Former Lebanese Prime Minister concluded his speech by saying that morality consists in avoiding excesses by giving limit to our own freedom and tolerance. “It is to let others set their own limits as part of a living together in this space. Living example of multi-cultural democratic society is my country, Lebanon, where people coming from over 20 religious and ethnic backgrounds have been living together for centuries and in total serenity and mutual respect. I believe, it is about time for moderates or the silent majority take the lead and become more pro-active. No matter how religiously different we might be, tolerance and mutual respect are the only way to bring us together culturally.”

Lord Williams
Lord Michael Williams, Peer of the House of Lords, of the British Parliament, moved the vote of thanks for Najib Mikati.

            Lord Williams said, “Few years ago in 2008.  I took up the post of UN Special Representative in Lebanon and I remember just before going and speaking with an old friend of the Foreign Office and saying who should I turn for counsel there and he mentioned two people, one was the late Nassif Lahood and the other was Najib Mikati.”

            Speaking to the former Prime Minister of Lebanon Lord Williams said: “You come from a country of great tolerance and flexibility and it is something in Lebanon that has shown throughout its history.”